Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle

Fifty years after she first met them, Claudia Andujar’s work with the Yanomami people living in the Amazon is the subject of a two-floor retrospective in Paris
Feature, British Journal of Photography — Life, Death & Thereafter, Issue 7894 — April 2020




Claudia Andujar’s retrospective, showing at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris until 10 May, charts the evolution of a remarkable photographer, now aged 89, and her half-century engagement with the Yanomami, an indigenous people living in the Amazon. Spanning two floors, the exhibition begins with her experiments in how to capture an exceptional way of life, followed by the work she created to safeguard it. “It is very important to increase awareness of the Yanomami,” says Andujar. “Exhibitions can help with this and encourage people to become interested in the political questions surrounding these people, who are always, for one reason or another, under threat.”

Andujar’s own biography is complex, and its impact on her work is central to the exhibition, which was originally curated by Thyago Nogueira for the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil (and will later travel to the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, the Triennale Milano, and Fundación Mapfre in Madrid). A timeline of her life, and the significant events surrounding it, runs through the show, giving context to the images. Her father and his extended family were murdered at Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, while she escaped with her mother to Switzerland, and eventually settled in Brazil. In the mid 1960s, she began working as a photojournalist, and later joined Realidade, a monthly magazine noted for its long-form reportage. It was while working on a 320- page special issue, devoted to the still largely uncharted Amazon region and the impact of the military regime on it, that she first came across the Yanomami. Around the same time, she received a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, which facilitated the long-term, personal projects she craved. And she went back in search of the Yanomami living along the Catrimani River, which stretches from the Parima mountain range on the Brazil-Venezuela border, down to Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas.

The first two rooms of the exhibition convey a sense of the photographer’s initial immersion: dreamlike images suspended from the ceiling provide windows into the Yanomami’s everyday lives and Andujar’s impression of them. Unfocused and abstracted, with many rendered in vivid colour, the photographs exude movement and life: expressive responses to the mystical existence of a people the photographer was only just beginning to comprehend. “Although we did not initially understand one another – they spoke a language that I didn’t know – they received me with smiles, and appeared to be friendly,” she recounts, “and that made me feel at ease to try and get to know them.”

From 1971 to 1977, she travelled back and forth for progressively longer periods, participating in communal activities, such as hunting expeditions, funeral feasts, and the ‘reahu’, a commemoration of alliances between communities and a funeral ritual, to which a section of the exhibition is devoted, alongside other Yanomami ceremonies. She also photographed within the yano – the large, cone-shaped communal houses inhabited by dozens of families that hummed with activity. Eschewing a journalistic or anthropological approach, Andujar developed her own visual language, one that would capture the nuances of the Yanomami’s isolated world, and, in doing so, delved deep inside herself: “Photography is the process of discovering the other and, through the other, oneself,” she writes. “Intrinsically, that is why the photographer seeks and discovers new worlds but in the end, always shows what is inside himself.”

Herein lies the contention over Andujar’s initial project: a white foreigner documenting an indigenous community could be read as exoticising. Some would also argue that Andujar glossed over the darker elements of the Yanomami’s way of life. But one must acknowledge that Andujar’s images are deeply subjective, a fact that also prevents them from feeling voyeuristic. Rather impulse prevails – a photographer committed to developing a visual language that would accurately represent a group in which she was increasingly invested.

Andujar developed an aesthetic that was resolutely abstract. She would often apply Vaseline to her camera, allowing the edges of some images to melt away, and she used infrared film and coloured filters to further enhance images that were often already blurred, due to the low-lighting conditions of the dense forest and dark interiors. When documenting the various rituals of a ‘reahu’, Andujar applied multiple exposures to visually convey the rhythm and otherworldliness of the events, during which shamans would call upon their spirits, ‘xapiri’, while tripping on hallucinogenic powder. In 1974, she also provided the community with an opportunity to express their interpretation of nature and the universe in the form of drawing, resulting in intricate illustrations that occupy a wall on the lower floor of the exhibition space. What emerged was an unprecedented depiction of Yanomami life, an artistic response to an increasingly fragile and ethereal existence, and, a record of Andujar’s artistic development, which was veering further and further from her photojournalistic roots.

But this would soon change. On the exhibition’s lower floor, the mood and aesthetic shift: a stillness and soberness take over. In 1977, the National Indian Foundation, the branch of the Brazilian government devoted to policies related to indigenous people, denied Andujar permission to return to the Yanomami. The government, a military dictatorship, likely saw Andujar’s work as a threat – a witness to the plight of indigenous cultures, set against the oncoming industrial plunder of the Amazon. And that is what she became in the decades that followed. In the time it took her to regain access, she published three books, and so began an era in which she abandoned her artistic practice in favour of activism.

Aside from Andujar’s images, there existed little documentation of the Yanomami. The community rejected the medium, concerned that images depicting them could fall into the wrong hands and be subject to sorcery. Furthermore, it was customary that any photographs which did exist be destroyed following the death of the individual they depicted. However, with the support of Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami activist and shaman whom the photographer met in 1977, and with whom she collaborated closely, Andujar was able to convince the community that visual records of their culture were central to their cause. “People need to see how the Yanomami are; that was, and is, important. So through photography, I was able to incite an interest in them,” she explains. Andujar also acknowledged that photography alone was not enough, and in 1978, alongside Kopenawa, the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, and missionary Carlo Zacquini, she founded the Comissão Pro-Yanomami (CCPY), embarking on a 14-year campaign to safeguard the Yanomami’s exceptional, yet progressively fragile, way of life.

The photographer returned to photojournalism during this period to support her political and social campaigns. In the series Marcados, from which a selection of images is displayed on the exhibition’s lower floor, black-and-white headshots frame members of the Yanomami wearing large, numbered tags around their necks. Andujar originally took the photographs in service of a vaccination programme launched by the CCPY in 1980, to identify members of the community in their medical records. However, returning to the work some years later, she drew parallels between the numbered tags and the markings tattooed on the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, her father and his family included. “It is that ambiguous sentiment that leads me, 60 years later, to transform the simple registry of the Yanomami into the condition of ‘people’ – marked to live – in a work that questions the method of labelling beings for diverse ends,” she explains in the exhibition catalogue.

In 1992, the Yanomami’s land was finally demarcated, but this far from concluded their struggle, which has intensified today under the regime of President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who has promised to legalise mining, which is already widespread, and commercial farming on their land. His election, part way through the exhibition’s conception, imbued the project with a heightened urgency and significance. And although it may not have been Andujar’s initial aim, as the show so deftly illustrates, her work has become a powerful record of the troubled history of a community under constant threat.