Jaider Esbell
Jaider Esbell at the exhibition "Presentation: Ruku" at Galeria Millan. Photo: Renata Chebel / Millan Gallery

A The death of Jaider Esbell, aged 41, on November 2, has dismayed the contemporary art circuit. how did you write Denilson Baniwa, “Jaider arrived at this place that for white people is considered a success [but] for both of us it was, day by day, becoming a burden”.

Much has been said about this loss, but what best accounts for this context is a long interview that Jaider himself gave to Artur Tavares, published in full in the digital magazine Elastic, an excellent document on the thought of the indigenous activist (click here and read in full). 

In the interview, Jaider makes it clear how he and other indigenous leaders saw the contemporary art scene as a form of militancy – and did not actually claim to be a visual artist:

All this work with the Bienal is part of our historical policy of indigenous resistance, which is an extension of a movement made invisible by the media themselves, the grassroots movement. (…) We are talking about a place that is not exactly that of the plastic artist. I am not, in fact, a plastic artist, although within this performance everyone needs to embody this artistic persona to reach these privileged places, such as the Bienal de São Paulo itself, and not go there as another artist who is out there. in the world.

Jaider also explains in the interview the differences in times and procedures with the art circuit and how it was necessary to challenge the folklorization of the indigenous presence both in the Bienal de São Paulo and in the exhibition Moquém_Suraî, which he organized at the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM-SP):

In fact, we don't let anything go anyway, as things have been handled for over 500 years. Our stories and our thoughts have always been interpreted, introduced and shaped by anthropologists, by priests, by politicians, while we were never able to print an authorial thought, which properly puts us in a place of people who have their own worlds, their own cosmologies.

And then we have to parallel at all times with the culture that wants to be dominant. When, for example, Makunaima, who is my grandfather – the Macunaíma who is on the cover of Mário de Andrade's book – becomes mere folklore. We say that Brazilian folklore does not exist, it is an invention, it is an appropriation of our cosmologies and entities. An appropriation. And then, as if we didn't exist anymore, let's turn this beautiful story into Brazilian folklore.

On his part, there is a very adequate perception of the importance of the Bienal and of the art circuit as a space for reflection, something similar to what he defends Kilomba Grada. She, who was a professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, decided to leave her academic career to dedicate herself to art, realizing the scope and freedom of this field. It is very similar to what Jaider defends when he presents the school as a “colonial apparatus”:

This Bienal, this stage, is a very important place, one of the last refuges of an idea of ​​thought under construction, a place where we need to be. Much more than the academy, than party politics, much more than bodies like schools or churches, these colonial and exotic apparatuses. (…) We call what we are doing contemporary indigenous art, which we also know is not enough, that it does not cover everything, but that it is necessary to attract some curious, attentive, who really want to hear some other story, who come ask us: “What is contemporary indigenous art?”. And we say: “It is a trap to take good curious people to a place of deep reflection”, which, once again, does not fit in the political movement, in the church, nor in the judiciary, nor anywhere else, because these places were not made for that very reason.

Jaider also tells how his struggle concerns indigenous peoples and not just him in particular, revealing that the MAM-SP exhibition was proposed to be a solo show and he modified the project:

So the Bienal invited me because they liked my work, and they wanted me to do a solo exhibition there at MAM. I said that individual I do not do, because I am not individual. All my work is collective, everything I do is collective. I do if it's collective. That's when we started building the exhibition Moquém_Suraî. The thing has to be strategic everywhere. 

However, Jaider explains that the clashes with the art circuit were not easy and he did not feel contemplated by the attitudes of the Bienal de São Paulo, having to pay himself for the presence of other indigenous people:

We are not satisfied. Because first the Bienal said it didn't want any Indians. Now that it's getting out in the pretty media that put I don't know how many Indians, that's not true, we need to clarify. And there's more. If they're already bragging about it, coming out of the good guys, that's not right. Because it comes at a cost, and I'm basically paying the bill – and I'm really talking about money. Because the Bienal pays a fee of 12 thousand reais, takes your work and forgets you. And then, when it comes to contemporary indigenous art, it's not enough. Because when you get a work by the artist, you get his whole story long before the colony. It takes all this colonial complexity and collectivity. So, if I arrived, others will arrive.  

The testimony in total is forceful and accurate. The loss is priceless, but the legacy is definitive.

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