For centuries after the Enlightenment, the forward march of civilisation occurred unabated and unquestioned. Underpinned by the intellectual pursuits of logic and reason, a cosmopolitan West emerged. Convinced that its own development represented a blueprint for social progress, it swiftly set about systematically disseminating this blueprint around the world.
Today, as our society finds itself rubbing its eye, emerging blinking into a post-pandemic landscape, we are all, collectively, perhaps a little less convinced of the viability of Western social progress. The early internationalism established in the Colonial era laid the foundations for the globalised society we live in today. It entrenched, among other things, a reliance on international trade and a commonplace ability to travel. Until recently, these were foundational aspects of everyday life, that, for the most part, occurred unabated and unquestioned. Of course, the pandemic has changed this.
Society has been brought to its knees, and we have seen that the habits of our previous normality conspired to exacerbate the situation. Had we not been so reliant on continuous mass cross-border migration, the spread of Covid-19 and its global impact would have been significantly diminished.
Ultimately, then, what this has forced is a reckoning with the sustainability of what we considered to be normal. We have questioned ourselves and how we lived, and have come to doubt that ‘civilisation’, as we knew it, is indeed progressing at all.
Perhaps now more than ever we are ready to abandon the implicit arrogance of Western thought and look outside of ourselves, so that we might learn other ways to live. Humbled by our mistakes and unsure of our social superiority, what and who can teach us to be better? For Brazilian photographer and activist Claudia Andujar, there is a simple and resounding answer to this question: the Yanomami.
One of the largest relatively isolated tribes in South America, the Yanomami live in the rainforests and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. With a total population of around 38,000 they occupy a territory of over 9.6 million hectares, an area twice the size of Switzerland. Until the 1940s, when they were initially contacted by outsiders, their story was one of thriving social success in a capacity totally and utterly removed from the rest of the world.
In the 1970s, looking to exploit the regions’ natural resources, Brazil’s military dictatorship began to colonise Yanomami land. Thousands of workers and gold miners flocked to the interior, and in the process fractured Yanomami communities and spread deadly diseases amongst the population. Having grown increasingly involved with the movement to secure Indigenous land rights and moved by the plight of Yanomami, Andujar, who was already working as photojournalist, began to document their society and the lives of the individuals who composed it.
Born in 1931 to a Jewish and Protestant family, Andujar had fled Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. By 1955, she had settled in Brazil. Seeking to interrogate the social fabric of her adopted country, she turned to photography as a tool to document the world around her. In 1971, on assignment for a magazine, Andujar met the Yanomami for the first time. During those early years, she developed a meaningful relationship with the tribe and created a highly original body of work that sought to express to the outside world the unique beauty of these hidden, resilient and fragile people.
These images, in addition to those made in later collaborations with the Yanomami, are brought together in the exhibition Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle at the Barbican Centre. Curated by Thyago Nogueira, the head of Contemporary Photography at the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil, it is a powerful and needed show which comes at a time when Yanomami territory is threatened by illegal gold mining, deforestation and the government’s wilful disregard of its constitutional responsibility. Yet it speaks of a wider context too, namely, the humanitarian and environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic.
Make no mistake, this is an exhibition about the Yanomami and their story, refracted through Aundujar’s tender and expressive lens. Yet the viewer might also notice a more implicit theme which winds its way through the show: the suggestion that we, spectators from the outside world, should cherish cultures like the Yanomami for what we can learn from them. Their very existence is a testament to an alternative social reality, grounded in its own unique cosmology and removed from the shackles of Western social progress. We are shown that at a time when ‘civilisation’ finds itself crippled, the value inherent in the Indigenous experience should be admired more than ever. For in it there is something to be learnt not only about indigenous peoples themselves, but about all of our collective pasts, presents and futures.
The Curve / The Pit / Barbican Foyer
Thursday 17 June – Sunday 29 August 2021
Unwaged, students, NHS staff, over-65s: £12
Art Fund Members: £8
Under 14s: Free