Ongoing - Brazil

Laura Burocco

Reading time: 8 minutes



A Journey of Care Between Friendship and Knowledge

A few weeks ago, images of undernourished naked bodies of Yanomami indigenous people circulated around the world, without bothering to cover their faces except when they were children, at the same time, a series of impressive cultural events claimed the right to life and beauty of indigenous peoples by countering—or responding to—this horror.

The Yanomami Struggle exhibition, held at The Shed in New York, portrays the collaboration and friendship between Claudia Andujar and the Yanomami people. The exhibition gives continuity to Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle held at the Instituto Moreira Salles of São Paulo in 2019 both curated by Thyago Nogueira.

Andujar was born in Switzerland in 1931. At the age of 16, she moved to New York to then arrive in Brazil in 1955 and find in the Yanomami people her sense of belonging. She then began collaborating with various international magazines and, from 1967, with the Brazilian magazine Realidade which commissioned her the first reportage of the Yanomami people three years later. In her long coexistence with the Yanomami, the photographer collected images of their daily life in the forest and in the maloca (collective dwelling), witnessed shamanic rituals and produced a series of intimate portraits that exalted the beauty of people. Her work is characterized by a feeling of empathy, an authentic interest, moved by the desire to know—and recognize—the other rather than by exoticism. The more her history was intertwined with that of the resistance of the Yanomami people, the more her art intersected with politics. “At some point, I realized that art was not going to save these people”, Andujar convinced herself. Her work moved from art to militant struggle: at its center, there was the demarcation of indigenous lands. Thus in 1978, the Comissão pela Criação do Parque Yanomami (CCPY) was created, together with Carlo Zacquini, Bruce Albert, later joined by Alcida Ramos and Beto Ricardo, co-founder of the Insituto Socio Ambiental. The images in the Marcados series date back to this period. Since the Yanomami at the time were recognized by degrees of kinship and not by first name, it was necessary to identify them to create a vaccination record for the teams who intervened to contain the measles and poliomyelitis epidemics caused by the construction works of the Perimetral Norte Br 210. The series is currently considered one of the most important works of Brazilian contemporary art, while the photographer declares: “I would never have expected it… Since the Yanomami had many health problems, I returned there with two doctors. We went from village to village for over a year. Now there are those who judge this work as a thing in itself, as art photography”.

The exhibition adds to the Andujar’s photos, drawings and paintings by Yanomami artists from different generations. It offers an unprecedented insight into Yanomami culture, society and visual art, highlighting not only the tragedies that accompany these people’s stories, but also a legacy of enormous beauty and wisdom. The representation of indigenous artists reflects the intergenerational organization of indigenous societies and life. They range from young Yanomani artists to artists who are no longer in this plan, and who perhaps would have found it strange to be called artists, because the distinction between art and life has no sense for indigenous cosmologies. As Ailton Krenak declares: “Every indigenous people I know dances, sings, paints, draws, sculpts, does everything that the West attributes to a category of people, who are artists”.1 

The exhibition’s session Multiple Vision shows the answer of Claudia Andujar’s concern about whether photography could represent the complexity of an entire society. Struggling with this question, in 1974, together with Carlo Zacquini, invited those interested to draw scenes from their daily lives, stories and traditions. The results are the drawing made by Yanomami artists and shamans, such as André Taniki (1945), Orlando Nakɨ uxima (1958-1977), Poraco Hɨko (1905-1990), and Vital Warasi (1915-1988), a selection of which is shown in the exhibition. The scenes depict daily routines as well as the shamans’ frustration in failing to stop the invasion of their communities, as the drawing made by Vital Warasi in 1977, at the age of 60, which narrates the shamans’ progressive inability to sustain the bond with their xapiri helping spirits and protect their people.

The exhibition features a large female presence among the young Yanomami filmmakers confirming the strong protagonism of Yanomami women, as shown by the letter that Yanomami women have produced during the XIII Encontro de Mulheres Yanomami, and addressed to the newly elected Brazilian president Lula. Women call for help to end illegal mining that has degraded their land, affected animals and exposed them to gender-based violence. They do it very directly: “Lula, we Yanomami women want to send you our word. You are a long way from the Yanomami Indigenous land, but we know that you will receive our words and that you will want to listen to us.” If the western gaze places indigenous life forms as a world outside the contemporary world, the Yanomami women instead tell Lula that “We have our rules and our consultation protocol and we want you to respect them and make sure they are respected”.

The film Thuë pihi kuuwi – Uma Mulher pensando [A Woman Thinking] by two Yanomami women Aida Harika and Roseane Yariana, and Edmar Tokorino follows a Yanomami woman who watches a shaman prepare yãkoana, the food for the spirits. Based on the tale of a young indigenous woman, it offers an encounter of perspectives and imaginations. The same directors produced the short film Yuri u xëatima thë – A Pesca com Timbó about the practice of fishing with timbó, a substance used to paralyze fish. Another short movie Mãri hi – A árvore dos sonho [The tree of dreams] by Morzaniel Ɨramari, narrates the knowledge of dreams and sees the participation of Davi Kopenawa himself. Ɨramari trained as filmmaker at the Video nas Aldeias, a groundbreaking initiative to strengthen Indigenous rights through audiovisual production founded by the anthropologist Vincent Carelli together with his late partner, the anthropologist, Virginia Valadão in 1985.

All the filmmakers are part of a media collective focused on audiovisual training, started in 2018 by Hutukara Associação Yanomami, to expand the fight for the rights of Indigenous peoples and to circulate ancestral knowledge among the youths to ensure that this will not be lost. This element of self-preservation becomes fundamental, especially in light of the enormous loss of the elderly during the years of the pandemic and Bolsonaro’s policy of genocide against Indigenous, but also following a process of distancing young people from their original communities.

The political, beyond the aesthetic, aim of the exhibition is reinforced by the public program of meetings, entitled Indigenous Rights, Art, and Environmental Justice” where conversations about the urgent environmental and health crises that Yanomami people are facing after years of mining their Indigenous land, and centuries of colonial violence; as well as Indigenous autonomy, environmental justice, and activism were held in Yanomae and translated into English.

The exhibition stresses two fascinating elements related to gender and spirituality. Ehuana Yaira, is the first known Yanomami woman to become a teacher in the region and to write a book. Her book Palavras escritas sobre menstruação (Written Words on Menstruation) (2017) written in her native Yanomae language was born from an interview between two Yanomami women from different generations. The transformation of the rite of a young woman’s first period is the guiding thread of this conversation, a theme that unfolds in other subjects such as marriage, sex, childbirth, generational changes, ritual, first contact with whites, epidemics and deaths. Thus forming a mosaic of narratives with important themes for Yanomami women. She has also researched and illustrated books about traditional medicines and languages. In 2018, she coordinated the 11th Annual Yanomami Women Event ( the event that this past year produced the letter addressed to Lula). Yaira is one of the few Yanomami women to draw on paper, making her an innovator for a new generation. Her drawings are usually densely colored and depict the daily activities of women.

While the Thuë pihi kuuwi – Uma Mulher pensando offers a female observation of shamans’ roles, and rituals, that are often restricted to men, as beautifully described by Kopenawa in the seminal book The Falling Sky (2013), the drawing and woodcarving of Joseca Mokahesi usually draws the xapiri (spirit helpers), in their human and animal forms, based on the visions narrated to him by shamans. Not a shaman himself, his drawings express the desire to create a bridge between a story that is invisible to non-shamans with the intention of sharing and promoting the Yanomami cosmovision. Mokahesi is a teacher, and health agent of his community he has produced and illustrated Yanomami-Portuguese publications for educational and health programs.

In confirmation of a territorial belonging that binds indigenous peoples beyond the colonial imposition of national borders, the work of Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, a native of a Yanomami community in the upper Orinoco River region of Venezuela, established an original dialogue with his Brazilian peers. While most of the artworks of the older artists are part of the private collection of Claudia Andujar and Bruce Albert, the youngest generations showed internationally in global art institutions, mainly the Fondation Cartier and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, MASP which recently appointed three indigenous curators (Edson Kayapó, Kássia Borges Karajá and Renata Tupinambá). Hakihiiwe recently featured at the 59th Venice Biennale. Since the 2000s, a new generation of indigenous artists in Brazil and the Amazon rainforest, has begun to produce and exhibit their work outside their territory, establishing a new perspective that in addition to opening new paths in the bored art world, represents an invitation—and a gift—to experience other worldviews.


  1. Ailton Krenak y Pedro Cesarino, “As alianças afetivas – Entrevista com Ailton Krenak, por Pedro Cesarino”, en Incerteza viva: 32a Bienal de São Paulo (São Paulo: Fundaçao Bienal de São Paulo, 2016), 169-189.


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