Read the Conversation between Luiz Camillo Osorio, the curator of PIPA Institute, and Denilson Baniwa, one of the Selected artists of PIPA Prize 2021:
1 – Denilson, in 2019 you and I had the first conversation ever published by PIPA after you won PIPA Online that year. Now you’re one of the winners of the main category. Looking at your work since then, we can see how much stronger it’s got and how much political relevance and dimension it’s acquired. I think it’s fair to say that being an artist and being an indigenous leader are now complementary in your trajectory. It’s very good to see. How has it been to conciliate two such demanding activities?
Dearest Camillo, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s so good to be back here with you and in this position of winning an award in the main category of PIPA. It’s such a great joy to be here, especially for an indigenous artist. About your question, I think that they’re still running quite parallel to each other. While I am an artist, I’m first and foremost someone who’s extremely committed to the Amazonian Indigenous Movement, and that’s what guides me in my artistic process. What’s changed is that now in this process I’m interested in routes other than the older ones. I’m thinking of processes that stem from artistic work, what impact it has inside and outside communities, since now art is the tool I use to communicate with the world. In fact, since the last time we talked, a lot has changed in my life. PIPA was a really important milestone in my career, enabling me to get to places I’d never imagined, including outside Brazil. By the same token, it forced me to study more, to research the subjects I develop in more depth, putting more effort into understanding the codes of the art world so I could evolve as a professional while also developing work with more substance and discursive density. PIPA made me rethink a lot of stuff, like access, permanence and non-permanence in certain spaces, and how, from this place, I could pry open some space for others to embark on a similar journey. In this review, a lot of my work that before was mainly linked to drawing and painting naturally turned into multimedia work and also into texts written to address this moment at which art produced by indigenous people is becoming apparent in Brazil. I think it’s a natural development, given the effort of trying to understand the whole context in which I find myself alongside other indigenous artists.
One thing that’s pragmatic, so to speak, in my work is its capacity to generate tools and direct assistance for indigenous projects and communities. For example, today I can help build indigenous schools, something that before would have taken far more effort to achieve. Now through my work I can pay for that without having to negotiate with external agents. For me that’s been really important.
With this new nomination for PIPA 2021, I hope I can grow even more and my work can be channelled into training other artists and constructing an even broader scenario out from the place where I am now.
2 – Two older works of yours, I think from 2018-19, Pajé-onça hackeando a 33ª Bienal de São Paulo [Jaguar-Shaman Hacking the 33rd São Paulo Biennale] and Relacionamentos (AGRO) tóxicos [(AGRO) Toxic Relationships], seem to powerfully sum up two poetic lines of action: one related to the reconfiguration of art history from an Amerindian perspective, and the other a direct intervention in the environmental and ecological debate without losing its visual impact. Does that make sense to you? Do you think these two directions are relevant for understanding your artistic and political work?
Of course. It makes perfect sense. My work is about trying to understand the historical processes in Brazil and its occupation. I seek out a kind of poetry of violence, of the rape of this land, and in my work both things are connected to the construction of the nation’s history by western art and the exploitation of the land by agribusiness, since both derive from a nationalism geared towards annulling any kind of local history, superimposing progress over any occupation that preceded the times marked by western presence. So when my work seeks out these connections between these historical places, it appears according to what was found, whether by art or by agribusiness. The formalization comes from the connection encountered, which is sometimes more explicit and other times less direct. My work is basically made from memories, personal experiences as an activist, research of archives and publications, conversations with indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Something else that’s also important is the fact that my academic background involves technology, communication and advertising while also being indigenous work, so it’s also work that can embrace the understanding of the uses of mass communication and information technology.
3 – You always underline the fact that you’re indigenous and an artist. In a way this conjunction lays bare the fact that this joint action affects the way we think about Amerindian art and tradition. I’m thinking here of our other interview, when you were asked about your use of technology and you said that “the use of ‘modernities’ or new tools doesn’t mean abandoning or losing indigenous culture. It could even help to strengthen the identity and transpose changes that would occur naturally or be forced by external violence.” Have you gained new layers of understanding of this issue since then?
Absolutely. In fact, I’m going to try and study more about it from experiences of other indigenous peoples from outside Brazil. In Canada, for instance, they have a great deal of experience using western tools and technologies in the struggle for the memory of their cultures. Since our last conversation, it’s not just been about trying to include this perspective of using technology in my work without a complete loss of identity, but now my work stems from these technologies. If before I might paint an indigenous boy or child holding a computer, today I try to use the computer itself, computer technology, to make works that are far more connected to this modern use of technology and western science. Starting out from some place other than my own identity is rather like reverse anthropology, where I find myself from discovering another, from the differences between us. So western tools or technology may not be so much carriers of our cultures as founts of a different kind of cultural memory. Knowing how to construct a database that can be accessed by us indigenous people and by everyone. One example is of the shaman who has a blessing that’s recorded and can be experienced over and over again in new ways through online transmission or other means.
4 – I was really impressed by your most recent urban interventions with the laser projection: both Petroglifos na Selva de Pedra [Rock Inscriptions in a Stone Wilderness] (2019) and the actions on monuments. These latter works are very interesting because they deconstruct the monuments, lay bare the symbolic violence they represent without destroying them. As if they made clear the continuity of the problem and the memory of a traumatic past that still hurts but is ours. Tell us a little about these works.
Yes, these works stem primarily from the place where I’m from, which is the Negro river. There, there are a whole load of inscriptions on rocks along the river that tell the cosmogony of my people, the creation of the universe and the beings that live on this planet. It’s also in these inscriptions that the rules for living well in this world are kept. My role as artist and indigenous person is to bring this knowledge from there to occupy the city. I think this collision of narratives and the understanding of what the territory of memory are are points that encourage me to do this kind of work. When I bring these indigenous times to the time of the monuments of colonialization, what I want to do is create a clash with the colonial time markers. It would be easier to explode or implode them, to raze those monuments; that would be the most practical, direct path. But I see that as “sweeping the problem under the carpet”. I need to understand that these monuments are the seeping scars of colonialization. To hide them, to put a sticking plaster over them, won’t help them heal better but will just inflame the wound even more. First of all, this colonial wound must be reopened, the violence must be cleaned and sutured, and then made a shameful mark of the nation’s history. Only then can we topple the monuments, when there’s no chance of more monuments being erected over the old ones, when we don’t need monuments to be raised any more, but schools and parks instead of statues.
To project images on the body of these monuments is to displace other memories, draw attention to the monument, not what it symbolizes but what it could symbolize. It’s about reconstructing a territory of memory before that monument, making it a memory of shame. That comes from an understanding of my people, where seizing the body of the enemy was a form of koada, taking vengeance for one body by another. When I project images on the symbolic body of the construction of São Paulo and Brazil, it’s a trap because while the city gazes at the lights and colours, I seize a piece of that monument and disqualify it, make it unworthy of respect.
I understand that my role as artist and indigenous is to make these colonial tensions come to the surface without making this explicit, without the city realizing what’s going on.
5 – The work you did recently at Pinacoteca incorporated another layer of meaning about this inclusion in museums. This symbolic space of power is placed in tension by an effort to regenerate traumatic memories from the past that persist to this day. There’s a need to breathe life into the ghosts of our past that unconsciously dog our steps, producing violence and exclusion. How is it for a living culture like the indigenous culture to enter a museum not as an object, but as a subject of its own history?
The work at Pinacoteca in São Paulo was quite symbolic because it was in an institution of that scale, because it was the first big exhibition curated by an indigenous woman, Naine Terena. I could have proposed something that was simply a painting, a video, to be placed inside the exhibition room, but that wouldn’t mean anything to me because being in Pinacoteca is being inside a certain system where I wouldn’t like to deliver something that might be expected of an indigenous artist or, worse still, some stereotype the public would expect. It’s not a comfortable place for me.
I decided to use the space to draw tension between some social layers that concern me a lot, like how far the decolonial discourse of some institutions actually goes and how much an indigenous artist can create working conditions beyond those that are expected of him. The process of interaction, negotiation of spaces between indigenous artists and institutions, concerns me a lot. So the work was about provoking the body of Pinacoteca, the public and the city. The work has so many layers that I’m not sure I can talk about all of them, but they cover everything from the creation of archives, the safeguarding of these archives, their recovery and reappropriation, even to access to art and urban mobility.
The garden planted in the Pinacoteca car park was designed both to show the fragility of our lives as indigenous people inside a western system or inside a western modernity and also to probe the institution to find out how far it was willing to go to lose its space of transit, up to what point the parking spaces would be more important than the work of an indigenous artist.
I think that taking my work outside the gallery, making it part of the city, is about making it public and accessible. Meanwhile, the work could be at the disposal of the elements and the nature around it, the city and the public. It’s enough to pay attention to the whole and not just what’s fixed on a wall with an exhibit label. Not being in a showcase, but being alive in any space, as resistance not imprisonment.
6 – How have you and your work fared in this period of the pandemic? What won’t ever be the same?
This pandemic we’re going through has been very hard, but in one way for me it’s been very propitious. Because it enabled me to go back to my community without a heavy conscience of leaving work and everything else behind here in the city. It’s been hard to keep a degree of wellbeing when you receive news every day of a friend, acquaintance or important indigenous person who’s died or is in hospital because of Covid-19. It was at this time that I decided to no longer stay away from everyone from my community, so I ended up spending most of 2020 at Negro river with my family, with a degree of safety.
Although I came back to Rio de Janeiro in March 2021, I came back with the feeling that belonging to the city isn’t an option for me any more, a kind of letting go of everything that isn’t essential for my existence. I think many people have felt this since the pandemic began. Some friends of mine have gone to live in the countryside or have tried to slow down their pace of output. I think that at times of extreme fear of death we begin to realize that a lot of what we do doesn’t make the slightest sense. Of course a certain number of people have really been touched by the feeling that came with the pandemic, but for others who no longer envisage being anything except a cog, they still hope that everything will get back to normal. Even if that normal is humanly abnormal.