Part art exhibition, part awareness campaign, a photographic exhibition about Brazil’s threatened indigenous people, the Yanomami has opened at the Barbican.
Huge photos fill the curve gallery alongside texts explaining how the Brazilian government has over the decades tried to ignore the rights of the indigenous people living in the forests and persecuted those who tried to raise awareness of what was going on.
The exhibition is also the story of Claudia Andujar, the photographer who spent decades recording the lives of the Yanomami people. She started as a photojournalist, but disliking the short-lived topics of the work, switched to long term projects, and in 1971 met the Yanomami people, who live in a large swathe of the northern Amazon rainforest.
However, Brazil was a military dictatorship more interested in exploiting the area’s natural resources, and in 1977, after Andujar was expelled from the region, she switched to campaigning to protect the lands, finally securing some level of protection in 1992. Around a fifth of the population had died in that time though, exposed to diseases brought into the region by miners.
Sadly, the current government lead by Jair Bolsonaro seeks to undo much of the work to protect the region and once more the lands of the Yanomami are under threat.
The exhibition ranges from her early very journalist style of recording the lives of the people, through later more artistic experiments with coloured filters, infra-red photography, and even applying vaseline to the camera lens.
Most of the photographs are black and white, which makes the coloured photos jump out at you in the room. A lot of the more artistic photos focus on the reahu, when shaman inhale hallucinogenic powders, giving the photos as dreamlike a style as the people it depicts in their trances.
A photo of a man making plantain soup in a hollowed-out tree trunk would not look out of place in an exhibition of nightclub DJs.
It’s both a fascinating photojournalist style of an exhibition about the life of a culture most of us have never heard of, while also firing up the anger at how they have been treated in modern times.
A second space down in the basement of the Barbican is an audio-visual screening, and do sit in the middle of the room to get the full effect of the noises around you.
The photos in the exhibition are a rare privilege, as the people in them have a belief that their spirit cannot fully ascend if they leave a trace of them behind after their death. They risked their beliefs to be photographed knowing that the touring exhibitions will raise awareness of their fight against the Brazilian government.
That willingness to sacrifice their own afterlife tells you how desperate the people are to protect their lands.