From the time Europeans first arrived in the Americas in the last 1490s, the visual world of the original inhabitants has been changing. In the early 1500s, the Europeans traded glass beads and iron tools for gold and pearl jewelry. It is through the few surviving artifacts from that age, such as the Zemí figurines from Hispaniola—which incorporated European glass beads and mirrors mixed with local materials—that we can appreciate the beginning of the cross-cultural processes in the arts that took place in the Americas.
We know very little about how the Indigenous communities had historically employed and adapted—or resisted—goods, materials, technologies, and visual repertoires coming from other cultures, and how these choices transformed their visual world and shaped their culture. However, we do know that this has been an ongoing process, which is still happening today. We also know that cultural exchange, in many cases, results in extraordinary new artistic expressions.
Yanomami Owëmamotima Community Project
In 1992, the Mexican artist Laura Anderson Barbata (born 1958) commenced an art project with the Indigenous Yanomami people of Pori Pori in Venezuela. This isolated community with limited contact with the outside world is located deep in the Amazonian region in the border area between Venezuela and Brazil. Anderson Barbata taught the community how to make paper using vegetable fibers and recycled organic materials. Papermaking is a challenging enterprise in the middle of the jungle, but Anderson Barbata was determined to provide the skills for those communities to produce paper, a material important for the education of the community, as well as for preserving their cultural heritage.
The Yanomami have no recorded history on paper, instead, for millennia they have relied on oral traditions for passing down stories from generation to generation. However, the increasing influence of outsiders—such as government officials and Christian missionaries—has been threatening this ancient tradition. One member of the community, Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë (born 1971), became fascinated with papermaking; for him it was a life changing experience. (See some of his drawings in ReVisión: Art in the Americas through July 17, 2022) He and Anderson Barbata founded the Yanomami Owëmamotima community project for the publication of books produced by the community.
Hakihiiwë immediately saw the potential of drawing on paper as a way to document his world and record the visual culture, as well as the myths and beliefs of his people. He also recognized paper as a medium for developing his own artistic expression. As it happened with other cultures in the past, a new and foreign material, in this case paper, led to a moment of artistic revolution in a community.
Connecting to Body Painting
A self-taught artist, Hakihiiwë’s career has evolved over nearly three decades of practice. What began as a sort of record of the Yanomami knowledge and memory, developed into a very personal depiction of his world and daily life in the Amazonian region. Plants, animals, rivers and mountains, the cosmogonies of the Amazon, the shabono (the traditional communal dwelling), baskets and other household or work artifacts—everything that surrounds the artist is depicted in his work. For Hakihiiwë, drawing on paper has become a sort of ritualistic exercise, one that in some fashion connects with body painting, a practice still important among the Yanomami.
The Denver Art Museum acquired a group of 10 of his drawings, which are based on body-painting techniques. Sections of hollow arrow canes and carved wood seals are used to draw compositions of serial elements using fat-based inks made with natural pigments. This repetitive drawing action, often executed in rhythmical movements, mimic the process of body painting during special ceremonies of important cultural significance for the Yanomami. In this case, handmade paper, instead of the human body, is the support medium. The artist uses a different traditional body-painting motif for each of the 10 drawings and because the drawings are on paper, they are not temporary, as happens with human skin. The work acquires a different dimension as the new support allows the images originally destined for the body to reach the outside world.
Hakihiiwë’s drawings can be interpreted as physical records of performative actions. For the artist, what is central for this series is the process of drawing, the rhythmic repetitive movements necessary to complete the work as it happens during ceremonial body painting, and also a more permanent record of a visual repertoire charged with cultural connotations that is disappearing as external influences permeate the daily lives of his community.