PIPA Online Award
"Monalisa Indígena", by Denilson Baniwa, last winner of the PIPA Online Award. Photo: Disclosure.

Winner of the Pipa Online Prize in 2019, Denilson Baniwa describes himself as an indigenous artist, who is indigenous and is an artist. Born in a community of the Baniwa people on the Rio Negro, in the state of Amazonas, the artist speaks in an interview with ARTE!BRASILEIROS about its insertion in the arts circuit, about decoloniality, cultural appropriation and the sacred.

ARTE!✱ -  What is indigenous art today in the Brazilian art scene?

DB - This question of indigenous art in contrast to art “considered art” is something that has been discussed for quite some time. I think even before having all these indigenous people working and circulating. I think what is different now is that there are so many indigenous artists with a very strong power of approach and voice, who can talk and say a point that was not seen before, which is from these indigenous people. For us, there is no such difference between art and life or art and resistance as there is in the West, where art is an instrument of power in relation to other human beings. But when these indigenous artists propose to circulate in a way that uses non-indigenous languages, it is also a strategy to converse in a language that is understood by those who are not part of that culture. I think that if we started working with codes that only, for example, the Baniwas would understand, it would be difficult for my work to talk to people who are not Baniwas.

Can you exemplify?

DB - I was recently at a congress talking about decoloniality and historical appropriations and someone provoked me by saying: “You are talking about decolonization but you are talking in Portuguese, you are articulating thoughts in a Western way that is not Baniwa. How do you want to talk about decolonization if you don't use indigenous language, since you want to break with this historical process?”. I replied in Baniwa to her and she didn't understand. And I said: “This is why we use non-indigenous languages”. If we are to speak in a code that only indigenous people understand, this communication will be very noisy. What indigenous artists have been doing right now is talking in code that is understandable by most people, indigenous or not. I think that at a certain point along this path we will start talking about indigenous codes. But it's still going to be a big process.

Since you brought up the issue of decolonization/decolonization, I would like to know how you think this has progressed here.

The decolonization speech is full of controversies and misunderstandings, because as far as we know, all this started with a Latin American woman who started talking and publishing about it. Nobody listened to her, first because she is a woman and second because she is from Latin America. Everything she already spoke and published ended up being absorbed by a group of men from the European academy. From there, they began to look at these themes. It's all very complex in this speech, starting with the academy only taking into account when a man, straight, white and European spoke about it. And it is also an issue that is still discussed by people who are not from these “decolonized” places. I think that even when we indigenous people sign “decolonize” instead of “decolonize” it is a way of putting ourselves in a different place from what the Western academy discusses. It's a way of putting it that it's a different thought, maybe not the thought, but a different position within the discussion. But in Brazil this is very recent. Elsewhere in Latin America the discussion is older.

Metro-Pamurĩ-Mahsã (Cobra Metro).
Metro-Pamurĩ-Mahsã (Cobra Metro).

And why only now?

Brazil is very late and also does not understand itself as a colony. The greatest colonizing fiction we have is that Brazil was independent or is independent. Here is the only place in the Americas where independence came from the king and not the people. We copy the lifestyle of other places a lot because we don't accept ourselves as Brazilians, unlike other places in Latin America. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, you see that there is a feeling in which people consider themselves children of that territory.

VYou were one of the founders of Radio Yandê, the first indigenous radio station in the country. Do you have other projects you are involved in today?
Radio Yandê is one of the most important projects I've ever been able to carry out. Today it is copied by several indigenous people, it is considered a reference in communication, heard I think in 40 countries. It is a landmark in Brazil. Radios of this type have existed in North and South America for a long time. We did this in 2013, far from what was already produced in Latin America. Today it is a milestone in what is communication, in what is access to communication, in what is strategy. When I decided that I was going to dedicate myself to artistic work, I couldn't handle Yandê anymore. I left coordination and actions. So it is a very important project, which I am very proud of, which I still participate in, but which I am no longer part of the front line because it would need greater dedication. Other than that, I have been in the indigenous movement, as usual, and in discussions about access to information and access to the university. I participate in meetings at universities where there are indigenous groups, I have participated in meetings for actions to reclaim territory. Everything I do now is linked to artistic work, to artistic research.


When did you decide to focus almost entirely on working as an artist?

I never had a thought about working as an artist or living an artist's life. In 2015 I was invited to design the visual identity, together with an architect from the Northeast, for the exhibition DjaGuata Porã, which was at the Rio Art Museum (MAR) in 2016/2017. And I ended up meeting the curators Clarissa Diniz, José Ribamar Bessa, Pablo Lafuente and Sandra Benites, whom I already knew. I had great contact with this group that worked at MAR. By accident, they came across some of my work and I started talking to these curators about the indigenous presence within these spaces. I already had some discussions about communication, about access to information and the media. And we started talking about it from an art history perspective. It turned out that I became very involved with this group and we started to take this discussion to other places, to some galleries and to universities. Gradually, people came to know some of my work. In fact, I've always worked with visuals. I can't say an exact date when I started to consider myself an artist, I just know that when I saw it I had all my time dedicated to it and I couldn't leave anymore. That's when I noticed that I couldn't handle anything other than being an artist.

You won PIPA Online last year. How was it for you?

O PIPA it was a big surprise for me. I knew what it was because of Jaider Esbell, Arissana Pataxó and Ibã Huni Kuin who had already participated. But I still didn't quite understand what PIPA was, or its importance and the scope it had. It was a surprise when they sent me an email saying that I had been nominated. First, because I'm an artist who doesn't have a background in art, I didn't attend the School of Fine Arts or that circle of people who have a tradition in art. I'm very new to this world, so I was very surprised by the nomination. After that, it was very rewarding for me in many ways. First of all, for the indigenous population in general, in the village (speaking for my people, who are there in Rio Negro), art means nothing, this work of exhibitions, of galleries, means nothing. It was a surprise because I had no idea they were with me. When PIPA started and we started sharing the link, several people from my community, the Baniwa and other peoples in my region, sent a message saying they were rooting for me. It was the first time I was aware that my work was reaching this place, that they knew what I was doing and that they understood what I was doing. Second, it was really cool because they mobilized to vote for me. This made me very happy. It made me understand the importance of me being here, that they trusted me.

Cunhatain musical anthropophagy
Cunhatain musical anthropophagy

And after the award?

There were three moments: to understand that the indigenous people of the village knew about my work; after seeing a lot of people who knew my work and who followed me; and, in the end, to realize the scope the prize had beyond everything I knew. PIPA was a game changer for me, because I think it made me see a little more of how I could work, how far I was going and how I could communicate with the world through my work.

You have now spoken of your relationship with your people. You are very careful to transpose elements of your culture into your work, such as religious issues..
I have this care because within the Baniwa cosmogony, of creation, there is an ethic, so to speak, that has several pieces of advice that we have to follow during our lives. One of them, with PIPA, I kind of “broke”, which is having to walk discreetly around the world, that your actions have to be bigger than your image, your presence. Actions and work have to be greater than our vanity, perhaps that would be the best translation. And another thing that makes me think about what I want to talk about and what I can talk about, not that it's an obligation – but that's how I understand it – is that you live in this world without shaming your people. And I think that's something I want to take with me. I want to live in that world that my people can be proud of knowing that I won't harm them, because I know the only place I can go back is to my people. I can be very successful here, I can travel a lot, I can earn a thousand things where I am right now. But if one day something goes wrong, the only place that will accept me is with my people.

Infogravure made by Baniwa
Musical Anthropophagy, 2016, infogravure, variable sizes

Is it a matter of ownership?

I don't know if appropriation… Sometimes these are things that people don't have the authority to do. For example, Baniwa baskets have a whole symbol, a whole code. It is an object that activates connections between various worlds. If I use a basket I have to understand what activations this object performs. So these are things you have no control over. It is an oversight, or a misunderstanding, of how the indigenous world works, where art does not disconnect from life and the spiritual does not disconnect from the natural world, so to speak.

And the discussions around cultural appropriation by others?

I think theft is theft. If you are a thief, you have to own up to your theft. What bothers me about appropriation in art is not theft itself, but the fiction created on top of theft. When someone spends a week in a village and comes back finding himself the shaman. This fiction created to justify theft is what bothers me. It's like an excuse. I see this a lot in some places I go and there are artists who use patterns, indigenous discourses, medicines. There's always a wonderful story around everything. It makes me tired. People need to assume “I stole it and I'm going to use it here”, because then things become clearer. It's like using indigenous graphics to create a clothing collection and say that you are valuing the forest and indigenous peoples. Not. A print was created from an indigenous graphic because it wants to sell. 

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