Contact Zones (an Experiment)
9 Aug 2019, 12:35 pm
It is laudable that the growing presence of indigenous artists in the Brazilian art circuit has introduced new voices and faces to a historically white and male scene. Even though there is still a large space to be occupied, the encouraging decolonial consensus, which is gradually taking shape amongst us, readjusts the narratives of artists, curators and the practices of art institutions. With a certain level of optimism, it seems possible to imagine a future similar to the Canadian or Australian models, where the circuit is — not without tension — marked by the presence of artists, curators and other professionals with an indigenous / native background.
Meanwhile, the indigenous world is right here; it has always been here, and it shows no sign of going away. For many decades, its images have been seen through a nationalist nativist lens that captures indigenous people frozen in time, as elements of a national past. However, for those who are interested, there are films, apps, games, installations, photos, paintings, performances, drawings, and objects that, to some extent, reflect the indigenous insertion into contemporary art circuits. If making contact was once an act of Indigenism from our side — represented by someone embarking on an expedition to meet an indigenous population face-to-face for the first time — the indigenous contemporary production makes contact in a reverse sense. We are no longer the ones who announce ourselves to them: it is they who pronounce their presence, for themselves and, sometimes, also for us.
Perhaps this is the first and most relevant consideration one should make when thinking of indigenous contemporary art: predominantly directed at the indigenous world itself, it circulates in its own networks of legitimation and celebration.
In the west of the Brazilian state of Pará, the Festival MUTAK (Indigenous Art Festival from Tapajós) marked its third edition in 2019. It featured film, photography and video art produced by different indigenous populations, as well as a market for eco-botanical exchange, meetings with shamans and workshops targeted at nonindigenous people with the aim of introducing Amerindian worldviews. In turn, from an ethno-historical perspective, the Museum Kaingang Vowjeuwig — Rising Sun, in the indigenous territory of Vanuíre, in the state of São Paulo, preserves documents and records of the local Kaingang people, adapting the strategies of non-indigenous museums to its demands and specific context.
Although based on different premises and geographically distant from each other, the festival and the museum share the fact that they operate on the margins of the mainstream circuit of exhibitions and cultural events. Showing a variety of objects, photos, drawings, paintings, and audio-visual materials in formalized networks that circulate films and information amongst indigenous villages, they represent the diversity of the art circuits activated within the indigenous world. Therefore, it is not surprising that the production of this world remains positively alien to the codes and canon of Brazilian art and do not respond to trends and movements, such as constructivism, Cinema Novo, or the resurgence of painting. Likewise, it is important to remind ourselves of the limited perception we have of it from the outside.
However, similar to some areas of contemporary art practice, the indigenous production comes to fruition against a political horizon of senses, in which the recording of community memory, the experience of territory, and the connection of dissident voices and bodies within the field of art, are common procedures and strategies. It is by testing these zones of contact that the 21st Biennial of Contemporary Art Sesc_Videobrasil is exhibiting artworks by seven indigenous / native artists and collectives from Brazil, New Zealand, Mexico, and the United States. This representation, which is the first-of-its-kind at Videobrasil, is complemented by interviews extracted from Struggle to be Heard: Voices of Indigenous Activists, an unfinished project by Andrea Tonacci from the end of the 1970s. The filmmaker’s intention was to disseminate, from one indigenous community to another, testimonies and images that could contribute to the perception of a common history of violation and resistance across the American continent. However, the project was interrupted when Tonacci realized that only the communities themselves could produce images of resistance. The material, which the director decided not to release until 2016, offers a historical overview of indigenous contemporary production and some clues to understanding its poetics.
The Brazilian artworks selected for the biennial’s 21st edition introduce clues that reveal, in first instance, the map from where this production emerges: the territories of South and Southeast Guarani, such as in the film Guardiões da memória [Guardians of Memory] and the installation Jeguatá — caderno de viagem [Jeguat. — Travel Notebook]; the valley of Javari, in the frontier between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, where the short-film triptych About Cameras, Spirits and Occupation: a Montage-Essay Triptych was filmed; and the small territory of the Maxakalí in the valley of Mucuri, in the state of Minas Gerais, which is the backdrop to the documentary GRIN.
Despite not always being featured in the foreground, indigenous politics play a key role in all these works, both in the ambit of the communities themselves and their exchanges with the non-indigenous world. As a sort of cartography of disputes, in particular with regards to land ownership, they articulate past and present around narratives of memory and reflect on the representation and investigation of the past. Their presence in this edition of the show provides a consistent panorama — albeit infallibly incomplete — of the repertoires and strategies mobilized by indigenous contemporary production.
Guardiões da memória (2018), by Alberto Guarani, is a collection of material filmed in different indigenous villages across the country. Against the backdrop of Guarani religiousness — its metaphysical and moral dimension — the film reflects on life and death. Five elderly local men talk about existence, giving advice on well being and calling on “all relatives living in the great territories”. Aware that the images captured are not collective documents, the director emphasizes the value of recording the thoughts and beautiful words of the elderly, as a sort of memory preserved for the future. Interspersed with their testimonies, young people talk about dilemmas of the present, suggesting a common horizon of expectations and desires.
Also from the Guarani, the installation Jeguatá — caderno de viagem (2018) is a collective work by Ana Carvalho, Ariel Kuaray Ortega, Fernando Ancil, and Patrícia Ferreira Para Yaxapi. As a development of a project created within an initiative called Video in the Villages, involving the Mbya Guarani people, the work is made of records from the route followed by its four authors across the villages of Koenju, in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, and Pindó Poty, in Argentina. The title — which means ‘to walk’ in Guarani language — evokes the broad meaning of walking for them and, by contrast, of the territories where the walking takes places. The journey resignifies the cosmo-political walking of the Guarani, echoing both daily walks, that strengthen their social networks, and spiritual walks, towards a land of no evil.
In the journey between the two villages, the four artists documented the Guarani presence in cities, roads, and plantations. The images, like an exercise in contemporary landscaping, show a transfigured territory. The artists were also messengers, taking photos and videoletters exchanged by relatives that, in many cases, had not been in touch for many years. The installation, made of fragments of this material, offers a glimpse into the indigenous world and its ongoing reinvention in the face of constantly adverse life conditions.
About Cameras, Spirits and Occupation: a Montage-Essay Triptych (2018) is another example brought about through the mediation of a mobile camera (and a cameraman). The films portray the journey of Brazilian anthropologist Markus Enk in the valley of Javari, in the Amazon, a region that holds the largest concentration of isolated indigenous peoples in Brazil and is highly coveted for its natural wealth. The three elements — the short-films The Matis Ancestral Spirit of Madiwin and the Corn Party, Healthy Politics for Who? and Starring a Reflexive Camera — bring together, and challenge, the practices of documentary and ethnography, calling into question the idea of authorship and discursive authority by emphasizing the collaboration between Enk and his indigenous interlocutors. The result — signed by the collective Alto Amazonas Audiovisual — is a multi-vocal artwork, in which indigenous and non-indigenous gazes are revealed in line with the circumstantial demands of the researcher’s field of work.
In the first short-film, the elements of traditional documentary (linear structure and voice-overs explaining the images) are reproduced “from a native point of view”. The person filming, editing and narrating the material is Shapu Mëo, a member of the Matis community. In Healthy Politics for Who? — the second short-film — Enk’s camera changes hands again, this time in a figurative sense. In the context of the constant decline of health services, the agent here is a Kanamari group that calls on the researcher to document the occupation of a health center under the auspices of the Special Secretary of Indigenous Health (Sesai). The recorded material, which includes discussions about what should be filmed, meetings and declarations of movement leaders, reflect its multi-ethnic dimension and the strategic use of the camera by the Kanamari.
The final short-film, Starring a Reflexive Camera, sums up the triptych’s metalinguistic approach. It features individual reflections by Enk and Mëo about the act of filming and the exercise of anthropology. Their critical examination of the discipline is contrasted with the audio-visual practice, which is able to voice more directly and symmetrically the demands of the present. In the form of documental confession, in which Enk and Mëo rotate while talking to the camera, their final considerations confirm the destabilization of representation (who, after all, is entitled to talk about whom?) that the films strive for.
The documentary as a tool for accessing the past is the premise behind the work of Roney Freitas and Isael Maxakalí, the directors of GRIN (2016), a film that revisits memories of the Indigenous Rural Guard (Grin) in the Maxakalí communities. Founded in 1969, during the last military dictatorship, alongside other correctional institutions aimed at repressing the Amerindian world, Grin was a group of armed militias formed by individuals from different populations. Jesco von Puttkamer — one of the main Brazilian photographers devoted to indigenous affairs — filmed a Grin graduation ceremony in 1970. The images show indigenous men in uniform demonstrating the skills they had learned: marching, fighting and torturing. The first sequence in GRIN is a fragment of Puttkamer’s film, which was found by accident in 2012 and led the two directors to search for old members of the Maxakalí community to hear their accounts about the militia.
Describing their lives at the time, some of the interviewees talk about the illegal appropriation of land, the ban on the use of their own language and working conditions that resembled slavery. Their accounts reveal the real extent of the actions performed by the repressive apparatus. Men who were once young explain their reasons for enlisting in Grin. Throughout the film, the testimonies are sewn together by the presence of Isael, who provides a link to the current struggle of the Maxakalí against the non-indigenous world, inserting the creation of grin into a bigger context of land dispute.
In ‘O eterno retorno do encontro’ [The Eternal Return of Encounter] (1999), Ailton Krenak remarks that ‘contact’ is extended and repeated each day. “We have been living with ‘contact’ since forever”, he says. If, on the one hand, there are populations still to be contacted, on the other hand, the negotiation of the encounter is a daily occurrence, as its repercussions reach every area of life. Some indigenous narratives announce future contact. In any case, the event and its history are part of a collective heritage; therefore, it is not exclusive to white people, as explained by Krenak.
Even though the artworks described here do not mention it directly, they examine the huge bio-political consequences of contact. Faced with these consequences, listening to the elderly and talking about land are ways of insisting on the insertion of the indigenous experience into the world, which — filled with sound and fury — is also theirs, as well as ours.
“Contact Zones (an Experiment)” was originally published in the second edition of Traço— magazine, released on occasion of the 13rd SP-Foto.