After the CARLA conference at University of Manchester, which showcased ways in which artists in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia address racial diversity and use their art to challenge racism and deeply entrenched racial inequality, Indigenous Brazilian artist Arissana Pataxo and scholar Felipe Milanez spoke at an event co-hosted by ONCA and University of Sussex. This is the transcript of Felipe’s talk, in which he discusses resistance to Bolsonaro, corruption, COVID, genocidal intent and action against Indigenous people, movement building, art and the role of Indigenous artists in the contemporary movement for social and ecological renewal and re-imagining.
Thanks a lot Mika, Evan, Mary, Perse, for the invitation, for organizing this event. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you. It’s an amazing feeling, to be able to talk in person, to meet people that we’ve been exchanging throughout this terrible process that we have experienced in the past few years, the tragedy of the pandemic, the tragedy of fascism in Brazil – it’s been tough to fight. And coming here, having the chance to share with you, it’s great feeling that things change. And they pass, and new worlds are always being created. And we can trust that – that you can change, transform the world, and transforming ourselves and building new worlds and building, acting, and while we’re researching, understanding the world, we’re also intervening, changing these scores.
And then having the chance to be here with you, we’re going to share some of the challenges and the problems that we face in Brazil and how we’re able to mobilize – mobilize ideas and mobilize people not to give up. As Mary was introducing to you, we created this project during a difficult situation of violence in Latin America, and initially focusing on violence against environmental defenders, in environmental conflict, to imagine specific cases of violence. And me and Fran, we’ve had the experience of having friends who are environmental defenders, who fought with them who tried to raise attention to their cause, to their life, and they were killed. Fran with Chut Watty in Cambodia, myself with Ze Claudio and Maria in the Amazon. And after death comes we that are alive, we want to fight for their memory, we want to fight for justice, and we want to fight that that memory will affect people so it won’t happen again.
When Bolsonaro came to power, it was a very violent election in Brazil. The whole debate in 2018 was terrible. And hate was being spread in this society. We’re afraid that now he’s fighting for new measures. Now, because we’re going to have elections in October, hopefully, we’re going to defeat Bolsonaro, and help to save the world. And in 2018, we were, I was personally surprised with the election of Bolsonaro. And I was more surprised that I didn’t know my country. I didn’t know my family! I couldn’t imagine that my cousins, some of my cousins, my uncle, they would vote for Bolsonaro. They would defend torture, they would hate the people that I love, that I thought that they could love. So we understood that the problem was much deeper. And I personally understood that only denouncing, only exposing tragedy would not be enough for people mobilizing to recreate the world, to recreate towards, that we can share the world that we can co-live in. And we also knew that during Bolsonaro the attacks against indigenous people would increase a lot, and what to do in that situation. Keep denouncing? To whom?
All the Brazilian institutions became corrupted. And Bolsonaro, following Trump’s strategy, he fights against institutions. So he put in as Minister of Environment someone who hates environment, and then we cannot use the Minister of Environment who should prefer the environment. It’s our enemy, and then how are we going to fight that situation? We cannot call the police because the police, the Federal Police is part of the government, and then we realized that we need to move out of the state. And, right in the beginning of the government we had this extraordinary congress of political ecology in Bahia, it was early 2019, I had public funds to do it – it was before Bolsonaro was elected, so we were using the public funds for the public good before it would be hard to do. And we had a meeting with environmental defenders. Denilson Baniwa, this amazing artist – he created all the art, the work at this congress, and we understood that to discuss political ecology, to discuss environmental conflicts we need art. Art is there and art is not only poetry or beauty, or — it’s much more, it’s epistemic. It helps us to produce ideas, to understand, and to feel what we want to understand actually, it’s not only technically speaking about it, but feeling – feeling the pain of the animals who have been killed, feeling the pain of the forest, trying to listen to the river, trying to listen and to share the feelings of the territory that is being destroyed, as well as the ones we’re leaving in the territories.
Denilson Baniwa, his work brings a lot of it, but not only Denilson. This indigenous artistic movement, they are providing, they are sharing with us and I mean, they are working to share with the community and, and to share those feelings with a larger number of, let’s say, with a broader Brazilian and international society. So we had to fight Bolsonaro, we had to fight fascism, we had to fight the hate against the forest. And we needed to mobilize people – and only denouncing would not be enough. Also, when the pandemic broke out, we knew that would be even worse in Brazil in that situation. And even though we can imagine cruelty, living with cruelty and having to face cruelty is tough. So we knew that indigenous people would be extremely heavily affected, disproportionately affected by the pandemic. I wrote an article with a colleague of mine from UFBA calling out the relationship of racism to genocide in Brazil under the pandemic and how the pandemic would be mobilized for a genocide. And it happened. More than 1000 indigenous people, persons, died. Individuals. And the majority were elders, they were the libraries of their populations. And they were part of the library of the world, of humanity. It is not just a problem of Brazil if Paulino Paiakan is killed by COVID – it’s a problem of the whole world. Paulinho Paiakan, he was killed by COVID in June 2020. In the 80s, he came to the UK, he was a very influential indigenous leader here in the UK. And with researchers in the UK, they were able to open the minds of people about the forest, about the richness of the forest, about the knowledge of the Kayapó, and even change capitalism. It’s not a small thing. I mean we fight capitalists, but while we cannot defeat capitalism, we can change it a bit and he changed it, with the Body Shop, and they built some very interesting experiences here in the UK, working together and building alliances, and Paiakan was killed by the pandemic, I was a personal friend of his. And it was a very sad moment.
And this is an example of a lot of artists, Indigenous artists who died. And that increased the depression. And the risk, as I’ve been saying is that we can demobilize. If we don’t see any future we can demobilize people and then we don’t change the world because we don’t believe in anything else. And that’s precisely the strategy of fascism. And looking through the lens of political ecology, they are doing that because they want to extract the world, they want to extract more natural resources. They want to extract the bodies of people, the labour force, they want to kill the indigenous people because they want their land or their subsoil. And one of the ministers of Bolsonaro, the Minister of Environment, in one meeting that was recorded and later, we were able to listen to what they were discussing, he said that the pandemic was a ‘great opportunity’ to pass out the deals that they wanted to pass to extract natural resources. So the pandemic became an opportunity for the genocide, the genocide was planned, and they were trying to and they were implementing it. And with the pandemic, the genocide, they accelerated the genocide. And the idea of acceleration of genocide, I heard from Chris Pantera, a bright colleague from the Pankararu people who was part of Another Sky as well, she said, you’re accelerating the genocide, Bolsonaro.
And to resist, art came to save us in that moment. I wasn’t personally working with art. I always loved art. But art didn’t appear to me as a searching for it. I mean, it emerged epistemically. It emerged as resistance. It emerged as a form of mobilization to affect us, to touch us to teach us. And through art we could communicate. And during this period, amazing things happened in Brazil in terms of the indigenous resistance. Indigenous lawyers going to the Supreme Court to denounce Bolsonaro. Indigenous lawyers such as – led by – Eloi Terena, Dina Mantuxa, Samara Pataxo, arguing in the Supreme Court against Bolsonaro and even coming to the court to sue Bolsonaro for genocide. So there was a lot of legal strategic litigation, a lot of legal resistance, and also in the media, a lot of media being produced, and art. 2020: the year of the pandemic, the year of the genocide – it was also the first year in the history of Brazil that indigenous artists were heard in Sao Paulo, which is the centre of internal colonialism. It’s not only the centre of economics, it’s the centre of internal colonialism in Brazil.
So Naine Terena, she was the curator – she was with us in Manchester – she was the curator of Véxoa. It means We Know. Nos Sabemos, a wonderful exhibition in the Pinacoteca, which is one of the most important museums in Sao Paulo, at the end of the year, in 2021. The exhibition was from late 2020 to early 2021. There was the biennial in Sao Paolo with a huge presence of Indigenous artists, Gustavo Cabo who was here with us Manchester among them, and the wonderful Jaider Esbell, who sadly passed away. It’s hard to say his name. And Jaider also was the curator of another art exhibition called Moquém Surarî in the Museum of Modern Art in Sao Paulo. Arissana did wonderful work for that exhibition as well. So while there was violence going on, the art came to the heart of internal colonialism in Brazil to teach Paoloistas and Brazilians what was happening. And not only to denounce or to reclaim the state, but to show that that’s part of our life, we share that same territory, and we can love this territory. We must learn how to love the territory where we live. Plan with the territory, listen to the territory. And love is the word that they are using to speak about it.
Denilson did this [shows image of flowers growing between cracks in paving slabs] as part of the installation that he did in the Véxoa: this is in the outside of the museum, it’s the parking spot. He planted flowers there so people could just park their car there, over the art. He said well, I don’t know, I just planted it. But I’m amazed at that image. In the back there was also another, in the back of the museum he also planted but there were seeds so people could park, so they would not they would not know that life was brought, would come there. And so there were these two sides of planting trees in the parking lot. And inside there were ashes of the National Museum which was burned just before Bolsonaro during the transition period of the coup, it was burned. It wasn’t just a fire that came out. It was produced, that fire, criminally, not by someone, but by the Brazilian elites, the Brazilian elites who want to destroy the memory of Brazil, especially of indigenous people. So the fire of the National Museum was also a great opportunity for land grabbers and miners who want just to destroy the memory. But they didn’t know that memory is an insurgency among indigenous people and through art they are rebuilding memory. Arissana will also speak about her work on memory.
And Denilson, also in Sao Paulo before Véxoa, in another exhibition, in the Itau Cultural Centre, which is a cultural centre financed by a bank, who makes a lot of money with extraction of natural resources in Brazil, but also cares about art. And somehow there are other banks in Brazil that doesn’t care even about that. So it’s spending money on protest. Itau cares about in the fight, and they told Denilson, do whatever you want. And Denilson started to do a lot of art in the museum saying that that was indigenous land, that Sao Paolo is indigenous land. Sao Paulo is in Indorama, Indorama is the name of the region from the O Tupi. Indorama is part of Aguyal. These are other names of that continent that honours invasion – we can decolonize that idea. And he also wrote a poem saying, which is translated – Mary, help me there – but the general idea – I’m going to try to bring the words of Denilson – which is ‘our colonial territory is ancestral land first of all. When all the scum is scraped off – plastic, asphalt, metal – untold stories in history. Oxygen fills the blood.’ That’s more an expression to say that it provides energy. ‘Those who have always been from here know, Sao Paulo has always been an indigenous land.’
And then in Sao Paulo, he did the same in Rio, he would definitely say that Brighton is an indigenous land, Celtic. First of all, before, before the Empire, before monarchy, it was indigenous land. First of all. And I love this idea of Denilson’s, that when we’ve scraped off all the dirt, all the rest of colonialism, what is coming, that’s the new world. That’s an anticolonial world. That’s new things that we will march towards. And I think this is really inspiring to the moment that we believe we can defeat Bolsonaro now, and we can recreate ideas and learn how to share the world together. And to do it, it’s a very tough task to be done. We all know that. But having conscience of this process is the beginning. And I’ve been learning a lot through indigenous art recently. It’s been very inspiring to have new ideas and I will now we’re going to have the chance to listen to Arissana, and a lot of what I’m trying to share with you I’m sure will be clear and inspiring. Thank you very much.