Kayapó Chief Tuire by Pinar Yolaçan

“I won’t open my palm for those wanting to dominate.”

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All images of the Kayapó courtesy of Pinar Yolaçan.

The body has always been at the center of my photographs, often covered with materials such as meat, liquid latex, body paint, and fabric, all of which mimic the models’ own skin, or the impression of skin found on ancient fertility goddesses, such as Venus of Willendorf. Archeology is interesting for the same reason the human body is. Both register the passage of time. Wrinkles and deformations are marks of the body going through puberty, giving birth, and eventually reaching old age. Through these investigations of form and material, I became interested in the question of whether we can use the body—especially the female body—as a measure of time and civilization.

In 2016, after a residency in Bolivia’s lowlands where I visited a matriarchal Ayoreo community, I began researching Amazonian civilizations in Latin America, becoming interested in rock drawings in Serra de Capivara and anthropomorphic Marajoara ceramics from Para, in northern Brazil. During this research, I discovered the Kayapó and learned about their full-body painting, which functions as a form of clothing. It represents their mythologies and complex belief systems, and the painting styles vary according to an individual’s gender, age, marital status, and his or her position in the village. In Anthony Seeger’s The Construction of the Self in Brazilian Indian Societies, he writes, “The body is an array of symbols and an object of thought,” and goes on to explain how for the indigenous, “The body is the field in which a transition from the natural to the social takes place.”

I was invited to the Feira de Troca de Sementes (the seed exchange week) by Kayapó chief Oro, in Moikarako village. There I met Kayapó Chief Tuire as well, from Kaprankrere village, in Southern Para. I was especially interested in her, since she was a female leader and very active in opposing the Bela Monte Dam project on Xingu river. She is also infamous as an icon of indigenous resistance against the Brazilian government, since they first made contact in the 1960s. Below is a transcript of what we spoke about in the village—her culture, Kayapó painting, and the problems indigenous communities are facing today in Brazil.

Pinar Yolaçan How did contact with the city affect indigenous village life?

Chief Tuire I was afraid that when our people were near white people, they would only learn the ways of white people, which would be a bad direction. But on the other hand, we have people in our community who want to learn to write, who want to speak Portuguese and go out into the world. They come back here and help us defend ourselves, by helping us prepare legal documents and translations. They help me with legal matters, so I can go to the National Congress and defend our rights.

On the other hand, contact with whites has affected our health very badly. They introduced malaria, diabetes, tuberculosis. We have our own natural medicine, but today we need a special department in Brazil’s public health system because of all the new diseases.

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PY Can you talk a little bit about the body paint?

CT There are lots of different types of paint, all of animal patterns. The women’s paint is different than the men’s paint. There is paint for children, teenagers, for different types of rituals and parties that we have. For men, there exists the paint of a warrior, which signifies that he will fight, as well as paint that shows his wife is pregnant, and paint to indicate that his newborn is his first. In that case, he will paint his full body in red, then the next day he will shave the middle of his head, like his wife, and paint himself all in black. It’s a communication network.

PY How did you become a leader?

CT When I was growing up, I already had relatives who were part of the Kayapó leadership. This is where I learned, since I was very young, to fight those wanting to terminate indigenous territories and who want to place laws against indigenous people and end indigenous culture and language. The government speaks poorly of indigenous people, but I will continue to fight against them. The Brazilian government has already taken over the majority of our land, and they’re still passing new laws to get more, but I won’t let them. This is the land I received from my ancestors. I won’t open my palm for those wanting to dominate.

PY What’s it like to be not only a leader but a woman leader? Is it common for the Kayapó to have women leaders?

CT In the past, someone who was strong and had the appearance and character of a leader—someone who everybody respected in the community—would become one. In my family I’m the third generation of leadership. My uncle and his father were all leaders in our community, so it’s from my family. When my uncle died and there was nobody to take his place, I decided to, instead of giving the opportunity to someone less qualified, even though I’m a woman. It wasn’t very difficult for me.

PY Was there any resistance to your leadership in the beginning?

CT No. Everyone respects me. All the other leaders know me, like Raoni. They follow me and I follow them.

PY What kind of discrimination from the Brazilian government are your people facing?

CT [Michel] Terner is saying we don’t deserve the land we have. He’s supporting PEC 215, which is a law to demarcate indigenous territories, which will let farmers and minors use our land. [Editor’s note: PEC 215 is a proposal to shift tribal land demarcation duties from the government agency Funai to Congress, which heavily favors agribusiness. Indigenous people worry this will hasten eviction of tribes from their rightful lands]. He’s saying, “What are the indigenous people doing with all their land? They have enormous property, but they aren’t doing anything with it, they aren’t even paying taxes.”

PY Can you tell me a little bit about the photographs you’re known for, specifically the one taken at the national congress in Brasilia, and the other where you’re holding a knife against a man’s throat during the Belo Monte Dam project meeting?

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Chief Tuire running her machete blade over the face of a Bela Monte Dam government engineer in 1989.

CT When I was young and the Belo Monte Dam project was happening, it was like history was repeating itself: the government was trying to take over our rivers, ruin our natural landscape, and move our villages. On the day of our meeting with dam officials, I thought to myself, “I’m going to look inside his eyes and make sure that the president of Funai [the federal Indian protection agency] and the project engineers see me. I went there with my knife, which I still keep in my house, and put it in his face so he would stop mistreating our people. I am only a woman, a fighter, but they needed to respect me. This was my land.

The river is made by god, for us, and I didn’t want it to get polluted, or for our forests to be cleared. There are other types of energy that exist; why couldn’t they use those? Everybody makes mistakes, but the thing with this government is that it’s corrupt. They’re only interested in elections. They always send appeals and entreaties to us, but they never actually come here; they don’t see our reality. The Brazilian government receives money from foreign governments too. This is why I want you to pass along my thoughts to people abroad. I don’t like this government that just came to power, because Terner can’t say to my face that he wants to destroy our indigenous culture and land.

Pinar Yolaçan is a multidisciplinary artist based in New York and Sao Paulo. She studied fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Fine Art Media in Chelsea School of Art before graduating from The Cooper Union with a BFA in 2004. Her work has been included in group shows such as State of the Art Photography NRW-Forum, Dusseldorf, Germany; Tracking Traces, KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland; The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video, International Center of Photography, New York; Greater New York, MoMA PS1, New York; Out of Focus, The Saatchi Gallery, London; Vanitas: Fashion and Art, Bass Museum, Miami, Florida; and Convergences, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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