A new exhibition at The Shed in New York is a colour-soaked, eye-opening look into Yanomami life – an Indigenous culture in the heart of the Amazon rainforest
Does art have the power to enact real political change? This is the question at the heart of The Yanomami Struggle, a new exhibition organised by the Fondation Cartier at The Shed in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Focusing primarily on the colour-soaked photographs of Claudia Andujar – a Swiss-born artist who has spent over five decades shooting and advocating for the Yanomami people, a group of approximately 54,000 individuals living in the Amazon rainforest across Brazil and Venezuela – alongside drawings, paintings and films by the Yanomami, this show positions art not just as activism, but also as transcendent aesthetic experience. “I hope art can offer us the possibility to learn from other perspectives of the world,” says the exhibition’s curator Thyago Nogueira on the day of the opening. “To see things that we couldn’t see otherwise, to listen, to feel, and to get closer to different people and different visions of this world.”
Born in 1931 in Switzerland, Andujar fled Europe with her mother to escape the Holocaust after her father and the rest of his family were killed in Nazi concentration camps. She later landed in New York and began painting, inspired by the abstract expressionism around her – traces of which are still evident in her garishly coloured, often painterly images – then arrived in São Paulo, Brazil in 1955, which is where she lives to this day. After working as a photojournalist for various magazines like Life and Aperture, Andujar lived in Yanomami territory for an entire year in 1974, but, remarkably, did not take a single photograph there. Instead, she wanted to learn about the customs of the region and gain the trust of its people before capturing them intimately on camera.
During this time, the region was under significant threat; as part of its 21-year-long military dictatorship, Brazil had allowed mining and construction in Yanomami territory, which brought catastrophic environmental destruction, violence and deadly disease. It’s a colonisation tale as old as time – outsiders disturbing paradise – but with her mammoth photographic projects, Andujar became a central spokesperson for the protection of the Yanomami land and its people. “She [Claudia] gave me the bow and arrow, not for killing whites but for speaking in defence of the Yanomami people,” says Davi Kopenawa, a prominent Yanomami spokesperson and shaman. “She is not Yanomami, but she is a true friend.”
What better way to learn about another culture – and get others to care – than through beautiful, razor-sharp images? Many of Andujar’s photographs in the exhibition – which has previously toured at the IMS in São Paulo, the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and the Barbican in London – are truly remarkable for their colour, subject matter, tenderness, and trippiness. Photos of a yano (communal house) ablaze, a young boy bathing in a river, and lush trees are rendered in yellows, blues and purples so impossibly vivid that the impulse is to look away – seeing these, it’s clear where Richard Mosse got his style and colour palette from (the Irish photographer has previously cited Andujar as a key influence). “It was very unique that she was not doing ethnographic photography, nor journalistic photography,” Nogueira says.
Elsewhere, Andujar captures the lifestyle and customs of the Yanomami with remarkable empathy. A black-and-white photograph of a young boy’s penis tied up with string (a sign of the transformation between boyhood and manhood) has all the quiet grace of a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph; an image of a funerary bundle hanging up in the forest – the Yanomami leave the dead to rot for a month before cremating their bones – is jittery, streaked in fiery reds and yellows, as if it would be disrespectful to look too directly. The yakoana ceremonies – where shamans inhale yakoana powder extracted from the bark of the Virola tree to help heal ill community members – are lensed with a hallucinogenic freneticism, a monochromatic blur of lights, hawk down feathers, and people frothing at the mouth.
“Claudia really tried to translate the shamanic culture to a non-Indigenous audience,” says Nogueira, speaking on Andujar’s experiments with infrared film, multiple exposures, low shutter speed and Vaseline (which she would sometimes smear on the camera lens). “She was expanding the limits of artistic production and inventing new ways of representing. This, I think, is the role of an artist.” A room of abstract, childlike drawings and paintings by Yanomami artists in the show ensures that they are represented on their own terms, although Nogueira is quick to point out that “art as we understand it doesn’t exist in Yanomami society“. Instead, he says the pictures they make are just a “part of living”.
Today, Nogueira says that the fight is far from over. “The crises that we live in in Brazil right now are enormous, probably even greater than what we had in the 1970s and 1980s,” he explains. “I wanted to make sure this was not an exhibition for pleasure, but that it has a whole purpose, which is to continue that fight, continue that struggle to make sure the Yanomami are respected and defended.” Nogueira is, however, sceptical of art’s potential to actually change politics. “We will need much more involvement from the activism side to make sure we prevent our violent machine of the white civilisation to just engulf and destroy all other civilisations living here.” But as for the art itself, he says: “this is part of the empathy that we build with the ‘other’.”
The Yanomami Struggle is on show at The Shed in New York City until 16 April 2023.