The Magnificent Indians: Sebastião Salgado’s studio in the Amazon forest

by Barbara Arisi

The Javari Valley has always attracted cameras and documentarists. The beauty of the Indians living in this high forest is irresistible. As I learned from Txema Matis, such beauty is so exuberant that it can even kill an unwary person if the indigenous persons exhibit themselves in all their splendor. The photographs taken by Sebastião Salgado and published by Folha de S.Paulo’s newspaper show the beauty of the Korubo in a studio set with a seamless background amid the magnificent canopy of samaúma and many other  trees. With their clubs, dressed in palm leaf hats, painted with annatto, they exhibit their piercing look.

The pictures are strong. However, there is an essentialism and a romanticization of the famous photographer’s gaze picturing the “other”. It belongs to a lasting colonial imagery.

Contact with the Korubo in 1996. Matis guide Binan Tuku, with shirt and sneakers, is sitting on the left (Archive: Frente Etnoambiental)

Until the year 1996, a small part of the Korubo indigenous people were living in so-called “isolation”. Some researchers refer to these people as the indigenous groups living in “voluntary isolation”. These different terms show a different political approach. In the term used by the researchers, the indigenous agency of self-determination in order to be isolated from the surrounding communities is emphasised. For the Korubo this situation lasted until a “contact” expedition was organized. This encounter was recorded by the photojournalist Ricardo Beliel. The Indigenous Land was demarcated in 2000 and homologated in 2001. As part of the actions to control and protect the territory, a FUNAI (governmental foundation for indigenous affairs) surveillance post was built in the confluence of the Ituí and Itacoaí rivers.

Some Korubo  have been living near this surveillance post for several years. For my MSc research, I listened attentively to the contact narratives that the Matis had experienced when they decided to accept the onslaughts of federal government officials who helped Petrobras to check the potential for oil drilling in the area. There were also megalomaniac plans to build a road linking Tabatinga, in the Amazon, to the Cruzeiro do Sul, in Acre.

Binan Tuku sings to the Korubo, with frontierman (sertanista) Possuelo, in the first contact with the Korubo Mayá’s group, in 1996 (Photo Ricardo Beliel)

I was interested in knowing about the Matis and their relationship with the Korubo people, and how and why the Matis had agreed to work as translators and intermediaries for the Brazilian government, even though they had barely survived the trauma of losing 2/3 of their own population to diseases due to the irresponsible contact that the Brazilian government had undertaken. Matis men and women considered themselves children of two Korubo girls that their ancestors had kidnapped in the past, around the year 1920.

Exchange between Matis and Korubo (Vitor Goes / Archive CGIIRC / Funai / 2014)

In 2014, a violent confrontation occurred when two Matis men were clubbed to death by Korubo. The Matis considered that they were killed because a woman and children had disappeared and the isolated group of Korubo thought that the Matis had kidnapped them. Stealing women is part of the history of all the indigenous people that live in the Javari. In the past, the Marubo have abducted women from the Mayoruna, the Matis from the Korubo, and the Mayoruna from all other surrounding peoples.

The Matis asked FUNAI for help, but the agency answered by publishing a note against the Matis people, signed by the coordinator of the Isolated Indians and Recent Contact Department. It was the first time in history that an indigenous affair defence institution published a note against indigenous people!

I was astonished because I knew that nine deaths occurred among the Korubo population, caused by the Matis reaction after FUNAI had done nothing, even after so many calls. Felipe Milanez and I wrote about this conflict and we tried to develop an analysis about the colonialism of relations that many non-indigenous people seek to maintain with the indigenous populations. We concluded that usually FUNAI and similar agencies do not take into account and do not respect the right for indigenous self-determination. Usually they act like characters in the long history of colonialism by sustaining asymmetrical and disrespectful relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

The pictures by Sebastião Salgado cry for attention to the necessity to defend this territory, but also reinforce the observation we made in our texts. They show how a critique of isolated model Indians is still necessary, and how the politics of isolation presents its idiosyncrasies and contradictions. The Korubo occupy this place of model Indians in the policy of isolation promoted by the federal government. The Matis are also loved by the camera people, because of their long blowpipes, face tattoos and piercings, but the Korubo are the reference when the subject is indigenous people living in isolation.

Salgado reinforces the ideal of naked Indians living out of time, as if they exist in “Edenic origins” of white people’s cosmologies. In fact, and obviously, the Korubo men and women are living in the present time, with all its consequences, in the same time as all other living beings live right now. With the same problems as non-indigenous and all other indigenous people, massacred by industrialism, the impoverishment and contamination of the planet and the shallow monoculturalism that blasts worldviews.

Once, I found a photo of Matis men with traditional penis string, and I asked a one of the men on the photo about it. A FUNAI worker commented on the picture that tourists and journalists were exploiting the Matis, treating them as fools. I wanted to hear what the Binan Tuku Matis had to say about their supposed ‘nudity’, as I had never seen them dressed with their penis string. “Barbara, I was young at that time, when FUNAI came here in the forest to make contact with us, back then I walked with my penis tied up that way in the envira string, to hunt/walk in the forest. Now, I am old enough to choose to whom I show my penis or not”, he replied .

The images show the beauty of those who have lived avoiding contact with a sick society created by non-indigenous people, but I still cannot forget what I have learned from the Matis old man, that they are old enough to choose to who do they show their penises or not. It was a lesson denouncing white people’s colonialism and emphasizing indigenous self-determination. The photos of Salgado illuminate this dream of pristine Indians, utopia of Lost Eden, but they circulate in the high-ranking multi-million dollar market of international photography. The beauty of the Matis and Korubo Indians can kill us, we better be very careful when looking at such splendor.

An earlier version of this blog article was published on Amazonia Real

Barbara Arisi is Associate Professor at the Federal University for Latin American Integration, Foz do Iguazu, Brazil, and a visiting researcher at VU Amsterdam.

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