Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle displays photography as activism
“I am connected to the indigenous, to the land, to the primary struggle. All of that moves me deeply. Everything seems essential. Perhaps I have always searched for the answer to the meaning of life in this essential core. I was driven there, to the Amazon jungle, for this reason. It was instinctive. I was looking to find myself.”
The Barbican presents Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle, a bold, mesmerising exhibition which highlights the outstanding photographic and humanitarian work of Brazilian artist and activist Claudia Andujar, whose dedication has aided in the protection of one of Brazil’s largest indigenous groups. Thyago Nogueira, Head of Contemporary Photography at the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil, is the curator of this extraordinary exhibition, which comprises over 200 photographs, an audio-visual installation, a film, and a series of drawings created by Yanomami artists.
Susi Korihana thëri swimming, Catrimani, 1972- 1974. Infrared film. © Claudia Andujar
Povo da lua, povo do sangue, a short documentary produced by Marcello G. Tassara in 1984 using images from Claudia’s archive, opens with a choice of black and white portraits of the Yanomami from her Marcados series. They have been assigned numbers for the purposes of identification during a vaccination programme.
These photographs hold the key to understanding the artist’s history and the evolution of her practice. A survivor of the Holocaust, Claudia has been advocating and fighting for the Yanomami’s survival for decades. Born Claudine Haas in Switzerland, she grew up in Transylvania in a family of Protestant and Jewish origin.
During the Second World War, part of her family was deported by the Nazis and killed; at sixteen she flew to New York leaving Europe, her turbulent childhood, and her birth name behind. In 1955, she joined her mother in Brazil and moved to Sao Paulo. Here, she took an interest in photography and the camera became a way to communicate, to appreciate a new country, to travel and explore other places and cultures.
As a photojournalist, Claudia contributed to many publications and, during her work for the innovative magazine Realidade, she produced powerful photo essays on the lives of drug addicts and the homosexual community, highlighting vulnerable groups and overlooked narratives.
However, her curiosity about Brazil led Claudia to acquire an interest in the Amerindian people. Focusing on the role of Bororo women in their societies, she also spent a month living amongst the Xikrin people.
“When I die, every trace of me should disappear; if we keep a trace, it would cause great sufferings for those still alive and the soul would not be able to rise to the sky: it will keep on haunting the living.”
Davi Kopenawa, Shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami people
Yanomami facing construction work at the Perimetral Norte highway construction site, Catrimani, Roraima State, Brazil, 1975. © Claudia Andujar
According to the Yanomami’s religion, when someone dies, all their belongings and especially their images must be destroyed. Otherwise, they believe that the spirits won’t be able to enter what they call the “back of the sky” and their beloved ones will suffer.
However, Claudia’s body of work has been allowed so that the Yanomami’s appeal might be visible to the world and universally heard. Her images are not the work of a tourist, nor just an anthropological study; they show a sincere intention to understand and represent the world from the Yanomami’s perspective.
The level of intimacy and friendships firmly embedded in her spectacular photographs suggests her respect and familiarity with the community.
“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.”
Davi Kopenawa, Shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami people
In 1971, while working on a special release on the Amazon, Claudia met the Yanomami; this was perhaps one of the most crucial encounters of her life. After leaving her job, she travelled to reach the Yanomami of Catrimani in northern Brazil and returned many times, developing a strong sense of belonging there.
She captured fragments of the Yanomami’s daily activities, along with special occasions including funerary ceremonies (reahu). In order to recreate the shamanic experiences, chanting, and rituals, her style goes well beyond a documentarist’s record.
Experimenting with several techniques — from putting vaseline on the lens to using infrared film and extremely saturated colours, — Claudia aims to illustrate the intangible, transferring these multi-sensorial, dreamlike events onto film. By using long and multiple exposures, adopting flash and oil lamps, she draws blurry and atmospheric sceneries populated by many living beings, where the line between real and spiritual is almost non-existent. These images — evocative and occasionally distorted and ethereal — exude an incredible intensity and suggest a shared vision of the world.
Claudia is never just behind the camera; through forging a bond with the Yanomami, her photography has become absorbing, visceral and authentic. Her black and white series of portraits of adults and children, taken in their homes, honours this friendship; the images speak of trust, affection, and dignity. To catch the individuality of each sitter, Claudia used entire rolls of film for each portrait. Visualising the connection she has with them through a masterful use of lights and shadows, the results are as elegant as they are impressive.
Aesthetic & Politics
Claudia’s critical, dense, and hypnotic images conceal a collective dimension; the two different approaches — aesthetic and political — are the realisation of collaboration between the subjects and the photographer. While the work does possess an anthropological dimension, the drive to decode such a complex culture and visually describe emotions and feelings makes her photography artistic and highly experimental.
Eventually the camera, from being a communication and an interpretation tool, became a weapon in the fervent political battle to protect the Yanonmami’s rights. From being a stranger, the “Napoyoma” or the white woman, as many of the Yanomami called her, Claudia became a friend and powerful ally.
Supported by Italian missionary Carlo Zacquini, she launched a project inviting the Yanomami to draw their conceptions, mythologies, and represent what was important to them. The results translate an elaborate and visionary narrative.
Aracá, Amazonas / Surucucus, From the Marked series, double exposure, Roraima State, Brazil, 1983. © Claudia Andujar
In 1974, as part of a so-called “development” project, the Brazilian military decided to build a system of roads which crossed the Amazon rainforest and the Yanomami’s lands. The programme of deforestation and intensive agriculture brought hundreds of workers to the Yanomami communities, causing the spread of unknown diseases and a dramatic change within Yanomami social life. The influx of thousands of gold miners exacerbated these tumultuous circumstances and many Yanomami died as a result. Claudia denounced the situation and soon the government banished her from those territories. As a response, she became involved more than ever in campaigning to protect the territorial and cultural rights of indigenous people and in 1978 she created the CCPY (Commisao Pro-Yanomami).
In 1980, Claudia was active in promoting a vaccination campaign and travelled to secluded and difficult areas to support the immunisation of indigenous people and the founding of a health programme. The Yanomami didn’t have Portuguese names, so to keep track of their medical records she photographed them wearing a numbered tag. Later, Claudia presented these miniature portraits in the Marcados (Marked) series. In reaction to the distribution of the Yanomami lands in isolated reserves, in 1989 the protest exhibition, Genocídio do Yanomami: morte do Brasil took place at the MASP, featuring an audio-video installation by Claudia. To support the Yanomami’s cause, Claudia spent many years travelling the world alongside Yanomami shaman and spokesperson Davi Kopenawa and finally in 1992, under international pressure, the Brazilian government declared the demarcation of the Yanomami lands.
An Uncertain Future
The struggle is not over. Current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has sanctioned the return of illegal miners, farmers, and loggers, whose interest is to exploit these territories for financial gain; unfortunately, the recent spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has further menaced these populations.
This exhibition is now even more pertinent in exposing the alarming state of affairs and preventing continued harm. The Amazon rainforest is not an empty green land; the Urihi, as the Yanomami populations call the rainforest, is a living being and embodies both humans and non-humans.
They believe that every living being has a spirit or shamanic image who is taking care of the jungle, purifying the land from any contamination. In this respect, we cannot stop the escalation of the climate and environmental crisis if we don’t also protect indigenous groups, whose existence has been ignored and threatened.
Claudia’s exhibition is not just a retrospective celebrating the life and work of an inspiring and remarkable woman and photographer, but also a huge contribution to the history of humanity. The word Yanomami signifies ‘human beings’ and Claudia’s humanity is at the very centre of her art and activism.
The Yanomami Struggle is also Claudia’s struggle, both personal and universal. Through a progression of discoveries, artistic interpretations, reinventions and political actions, Claudia’s pioneering work offers a graceful, poetic, and rare depiction of a culture which has never been represented in this way before.
Find out more about Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle at the Barbican, on view until August 29, 2021.