In conversation with

Edgar Kanaykõ: Photography as reclaiming

Edgar Kanaykõ, a Xakriabá indigenous artist, moves between the culture of his people and white culture, but his feet remain grounded in his territory. For him, photography is a tool of struggle and resistance. “What we do in the field of contemporary art is reclaiming art-making to ensure our existence”.

C&AL: The Xakriabás occupy the Cerrado, a very complex Brazilian ecosystem that is under threat. How does the production of these images encourage this idea of humanity integrated into nature?

EK: To come back to anthropology, often what drives these issues is this differentiation between nature and culture. For us, indigenous people, nature, and culture are not divided. That influences the way we see the world. When I photograph a “landscape” it’s not just a landscape, it’s our home, what we call Rowaste mba só īnrõwa. The shaman Vicente Xakriabá says that everything has a song and spirit. It’s another worldview we have.

C&AL: From what I’ve heard from you so far, it seems like there’s a gap in understanding between indigenous peoples and whites, this understanding of everything being related. Do you think the photography produced by indigenous peoples can act as a movement for translating worlds?

EK: As the saying goes in anthropology, every translation is a betrayal (laughs). We run that risk when we translate. But when we talk about “relationships”, this implies some indication of understanding. It’s very important to keep the various views of indigenous peoples increasingly present through images. We come from an oral tradition, which is also imagery, we’ve been writing for a long time, even though it’s not on paper. We write with other types of symbols. Body painting is a symbol, clothes are symbols, many things are being said. When you’re photographing a ritual, there’s a lot going on there, and the view of an indigenous kinsperson is different.

C&AL: The Brazilian anthropologist Viveiro de Castro says that indigeneity is a project for the future, not a memory of the past. How do you understand the representation of the future in your work?

EK: I think if I were to sum it up, I’d use the word “resistance”. Just like the Cerrado, they try to burn it, plow it, kill it, but the Cerrado has very deep roots. We, as indigenous people, are resistant too. Time isn’t linear, it’s circular, powered by the time of nature, water, drought, the time of the pequi flower. The construction of identity is constant. We are always resisting, in order to hold onto what we are as peoples. Maybe this doesn’t make sense to white people, because [for them] being in the world isn’t about making an effort to be what you are, and we are constantly being questioned whether we are real people. In Brazil, there are over 300 ethnic groups, over 150 languages. When you’re inside the indigenous movement, you notice this diversity. The rainforests are like that, the Cerrado is like that, diverse. There are tall plants, there are low plants, there are crooked plants, various types of flowers. And that’s what supports the diversity of life. We, indigenous people, are the past, the present and especially the future of this world. Now that they’re waking up, which, as Davi Kopenawa, the Yanomami writer, shaman and political leader, says, indigenous peoples are holding up the sky so it won’t fall on our heads. As long as there are indigenous people, pajés, and shamans, we are holding up the sky.

C&AL: Lastly, I’d like to hear a little about the MASP episode, in which some of the group called Retomadas, which included two of your photos – was excluded and later invited to rejoin the group show Histórias Brasileiras.

EK: When I first heard that the “Retomadas” (“Reclaim”) group – with photographs by members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and myself – had been cut, I was actually quite calm about it, because I thought: “They’re the ones missing out” (laughs). Then came the national and international outcry, and our group resumed talks about what to do. Sandra Benites, who was the first Indigenous curator, resigned. There was a series of negotiations, and then it was put back, but with our demands. We know that Retomadas talks about social movements, something these kinds of spaces often don’t want to talk about. There was this boycott, with allegations from some bureaucracies. The group is called Retomadas, and, in fact, it has reclaimed, taken back that space. That’s what Ailton Krenak says, that in addition to fighting for our territory, we have to fight to demarcate other territories, which are the canvas, the arts, etc. That was a fight for territory, too.

Edgar Kanaykõ is a Xakriabá indigenous artist, who works in the field of Ethno-photography.

Interviewed by Lorena Vicini.

Translator: Zoë Perry