In Conversation with Denilson Baniwa

“A Cell Phone or a Laptop Doesn’t Make You Less Indigenous”

The Brazilian artist Denilson Baniwa talks about how his oeuvre connects indigenous culture and urban contemporary art.

C&AL: You also have works that represent the effects of agri-business on indigenous lands, for instance in the series O agro é pop (Agri-business is popular). How do you see the role of art and of the artist, particularly now when indigenous people are being threatened by public policies?

DB: The indigenous artist needs to fight for his people’s well-being. It is known that most countries were built on the extermination or expulsion of the peoples who were the original inhabitants of their lands. In Brazil it was no different; we grew up with an idea of production linked to the exploitation of the other, our own kind of capitalism. Indigenous peoples from here were becoming mediators in the struggle for the people’s rights and safety, participating in various government and institutional meetings. We know how much we have gained from this strategy.

Political struggle is important, but an image-based struggle is also necessary, because the ordinary citizen has little interest in indigenous political struggles. The ordinary citizen is interested in going to the movies, the theater, malls, or wants to power on his laptop and watch a series that is streaming. We are only able to get to these people through art. We need to dominate this space and access these people’s sensibility through their sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, because, although the president is the one signing the decrees that are doing violence to indigenous populations, it’s the ordinary citizen who choose the presidents in power and who can take them out. This ordinary person does not pick up the Official gazette, but he will go to see art. The role of the indigenous artist is to make this ordinary citizen’s heart beat faster when confronted with one of our works, maybe make him rethink his own reality.

C&AL: Many of your works, such as Curumin, guardador de memórias (Curumin, guardian of memories) and Cunhatain, antropofagia musical (Cunhatain, musical anthropophagy) intersect indigenous universes with technology. How do you see this relationship?

DB: My first contact with the university was in the field of technology and my first works in support of the organized indigenous struggle were because I knew how to use technological tools. At the time, very few indigenous people were capable of understanding technology and even fewer of using them as a tool for fighting. Today, we can see many young people who, like me, are able to access these media and transform them, whether through equipment or content knowledge. We have indigenous filmmakers who are making a new cinema, indigenous musicians who are using software to produce their works in the villages, indigenous writers and thinkers who are harnessing computers for the online distribution of their texts. In short, an enormous production that is only possible through the use of modern technologies.

Nonetheless, we need to remember that our first contacts with technologies and knowledge were one-sided violent interactions, with the objective of domination and exploitation. Indigenous people were killed so that they would reject their technologies and knowledge and accept the tools and knowledge of non-Indigenous peoples. What I am trying to show today is a turnabout in this course. If in the past we were obligated to leave our cultures behind and accept Western tools and knowledge; today we have taken this knowledge and these tools and we are using them to strengthen our cultures. Like a sort of modern anthropophagy, where what is Western does not mean rejecting who we are, but instead expanding our cultural reach. Today we have Rádio Yandê on the web, which two friends and I created, with more than 50 thousand monthly listeners and thousands of others accessing. My works speak of this moment when a cell phone or a laptop doesn’t make you any less indigenous; instead, these tools can be essential to defend who we are before the world.

Denilson Baniwa is an artist whose oeuvre includes drawings, performances and urban interventions that seek points of intersection between his indigenous culture of origin and contemporary art.

Camila Gonzatto writes about cinema, literature and visual arts for various magazines and academic publications. She is part of the editorial team of Contemporary And América Latina.

Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh.