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Putting biodiversity at risk of extinction and threatening the lives of tribal people who rely upon the Earth’s lungs

Claudia Andujar’s photography grants the indigenous tribe Yanomami the support to fight for their rights and existence. «I am connected to the indigenous, to the land, to the struggle. I have always searched for the meaning of life in this core»

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil, spread over an expanse of approximately 6.7 million km2, is esteemed to be living space to one in ten known species on Earth, with 75 percent of plant species being unique to the Amazon area. This variety in life is the base of existence to an estimated number of 350 indigenous tribes who have inhabited the rainforest for thousands of years, relying on the provided natural resources while cultivating biodiversity. Despite hundreds of years of contact with Western civilizations, most tribes have maintained their languages. Their traditions and shamanic rituals had rarely crossed paths with modern cultures until the land’s copiousness was recognized and exploited by Southern American businesses, mining companies and governmental institutions. The construction of a transcontinental highway in the Amazon in the 1970s, which was initiated by Brazil’s military government under the aegis of the ‘National Integration Plan’, the region was plagued by deforestation and agricultural programs, bringing epidemics to the Yanomami peoples and leading to the annihilation of their communities. The boundaries between art and activism can be ambiguous. The cooperation between heritage and politics opaque. 

Claudia Andujar utilizes photography to counteract the objectification of indigenous tribes, bringing the paradox to light. During this period, the RADAM Amazonian Resources Survey Project disclosed mineral ore deposits in the region, unleashing an invasion of miners, diminishing at the end of the 1980s, and deriving a gold-rush. It continues nowadays. «The international labor organization convention of 1689 on indigenous and tribal peoples has been rectified by Brazil. In convention, it says, ‘the government has to consult indigenous peoples before doing projects on their lands’. They want to build these projects such as the hyper-electric dams like the Belomonci dam yet never consult us», underlines Yanomami, Mauricio Yekuana. In 1992, during the UN Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro, the ECO 92, the Brazilian government announced the recognition of 690 territories for the indigenous population, covering about 13 percent of Brazil’s land, succeeded by repression by the Brazilian Federal Police of the illegal mining activities inside the territory. To preserve illegal activities, miners left to Venezuela, Guyana and other countries at the Guyana shield. Without being persecuted by surveillance or a protection program of the Yanomami land, convicts formulated gangs, threatening and exploiting the isolated tribes of the Amazon region. With illegal miners came diseases and epidemics to the tribes, polluting the reserve’s rivers, eroding forest, killing animals, and inciting indigenous women into prostitution. A study of hair samples from Indians of nineteen communities conducted in 2015 by Brazilian health foundation Fiocruz, together with the Hutukara Yanomami Association, Brazilian NGO ISA (Socio-Environmental Institute), and the Ye ́kuana Association, found that over 90 percent of the Indians in one region are affected by mercury contamination. 

Governmental support and the interchange of the requisitions and demands should be the corollary, yet indigenous people are still presumed as South America’s marginal group – advantageous for the sustainment of the rainforest and agricultural upgrowth, yet excluded from political and economic decision making or project planning affecting their territory. «What the white people call ‘nature’s protection’ is us, the forest people, those who have lived under cover of its trees since the beginning of time. Yet many are those who continue to ignore what we say. While our words sometimes reach their ears, their thoughts remain closed. Maybe their children and grandchildren will be able to hear them one day?», questions Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Co-Founder of the Hutukara Yanomami Association and Shamanic leader of the indigenous tribe Yanomami. «Article 231 of the Brazilian Federal Constitution is there to defend rights, social organizations, society, languages and fundamental rights to lands which were occupied and demarcated. It is the government’s responsibility to protect and respect those lands». Elected as a conservatives member, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party, assumed office in January 2019. His legislative procedures advocating an idea concentrating on ‘civilizing’ indigenous peoples. In February 2020, the president presented a draft bill to Congress, proposing to regulate mining, hydroelectric power projects, and enterprises in Indigenous territories. «There is an Indigenous Land on which we need to build a hydroelectric power plant. [Building it] can be done without middlemen. The Government wants it. […] They will have resources; they will change their lives». The legalized exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territories encourages deforestation, putting biodiversity at risk of extinction, and threatening the lives of tribal peoples who rely upon the Earth’s green lungs. World Wildlife Fund estimates that 27 percent of the Amazon biome will be without trees by 2030 if deforestation and exploitation of natural resources would proceed to the current extent. 

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Catrimani, Roraima, 1972-1976

«Polluting the rivers, introducing more mining, getting agro-businesses in the forest for Bolsonaro’s business interest. What he is selling off is our people and traditions of the Yanomami’s indigenous land. The rule of the government of the ministry; of the police is to get those illegal miners out. Get rid of those who are invading indigenous tribes», says Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. «We are hunters, fishers, and never grow hungry, because we know how to preserve and look after the forest. The forest is our home», he adds. Outdrawing the increasing struggle of Brazilian tribes, he continues, «Today’s agriculture is about who wins, who produces and who consumes. What is feeding Brazil is the poor scale, agricultural families. Not large-scale agribusinesses. Agribusinesses do not produce food – they produce royalties […] We need to put brakes on, we cannot continue destroying nature, Earth, and rivers. We Indians know how to speak to the forest, the thunder, the rain, and the sun. We know how to protect it». 

The Yanomami People is one of the largest Indian indigenous tribes numbering about 38,000 individuals living on the border of Brazil and Venezuela in the Orinoco-Amazon interfluvial region, occupying 192,000 square kilometers in the northern Amazon. Consisting of sub-groups, each Yanomami community – Yanomami signifying ‘human being’ considers itself economically and politically autonomous. With the growing pressure from the politicians and miners present on indigenous land, their freedom is being narrowed. «Our land is our heritage. A heritage which probates us. For us Indians this land belongs to us, so we can hunt, plant, be healthy, where we can live for the rest, of our lives. […] The help we need is to support us in speaking to the white people so that they listen and allow us to live on this land».

Swiss-born photographer and activist Claudia Andujar (1931) first approached the Yanomami in 1971 while working on an article about the Amazon. The construction of the transcontinental highway in the Amazon admonished Andujar of the genocide in Europe; hence she resolved to commit to the Yanomami struggle. The project brought an epidemic among the American Indian tribes, making communities die due to lacking healthcare provision and leading to an increased level of violence. «I was driven there, to the Amazon jungle, for this reason. It was instinctive – I was looking to find myself». In 1978, Andujar co-founded the non-profit organization Commissão Pro-Yanomami (CCPY), designated to the defense of the territorial, cultural, and civil rights of Yanomami. She utilized the medium photography to raise awareness and support the cause. Ingested by the Yanomami culture, their fight for acceptance, and encouraged by the Guggenheim fellowship in support of her project, Andujar determined to produce a photographic essay on their daily life. «I was born in Transylvania and lost my father and paternal relatives during the Second World War when they were deported and killed in a concentration camp. I emigrated to Brazil in 1955 and started with photography as a way to connect with its people. I started working with the Yanomami in the early years’ the ‘70s, becoming a second family. I got to know them well, I feel close to them. When I learned of the threats they faced, I decided to devote my time to help them to get the delimitation of the land they occupied so it could be officially recognized by Brazilian law», says Andujar.

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Guest decorated with vulture and hawk plumage for a feast, photographed in multiple exposure, Catrimani, Roraima, 1974

In the early eighties, Claudia Andujar took a series of black-and-white portraits of the Yanomami as part of a vaccination campaign, which she later used for the Marcados series. Together with Thyago Nogueira, head of the Contemporary Photography Department at Instituto Moreira Salles, Andujar curated an exhibition with Fondation Cartier, comprising 300 archival photographs she took during the five decades she spent with the indigenous Yanomami tribes. The audiovisual istallation of her work Genocide of the Yanomami: Death of Brazil (1989-2018), produced with photographs of Andujar’s archive leads the visitor from a world of harmony to one devastated by the progress of Western civilization. It will be accompanied by a soundtrack by Marlui Miranda, captivating with Yanomami chants and experimental music. From the beginning, her approach differed from the documentary style of her contemporaries. The photographs she made during this period show how she experimented with a variety of photographic techniques to translate the Yanomami’s shamanic culture. Applying Vaseline to the lens of her camera, using flash devices, oil lamps, and infrared film, she created visual distortions, streaks of light, and saturated colors, thus imbuing her images with a feeling of the otherworldly – this is written in a statement by the Fondation Cartier. The exhibition explores Claudia Andujar’s contribution to the art of photography as well as her role as a human rights activist in defense of the Yanomami. It is divided into two sections reflecting the dual nature of a career committed to aesthetics and activism. «I now put all my efforts into activism, into addressing Brazil’s political situation. I no longer take photographs, but use my archive to show how I saw the Yanomami. This present Government has no respect for them. They have no understanding of who they are as people», states Andujar.

In the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic, the gap between civilization and tribes once again becomes palpable. Statistics of death cases strike international attention. «As the pandemic spreads into Yanomami land, Andujar’s work ‘has become even more urgent’», says Thyago Nogueira, who curated the Fondation Cartier exhibition after closely collaborating with Andujar for around four years. Nogueira says the current pandemic «has the power to annihilate the Yanomami civilization. The Yanomami know how to fight the diseases of the forest but not diseases from the outside. The public health system provided [in Amazonas and elsewhere] has further collapsed because of coronavirus». It is a fight against time, hierarchy, and capitalism. The exhibition at Fondation Cartier is an international step. Founded in 1984 in Paris by Cartier, the Fondation supports artists over the long term and enables them to cross dimensions through meetings with scientists, philosophers, musicians or architects. For a period of eight years, the international cultural institution Triennale Milano — chaired by Stefano Boeri — and Fondation Cartier, led by General Director, Hervés Chandès, joins forces to introduce the program of live shows and exhibitions. Their collaboration can be understood as a cultural partnership in Europe between public and private institutions, where visions of contemporary arts unite. «Idea circulation, sharing experiences, and developing cultural networks between European Institutions is vital in supporting artists, publicizing their works, and providing a perspective on the modern world».
The exhibition ‘The Yanomami Struggle’ opens its doors from October 17th, 2020 to February 7th, 2021. «Divided into two sections, it reflects the nature of a career committed to both art and activism». The first section presents photographs from the period of six years, during which Andujar lived with the indigenous tribe Yanomami. «They show how she grappled with the challenges of visually interpreting a complex culture». The second features the work she produced during her period of activism, when she commenced to utilize her photography as a tool for political change.

The exhibition at Triennale Milano introduces the souls behind a muted struggle in the Amazon rainforest and gives a glimpse behind Brazil’s economic strategies. Andujar provides the tribes with her voice, strength, and tools to position themselves in the battle between the fronts. «She is not Yanomami, but she is a friend. She took photographs of childbirth, of women, of children. She taught me to fight and defend our people, land, language, customs, festivals, dances, chants, and shamanism. I did not know how to fight against politicians, against the non-indigenous people. She gave me the bow and arrow as a weapon, not for killing whites but for speaking in defense of Yanomami people. Those who do not know the Yanomami will know them through her images. My people are in them», explains Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. 

Triennale Milano / Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
A cultural partnership unprecedented in Europe

For a duration of eight years, a joint program will be presented in Milan – a common vision of contemporaneity and a multidisciplinary cultural research open to all fields – art, architecture, design, fashion, cinema, science and philosophy