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Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle

A young boy swims in blue water, his head partially emerging out of the surface


Barbican Art Gallery presents Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle – an exhibition dedicated to the work and activism of Brazilian artist Claudia Andujar. For over five decades starting in the 1970s, she devoted her life to photographing and defending the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous peoples. At a time when their territory is threatened more than ever by illegal gold mining, and as Covid-19 continues to sweep the globe, this major exhibition is especially relevant in the context of the humanitarian and environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic.

Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle is curated by Thyago Nogueira, Head of Contemporary Photography at the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil. Based on years of research into Andujar’s significant archive, the exhibition explores her extraordinary contribution to the art of photography as well as her major role as a human rights activist defending the Yanomami’s rights. Over 200 photographs, an audio-visual installation, a film and a series of drawings by the Yanomami are brought together in The Curve, The Pit and the Barbican’s foyers. The exhibition will reflect the dual nature of Andujar’s career, committed to both art and activism. Photographs from her first six years living with the Yanomami, showing how she grappled with the challenges of visually interpreting a complex culture, will be featured alongside the work she produced during her period of activism, as she used photography as a tool for political change.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican said: “We are really thrilled to present Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle at the Barbican this summer. The work of this inspirational artist and activist provides an unparalleled insight into the lives of the Yanomami and shines a light on the violence perpetrated against them through illegal activities, hostile forces and corporate greed. The visceral power of Andujar’s photography has never been more relevant, as the climate emergency and the impact of Covid-19 continues to threaten the Yanomami and the Amazon basin.”

Claudia Andujar said: “I started working with the Yanomami in the 1970s and they quickly became a second family to me. When I saw the threats they were facing, I decided to devote my time to helping them obtain the demarcation of the land they occupied so that it would be officially recognized by Brazilian law. After many years of struggle, we succeeded in our efforts. Sadly, their lands have once again been invaded by gold miners and so I hope that my work will continue to raise awareness of the dangers facing the Yanomami.”

Thyago Nogueira said: “Through Claudia Andujar’s art, this show tells the story of a collaborative fight that managed to protect the Amazonian Yanomami people from a massacre caused by economic greed in the 80s and 90s in Brazil. I am afraid to say history is repeating itself with Covid-19 moving quickly into Yanomami lands and the failure of the Brazilian government to react. If we don’t act, another major humanitarian disaster will take place here.”

Davi Kopenawa, Shaman and Yanomami leader said: “Claudia came to Brazil and the Yanomami lands, thinking about her project. Though not Yanomami, she is a true friend. She took photographs of childbirth, of women, of children. I did not know how to fight against politicians and non-indigenous people, but she gave me the tools to defend our people, land, language, customs, festivals, dances, chants and shamanism. It is important to me and to you to see the work she did and respect the Yanomami people of Brazil who have lived in this land for many years.”

Fiona Watson, Director of Advocacy and Research, Survival International said: “Claudia Andujar’s iconic photos allow us to enter the rich, diverse and complex world of the Yanomami. Today, they take on a new urgency as a humanitarian catastrophe is rapidly engulfing the Yanomami whose forest, lives and livelihoods are being destroyed by illegal goldminers who are also spreading Covid-19 among their communities. A huge public outcry was fundamental in persuading the Brazilian government to recognise Yanomami land rights in 1992. The exhibition is an urgent call to stand once more with the Yanomami people in their campaign to protect their rainforests and way of life in the face of a mounting threats and genocidal government policies.”

Claudia Andujar first met the Yanomami in 1971 while working on an article about the Amazon. Fascinated by this isolated community, and in receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship,

she decided to embark on an in-depth photographic essay of their daily life with the support of the Italian missionary Carlo Zacquini.

From the beginning, Andujar’s approach differed greatly from the documentary style of her contemporaries. The photographs she made during this period show how she experimented with a variety of photographic techniques in an attempt to visually translate the shamanic culture of the Yanomami. Applying Vaseline to the lens of her camera, using flash devices, oil lamps and infrared film, she created visual distortions, streaks of light, and saturated colours. She also developed a series of black and white portraits that capture the grace and dignity of the Yanomami. Focusing closely on faces and fragments of the body, she tightly frames her images, using a dramatic chiaroscuro to create a feeling of intimacy and draw attention to individual psychological states.

By the late 1970s, Andujar had reached a turning point in her career. The construction of a transcontinental highway in the Amazon, initiated by Brazil’s military government, opened up the region to deforestation as well as invasive agricultural programmes, bringing epidemics to the Yanomami and leading to the decimation of entire communities. Andujar was reminded of the genocide in Europe, in which her own father and paternal family perished, and this deepened her commitment to the Yanomami struggle.

In 1978 she founded the Pro-Yanomami Commission (CPPY, formerly known as the Commission for the Demarcation of the Yanomami Park), with the Italian missionary Carlo Zacquini, the French anthropologist Bruce Albert and the Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa and began a fourteen-year-long campaign to designate the Yanomami homeland. At this point Andujar put aside the artistic element of her photography to focus on using photography primarily as a means to raise awareness and support her cause.

In the early 1980s, Andujar took a series of black and white portraits of the Yanomami as part of a vaccination campaign. In the portraits, they wear numbered labels to help identify them for their medical records. The artist was struck by how these labels recalled the numerical tattoos of those “branded for death” during the Holocaust. She later revisited these portraits and created the Marcados series, which reveal the ambiguity inherent in this act of labelling even though it was ultimately for their survival.

In 1992, following the campaign led by Claudia Andujar, Carlo Zacquini, Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa among many others, supported globally by Survival International, the Brazilian government agreed to legally demarcate Yanomami territory. Recognised on the eve of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, this territory is still threatened by the Brazilian government’s inaction towards the 20,000 illegal miners operating in indigenous land and their tolerance of deforestation.

Claudia Andujar was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1931 and grew up in Transylvania. During the Second World War, Claudia’s father, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Dachau where he was killed along with most of her paternal relatives. Andujar fled with her mother to Switzerland, immigrated first to the United States in 1946, then to Brazil in 1955 where she began a career as a photojournalist, before becoming an activist. She currently lives in São Paulo.