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Brazil’s Defender of the Indigenous Brings Their Fight to the Shed

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Every night at 7 p.m., Claudia Andujar, the renowned photographer, sits down at her desk, puts on her headphones and turns on her computer.

She has a standing Skype date with Carlo Zacquini, a missionary she met almost 50 years ago, when she first started her groundbreaking work with the Yanomami people of the Brazilian Amazon. The two, along with the anthropologist Bruce Albert, worked for decades to help the Indigenous group, some 38,000 strong, protect their land, spending extended periods of time in their villages before coming back to the same apartment she lives in now, overlooking São Paulo’s famous Avenida Paulista.

There, in 1978, the trio sat at the light table next to the wall-to-wall windows in Andujar’s stark white living room and made a plan. Strewn with negatives for her upcoming photo books, it became the homebase for their work with the Yanomami that, 14 years later, would lead to the demarcation of the Indigenous territory,on the border between Venezuela and Brazil, and its official protection under federal law.

Now, as the setting sun casts the last light of the day through those same windows, the room no longer plays host to the hustle and bustle it once did, but remnants of that chaotic past are still present. Andujar’s own intimate portraits of the Yanomami — a close up of a child’s face, another floating in bright blue water, the curve of a neck and a shoulder — hang from the walls.

“Susi Korihana thëri, Catrimani region,” 1972-74, mineral pigment print (from infrared film).Credit…via Claudia Andujar
“Catrimani River,” 1976.Credit…via Claudia Andujar

Some of the Yanomami and other Indigenous art she has been gifted over the years — clay and wooden sculptures, woven baskets, earrings and bracelets made of beads, seeds, flowers and stones — are encased in glass. Others are displayed on shelves among a collection of books that represent a lifetime of work in photography and activism in the Amazon. Black-and-white snapshots of Andujar and Zacquini from when they were young, and one taken in color where Zacquini’s hair has already gone gray, are tucked in among the items.

At 91, Andujar can no longer make the arduous trip to the Yanomami land that was once part of the long list of places she called home, so it’s her nightly chats with Zacquini, who still lives and works alongside them, that keep her informed about the obstacles the community faces today. For some time, she wanted to find a way to continue to stand by them in their fight, despite the thousands of miles that now separate them.

And she did.

Andujar in her apartment in São Paulo. In the background, her collection of ceramics, most of them made by Indigenous peoples. Credit…Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times
The photographer analyzes some of her 35mm negatives from the Catrimani River in 1974.Credit…Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

The photos she made decades ago have, once again, been touring the world, this time alongside works made by Yanomami artists, in “The Yanomami Struggle,” an exhibition organized by the Cartier Foundation in Paris, the Moreira Salles Institute in São Paulo and the Shed in Manhattan, in partnership with the Brazilian N.G.O.s Hutukara Associação Yanomami and Instituto Socioambiental. It runs at the Shed from Feb. 3 to April 16, and Andujar hopes it will amplify Yanomami voices, and move others to take action against the tragedy still unfolding on their land.

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“I think my photos helped back then,” Andujar said, “but they didn’t resolve anything. We still need to fight.”

Born Claudine Haas, Andujar was raised in Transylvania on the Romania-Hungary border from the age of 9, when her parents, a Hungarian Jew and a Swiss Protestant, separated. When she was 13, she and her mother fled the Holocaust, returning to her native Switzerland. Andujar’s father and most of her paternal family were sent to the Oradea Ghetto in Transylvania before being deported to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany, where they were all killed. It was a moment that would mold her point of view and steer the rest of her life.

“It was a really strong motivation for her sensibility and the way she fell in love with the fight for the Yanomami,” Albert said. “Kids always have this unconscious guilt: ‘I could have done something. I wish I had done something.’” Helping the Yanomami, he said, “was a second chance for her to protect a people from extermination.”

After stops in Switzerland and New York City, Andujar settled in Brazil in 1955, where she first picked up a camera. Unable to speak Portuguese — her first language is French — she used photography to communicate with those around her, and her photos were published in national and international magazines, including Life, Aperture and Realidade.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that she took her first trip to Yanomami land, a territory twice the size of Switzerland. She decided in 1974 to spend an entire year living in the Catrimani region. But it would be an unorthodox year for a photographer. During those 365 days, she wouldn’t photograph. She first wanted to get to know the Yanomami and for them to get to know her.

With a deep understanding of each other, she would go on to take some of the most intimate photos of the Yanomami in their day-to-day lives and often found inventive ways to turn what was invisible — visions described by shamans, the importance of balance in nature — into something discernible to the naked eye.

Andujar’s “The shaman Tuxaua João blows yãkoana into the nostrils of a young man at the end of the reahu feast, Catrimani,” 1974.Credit…via Claudia Andujar
Claudia Andujar, “Guests from the Xaxanapi community enter the collective house of their Korihana thëri hosts for the inauguration of the reahu ceremony, Catrimani,” 1974.Credit…via Claudia Andujar

“She uses multiple exposures, or shakes the camera with the aperture open to create blurs of light, like drawings in the sky or on the ceilings of malocas,” said Thyago Nogueira, the head of contemporary photography at the Moreira Salles Institute and a curator of “The Yanomami Struggle.” “There are a series of artifices that she builds to create this translation of worlds, to help us see what they see.”

During the same period, Brazil was in the middle of a 21-year-long military dictatorship. In the early ’70s, the country began a program that opened up the Amazon to mining, logging and ranching with the construction of a vast network of roads, including one that sliced through Yanomami territory. The program brought not only environmental destruction, but also a slew of deadly diseases the Yanomami had never been exposed to before.

Claudia Andujar, “Illegal gold mining barge in Yanomami territory,” ca. 1989.Credit…via Claudia Andujar
Claudia Andujar, “The Yanomami often burn down a yano, or collective house, when they move, flee an epidemic, or when an important leader passes away, Catrimani,” 1972-76.Credit…via Claudia Andujar
Claudia Andujar, “Collective house near the Catholic mission on the Catrimani River, Roraima state,” 1976. Credit…via Claudia Andujar

Andujar would return with Zacquini in 1977 to take care of survivors of a measles epidemic that swept through communities in Catrimani. Her photographs of the Yanomami would become a powerful tool against the exploitation of their land. So powerful, in fact, that the military would expel her.

With Albert — whom she met two years prior in Catrimani — and Zacquini in tow, she returned to her São Paulo apartment, to work at the light table. There, they created the Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (now known as the Pro-Yanomami Commission, or C.C.P.Y.) a nonprofit that would head the fight for the protection of Yanomami land. Her work as a photographer had now become more activism than aesthetic.

For government officials, Andujar’s name spelled trouble. Davi Kopenawa, a respected Yanomani leader and shaman, wanted to know why. So in the early 1980s, he headed to the commission’s headquarters.

Davi Kopenawa, the Brazilian Yanomami shaman, in Paris, 2020. He called to the world to help them oppose the government of Jair Bolsonaro. Credit…Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“She told me the story of the war on her land, where her family was killed with so many others,” he said in an interview. “It was just like what was happening here in Brazil, on our land. She understood. It made me trust her.”

That first talk led to a lifelong friendship. The two set off together on a worldwide campaign against the destruction of Yanomami land before a presidential decree declared the territory’s demarcation in 1992, seven years after the end of the military dictatorship.

Now, 40 years later, they’re on another journey together, this time through “The Yanomami Struggle.”

Brazil’s right-wing former President Jair Bolsonaro had promised as part of his election campaign in 2018 that he would not give “one more centimeter” of protected land to Indigenous peoples. During his tenure as president, he moved to scale back or weaken protection of the Amazon rainforest and open protected Indigenous land to mining, logging and ranching. According to a new study in Nature Sustainability, under Bolsonaro, “the percentage rate of annual gross forest loss in Indigenous territories” and other protected areas in the Amazon was “twice that of non-designated.”

Under newly elected President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, things are expected to change. In one of his first acts as president, Lula issued decrees that revoked or altered anti-Indigenous and anti-environment measures that were put in place by his predecessor. He also kept his campaign promise to create the country’s first Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and named Sônia Guajajara, from the Guajajara/Tentehar people, a staunch defender of the Amazon, as its head.

Andujar wanted to find a way to continue to stand by the Yanomami despite the thousands of miles that now separate them.Credit…Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

Meanwhile, the trust Andujar earned over the years is so strong that the Yanomami, who destroy personal items belonging to a person when they die — including photographs — made an exception for her work.

“We decided her photos could help those who are being born on our land now,” said Kopenawa, “who will continue to live in and protect the forest.”

The traveling exhibition comprises more than 200 of Andujar’s photos and some 80 drawings and paintings by Yanomami artists, including Kopenawa, Ehuana Yaira, Joseca Mokahesi, André Taniki, Orlando Naki uxima, Poraco Hiko, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe and Vital Warasi, as well as new video works by contemporary Yanomami filmmakers.

Some pieces, like Warasi’s “Urihihamë (in the forest) and two scorpions,” dates to the 1970s, when Andujar and Zacquini started a drawing project with the Yanomami so they could explain how they saw nature, the cosmos, shamanic visions, myths and their daily lives. Andujar received a grant, which allowed her to bring art supplies to the Catrimani region, and drove from São Paulo in a black Volkswagen Beetle.

Vital Warasi, “Urihihamï walking (in the forest) and two scorpions,” 1976.Credit…via Vital Warasi
Ehuana Yaira, “Thuë a paiximuu, a woman in the forest adorned by ‘honey leaves,’” 2021.Credit…via Ehuana Yaira

Other recent works, like Yaira’s 2021 drawing “Thuë Paximu, a woman in the forest adorned by ‘honey leaves’,” provide a look at contemporary Yanomami life.

“I hope that spreading our pen strokes, our brush strokes, all over the world will, maybe, make people want to protect us,” said Yaira, whose work focuses on women caring for children, harvesting yuca and washing items like pots and hammocks. “It was Claudia Andujar who helped us gain visibility,” Yaira added. “She is a great artist. That’s what makes the partnership between us so good. If it was only the Yanomami artists doing this, it wouldn’t be the same.”

But Andujar said it’s the Yanomami who need to be heard, not her. And with a new government starting to make positive changes for Indigenous peoples, she’s cautiously optimistic. If things go well, maybe one day soon people will stop turning to her and start listening to the Yanomami.

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