Decolonising the self through art and reclaiming ancestral identity

Essay by Jaider Esbell, translated by Enaiê Azambuja

Jaider Esbell (1979-2021) was a Makuxi artist and activist who was known as one of the driving forces of the indigenous art movement in Brazil. He died in November 2021, aged 41.

Esbell described his work as “artivism”, a vision of art which, in conversation with Oliver Basciano, he argued to not only integrate ecological urgency, but also to involve a “transracial and transgenerational, transcosmological” process. He drew inspiration from Makunaimî, god and ancestor of the Makuxi people who live in Roraima, the northern state of Brazil. Makunaimî, Esbell suggests, is an artist in his own right, since he sculpted the landscape with his axe, including Mount Roraima, which is the highest of the Pakaraima chain of tepuis in South America. To Mount Roraima, Esbell attributes the value of “an indigenous work of art, a mythological, cosmological, and even geological work of art” which existed long before any European conceptualisations of art and its confinement in art galleries and museums; in fact, long before Europe itself. Esbell’s transcosmological vision of art, which encompasses the spiritual connections of the Makuxi people with nature, integrates a deep awareness of the importance of ancestral identity before national identity and the effort to protect the former from the epistemological violence of colonisation. In what follows, I translate one of Esbell’s most thought-provoking texts concerning the fight for decolonisation through a cosmological art that reclaims collective, ancestral identity.

Enaiê Azambuja

Jaider Esbell: Self-decolonisation – a personal exploration in the collective beyond

Applying research and considering my existence in this world as someone who is minimally aware of myself has taken me to surprising places. This dynamic of existence has promoted a necessary feedback movement towards my previous collective, that is, my ancestral identity without which I could not go anywhere. More than a circuit between ancestry and the present, this question is the basis for navigating rough waters, since, if not well understood or explained, these two words could end up becoming part of the epistemological game of colonialism.

This way of thinking about my journey highlights the importance of knowing different other journeys. It can also serve as an encouraging element for subjects in the process of asserting their identity. Tracing its deepest roots is an exercise that is done when you decide to actually face the layers of dirt that an attempt at erasure has deposited on collective bodies. The achievement of a decolonial performance as a whole does not require us to be aware that the way we develop our social and political relations is based on values ​​that precede the establishment of the State. Thus, we will certainly have constant clashes with the legal system, being often considered rebels and anti-nationalists when not criminalised and punished.

These phenomena of resistance are like springheads which, as geology shows, are eruption points of something complete and complex, being part of an intricate network that forms and remains much lower and, therefore, protected from the annihilating action at the moment when it breaks through the surface. The idea of ​​an infiltration into an apparently solid structure is how decolonial performances take hold. The crisis in our identity is something that must be possessed and, in turn, this act of possession presupposes acting from your own field of possibilities. The insurmountable solid structure is the national identity which every inhabitant must possess by force of law. Being Brazilian must be before any other form of identity and denying it is a misdemeanour. But we understand well that this proposal of national identity is not unanimous, leaving a gap for the development of another identity crisis.

Denying national identity and claiming previous identities is an attitude that awakens a series of elements that make us aware of our condition as first inhabitants and perhaps configures one of the most powerful decolonial actions, as they are openings for the streams of resurgence. There are several instances under which one or more identities are constructed or reconstructed, and to be aware of its reconstruction is to have provoked a disruption to the full structure of colonisation.

This text is intended to make good use of the conquered spaces and, as a measure of the justice of things, I write it under the license of the living who fight to honour the sacrifice of the dead, martyrs of all kinds who were silenced while resisting and always keeping the first inhabitants alive in our memories. A decolonial posture may guide us towards this behaviour, the knowledge that we live to fight a just war which was fought long before and, therefore, is always relevant.

As a researcher I adopted artistic languages ​​as a way of doing politics and writing in the coloniser’s language is a way of making translatable to the most different possible languages ​​what is not enough in itself. There are recurrent scenes of veiled, denied and structurally legalised secular injustice against our originary nations by the national State with international collusion. It turns out that it is necessary to develop a new way of making such denunciations, as the classic resistance movements reach a level of stagnation. We have not managed to cause indignation by the public opinion and our demands are shelved in parliament for lack of popular pressure.

Realising this, I write my own readings of the world, being this hybrid guy with hands and feet in opposite fields, which requires me ample stretch to take steps of a tightrope walker. To make my trajectory evident, as well as the trajectory of a people, is to take advantage of other purposes from the already heavy exposition of life to which we were and are still subjected. The difference may lie in our own protagonism because talking about our own history must sound different from when others speak or write what they can only imagine.

This essay is the extension of a life’s research, a personal effort to provide a collective service to the various living indigenous nations, to those that are deemed to be extinct, as well as to welcome the anguish of the Afro-descendant populations in Brazil. It is a form of denunciation but also a search for empathy, an attempt to raise awareness so that, based on our case, precedents are opened so that other ethnic groups can have their demands made visible.

It is worth remembering that Brazil was the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery, at least officially. It is worth remembering that if this nation does not have a dignified treatment for the recognition of its originary population, neither would it have with the descendants of slaves who are also without access to social and political dignity within the structure that they so ardently built. I speak of the issue of blackness also by belonging, since my body is composed, in part, of an ascending black genetics. I have a black grandfather from Venezuela. I couldn’t leave that part of me out of my own self. This compound does not, therefore, take away the central roots of my indigenous, northern, Amazonian and Caribbean ancestry, where the bones of my grandmothers are. It is from this geocosmogonic space that I am nourished and from it I have aspired to reach the paths to cover the vastness of worlds put into friction.

I have decided to actively participate in global discussions, certain that where I come from is the mobile centre of an imposed periphery. The imposed periphery of which I speak exists when we have already considered accepting the imposition of external values ​​on our society of origin. And when we accept to be categorised as minorities, we are accepting the imposition of another sphere of values ​​that overwhelm us. It turns out that not seeing oneself in this periphery and understanding it as a component of political strategy means arming oneself with the invader’s weapons. I certainly couldn’t achieve this clarity of thought if I hadn’t been as close to violence as I was. I could not have developed my minimal sense of the need for historical reparation if I had had to wait for school to tell me about these issues. The idea of ​​minority can also make us stop enjoying our experiences and memories for the benefit of a defence mechanism.

I had a kind of reverse privilege, I would say. Being able to witness the violence against my people as a child certainly made me open my eyes and achieve the perspectives that many still seek; a reason to remain strategically rebellious without getting lost in radicalism. Realising very early on that the game is played with the right cards up your sleeve and that sitting down at the main table presupposes taking other paths can make a big difference. The path left to us is hidden, but not non-existent and impossible to walk. In our case, the paths are doubled because we have double identities and the path of violence ends up being an unavoidable meeting place. If we are indigenous, we can follow the paths of our predecessors and if we are, a priori, immersed in the “world of the whites”, it is through education that we must counterattack. In order to educate ourselves and to educate others, a new cycle of violence is opened. Talking about violent facts experienced or witnessed stirs open wounds because even today we wait for justice that never comes.

The farmers who wanted, and who still want, to expel part of my people to take over our lands did not just threaten us. They continue to proliferate throughout the territory beyond Brazil, while our population also cannot thrive because of a kind of “evasion” or exodus which happens when our blood brothers deny their own origins and submit to accepting the social peripheries of the great society as their place of existence, thus reinforcing the machine of oppression. These brothers, as well as the omission of the authorities, violently claimed several lives, marking forever the bodies of many women for rape in front of children who are now adults and certainly cannot even today talk about these crimes that go unpunished.

In terms of fighting to remain strategically rebellious without getting lost in radicalism, the purposes of the arts serve us well; among these is healing, which is a type of service that art provides by giving voice or by being the expository factor of various cumulative events that need to be made visible. Its diverse possibilities, when properly applied, can give us the chance to rise to positions that were previously impossible, since the paths to go to big stages where the references of influential thoughts are modulated are still a big challenge. We will not succeed without the power of the arts because self-narrative is still a privilege for the few and we are not part of this universe because we do not meet the criteria of meritocracy.

Discussing decolonisation is perhaps a first step in denying its totality, although deconstructing it may seem more reasonable. This second option can give us a more energetic or more active sense rather than discussing what ends up leaving us only in the passive fields of validating a theory. If we are a people possessing everything that guarantees us to navigate the universe, then we are in the great battle to integrate ourselves in biodiversity, alive and present and not merely listed as a society or civilisation that no longer exists. If we minimally influence other societies, we cultivate the opening of horizons to some extent. When exactly did we stop being ourselves and become like others, or owned by others? If we are still a people – and I say this aware that I am part of a living nation, the Makuxi – I must say that, for us, the colonisation process has yet to take place fully. Our way of resisting and continuing to interact with the worlds should serve as a good example of how to subvert the effects of the supremacy that came with the invader, the imperial and Christian monotheistic unilateralism.

We waged a historic battle against the Brazilian State. It is necessary to warn those who forgot that we remain at war. The struggle to defend part of our traditional territory, today’s Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Land, was marked, as I said, by a lot of violence on the part of the colonisers. For our people, the struggle was composed of resistance and many decolonial strategies. And as a good practical example of how to play with the invader’s weapons against themselves, we seek the law for solutions to our case. We sensitise the high court to decide on the legality of our fight. We do not fight back the violence. No invader’s life was taken by our hand. We seek to put at our service the same organisations that have weakened us before, such as the Catholic Church, for example. We had a great victory, although this triggered the anger of our aggressors rather than their consciences. After the ratification of Raposa Serra do Sol, the enemies of indigenous peoples began to articulate themselves better politically.

Today we have a catastrophic picture of a country with extremely high rates of deforestation and, therefore, of genocide. We have at least one declared enemy, the President of the Republic but this says very little to us. Knowing this should help us understand that our struggle is far beyond our borders. Our struggle is global, we are the repetition of what happens in all invaded native territories in this last millennium. We extend our timeframe to millennia just to illustrate our capacity for legal awareness when we know we are timeless. The cycles of violence are perpetuated. They are based on strategic media and their actions are stronger and more impactful than ours. But we are still standing and we are still a nation and this sets the greatest challenge for our opponents namely, to disarticulate us as an identity. This results in a good decolonial performance.

This attempt to conquer by impositions is certainly a double game. A double-action trick of disqualification that is imposed on us, indigenous people, in two different territories. One is more performative, the imposition of bodies on bodies with overt violence. It is the invasive arrival and disregard for the values of places which are not respected simply because it is believed that they do not exist. The other is more subjective, playing with the components of the fixation of a collective unconsciousness, that is, the destruction of the idea of an advanced territory or of the field of cosmogony, which directly complements the composition of an identity. Believing that others do not have a soul, or that if they do, it serves opposing ideas, they are considered to be libertine pagans and, therefore, must be converted at all costs.

The abysmal difference between Eastern and Western worlds should serve as a warning about the need to preserve some geo-ecological and socio-cosmogonic balance. The understanding of knowledge, territory, nature and technology, for example, continues to be disseminated according to the worldview of the invading world. Other epistemologies must find a way to remain present and active here. Perhaps it is in the field of authenticity – which is still dominated by writing – that these issues are beginning to be addressed. When one of us, the minority, manages to air these issues, it is much more legitimate than when ‘white’ researchers do. It is not a question of disqualifying or denying the other’s agencies, it is a question of decolonial practice.

The ways in which non-Western populations communicate with each other and with the cosmos offer a vast bibliography of references on how to achieve autonomy, but they do not appear described or stored in books or other physical archives. That does not mean that this body of knowledge ceases to be a platform for achievement, a feat that its holders should be proud of, as the Westerners do with their pompous libraries. Here is a substantial difference: the structure adopted by systems or worlds. Some make use of empirical knowledge, practical tradition as a school of life, the constant maintenance of an essentially oral evolution of transmission and the ability to communicate directly with the elementals of nature that end up being part of their populations. Our people still know how to negotiate with the “supernatural” and this closer relationship makes territories a single possible field. The other way to maintain life, the Western world, the developed or the technological, started to have the material structure as its guarantee of survival and so the search for exploring raw materials in distant lands was the engine for the failure of both, their world and ours. The careless approach to different worlds, a non-consensual approach and, therefore, delinquent and severely aggressive towards everyone, drastically changed the balance of existences.

Our ability to remain an authentic nation, even under a heavy, centuries-old war campaign of destruction, is our best response when we are required to perform in order to deal with a world as violent as this process of Westernisation. After all, what or who makes indigenous peoples resist even when they lack a substantial part of their traditional territories, a basic condition for full existence? What makes them remain who they are, even with much of their cosmogonic structure, many without their mother tongue, to claim this identity? It is certainly these close connections between territories that I tried to talk above. The territory is one of the key issues for this narrative. We treat this referential place as a starting point, but we must know that there are prior issues and that perhaps they are what lead us to resist even when they try to convince us that this is a war that is definitely lost. We then treat the Territory as an anchorage point, a referential term to supply ourselves in the middle of this long path, that of the counter-narrative.

The general readings that are made about colonisation are of a sequential and choreographed movement based on the idea of ​​an old world, where everything has already been developed and, in order to continue existence and entertainment, they have to seek attractions in other worlds. Then someone dreamed of the richness of the ‘savage’ world, a place where awareness about the taste of material possessions has not yet arrived. There would be entire lands awaiting to be spoiled and, if they knew how to do well, it would still be the natives themselves who would carry what they wanted to take to their ships.

Today’s well-known and decadent Europe owes all corners of the world a practical response to its plunder. We demand a return of our values, which for them are ethnographic collections that appear in their museums as exotic pieces. It’s just one of the measures we have required in a series of historic repairs that need to be made. Understanding the greater value of these symbols and return them to their places of origin is certainly a reverse force to the bloodthirsty act of taking them under shady conditions. In the field of cosmology, which for us is indistinguishable from full life, it would be a cure for deep wounds that have been opened and thus left illnesses, such as the current one, infiltrate into the organism.

This reading remains essential. Someone continues to exploit, enslave, and impose a historic landmark. Even today, this exploitation map remains in effect even though the modus operandi of the attacks – their geopolitical distribution – has diversified and Europe has lost itself. Imagining the creation of a dominant imperial world still remains. This idea of ​​always having a place to explore and exploit, and that once the property is removed, belongs to no one but the new owners, and that the rest of the world is too far away to recover any value, still holds. That the only ideas which can be propagated in this world have to fit within the criteria of maintaining (racial) dominance and supremacy.

Along with the ships came the men of faith, the supreme law for the unification of humanity into a single belief, even if holy war was required to do so. And so it was done. Colonisation by faith is one of the most nefarious forms because the force of brute violence still weighs on it. The Inquisition burned alive many masters, healers and magicians before those who depended on them. For the invader, our way of life was unproductive. It was inconceivable that a society could live without worshiping God. The elevation of a cross as a symbol above a building enshrined the order to change a logic of wholeness. From believing that we didn’t have any faith to knowing that our faith was distributed equally within each type of plant, animal or natural phenomenon didn’t make sense to them either.

The fact is that even today we need to register our struggles so that they are made visible. That even today we have to weave true odysseys to reach the “pulpits”, which are what they call the place of speech or the place of expression. Even though it is still a production considered to be minor, a production from the periphery or from minorities, it is the natives’ arts that amplify their voices and this must be included as decolonial practice.

Our publications navigate at their own pace and I see that we have advanced while we are dedicated to intensifying our studies in those two territories I mentioned above. The territory of our millenary occupation and the cosmogonic territory, which is even more fragmented, but which we have sought to recover with the little access we have had to our traditional medicines, such as the drink that won the world with the name of Ayahuasca, for example. Even this exercise has not been easy and it is still weighed down by discrimination, the ignorance or malice of the militias who know that with these attacks we can intensify our counter-narratives. So, foul play involves these practices and in some countries criminalisation is established. These studies with traditional medicines end up being the responsibility of each individual, because they are still surrounded by colonial effects, since they are paralleled with the idea of ​​a dogmatic religion and, therefore, restrictive and hierarchical. My people come from a tradition of their own. For us, we are part of a greater whole and the lack of symbolism makes no sense, as we have in our territories material evidence of our origin and continuation. The contact of our ancestors with the first European researchers was marked by exactly this condition. They were duly introduced to our gods, demigods and general entities that have kept us until then in a sense of balance and wholeness.

There is vague news about the trip of some of the chiefs of our peoples to Europe, a trip that, of course, was more advantageous for their displaying as spectacles rather than for our mission to go and investigate that world. Even though it didn’t have the expected effect, I can believe that this trip overseas, on their vessel, was an attitude of great courage on the part of my ancestors. So they started a few centuries ago the exercise of venturing into the world of aliens using their own structures. This is what I believe I am doing right now, when constructing this text for an academic publication, in the way it opens, which is nonetheless an invitation to live a risky adventure in the still Eurocentric world of dominant epistemological knowledge.

The exercise of walking through these memories, making them my bibliographic reference, assures me that I can take advantage of other methods. It would be an extension of the practice of orality, although I have, as a strategy, the use of the cultured language of the coloniser. I don’t feel indebted for not bringing you names, dates and circumstances in a footnote, but I invite you to consider myself as a representative of a people that still values ​​the authenticity of the thing narrated. If this text did not fit the editorial line, in this way, we would know that the practice of decolonial performances in academic environments should still be regarded as a minimal or non-existent reality.

The conclusion is that nothing is complete. Neither colonisation managed to exterminate us, nor did we gather consistent elements to venture with ease in the midst of such opposing worlds, but being alive and trying is our great achievement.


Image: The conversation of intergalactic entities to decide the universal future of humanity, Jaider Esbell 2021. Photo: Filipe Berndt / Galeria Millan