Illegal mining in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil and Venezuela poses a danger not only to the region’s fragile ecosystem but also to the Indigenous communities that call these areas home. Today, the struggle of the Yanomami people, the largest group in the Amazon, is more urgent than ever. Over the past five decades, activist and photographer Claudia Andujar has worked with the Yanomami to defend their native rights and sovereignty. Photography has been an important tool for raising visibility in order to protect the people, their land, and their culture. Her encounter with the Yanomami people in 1971 transformed her artistic practice into a life of activism. The Yanomami Struggle at The Shed is a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to Andujar’s collaboration and friendship with the Yanomami people. The show presents more than 200 of her photographs in dialogue with paintings and drawings from a new generation of Yanomami artists: André Taniki, Ehuana Yaira, Joseca Mokahesi, Orlando Nakɨ uxima, Poraco Hɨko, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, and Vital Warasi, as well as shaman Davi Kopenawa. Visitors will also encounter new video works by contemporary Yanomami filmmakers Aida Harika, Edmar Tokorino, Morzaniel Ɨramari, and Roseane Yariana.
In a conversation held over Zoom, Claudia Andujar and anthropologist Bruce Albert, co-author of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman (with Davi Kopenawa), discussed their experience and struggle in support of the Yanomami people and the Amazon rainforest.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Silvia Benedetti: Can you tell us about yourself?
Claudia Andujar: I am 91 years old and I was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1931. I spent my childhood in Oradea, Transylvania, a place that sometimes belongs to Hungary and sometimes to Romania. … It was a difficult situation when the Germans took over Oradea during the Second World War. At the time, it belonged to Romania and I didn’t speak the language; I spoke Hungarian. I was very much afraid that I would be deported. I tried to hide from people that I didn’t know. I am a survivor of the war. My father’s family was Jewish and they were put into a concentration camp, where they all died.
After this very difficult childhood, I was invited by my uncle to come to New York. He was a medical doctor and my only family member that had survived the war. I enrolled in the humanities program at Hunter College. When I was around 15 years old, I became a very independent person. I had to work at Macy’s and go to school at the same time in order to survive. For the same reason, I decided to become a teacher. I later decided to travel to the Americas. I went to South America and made a living teaching French.
SB: How are you linked to the Yanomami people?
CA: I decided to travel and I was interested in taking pictures in the tropical part of Brazil, and that is how I got in 1974 to the Amazon and to the Yanomami people. Somebody told me about this very isolated people that nobody had photographed before. Because of all my past life and difficulties, I decided to try to get to know the Yanomami people and see what I could do for them. With time I became a photographer. It took me many years to understand who these people were and how they lived. There are about 3o,000 Yanomami in the Amazon. I don’t know everyone, but I have an understanding of what it means to work with them, and my past is very much linked to theirs. I suffered a lot.
Bruce Albert: I had spent a year at the Catrimani River when I heard about an intrepid White woman traveling in the forest. I knew she was a foreigner, that she was near the border, and that she was speaking about the Yanomami situation — the perimetral road cutting through their land, and all the bad things happening in the region. … We were both close friends with the Yanomami, and we were concerned. We were also both concerned about the future of the Yanomami, and we wrote the first document together to condemn the cutting apart of the Yanomami land, and then we organized a health program with the NGO Survival International.
I met her in person in 1978, in the deep forest of the Catrimani region. Claudia arrived in the middle of the night driving a black Volkswagen Beetle. At the time, the military had opened a road from Boa Vista, the capital of the state of Roraima, through the Yanomami territory. I was sleeping in a collective house of the Yanomami near a mission. When I saw her arrive in the dark, it was like she was escaping from her own photography. I only saw her silhouette and the light of her car.
SB: How did Claudia meet the Yanomami?
BA: Claudia met Carlo Zacquini, an unusual Italian Catholic missionary, in the Catrimani. He was not interested in converting the Yanomami, but in learning from them. He would spend his time hunting with the Yanomami. There was a priest in the mission and he would complain all the time because Carlo was always in the forest and never working in the mission. He had been with the Yanomami since 1968, spoke the language, and introduced Claudia. They traveled together in the forest from 1974 until 1977, when she was expelled [by the military]. … My path was more traditional — I was a student at the university in France, and I was doing a PhD, but I was more into action. I came to Brazil in 1975 to help the Yanomami during the construction of the perimetral road. At the time there were not many people working with the Yanomami in Brazil. There were some people on the Venezuelan side.
SB: How did your collaboration to work with the Yanomami people and protect their region begin?
BA: At the end of 1977, Claudia was expelled from the Indigenous territory. They gave her a week to get all her stuff from the mission post. The military considered her a threat to national security since she was a foreigner speaking about the Yanomami situation and all the bad things that were happening in the region, and against the dictatorship. She was very visible. She had been speaking publicly since 1974, and she was Swiss with an American passport. Together we wrote the first document, condemning the parceling out of the Yanomami land into 19 small islands surrounded by colonizers and agricultural projects. In 1978, we created an NGO, Commission for the Creation of the Yanomami Park (CCPY), along with Carlos Zacquini.
SB: Claudia, what makes your photographs special?
CA: I decided to devote my photography to get to know the Yanomami better. I think this was very important because I found that when learning about different types of human beings [photography] could be very helpful to get to know them better.
BA: Many other photographers have worked with the Yanomami, but there is a distance from them. When the Yanomami are looking at Claudia, they are smiling. They are looking at somebody from their family and they are expressing their feelings, and this is very uncommon. … Fifty years ago she started mixing politics and art and working on social justice, and today everybody wants to do that, everybody is talking about social justice and decolonization. This struggle has to do with her past.
SB: What have you learned from the Yanomami and what can they teach the world?
BA: Since the beginning of our civilization, we have oppressed people. The Yanomami thinking is the opposite — they put all living beings on the same level: humans, animals, and plants. It is a very beautiful and revolutionary way of looking at the world. We could do a lot better in considering other living beings and cultures. The Yanomami have such a sense of humor and they never complain, even if they are dealing with the worst tragedy.
SB: Things have gotten worse in the Amazon …
BA: Yes, that is another conversation. It is worse, but we are still resisting and so are they. Also, a new generation of Yanomami and allies are working. The lesson from Claudia is the struggle must go on.
The Yanomami Struggle continues at The Shed (545 West 30th Street, Hudson Yards, Manhattan) through April 16. The exhibition was curated by Thyago Nogueira, with the guidance of shaman and Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa. It was organized by IMS, The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and The Shed.
Editor’s Note, 4/6/2023, 8:11 pm EDT: An earlier version of this article listed the incorrect Yanomami population. This has been corrected.