Claudia Andujar’s Visual Record of Change

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Claudia Andujar has been many things to Brazil’s indigenous Yanomami people—a documentarian, a friend, and ultimately, an activist and a champion. In the latest exhibition of her work, Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami Struggle at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Fondation Cartier) in Paris, the public is granted to 50 years of her photography dedicated to the indigenous tribe. Comprised of over 300 images, the collection discovers Andujar’s career-spanning devotion to these extraordinary people—visually describing their customs and way of life, their struggle for land, and their exceptional ability to retain culture and identity as time forges change all around them.

Presented in two parts, the exhibit begins with Andujar’s first seven years living with and photographing the Yanomami, a group of approximately 35,000 native people that live in villages in the rainforests that border Brazil and Venezuela. Then, the show focuses on her later work, where the photographer used imagery as a tool for political change to protect the group against Amazonian development. Also shown are a series of Yanomami drawings depicting nature, tribal myths, and rituals, as well as the audiovisual installation, “Genocide of the Yanomami: Death of Brazil.” “I needed to tell Claudia’s story in a more complex way to do justice to both her and the Yanomami,” curator Thyago Nogueira tells CR. “She was a woman working in the middle of the Amazon forest, completely isolated in a time of dictatorship, all to prevent the genocide of this people.”

Ironically, Andujar’s own life story mirrors the struggle of the tribe, perhaps lending to her passionate dedication to their cause. The Swiss-born photographer (b. 1931) was raised in Transylvania during a transitional era when the area was recently incorporated into Romania. Tragically, her father and most paternal relatives were deported and killed during WWII. With her mother, Andujar fled to Switzerland and then immigrated to America and ultimately, Brazil, where she embarked on a career as a photojournalist. She first encountered the Yanomami—one of Brazil’s largest indigenous groups—in 1971, while writing a magazine article about the Amazon. Immediately enthralled with the community, she began an in-depth photo essay on the group, supported by a Guggenheim fellowship.

Initially, Andujar approached her images as a documentarian, visually recording and translating Yanomami culture. Over time, she immersed herself fully into their way of life—adopting the clothing, traditions, and customs of the group—while depicting life from within to share more broadly. “Even though the Yanomami have little contact with the outside world, they were very accepting of me from the beginning,” Andujar shares with CR. “I did not speak their language and they did not speak Portuguese. They did not know what photography was because they had never even seen a camera or a photo, so I had to explain these things. It was all very new to them.”

[pullquote align=’center’]”[Andujar’s] photography became a wider instrument, testing the limits of art and the power of photography as a political instrument to protect a minority. This story is also the story of our humanity, a story of the 21st century, which shows why we must continue to learn about history through art to have true, lasting progress.”–Thyago Nogueira[/pullquote]

In her quest to visually describe Yanomami culture, Andujar used a range of photo techniques, such as applying Vaseline to her camera’s lens, and using flash devices, oil lamps and infrared film to create lighting and color effects reflecting cultural mysticism. Andujar’s close-cut black and white portraits embody the dignity of the tribe, who they are personally and their cohesion as a group. “As Claudia came to understand the Yanomami, how they read the world and their understandings of the universe, how she photographed them changed. Her techniques became more experimental and she was more comfortable showing emotion in her images,” says Nogueira. “Claudia expanded the way we see the world, and showed how photography can connect us. Hopefully, this exhibition of her work helps shorten the distance between those viewing her photos and the Yanomami we see in them.”

Then, by the late ‘70s, Andujar’s work abruptly shifted into an activist role, using her photography to raise awareness. The Brazilian government began to develop the Amazon with projects including a transcontinental highway, deforestation, and agricultural programs that threatened the existence of the Yanomami, eerily reminiscent of the genocide that Andujar herself had experienced in Europe. Together with missionary Carlo Zacquini and anthropologist Bruce Albert, in 1978 Andujar began a 14-year campaign to designate the Yanomami homeland. “As Brazil began to explore the Amazon, it became a complicated situation. While I understood what the Yanomami meant to Brazil, Brazil did not yet know them as a people,” says Andujar. “It was important for [the country] to understand the Yanomami for them to be able to continue their way of life.”

Despite a setback in 1989, when a decree broke up tribal territory into separate reservations, in 1992 the Brazilian government legally established their lands. Since then, Andujar has been an ongoing presence and protective voice for Yanomami rights. “Even today, I continue to be very involved with the Yanomami and over the years, they have become my family,” says Andujar. “They and their story have become my lifelong purpose.”

“[Andujar’s] photography became a wider instrument, testing the limits of art and the power of photography as a political instrument to protect a minority,” says Nogueira. “This story is also the story of our humanity, a story of the 21st century, which shows why we must continue to learn about history through art to have true, lasting progress.”

Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami Struggle is an exhibition about the impact of one person on how we view the world and how photography—even one archive—can change our essential perspectives. The aesthetic of Andujar’s images is compelling. But is it the power of her work as a voice for change, and the protection of a people, that makes it deeply beautiful and symbolic.

Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami Struggle is now on view until May 10, 2020 at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. The Fondation Cartier is temporarily closed.

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