Portrait of a Tribe

By Thomas, Dana | Newsweek International, July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Portrait of a Tribe


Thomas, Dana, Newsweek International


Cloistered in the rain forests straddling the Venezuela-Brazil border, the Yanomami are one of the last indigenous tribes living in relative isolation from modern civilization. They number about 20,000, spread across a few hundred villages, and live simply as hunter-gatherers. They are a spiritual people who look to all-powerful shamans to cure them of illness, protect them from predators and watch over the forests and crops. The shamans evoke their visions almost exclusively through the spoken word; there are no drawings, no carvings, no sculptures, anywhere. The Yanomami are a culture without images.

Until now. When Herve Chandes, director of the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art in Paris, became aware of the Yanomami a few years ago, he was intrigued by the concept of a society that didn't represent itself through visual art. So he enlisted a dozen Western artists to interpret the Yanomami culture through photography, sculpture, painting and video installations. "We didn't want to put on the typical exotic, voyeuristic view of the tribes--no feathers, no crudely made weapons," Chandes says. "We wanted to have the artists develop a relationship with the shamans and then create works based on that dialogue." The result is "Yanomami: The Spirit of the Forest," a compelling exhibition (through Oct. 12) that captures the essence of the tribe's culture through bold contemporary artistic expression.

The Yanomami lived autonomously in the jungles of Central America, oblivious to modern civilization, until the middle of the 20th century. In the 1950s and '60s, Roman Catholic and evangelical missions began settling on Yanomami land. In the 1970s the Trans-Amazonian Highway was built across the southeastern corner of their territory. Then, in the late 1980s, 40,000 prospectors arrived for a "gold rush," bringing with them Western diseases that decimated the Yanomami population.

Still, the tide of Western influence wasn't unremittingly negative. In the early 1970s Bruce Albert, a French anthropologist living in So Paulo, set off for the jungles to study the Yanomami. About the same time Claudia Andujar, a German-born photographer who lived in Brazil, decided to dedicate herself to documenting their everyday life and shamanic rituals. Her photographs--10 of which are on exhibit at the Cartier Foundation--are warm and honest, depicting the Yanomami as round-faced Indians with rich, brown eyes and geometric markings painted on their skin. …

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