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VENEZUELA: Yanomami Put Body Painting Down on Paper

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Apr 18 2010 (IPS) - Men and women of the Yanomami people paint their bodies, drawing straight, curved, dotted and parallel lines, arcs and circles, triangles, rectangles, grids, spider’s webs or rings, all arranged as if on a checkerboard.

Yanomami painting Credit: Fidel Márquez/IPS

Yanomami painting Credit: Fidel Márquez/IPS

“We paint ourselves when there is a celebration, to show that we are happy, and also so that we can hear the shaman’s song clearly when he calls us,” 37-year-old Yanomami artist Sheroanawe Hakihiiwee told IPS.

“The shaman sings (to ward off evil spirits) but he can’t do it alone,” he added.

The Yanomami ethnic group comprises some 20,000 people, scattered in communities of about 200 or 250 members who live together in a communal dwelling called a “shabono”. Roughly 70 percent live in the extreme south of Venezuela, about 1,000 kilometres from Caracas, and the rest in northern Brazil.

Up to half a century ago, they were virtually isolated from the outside world. Anthropologist and historian Daniel de Barandiarán told IPS that they have probably lived in the same territory for 25,000 years, and many regard them as a living example of New Stone Age culture.

For centuries, the Yanomami have lived in the Amazon forest, hunting and gathering and sowing a few vegetables. This provides them with food, curare to poison their arrows, “yopo,” a hallucinogen used for ritual purposes, fibres for weaving baskets and hammocks, and dyes for painting their bodies.

“We make body paint with achiote (Bixa orellana) and dyes that we get from bark, pounded leaves and dried fruits,” said Hakihiiwee.

“We tell people who don’t want to paint themselves that they are lost, because they no longer want to be Yanomami. And this is happening, especially among people who go to towns and cities. That’s why we are working to protect our culture,” he said.

In order to help preserve this aspect of Yanomami culture, Hakihiiwee uses a non-traditional support material, but for inspiration he relies on the memories of his mother and other relatives in his community of Pori Pori, on the upper Orinoco river.

He has produced dozens of drawings on handmade paper of different shapes and sizes, several of which are on display at Oficina Número 1, a contemporary art gallery in Caracas. Most of them express the Yanomami worldview, including those that look like a spider’s web, “which is also a spirit,” according to the artist.

“Paper does not exist in traditional Yanomami culture, but workshops have been held in Pori Pori and other communities on making paper by hand from natural fibres,” Álvaro González, conservator of books and paper at the state Institute of Advanced Studies (IDEA) who fostered Hakihiiwee’s initiative, told IPS.

Yanomami women wrote and drew the story of Iwariwe, a mythological hero who stole fire from the throat of an alligator so that people could cook their food, on handmade paper in the shape of a banner, six metres long and 25 centimetres wide.

They bound it into a book, which was sent for exhibition to Columbia College Chicago Centre for Book and Paper Arts, a kind of shrine dedicated to paper, which Hakihiiwee will also visit, taking some of his drawings, to deliver a lecture.

In Pori Pori and nearby villages, González’s team hold workshops on recycling of materials, making paper using local fibres, and book-binding, as well as teaching Yanomami children and young people to draw and write their own myths and stories.

Hakihiiwee is one of the teachers and, like many of his people, he is skilled at weaving hammocks and baskets and making arrows. The self-reliant Yanomami take practically no belongings with them when they travel through the jungle, instead improvising whatever they need from the materials to hand.

“It’s a way for grown-ups to teach the children, along with the arts of hunting, fishing and gathering, so that they can maintain their culture and traditions, after decades of intrusions by Catholic and evangelical missionaries, the U.S. New Tribes Mission, and political operators,” González said.

Hakihiiwee has no time for any of these foreign religions. “Everyone in my family uses tobacco and chews chimó (a tobacco-based jelly), and that is against the teachings of the missionaries. But yes, occasionally a community has been lost to the evangelisers,” he said.

After his exhibition, titled “Oni The Pe Komi” (All the Drawings are Finished), when Hakihiiwee goes home, he plans to return to his drawings, his teaching, and the work of preserving his culture that has been transmitted orally for thousands of years, and that now his hands and those of others are representing visually in words and symbols.

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