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Brazil art exhibition showcases an Indigenous worldview and poses questions

  • The exhibition “Véxoa: We know” at São Paulo’s Pinacoteca museum runs until March 22, 2021, showcasing works by 23 Indigenous artists and art collectives from different ethnicities and areas across Brazil.
  • It’s the first exhibition of Indigenous-only art in the museum’s more than 100 years.
  • Through paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs and installations, the artists seek to turn art into a form of activism, drawing attention to the impacts of agribusiness, politics and climate change on their territories.
  • Ailton Krenak, a leading Indigenous artist and thinker in Brazil who is showing two works at the exhibition, Véxoa is “an opportunity to expose the extremely adverse times that Indigenous people are experiencing as a result of political violence perpetrated against [their] rights by the Brazilian State.”
A photograph by Edgar Correa Kanayrõ, from the Xakriabá Indigenous group in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, part of the exhibition “Véxoa: We know.” Image courtesy of Edgar Correa Kanayrõ.

Four clay panthers look at visitors through glass shields. The first two, black, are the guardians of memory. The ones at the back, on pedestals, are jaguars — but they lie in pieces. The artist behind the works is Tamikuã Txihi, a member of the Pataxó Indigenous people. Her works are among the dozens on show in the exhibition Véxoa: We know, which can be seen at the Pinacoteca art museum in São Paulo, Brazil, from Oct. 31 through March 22, 2021.

The two broken jaguars were vandalized during a 2019 Indigenous art exhibition in Embu das Artes municipality, São Paulo state. “I chose not to fix them and leave this memory alive instead, knowing that every part of these vandalized panthers reemerges in each Indigenous territory, in each woman’s body, in each body in our community, as a woman, as a mother. We women are part of every people, we are part of hope,” Tamikuã says. The jaguar cubs remain intact: “They can touch our trunk, but our roots are deep. These two young panthers represent the future of our community, our children.”

Tamikuã Txihi’s broken jaguars in the work “Áxiná (exna), Apêtxiênã and Krokxí.” Image by Sibélia Zanon.

The artists and the exhibition’s curator, Naine Terena, see Indigenous art as a form of activism. For the first time, three rooms at the Pinacoteca are showing contemporary Indigenous works by 23 artists and art collectives from different areas of Brazil.

Since the start of the exhibition, the Pinacoteca’s permanent collection of Brazilian art, featuring more than 400 artists, also includes works by two Indigenous artists who participate in the Véxoa exhibition: Denilson Baniwa and Jaider Esbell. The latter is a member of the Macuxi people and winner of the 2016 PIPA Online Award.

“Before then, we used to see Indigenous people represented by non-Indigenous artists at the Pinacoteca,” Naine says. “The exhibition is a setting to start thinking and discussing about Indigenous agents as producers of their own art, in the ways they want to be seen, and showing what they want to show.”

The exhibition includes two works by Ailton Krenak, who won the Union of Brazilian Writers’ Juca Pato Award as Intellectual of the Year and also published a book earlier this year, titled Life Is Not Useful, in which he reflects on the destructive nature of Western civilization through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement to Mongabay, Krenak said “the most important thing is to congratulate Naine Terena and this generation of Indigenous people who see this opportunity to open Véxoa also as an opportunity to expose the extremely adverse times that our people are experiencing as a result of the political violence perpetrated against [their] rights by the Brazilian State.”

Known for having painted his face black with a traditional dye derived from the genipap tree while speaking for native peoples at Brazil’s Constituent Assembly in 1987, Krenak takes a critical look at the current market demand for Indigenous art, questioning whether native artists’ standpoints and views on the world are effectively understood by the Western art system, or whether “it’s just about consuming novelty.”

Krenak cites the importance of the fact that Sandra Benites, an anthropologist from the Guarani Nhandeva ethnic group, was hired by the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP) to serve as an assistant curator for Brazilian art in 2019. “I think the art system wants to capture the subjectivity of these non-whites into its catalog, and we have to be smart not to do just what pleases symbolic consumption of art,” Krenak says. “Indigenous art is not produced for the market.”

Denilson Baniwa and his work, “Nothing Gold Can Stand 1: Thread,” which will plant flowers, medicinal herbs and pepper plants outside the Pinacoteca — “external” territory — whose growth will be shown by security cameras to people inside the museum. Image by Levi Fanan.

Exposing crimes through art

Commodification of native peoples’ knowledge and the attacks on his Macuxi people are topics addressed in the videos that Jaider Esbell is showing at the exhibition.

“Every exhibition of Indigenous art is primarily about exposing all the crimes that are taking place today,” he says. “We wanted to raise positive questions in this art setting that are related to our technology of knowledge, our cosmogony. While we necessarily experience violence, [we want to] use art settings to expand this struggle.”

Esbell also brings his work “Tree of All Knowledge” to the exhibition. It’s an interactive panel with digital signatures of people from different parts of the Americas. “Basically, this is the essence of the panel: working on issues of diversity, of cultural wealth,” he says.

Born in Roraima state, Esbell lived until the age of 18 in what is now the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory, a 1.7-million-hectare (4.3-million-acre) reserve inhabited mainly by the Macuxi people. According to him, the Macuxi have been historically threatened by cattle ranchers, miners and rice farmers whose presence in the reserve started increasing in the 1970s. “The entire territory is demarcated, and that demarcation is under constant threat of being canceled,” Esbell says. While Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court recognized the territory’s continuous demarcation in 2009 and ordered non-Indigenous people to leave it, President Jair Bolsonaro has declared his intention to review the demarcations of this and other reserves, putting Brazil’s Indigenous peoples in a state of permanent tension.

Jaider Esbell’s “Tree of all Knowledge.” Image courtesy of Jaider Esbell.

Thousands of kilometers away from the Macuxi, the Pataxó Hãhãhãe are facing a similar situation. After six decades of watching ranchers occupy their land, it was only in the 1980s that they were able to begin reclaiming it, the Caramuru-Paraguaçu Indigenous Territory, by then degraded by years of farming. The saga only came to an end in 2012, when a Supreme Court decision nullified property titles that had previously been issued by the state government to the invaders. However, tensions remain in the area.

And it is this struggle over the Pataxó territory that journalist and documentary filmmaker Olinda Yawar describes in her film “Kaapora — The Call of the Forests,” which debuts at the Véxoa exhibition and also at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival. Yawar says the film addresses Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land through spirituality and emphasizes the work’s direct relationship with her environmental activism.

“I lead a community project called Kaapora that works with environmental education, sustainable development and restoration of degraded areas. So I decided to make this film about Kaapora, an entity that protects forests and animals according to the indigenous worldview,” she says.

Yawar, who also has Tupinambá blood, says she hopes the film will be a warning against threats not only to their territory but to all Indigenous lands in Brazil. One of them is climate change.

“We understand that the climate is having a lot of influence on survival because sometimes you plant and what you planted will not grow. It’s not raining at the right time,” she says. She also has political concerns: “We Indigenous peoples are losing a lot of rights that we had already achieved. The so-called Timeframe case is about to be tried in court.”

The argument behind the Timeframe lawsuit, now before the Supreme Court, says that only territories that were already in the possession of Indigenous communities in 1988, when Brazil adopted its current Constitution, can be demarcated as Indigenous lands. That was the case for the Raposa Terra do Sol Indigenous Territory when it was demarcated in 2009, but would not appply in other cases. Indigenous leaders oppose the argument, as Yawar points out: “Several Indigenous peoples were evicted from their lands well before that time. Therefore, the decision may take land away from them.”

Scene from “Kaapora — The Call of the Forests” by Olinda Yawar, premiering at the exhibition Véxoa: We know. Image courtesy of Olinda Yawar.

‘Either all Indians are artists or nobody is’

In a video, Jaider Esbell says he used to grate cassava as a child, but what he really wanted was to be an artist. Today, he teaches a course at São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM) and says he makes art by grating cassava as well. Ailton Krenak seems to agree: “Either all Indians are artists or nobody is. We make baskets, we make Sputnik, we make rockets, we have picnics, we make popcorn, we make book covers, we draw canoes, we make objects. We don’t assign any further meaning to these objects. They are artifacts.”

Breaking stereotypes attributed to Indigenous peoples is one of the goals of Véxoa, which means “we know” in the Terena language. Curator Naine Terena selected works considered traditional, yet contemporary, including digital drawings, audiovisual displays, sculptures, and handicrafts.

“Our goal is to provide diversity without grouping them by ethnicity or chronology, emphasizing the visual and conceptual specificities of each piece,” she says. “The works have no standard style, but they relate to each other within the indigenous symbolic universe.”

Olinda Yawar says more than 300 Indigenous ethnic groups live in Brazil and each one of them has experienced different historical processes.

“We have more than 520 years of contact,” she says. “Culture changes and native peoples have followed that change, and I think it’s important to show a little of that, to show that Indigenous peoples have art, they have culture.”

Ceremonial garments of the Waurá, who live in the Upper Xingu area, on display at the Véxoa exhibition. Image by Levi Fanan.

In addition to the works, the exhibition includes a series of performances by several Indigenous groups, but they have not been scheduled yet because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Esbell was supposed to have opened the exhibition with an “activation” ceremony featuring Bernaldina José Pedro, a master of the Macuxi culture known as Granny Bernaldina. She died of COVID-19 in June, at the age of 75.

Zuleica Tiago Terena, from the Taunay Ipegue Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso do Sul state, is part of the group of Terena women invited to sing playful and ritualistic chants at the Pinacoteca. These chants, she says, are performed at important moments in life, both in joy and in sadness, from the birth of a child to mourning a death. There will be plent of reasons to chant this year, most of them in sorrow: the Terena are among the top three Indigenous groups most affected by the pandemic, with about 50 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

“Many Terena have died, we were very sad,” Zuleica says, almost in a chant.

“Nothing will stop us,” a work by Yacunã Tuxá, an artist and activist who uses the support of digital art to speak about the condition of Indigenous women. Image courtesy of Yacunã Tuxá.

Banner image of works by Daiara Tukano at the exhibition Véxoa: We know. Top, snake painting on a wall; below, the Hori, a set of four paintings on canvas.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 5, 2020.

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