In Conversation with Naine Terena

“Art Functions as an Instrument of Struggle for Indigenous Populations”

Visual artist, university professor and curator Naine Terena analyzes the contemporary production of indigenous artists in Brazil and talks about the exhibition “Véxoa: Nós Sabemos” (Véxoa: We Know), happening at the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, which she is curating.

C&AL: In 2016 and 2019, indigenous artists Jaider Esbell and Denilson Baniwa won, respectively, in the online category, the Pipa Prize, one of the most important in the country. Last year (2020) Isael Maxakali won in the popular vote category. Is indigenous art “trendy”?

NT: There is, indeed, a great interest in the production of contemporary indigenous art these days, but I am deeply concerned by this idea of trendiness, because it implies that something can be discarded after its novelty wears off. In order to avoid this happening, indigenous art not only needs to be present in temporary exhibitions, it also has to be incorporated into institutions’ permanent collections.

For example, the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, founded in 1905, only included works by indigenous artists in their permanent collection in 2019, when it acquired works by Denilson Baniwa and Jaider Esbell. This is a process that also happens through education; it needs to be present in children’s textbooks as well as in academia. Today there are lots of people producing research on contemporary indigenous art in the universities. These are researchers of various origins, not necessarily indigenous, and not only in anthropology; they’re in the visual arts as well. This has to continue with increasing momentum.

C&AL: What role is the indigenous curator playing in contemporary art?

NT: From what I understand, this curator comes from indigenous origins, but does not work solely with the indigenous issue. I myself research other subjects, like women’s and children’s issues. I don’t like to be stuck with a label. Now, I see curating as a political act, especially in Brazil today, when indigenous peoples’ rights are constantly being threatened by the federal government. Art functions as an instrument of struggle for indigenous communities. It’s up to the curator to make this vibrant production visible and to bring it to as many people as possible.

C&AL: What perspective did you seek out for the exhibition “Véxoa – We Know”?

NT: About two years ago, when I participated in a seminar on decolonial thought at the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, I asked why the institution did not have a single work by an indigenous artist in its collection. At that time, I said, sure, I see various representations of indigenous people in works of art, but none that are made by an indigenous individual, and that I didn’t feel represented by that. Months later I was asked by the Pinacoteca to curate an exhibition on the contemporary production of indigenous artists. I selected 23 names from different ethnic groups and regions of the country, among collective and independent artists, who work with sculpture, objects, video, photography and installations.

And I sought, especially, to respect the voice and the concerns of each of those artists. Since the idea was to outline a moment in time, I also looked to the recent past and brought in drawings produced since the 1970s by Pajé Gabriel Gentil Tukano (1953-2006), who lived in the state of Amazonas, in addition to paintings made in the 1990s by the great indigenous thinker Ailton Krenak, from Minas Gerais. For me, it was a surprise to discover him as an artist. There are also young artists, like Tamikuã Txihi [member of the Tekoa Itakupe community, Jaraguá Indigenous Land, in São Paulo]. She exhibits sculptures Áxiná (exna), Apêtxiênã and Krokxí, which in 2019 were targets of vandalism at an indigenous art exhibition in the city, Embu das Artes (SP).

C&AL: What are your next projects?

NT: I participate in the OPY project, a collaboration of the Casa do Povo, the Pinacoteca of São Paulo and the Tekoa Kalipety village (SP) of the Guarani Mbya people, which proposes a series of actions to decolonize institutions connected to art. The Véxoa exhibit is one of them. For 2021, there is a scheduled round of debates on the production of contemporary indigenous artists at the Casa do Povo [independent cultural center in the city of São Paulo]. In addition to that, through a regional call in Mato Grosso, my entire research collection on indigenous, women’s and children’s issues will be made available in a digital repository in 2021. My name was suggested by a group of professionals who, in some way, were influenced by my works, which fills me with joy.

Ana Paula Orlandi is a journalist and has a master’s degree from the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh