This week’s contributing blogger, Elaine Birnbaum, is a sophomore at Northeastern University pursuing a BFA in Media Arts with a concentration in animation and a BA Spanish. In her free time, she enjoys painting, reading science fiction novels, and has recently picked up Japanese.
VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History, Gloria Sutton’s Fall 2020 Art History Course: Disruptive Image Technologies at Northeastern University. This interdisciplinary course examines how the distribution, circulation, storage and retrieval of still and moving images have shaped the understanding of contemporary art.
In her 2020 solo exhibition La Lutte Yanomami (The Yanomami Struggle) at the Fondation Cartier in France, Swiss-born activist and photographer Claudia Andujar shows off her life’s work dedicated to protecting and spreading awareness about the Yanomami people. The Yanomami are a group of indigenous people residing in the Amazon Rainforest. Mainly hunter-gatherers and farmers, they hold the largest forested indigenous territory in the world. They have a shamanistic culture deeply rooted in the forest and their community. They have suffered at the hands of the Brazilian government, miners, and various epidemics. Today, their total population stands at around 35,000.
Andujar is a pioneer in that she fought for indigenous people’s rights when most people turned the other away. Since she met the Yanomami in 1971, Andujar has fought against Brazil’s deforestation and invasive agricultural programs that have spread epidemics, including COVID-19, that annihilated entire communities. In the late 70s, she turned away from her artistic aspirations and used photography primarily as a means of activism. She has experimented with various photographic techniques when her contemporaries stuck with traditional and documentary styles of photography, such as Graciela Iturbide who also photographed indigenous peoples in Mexico. Andujar’s use of new and experimental techniques was the best way to convey the culture of this 8,000-year-old tribe. Juxtaposing modern technology with a tribe that has yet to modernize shows their uniqueness and beauty in a way that traditional photography could not.
One of Andujar’s series depicts the reahu, a three-part Yanomami ceremony that brings together several communities where individuals find partners, exchange news, food, and goods, and resolve conflicts. It is also a funerary right where they bury the ashes of their dead. There are songs, dances, a ritual feast, and ceremonial dialogues. At the end of the ceremony, all of the men inhale a hallucinogenic called yãkoana. Throughout this series, Andujar uses low shutter speeds, flash devices, and oil lamps to create glowing streaks of light and blurred elements. In the photo titled “Antônio Korihana thëri” (1972–76), the low shutter speed blurs the forest and the fire in the background. A young man under the influence of yãkoana stands out in the foreground, brightly lit in the flash of the camera, the distortion of the forest alluding to the spirituality he sees in the natural world. The large areas of negative space in the background and foreground isolate him, creating a sense of fear and otherworldliness induced by the drug. This fear comes from the unknown aspects of his world. This is not a people that follows modern science; their answers for how the world works are all conveyed through gods, rituals, and stories. Taking yãkoana lets him experience the entirety of his mystical world. He sees spirits that are “the images (utupë) of their primordial mythological animal ancestors”. With Andujar’s techniques, we can accompany him on this spiritual journey and feel what he feels at that moment. Additionally, it is important to remember all of the men present are experiencing this journey as well; by showing us this experience with flash and low shutter speeds, we are also invited to participate in this communal experience.
Another one of her exhibited series is Marcados (“Marked”, 1981–83), which explores how an individual’s identity is defined in Yanomami culture. Taken during a campaign to immunize the Yanomami against fatal diseases they had not yet been exposed to, doctors took photos of the Yanomami, each with a tag around their neck. These tags indicated their medical record numbers which were used to keep track of the treatments administered, and yet the choice to give the Yanomami a number also effectively deprived them of their identity. In the Yanomami culture, names change over time and cannot be pronounced when the individual is present or in front of relatives. Uttering someone’s name, especially that of the dead, can result in violence. Despite this, personal names are widely known; they provide each individual with an identity connected to their village and family.
Throughout this series, the techniques Andujar uses strengthen the social and political commentary she makes. She was surprised by the parallels between these tags and the Star of David or the tattoos worn by Holocaust victims; as a Holocaust survivor herself, she said the series aimed to explain that these types of actions “refer to a sensitive and ambiguous area”1, since numbers were used during the Holocaust to dehumanize the Jewish people, while these doctors assign numbers to the Yanomami people in order to save them. “Aracá” (1983) embodies this idea. Two separate pictures of the forest are superimposed on top of a picture of a young man wearing his tag, yet the superimposed photographs at the top and bottom of the picture leave space in between that exposes the man’s mouth. The choice to layer these pictures ties back to the Yanomami’s culture; the transparency of these two pictures creates an almost spiritual image that references their connection with the forest. Their spiritual beliefs are centered on the idea that all organisms play an important role within their environment. Consequently, their identity is part of the environment; the dehumanizing nature of the numbers—while unintentional—severs their connection with the forest. At the same time, it could be argued that the numbers were the least offensive option to identify each person in order to keep their records in order. In the end, however, the Yanomami are still deprived of their identity, which is expressed through the mouth in the center of the picture. By doing this, Andujar communicated that, while for a good cause, the tags are depriving the Yanomami of their connection to the forest and the choice to speak out about this issue.
Since she began taking photographs of the Yanomami, Andujar has also worked with the Catrimani, a Catholic missionary group dedicated to helping the Yanomami, and with her own organization, Commissao Pro-Yanomami (CCPY), to advocate for the rights of the Yanomami to the Brazilian government and the international community. Andujar works closely with the Yanomami to learn and experience their culture. She encourages them to stand up for their community and has enlisted the help of shaman David Kopenawa, who she taught to communicate with the media and serve as the voice of the Yanomami amidst Western politics. Andujar brought attention to the plight of indigenous communities and continues to do so through her provocative and unconventional photographs.
 Claudia Andujar, “The Yanomami Struggle Visitor’s Guide”. 2020. https://www.fondationcartier.com/en/visitors-guides/guide-visiteur-claudia-andujar-la-lutte-yanomami