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Claudia Andujar: Art and activism

A woman holding a newspaper
9 Jun 2021
6 min read

Through her photographs, Claudia Andujar conveyed something of the world of the Yanomami; but when the community was threatened, she put the images to a new and powerful use – helping them fight for survival.

When you think about the Amazon rainforest, what first pops into your mind’s eye? The richness of the plants and variety of animal species? A wildlife documentary? Now be honest: how much do you think about the Indigenous people who live there?

It’s because the voices of these tribes are so often erased from conversations about the environment that the photography and activism of Claudia Andujar is particularly poignant right now. She’s spent five decades campaigning with the Yanomami, probably the most famous Indigenous people living in Brazil and Venezuela. We’re hosting a major exhibition dedicated to her art and human rights work.

Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle includes more than 200 photographs, a film and a series of drawings by the Yanomami, and shows us the duality of her career – as artist and activist.

Andujar first visited the Yanomami in 1971 for an article and quickly became fascinated by their worldview. ‘They quickly became a second family to me,’ she recalls.

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

Inspired by her visit, she set out to create a photo essay of the society and people she admired, adopting a very different style to that of her contemporaries. Rather than simply documenting what she saw, she wanted to express something of the spirit world that the Yanomami perceived all around them. By using infra-red film, Vaseline on her lenses, flash devices and other techniques, she created visual distortions and streaks of light in her images, to convey an idea of how the Yanomami understood the forest.

‘In the first half of her life she was searching for photographic representation of something that was immaterial, that was abstract; of a people and a culture, and of a way of seeing the world that she wanted to give a photographic form to,’ says exhibition curator Thyago Nogueira, Head of Contemporary Photography at the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil.

‘That differed from the more journalistic photography that was conducted with Indigenous populations at that time. Many photographers visiting Indigenous lands were working with this idea of photography being a neutral objective tool for documenting “the other”. That created a distance between who’s documenting and who’s documented. The more Claudia established a strong personal relation with the Yanomami, the more complex her representation of what she thinks the Yanomami cosmovision is, becomes.

‘Hers is a very beautiful example of an artist searching for a way to represent something Art and activism she feels. This is part of her first experience with the Yanomami – to give material form to things that are invisible, to cultural aspects and the bonds that define a society that is different from the one you come from.’

Image of a yanomami dwelling taken on infrared film

But by the late 1970s, Brazilian government plans for a transcontinental highway in the Amazon saw the region denuded by deforestation and invasive agricultural programmes brought devastating epidemics to the Yanomami – wiping out whole communities. As a Second World War refugee to the Americas, whose Jewish father and many other members of her family died at the hands of the Nazis, Andujar saw resonance with the genocide in Europe and knew she must act.

‘When I saw the threats the Yanomami 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 recognised by Brazilian law,’ she says.

Working alongside Yanomami shaman and leader Davi Kopenawa, Italian missionary Carlo Zacquini, and French anthropologist Bruce Albert, Andujar stopped focussing on the artistic side of her work and set about using her photography as a campaigning tool.

It worked. After fourteen years, the Brazilian government agreed to legally demarcate Yanomami territory. But now, that protection is under threat once more, this time from the Bolsonaro government.

‘From the beginning, Claudia was very clear about the fact her goal was to do something that was subjective from the start, that was personal and not impartial,’ says Nogueira.

‘But the most important thing about Claudia’s work is understanding that what justifies photography is the ethical commitment that surrounds it. When she first met the Yanomami, she faced a society that didn’t like photography, that was not very comfortable in being represented by it. But she went through a long process of creating common comprehension that photography could be used by the Yanomami to protect them from the violence created by the society of the people that were photographing them.

‘The key thing to understand is that the answer to this paradox is not one that Claudia can give – it’s something she and the Yanomami have to build together. That’s why she’s always consulting Davi on how to use her images, how to do her exhibitions. They have a strong bond and a commitment that continually evolves.’

Young Yanomami boy swimming facing away from the camera

Critical moment
In order to bring together the two key strands of Andujar’s work, Nogueira went to her house every week for two years to look through her archive and talk with the photographer.

As well as understanding the importance of activism to Andujar’s work, Noguiera was inspired by the publication of Kopenawa’s book, The Falling Sky in 2013, in which he shares his life and Yanomami culture. ‘Here was a new opportunity of having Yanomami people talking about the images, and narrating their stories,’ says Nogueira, adding even in Brazil when people saw Andujar’s photos of the Yanomami, ‘we tended to look at them as a very idealised and romanticised representation of an Indigenous personality or figure’.

The exhibition has toured the world and now arrives in London at a critical moment for the Yanomami who are facing encroachment from illegal gold miners emboldened by President Bolsonaro, bringing with them diseases such as Covid-19 – and as the UK prepares to host the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in November.

‘One of the important things about this exhibition is to try to make the agenda of the climate and environmental destruction more complex, in terms of showing people that the protection of the environment and the forests and the Amazonia is also a human rights problem,’ says Nogueira. ‘All these lands are not empty. The Indigenous populations living in those places are the ones that need to teach us how to manage those places and how to keep protecting them, because we have realised that we don’t know how to do this.’

He says the first time this exhibition came to Europe, he realised how the discourse about ‘saving the Amazonian rainforest’ was frequently about animals and lush forests, but no-one spoke about the Indigenous populations. ‘I could see people were very worried about the burning of the trees and the diversity of bees, but I was travelling with people that were being exterminated, and they were being completely ignored from that discourse, despite having this very deep knowledge about how to look after the rainforests.’

As Kopenawa says: ‘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.’

Photo credits: 
The young Susi Korihana thëri swimming, infrared film, Catrimani, Roraima, 1972–74
Collective house near the Catholic mission on the Catrimani River, Roraima, infrared film, 1976
Susi Korihana thëri swimming, Catrimani, 1972-1976. Infrared film. © Claudia Andujar


Watch the trailer for Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle in The Curve. 

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