Kene Kuin, the true design, is an important motif of Kaxinawa identity. The shunu kene (tree of life) below, has eight paths defined by both positive and negative space; and like all kene represents ancestral knowledge. For the Kaxinawa, these designs are a crucial element to the beauty of people and things.
Kaxinawa motifs are applied in the form of body art, jewellery, clothing and crafts of all kinds. These designs are inspired by the forces of nature and a particular cosmology, which are received by the shamans in ceremonies through the plant medicines. Each sign has associated rituals, songs, myths, cosmologies etc.
As such, these designs are inspired by the forces of nature. The motif is transmitted by the 'spirit entity' and its representation embodies the spiritual strength of that being. In the case of an animal, the motif can be considered a 'pattern' arising from the 'genetic code' of the animal and emitting a 'frequency of force' or spiritual function to which it is attached.
Kene are painted on Kaxinawa bodies and faces with genipap (vegetable paint) during festivals, when visitors arrive or for the simple pleasure of dressing up. Small children are not painted with designs, but are blackened from head to foot with genipap. Boys and girls have just part of their face covered with designs, while adults paint their entire face.
Painting with genipap is an exclusively female activity. On days without any festival, women walk around unpainted; but when one of the men brings genipap from the forest, there is always someone eager to mix the paint and invite the others to paint themselves. Young women are the most likely to be seen painted with designs; men less frequently, unless they are acting as hosts.
The kene kuin style contains a variety of named motifs. When a motif has two or more names, this is generally because of the ambiguity between the figure and grounded reality typical to the Kaxinawá aesthetic. The same motifs (or basic designs) used in face painting are found in body painting, pottery and weaving, basketry and stool decorations.
Just as not all bodies are painted, or not some bodies all of the time, not all keneya (kene objects) have designs. Cooking vessels are not painted, though the plates for serving food may be. Painting is associated with a new phase in the life of the object or person, a phase in which it is desirable to emphasize the smooth and perfect surface of the body in question.
The design calls attention to new visual experiences, which announce crucial life events. The design vanishes with use and is only reapplied during festivals. Hence, things with design occupy a special place in Kaxinawa culture.