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Brazilian Indigenous artists take the forest to the world

  • In recent years, several exhibitions held abroad have featured Indigenous people from Brazil and Latin America, giving unprecedented visibility to artists historically erased by gallery owners and museums.
  • Some examples include Siamo Foresta in Milan; The Yanomami Struggle in New York, and BEĨ: Benches of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples in Japan.
  • According to curators, the works transcend a mere aesthetic vision, being deeply connected to each people’s cosmologies, in addition to taking political and socioenvironmental issues into museums and galleries.

The art market is moving closer and closer to Indigenous villages. In recent years, several exhibitions have been held abroad that focused on Indigenous peoples from Brazil and Latin America, giving unprecedented visibility to their artists, historically erased by gallery owners and museums.

At this time of high demand for Indigenous art, Europe is also debating how colonialism usurped Amerindian culture and wrongly appropriated its artifacts. An example is the 16th-century Tupinambá mantle at the National Museum of Denmark, which will be returned to Brazil after three centuries in the institution’s collection. A late reckoning.

Such renewal in the circuit shows how art and politics are inseparable, and it may guide exhibitions and change curators’ colonial thinking. This is the case of Siamo Foresta, an exhibition that opened at Milan’s La Triennale  in June, gathering works by 27 artists related to the Amazon Rainforest. They include Indigenous collectives such as the Yanomami Group, one of the best known in the country, with artists such as André Taniki, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Vital Warasi and Joseca Mokahesi.

This is the collective’s second international exhibition in 2023, after The Yanomami Struggle, at The Shed culture center in New York in February. Alongside the work of photographer Claudia Andujar, who has documented changes in the Yanomami Territory for 50 years, the artists showed, in the largest U.S. city, the struggle of a people who have recently faced one of their worst humanitarian tragedies.

Works on exhibition in The Yanomami Struggle, which was held in early 2023 at The Shed in New York. Image courtesy of Adam Reich/Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

French anthropologist Bruce Albert, the exhibition’s curator, pointed out in a statement to the press that “Siamo Foresta stages an unprecedented encounter between thinkers and defenders of the forest; between Indigenous … and non-Indigenous artists.” The exhibition “draws its founding inspiration from this aesthetic and political vision of the forest as an egalitarian multiverse of living beings, human and non-human and, as such, offers the vibrant allegory of a possible world beyond our anthropocentrism.”

A new art history

This important role played by today’s Indigenous artists has drawn the attention of the international community, which is beginning to see the history of Indigenous peoples’ art in a different light, says curator Edson Kayapó, a member of the Mebengokré Indigenous community. He is co-responsible for programming at the Indigenous Histories department of the São Paulo Museum of Art Assis Chateaubriand (MASP). “We Indigenous peoples have always been here, producing art. And now that society has the opportunity to see this in great depth, it is important to debate issues that have been dragging on for some time,” he says.

Edson Kayapó mentions a point addressed by Albert when he explains that, from the Eurocentric point of view, “man had to dominate nature because it is hostile.” He points out that the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the factors that expanded discussions on our codependency with nature. “After that world crisis, people had to open their eyes. There are U.N. studies mentioning the possibility of new and worse pandemics if we keep devastating the system of biomes. We now face a major climate problem: The Earth is getting hotter and therefore the human project is in a crisis,” the researcher adds.

Curator Edson Kayapó. Image courtesy of Ibuí Pataxó.

Edson Kayapó points out that the role of today’s Indigenous art goes beyond exposing socioenvironmental problems; it is a means of preserving traditions and everyday ritualistic acts, something that can be seen in the visions of the Mahku collective, created by the Huni Kuin people, who are also participating in the Siamo Foresta exhibition.

“Mahku is a very sound resistance act, which arises from an artistic and educational project within Indigenous communities. They say, ‘We sell land to demarcate our territories,’ ‘We make art to fight drugs and any other vice within the community,’” says Edson Kayapó.

Work of the Mahku collective, of the Huni Kuin people. Image courtesy of the São Paulo Museum of Art Assis Chateaubriand (MASP).

One of Mahku’s best-known members, Cleiber Bane takes part in Siamo Foresta alongside names like Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe from the Venezuelan side of the Yanomami community, who had a solo exhibition at MASP in July and August. There are also works by Jaider Esbell, from the Makuxi people, one of the biggest names in today’s Brazilian Indigenous art.

Over the last decade, Esbell was responsible for a network that supported Indigenous artists as they established themselves on the circuit and brought many of them along in the wake of his meteoric career. In addition to taking ancient knowledge such as songs and myths of his people beyond Indigenous lands, the artist, who was born in the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory in Roraima, used his work to denounce crises in the territory, in addition to being a critic of the art scene itself.

One of the most notable artists of the 34th São Paulo International Art Biennial, Jaider Esbell took his own life at the height of his career, in November 2021, in the same week he exhibited his works at the pavilion. His paintings were covered by black cloths. It was not only a shock to the art field and Indigenous communities but also a warning about the processes of the art market.

The Jaider Esbell Art Gallery was then created in Boa Vista, Roraima, to manage the artist’s estate and keep his legacy alive. A year later, in 2022, Esbell’s work was featured in Le Vivants, a collective exhibition of Amerindian artists in Lille, France, and some works were acquired by museums around the world such as Paris’ Centre Pompidou.

Work by Jaider Esbell. Image courtesy of Jaider Esbell Art Gallery.

Indigenous benches in Japan

In addition to the political nature of the works, the alignment between aesthetics and cosmology is a strong feature of Indigenous artists’ works, as reported by sculptor Mayawari Mehinako from Kaupüna village in Xingu, who traveled to Japan in 2019 to open the exhibition BEĨ Collection: Indigenous Banks of Brazil. Such pieces have become objects of desire for the Brazilian intellectualized middle class and each cost an average of 5,000 reais (about $1,270 at the time).

With examples from 43 Indigenous peoples in Brazil, the BEĨ Collection became “a way of disseminating the millennia-old Indigenous culture,” says Mayawari about how Indigenous benches transcend their utilitarian nature.  “They are not decorative items; they are [associated with] cosmology, [since there is a specific moment] for the use of each bench. Our life is strongly related to nature. Some animals are exclusive to the chief’s throne; there are figures for singers, shamans and women.”

Some Brazilian Indigenous benches featured in the BËI collection. Image courtesy of Editora BEĨ.

Encouraged by his father, who was also a bench maker, to sculpt in order to preserve the images of endangered species such as birds, snakes and the giant armadillo, the largest armadillo in the world, Mayawari bridges the gap between collectors and the village. Thanks to his role as a mediator, several infrastructure works have been built in his community in recent years, such as a health center. The artist also says that a school will be built in the village, in addition to projects that seek to encourage handwork such as the creation of benches, ceramics and basketry. It’s just the beginning,” he says.

According to BEĨ director Tomás Alvim, more international exhibitions of the collection are already scheduled for next year in countries such as Portugal and Spain. Art dealer Carmo Johnson, who works with the Mahku collective, explains that the group will be responsible for a large mural on the main façade of this year’s Venice Biennale — a space coveted by artists from all over the world that opens the doors to a new panorama in the history of art.

Indigenous artists from the Amazon use art for environmental advocacy

Banner image: Siamo Foresta exhibition at La Triennale Foundation, in Milan, Italy. Image courtesy of Andrea Rossetti/La Triennale.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil siteon Aug. 21, 2019.

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