An existential milestone

How to confront the orientation of the artistic works of indigenous peoples in the face of the dilemma of the new, which moves the art system in the world? The works gathered in the exhibition Indigenous Stories, on display at Masp, they provide a significant overview of the production developed by indigenous people from seven countries: Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Norway. The contemporary debate about the identity of such artists points out that most of them are accepted and have a constant production, with some being in museum collections or art galleries. The exhibition's time frame goes from 200 BC to the present day and reaffirms the power of the cosmologies present in the exhibition's eight sections. As such, Indigenous Stories involves 175 artists whose ethnicities are spread across communities or cities. On the one hand, the narratives maintain that the ensemble's productions contain stories of ancient teachings, absorbed by “white people”, and also narratives about the erasure of indigenous culture caused by racism, abuse and violence against those considered “different”.  

Indigenous Stories provokes the reading of some demonstrations, such as the one that opens the exhibition, the video in which Airton Krenak, one of the Brazilian indigenous leaders, internationally recognized, presents himself in 1988, the year of the Constituent Assembly, in the Chamber of Deputies in Brasília, with a text short and powerful, in which he defends the rights of the original peoples of Brazil. In this sense, the exhibition features other activists, some of them visual artists such as Kenhiporã, also known as Feliciano Lana, who develops a painting with paper and gouache, in which he materializes transcendental visions that problematize the concept of identity. The resulting production from the ethnic groups of the seven countries attests that everyone managed to save their cultures, as evidenced by the texts by the invited curators. The Brazilian segment was carried out by Edson Kayapó, Kássia Borges Karajá and Renata Tupinambá. 

Beside, Sophus Tromholt, Elen Clemetsdatter with their daughters, Kautokeino

As happens with many people, before visiting the exhibition I knew nothing about the Sápmi territory, in northern Europe, where the Sami people live, in large territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula, in northwestern Russia. For centuries, the sun has been worshiped among these people as the strongest of nature's powers, as curator Irene Snarby Sápmi explains in the exhibition catalogue. One of the chosen artists, Alf Salo (1959-2013) is a renowned painter with works in the collection of the Musus Riddo Duotta Museat, in Norway. His paintings are sensorial and experimental, one of them records the peak moment of the human eye's ability to remain looking directly at the sun. The result brings some traces of psychedelism.

With strong political influence and active participation, the indigenous people of Mexico are curated by Abraham Cruzvillegas, who proposes specific works from various moments in that country's struggle. The scholar highlights identity as an unstable and contradictory plural concept of “I”, because, as Mixe linguist Yásnaya Aguiar Gil explains, the word “I” does not exist in any native language. Throughout the exhibition you will discover insertions of unique techniques, such as silkscreen printing made with chocolate by Minerva Cuevas, a kind of poster with a provocative text “Canibal is the Indian, the slave, the proletarian, the revolutionary”.

A new order spreads across the world and tries to minimize the disciplinary regime that erases the individual. Australia, which has led activist movements in defense of aborigines, invited curator Bruce Johnson-Mlean to give character to the ensemble. He discusses the Western Desert region, the last of colonial Australia's frontiers. In some territories in this region, because the ancestral lands are located in the most remote and inhospitable areas, European colonization did not reach there, providing a traditional style of life until 1984, as Johnson-Mlean comments. The demands involving the water problem in this desert territory are decades old, and have already generated violence culminating in the Coniston Massacre (1928), when dozens of indigenous people died. The Australian artist chosen is Shorty Jangala Robertson who works on a dotted painting highlighted on the canvas Ngapa Jukurrpa – Dreaming Water (2005), inspired by the lack of this fundamental element for life. 

Peru's ancestry is one of the most revered in the world, Machu Pichu annually attracts millions of visitors from all over the planet. In contrast to this ethnic richness, contemporary Peruvian communities suffer from structural racism. We witness a social violence that curator Sandra Gamarra comments on in her curatorial text. “The place that the system reserves for the Peruvian Indian in society is a place of subalternity, savagery and unconsciousness of their own underdevelopment. This is the place occupied by the so-called 'Indian', ironically and humorously.” Among the works she chose, it is worth highlighting the work of Carlos Dominguez Hernández, which portrays a family with photos of the missing father and son. The struggle of the original Peruvian peoples, as well as that of others on the planet, continues to this day.

New Zealand, a country that was renamed by parliamentarians as Aotearoa New Zealand, chose as curator the critic Nigel Borell who describes how Maori art has a powerful legacy as a visual language. “It is a system of knowledge, a way of remembering and recording events and understandings about the world around us.” The artists represented are connected by Maori-whakapapa art that managed to survive atrocities despite the disruption caused by colonialist rule. With a technique reminiscent of graffiti, Jessica Hinerangi shows the painting Confront the colonizers (face the colonizers) from the series Tino Rangatiratanga (2022). From the activism segment, which portrays the ongoing struggle in all countries, I highlight the iconic image of a young indigenous woman with her fist raised in a rural area. It's about work Máxima Acuña in Brigadeiro -Tragadero Grande in front of the Lagoon(2012).

With individual protagonism, the United States appears with a single artist, Navajo Melissa Cody, who presents an exhibition within the exhibition. With the title Woven skies, Melissa holds an exhibition in a different space, all pink, where she displays tapestries crafted with colorful geometric subjects, curated by Isabella Rjeille and Ruba Katrik. One of the texts in the catalog is by Connie Butler, director of MoMA-PS1, who takes us to the exceptional story of this artist who develops her work on an original loom from the Navajo people. Butler explains that “the tapestries are produced using Germantown weaving techniques, using sophisticated geometric overlays.” Melissa is a fourth-generation Navajo, and according to Butler, she guides us into the future by highlighting enduring techniques, emphasizing the formidable contributions of indigenous artists who continue to advance meaningful conversations about creating space and identity through ingenuity. and resilience.

With a very original title In the Plot of Spider Woman, curator Isabella Rjeille's essay touches on the Diné/Navarrese worldview, in which the loom is the representation of the universe. “The upper bar represents the sky and the lower bar represents the earth. The tension that sustains the wires is symbolized by thunder, which establishes a connection between the celestial and terrestrial worlds.” She points out that, through her use of vibrant patterns and colors, Melissa's works are associated with the Germantown Revival stylistic movement, which was born after the Diné people were expelled from their ancestral lands. In her text, she also says that this migration process became known as the Long Walk or Hwéedi (1863-1866). There were arson, looting and destruction of livestock led by Major General James H. Carleton (1814-1873), who sought to make the traditional ways of life of the people of that region unviable. Melissa grew up in the 1980s between Arizona and Southern California, and some works bear the mark of this territorialization. The weaving draws attention Navajo Transcendent, with the “study” of different three-dimensionalities. Isabella highlights that “weaving is also a form of reconnection and return to ancestral territory based on memory”. The idea of ​​territory is strongly present in the work Cliff Dweller - Cliff Dweller, in which the artist works with gradations of browns and reds that refer to the rocky part of the region's canyons. Completing the solo exhibition, a catalogue, specially edited for this exhibition, features a collection of works by Melissa Cody and a representative set of critical texts and essays by various authors.

Currently, the Navajo artist works with painters Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, from the Salisch people of Montana, and Emmi Whitehorse, from the Diné people. Her collectors include museums and international foundations.

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