In Conversation with Jaider Esbell

“We Also Have Something to Show—in Our Ways, with Our Rules”

The indigenous artist Jaider Esbell first encountered art through the stories that his grandfather used to tell about Makuxi cosmology. In an interview, he talks about his interest in forging a better understanding of indigenous and white worlds through art.

C&AL: Color is a very striking element in your work. Where does your pallet of colors come from? What is the importance of color for you?

JE: The energy of colors nourishes my soul. My soul is filled with color, since that is how my ancestral grandfather, Makunaimî, shows it to me. Our lineage is based on transformation. Therefore, colors are, as is the sound of our music, our platform for existence and for allowing for existence. We have faced total darkness, in other times, and it was the fragments of light that guided us on that journey. When we survived that darkness, the colors that kept us alive expanded wildly. We don’t know how to live in a world that is pastel, or grey, or black or white. We prefer a world in color.

C&AL: In your recent exhibition at the Millan Gallery, you elaborate on the tree-shaman in your work. What does the tree-shaman represent and why did you decide to work with it as a motif?

JE: For us, artist and shaman, in principle, are the same person or being. We do not distinguish between those functions. Along with the advance of Eurocentric colonial thought in our milieu, we started to fall into the trap of believing that there was a distinction between those functions. With the notion of art in our favor, as indigenous peoples, we can discern the possibility of translation, or of bringing back together our own nature. Now, if you ask me if I am an artist or a shaman, I will say no, although I am aware that, by publicly tampering with the effects of genipap, I’m talking about everything at the same time.

C&AL: How do you see contemporary indigenous art? What path still needs to be taken for indigenous art to have more space?

JE: Contemporary indigenous art has been building its space, in its own time, since, as I have said, it is about its own plural system. I think that over the last two decades we have been on a tremendous journey, though it still is not exactly seen for lack of translation or understanding, because of racism and discrimination among other relational misunderstandings. Translation is a space that interests us a lot. We do not think of “art spaces” as a space to achieve, to occupy. When I say that we have our own art systems, and they are where they should be, that they are our communities, perhaps what I mean is that this is an invitation to the other, the “White man” to come into our universe through the front door. And, to say this, we still need to come out of our houses so we can ceremoniously step into the white “art space” and say that we too have something to show, but in our ways, with our rules.

C&AL: In your series “Era uma vez Amazônia,” meaning: Once Upon a Time It Was Amazon, you call attention to different practices that are destroying the forest. Is being an artist also a way for you to be a political activist?

JE: Yes, I absolutely think so. If indigenous artists do not think and act that way, they would probably repeat the mistakes of the colonizer. If we do not come to the clear realization that we need to slow down the destruction of the life source, not only for our own well-being, but for the general well-being of all life forms, with no distinction, this is not artivism. This would be, and perhaps is, vindictiveness, illusion, a revenge attempt, socio-cosmic-political disorder, reverse apartheid, another form of madness and obsession.

Jaider Esbell is a cultural producer, curator, writer and artist of Makuxi origins.

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

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh