This month we write to you once more from Brazil, following our recent return from an Amazonian expedition to visit the Asurini do Xingu indigenous tribe. The Asurini were first contacted in 1971 by Brazilian society, when the presence of whites intensified in the region due to the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway, allowing the emergence of new economic activities such as mining and cattle ranching. Economic developments continue today with the Belo Monte dam standing large (more on that later..)
In the 1980’s the Asurini population had fallen to around 50 after sickness transmitted from the whites had ravaged the non-immunised village. Today the population is around 200 people, with the recovery due to a healthy increase in infants.
‘Yet, the imminent danger of their physical extinction always stood in contrast with an extreme cultural vitality, manifest in the performance of complex rituals, the practice of shamanism, and an elaborate system of graphic art.’
Sourced: ISA (Instituto Socioambiental)
Photo by Renato Delarole of an Asurini lady in the 1980’s:
Our journey started started in the dusty city of Altamira (forged by the Trans-Amazon Highway) where we embarked by boat and travelled south down the Xingu River to reach the Asurini village by sunset. For this expedition, we were travelling and collaborating with friends, firstly the amazing photographer Alice Kohler who has established a close relationship with the Asurini people with numerous visits over the past 10 years. Secondly we were joined by the brilliant CANOA (Centre of Native and Original Arts of America), we are working with CANOA in a joint effort to improve the trade and logistical structures for the art produced by the Asurini.
The purpose of the trip was to develop our relationships with the Asurini, learn more about their culture and to work together with their outstanding arts. The tribe have many beautiful arts of which nearly all incorporate stunning graphic / geometric patterns. For now, we will be working with and developing the trade for both their ceramics and textiles. We spent precious time with a few Asurini families, recording the artistic and material process behind their creations. Over the coming weeks we will be editing the media to create a few short videos to share!
Asurini Ceramics: (Photos by Tui Anandi and Jack Wheeler)
The work we do with these arts is an important part of the mission behind Xapiri and something we strongly believe is vital for maintaining traditions, culture and identity for indigenous people but also as a sustainable economy for the communities.
Asurini Textiles: (Photos by Tui Anandi)
We would like to finish by writing a short overview of how the Asurini people live today and how they are in a state of rapid change. As mentioned in the opening paragraph the Asurini were first ‘contacted’ just 45 years ago when Brazilian society encroached on their land looking for new riches as the rainforest was opened up due to the Trans-Amazon Highway and the growth of Altamira. Today, Altamira acts as the nearest city to the huge new dam ‘Belo Monte’ – the 3rd largest in the world. Big money, more people and easier access to the Asurini land is in turn bringing new ‘development’ but this is not always for the better good.
In the Koatinemo village where we spent the majority of our time, there was a feel of construction, a new clinic had recently been built and a medium size school was in mid structure. However, most noticeable is the housing, all but a few of the families now live in modern concrete box houses with tin roofs, recently constructed by outside funds. These houses are noticeably much warmer than the traditional houses which are wooden in structure, with thatched roofs. So much so that most families spend their time in their traditional houses which are normally still standing next to their new concrete homes. This is a prime example of how new is not always best, the indigenous people over centuries of living in the rainforest know their land and are experts in how to live optimally in the Amazonian climate, connected closely to nature for their daily needs.
It is of course too simplistic to suggest that all development is negative but sustainability must be considered before quick development dominates indigenous culture and tradition. After seeing all of this development and impact from the ‘modern’ world a quote from Villas-Bôas came to mind:
‘O índio só sobrevive na sua própria cultura’ – The Indian only survives in their own culture.
Here is a short video give an overview to the impact of the Belo Monte dam;
Belo Monte: After the Flood – In the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, an epic battle to stop the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam on the Xingu River lasted for decades. Ignoring widespread protests and warnings from scientists, while riding roughshod over the rule of law, the Brazilian government insisted on pushing ahead with Belo Monte, no matter what the cost.
For more information about this expedition, please do get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or keep up to date with more stories and media from the exhibition via our social media platforms.
We are now in Manuas, spending a few days making connections with indigenous associations and supporters before a month of river travel as we head west to Peru!
A map of our planned route can be seen by clicking here:
If anyone would like to meet somewhere on this route or if you have recommendations please do get in touch!
With peace & love,