In response to the invitation of Julia and Daniel to write a brief account of the pandemic, my reflections centred not on my own moods (sense of loneliness, helplessness, fear of the unknown), which I think are common to most, but on the spread of the virus, which is also linked to environmental destruction.
Our robbery and indiscriminate subtraction of the world’s resources, which we think are at our disposal, is at the heart of a photographic exhibition (even if calling it such would be an understatement) that I have just visited, entitled The Yanomami Struggle. It was created by Claudia Andujar in Milan and which unfortunately will close in early February.
The artist is an extraordinary person. Born in 1931 in Switzerland, her father, a Jew, was deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed. Claudia moved to Brazil and since the 1970s has been interested in the cause of the indigenous people of the Amazon. In particular she got to know the Yanomami people, who live between Brazil and Venezuela. Claudia lived with them, communicated with gestures and expressions, photographed them and tried to reveal their souls, their real world and the supernatural world they believe in, making visible an invisible world.
As their spokesperson, the shaman Davi Kopenawa, asserts, the Yanomami people are the guardians of the forest, they take care of it, know more than 500 species of plants and live off the resources of the territory. The land-forest for the natives is a living creature, part of a complex cosmology that involves human beings, trees, animals. Claudia says, “We walked for hours. The forest for the Indians is like a city for us. They know all the intersections and how to deal with them, the same way we cross a road.”
In the 1970s/1980s the Brazilian military dictatorship launched an infrastructure program of roads across the Amazon, while gold prospectors poured into these territories, polluting the rivers with mercury. The result is a series of diseases unknown to forest peoples (from measles to malaria), which led to the decimation of entire villages. When, in 1977, the government expelled Claudia from the Yanomami territory, the photographer devoted herself full time to obtaining political rights for indigenous people and founded an NGO with other activists.
In the 1980s the NGO promoted a vaccination campaign in hard-to-access Amazon regions. The series of photos Marcados (Marked) presents portraits of men, women, and children with a tag around the neck indicating the medical record number, necessary for the identification of people who do not have a defined name during their lifetime, but change it several times. The artist draws a parallel with the experience of her family, marked first with the Star of David and then with the number assigned in the concentration camp. But the Jews were branded to die, these people were branded to live.
The activists’ struggle finally led to the demarcation of the Yanomami territory in the 1990s, even if the battle for survival continued. Today, President Bolsonaro threatens their achievements.
The black and white or infrared photos in the exhibition, along with numerous videos (in some cases shot by the natives themselves), drawings made by people who for the first time used paper and colours, tell us about everyday life, about house collectives, religion, shamans induced into a state of hallucinogenic trance, death and funeral rites. Respect for the land means that hunting is aimed at their needs, the houses built in collective houses, are burned to avoid risk of contagion when a group moves.
Today we know that many of the epidemics we have experienced or are experiencing are caused through disrespecting our environment through pollution, deforestation and intensive farming. And we forget more and more that we are not the masters of the world, but the guardians who must take care of it.
The Yanomami Fight by Claudia Andujar, Triennale di Milano, until the beginning of February 2021.
Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021