“I didn’t study in the city to learn to draw, I only studied in the forest, where I hunted in the brush. I drew on the trees, on the beaches, I drew on coconut trees and on new leaves, with charcoal. I removed the bark from trees and drew on the bare trucks,” recounts the artist Joseca Yanomami, commenting on evidence left in the forest of his first illustrations, as an adolescent.
Today, the works by Joseca and two other Yanomami artists, Ehuana Yaira Yanomami and Kalepi Amarildo Isaac Sanöma, are being appreciated thousands of kilometers from Yanomami Territory, in Shanghai, China. The city was chosen to be the next host of the exhibition “Trees”, shown for the first time in 2019, in Paris. Visitation for the Chinese leg began on July 9 and will continue until October 10, 2021.
The exhibition, organized by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art and held at the Chinese Museum Power Station of Art, presents over 200 works by close to 30 artists from China, Latin America, Europe and Asia. The event celebrates trees as a source of inspiration for human society. Paintings, photographs, videos, drawings and installations bear scientific and artistic witness to those capable of seeing the plant world in its different manifestations.
“I draw relatives, animals, trees, birds, parrots, monkeys, tapirs, fish,” explains Joseca. “When I learned to draw, I would listen to the shamans singing and I recorded in my mind what I would draw later. I draw the spirits. And when I dream, I study a lot, I think a lot and I create many drawings from my dreams. I dream about different types of animals, spirits, diseases, enemies, I dream of rain, parrots, hunters,” he says.
The artist, born in the 1970s in the region of Demini, on Yanomami Indigenous Land, located between the states of Amazonas and Roraima, became the first language scholar and teacher of the Watorikɨ community, at the start of the 1990s. At the turn of the millennium, Joseca was the first Yanomami to work in the field of health. At the time, he began to draw and sculpt noteworthy animals in wood.
This is not the first time his work has featured in an important exhibition. The works debuted in France, at the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art in the Yanomami exhibition entitled “Espírito da Floresta” [Spirit of the forest], in 2003 — at the time, Joseca traveled with the Yanomami leader and shaman Davi Kopenawa and his son, Dário Kopenawa, to the opening. In 2009, the artist participated in the exhibition marking 30 years of the Cartier Foundation, in 2012, in the exhibition “História para ver” [Viewable history] and in 2019, when the exhibition “Trees” was inaugurated in Paris.
Since 2014, the artist has also illustrated various books about the traditions of his people, published by the Hutukara Associação Yanomami. In 2020, an artistic intervention was conducted before the Brazilian Congress with drawings by Joseca, marking the end of the campaign #ForaGarimpoForaCovid [Miners Out, Covid Out], with the submission of a petition with over 400,000 signatures to congressmen and other officials. The drawings meticulously illustrate entities, places and events evoked by myths and shamanic chants that he has heard since childhood, but also by scenes of daily life in the forest.
Artwork from the first Yanomami woman to write a book in her own language, Ehuana Yaira Yanomami, also takes part in the exposition “Trees,” in Shanghai. “When I do my drawings I think about making a woman. First, I think about when I am in the forest, later, I dream,” explains the artist in her mother tongue.
Ehuana Yaira, 37, is a teacher, artist, artisan, researcher and female leader in the Watorikɨ community, where she was born and raised, in the same village as Davi. Educated in the 1990s in the community school, she was the first woman from the region to occupy the position of teacher.
In 2010, she participated in a study on the knowledge of Yanomami women, conducted by Watorikɨ elders. Over the course of her investigations, Ehuana Yaira familiarized herself with the use of computers and editing of texts and illustrations for local school publications. This led her to develop a passion for design and for the representation of female activities, knowledge and rituals.
In 2017, in partnership with the anthropologist Ana Maria Machado, she released her first book: Yɨpɨmuwi thëã oni: Palavras escritas sobre menstruação. In 2019, Ehuana was one of the researchers for the project Línguas Yanomami: diversidade e vitalidade. She also contributed to an investigation on medicinal plants used by the Yanomami, knowledge derived from the female domain. During her research on medicinal plants, Ehuana produced her first drawings. The artistic works were published in the book Hwërɨmamotima thë pë ã oni: Manual dos remédios tradicionais yanomami.
Her illustrations portray common day scenes, such as the collection of food, fishing and raising of children, and also experiences such as births and first menstruation, something that makes her work unique. The Yanomami artist presented her drawings for the first time in the first edition of the exhibition “Trees”, in 2019. She played the lead in a short film called “Um filme para Ehuana,” directed by Louise Botkay in 2018, and a performer in the film “The Last Forest” by filmmaker Luiz Bolognesi, released this year.
“First I practice, I do drafts, then I draw. I make a woman and then I draw a large tree. I also do drawings of houses, fruits, tapioca pancakes, cassava,” explains Ehuana.
Kalepi Amarildo Isaac Sanöma was born in 1995, in the community of Katimani, in the region of Auaris, located near the border of Brazil with Venezuela. The region is inhabited by speakers of the Sanöma language, a linguistic subgroup of the Yanomami family. Today, Kalepi lives in Kolulu, along the banks of the Asikamau River, in the same region.
He was taught to read in his language and in Portuguese in the local indigenous school, “Öpa Sali.” It was in this educational environment that he soon began to participate in research projects and publications about the traditional knowledge of the Sanöma, conducted by the elders of his community. With this experience, he became interested in drawing and painting.
Kalepi takes his inspiration from observing the forest, especially the relationships between plants and animals. The artist is also responsible for developing sustainable economic programs on behalf of his community, such as the cultivation of mushrooms. He is part of a new generation that uses both indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge to empower his people and serves as a model for the younger generation.
He draws forest scenes, primarily landscapes and typical scenes, such as a tapir drinking water from a stream, monkeys eating fruit from trees and pigs crossing through the brush.
He takes care to accurately represent the environments that the animals frequent and the trees and plants that occur in these environments.
In the scenes, in addition to beautiful lines and vibrant colors, Kalepi represents the ecological relationships that exist in the forest: never would he draw a bird eating fruit that it does not normally eat, never would trees and plants that do not belong together in the forest be found together in a landscape.
The artist takes care to create a faithful illustration of the forest. To do so, in addition to his own repertoire as a participant of the “people of the forest,” he speaks with his elders, the pata tö, from his own kinship network, which is very broad and extensive in the community.
The works by Joseca, Ehuana and Kalepi were included in the exhibition by the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who has worked to defend the Yanomami people since 1975. Bruce Albert was co-curator of two exhibitions for the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art: “Espírito da Floresta,” in 2003 and “Trees”, in 2019. He emphasizes that currently “Yanomami artists are displayed in museums and galleries of contemporary art from Paris to New York, from São Paulo to Shanghai.”
“The contemporary art of the Yanomami shows the world the beauty of metaphysical reflection and knowledge of the forest of this unique people. It is, therefore, a powerful tool in the defense of their territorial and cultural rights, recognized by the Brazilian Constitution though, unfortunately, seriously disrespected by the current president of Brazil, an inept and ferocious enemy of indigenous peoples,” says the anthropologist.
Brazil’s largest indigenous territory, spanning almost 10 million ha, with a population of 27,000, has been invaded by around 20,000 wildcat miners in search of illegal gold.
Since May 10, conflicts have intensified in the region of Palimiú, situated along the Uraricoera River, with the use of heavy weapons and explosives. An attack resulted in an indigenous woman receiving a flesh wound from a bullet and two children drowning after attempting to flee into the forest, out of fear of the conflict.
In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, illegal mining has grown by 30% on Yanomami Land, according to a report by Hutukara. Along the Uraricoera River alone is concentrated 52% of the area devastated. Over the first few months of this year, deforestation of around 200 football fields has already been observed.
Translation: Glenn Johnston