When photographer Claudia Andujar first arrived in Yanomami territory in northern Brazil in the early 1970s, she intended to take photographs of the indigenous Yanomami people for a new politically minded Brazilian magazine, Realidade. But ultimately the images she made—many of which make up the mournful, hopeful, deeply moving exhibition The Yanomami Struggle, currently underway at The Shed in New York— only constitute a fragment of her legacy for the Yanomami. Even as she embedded with and documented the lives and traditions of the Yanomami people, the now-91-year-old Andujar, taught them to defend themselves from threats both immediate—the increasing outside encroachments that had begun with the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1964—and existential. The discovery of valuable minerals like gold, uranium, and cassiterite in the Yanomami territory in the 1970’s brought prospectors and miners and other undesirable outside attention—and with it, disease, pollution, exploitation, deforestation. For many indigenous people across Brazil it meant total annihilation. A WWII refugee who fled Hungary as a child and whose entire patriarchal family was murdered at Auschwitz and Dachau, Andujar had experience with annihilation. She was not, she explained through an interpreter at a press conference this week, content to sit back and watch history repeat itself.

The photographs that Andujar took of the Yanomami in 1971, and those that she has taken in the half-century since, along with various works on paper and film by Yanomami artists, are part of a traveling exhibition co-organized with the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and the Moreira Salles institute in Sao Paulo. It is an exceptional exhibition, with work that is staggering in its volume (there are over 200 works by Andujar and around 80 by Yanomami artists), and the scope and depth of its intimacy. 

A guest decorated with vulture and hawk down feathers at a feast, Catrimani regionArtwork © Claudia Andujar. Collection of the artist.

“[Andujar] is not Yanomami, but she is a true friend,” Kopenawa said in remarks that have been since memorialized on one of the exhibition walls: “She taught me to fight, to defend our people, land, language, customs, festivals, dances, chants, and shamanism. She explained things to me like my own mother would. I did not know how to fight against politicians, against the non-Indigenous people. It was good that she gave me the bow and arrow as a weapon, not for killing whites but for speaking in defense of the Yanomami people.” This exhibition, Kopenawa told Vogue, is another sheaf of arrows in his quiver: The hope is that visitors will come, educate themselves, and demand change. 

The election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a reason for cautious optimism: Lula began his presidency by revoking all of Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous and anti-environment measures, and created the country’s first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, headed up by Sônia Guajajara, of the Guajajara/Tentehar people, a staunch defender of the Amazon. But it’s unclear whether these measures are enough in the face of the ruin and devastation that have already occurred, and whether they will actually be enforced without global attention and the pressure it brings. “It’s a war. It’s a war,” Chandes said. “It’s the Amazon, it’s the air we breathe. And it’s the beauty of the world, too, by the way.” Yes, Kopenawa agreed: “It’s worth fighting for.” Maybe the people who come to see this show will want to fight for it too.

The Yanomami Struggle is produced by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, the Moreira Salles institute in Sao Paulo, and in partnership with the Brazilian N.G.Os Hutukara Associacao Yanomani and Instituto Socioambiental, and is at The Shed from February 3–April 16, 2023. 

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