On “Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact) and more: A Conv...

On “Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact) and more: A Conversation with Pınar Yolaçan

Before the online screening of a moving portrait of “Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact), we talked with the artist Pınar Yolaçan about the preparation process behind her video piece, the shifts in her artistic practice, and her particular interest in the indigenous communities.

You are most known for your Maria and Perishables series and as a photographer. What led you to transition from photography to video as a medium? 

My work is process and research-based so when I am working on a new body of work and I arrive at a conceptual frame for a series, I first have to identify the community or the individuals I want to work with, then there is a lengthy process in which I meet them to build a relationship of trust. This is very different from a photographer who shoots professional models, self-portraits, family, and friends within their own community where familiarity and trust is already or immediately established, or documentary work where once you establish a relationship, the rest of the work for a photographer is to point and shoot.

As in Maria and Perishables series, I worked in a constructed, staged setting in which I paint the people I work with or make clothes for them resulting in their likeness being altered in the final work. Hence I have to develop a relationship with a complete stranger each time so they trust me to not only photograph them but I need their individual consent to their body becoming material for me to work with over a period of time. Unlike an artist who works with clay or plaster or paint and canvas, I am working with a live subject matter and I need to make them understand that the work is built around them both physically and conceptually. There are constant communication and negotiation that takes place between my own subjectivity as the artist and theirs as subjects. I need a personal commitment from them to collaborate with me to experiment until the final stage of the image. So as instant as the medium of photography can be, the process of my work takes as long as to finish a painting or a sculpture and if the person I work with abandons this process at any stage, I have to start over or simply kill the project altogether! This comes with its own emotional anxiety for me and for them as there can be misunderstandings, lack of trust or any other type of issue.

So for me over time, it became important to document this aspect of my work, of how I meet, communicate and build trust to work with the people I choose to work with. So, I started to use video recordings for my own documentation of my own process and with the digital technology, it was available. Sometimes, I interview my subjects, record the entire photoshoot or record certain experiments with the materials I use, especially if they are perishable. Over the years it became important for me to reveal and share this documentation with my audience as the final work was always a series of photographs but it would take years of my personal and professional life to establish these relationships. So the amount of emotional investment made it worthwhile for me to finally pay more attention to properly document these encounters, meetings, and negotiations and to publish them. 

Screenshot from “Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact) by Pınar Yolaçan

Can you tell us about your video “Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact) and why the second title in parenthesis?

“Tuire Kayapó” (First Contact) is an example of one of these meetings hence the second title “First Contact”. It is an interview/ portrait of her but it also allows the audience to be a witness to my “first contact”, my proper first meeting with her. And contrary to popular Eurocentric myths or previous documentaries manifesting the ‘first contact’ with the Indigenous people (such as French director Vincent Carelli’s film O Encontro)  it is not me chasing her out in the jungle with a camera crew in full gear but rather having a conventional sit-down conversation with her in her plastic purple chair, answering questions about herself, her leadership, her village, and her thoughts about everything from discrimination to deforestation to government politics.

I do have an archive of other interviews I did in the Indigenous villages over a period of a year and a half but I am not interested in building aesthetics or telling an ethnographic narrative through them. I am simply using the medium of video and the interview format as a tool to gain familiarity with the community and also a documentation of my own process while trying to establish a relationship with the community. And this video demonstrates just that, a simple and candid conversation between us.

“Unlike an artist who works with clay or plaster or paint and canvas, I am working with a live subject matter and I need to make them understand that the work is built around them both physically and conceptually. There are constant communication and negotiation that takes place between my own subjectivity as the artist and theirs as subjects. I need a personal commitment from them to collaborate with me to experiment until the final stage of the image. So as instant as the medium of photography can be, the process of my work takes as long as to finish a painting or a sculpture and if the person I work with abandons this process at any stage, I have to start over or simply kill the project altogether!”


Why were you interested in the Indigenous communities? 

To start from the very beginning, I was invited to Kiosko artist’s residency in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia in 2016. This city has an Ayoreo community and I was interested in doing research on them as I was developing a project for my residency. They were the first Indigenous community I visited. I met some researchers and some NGOs, gathered some information, and eventually went to visit the Ayoreo community which is just outside Santa Cruz. Although the Ayoreo is nomadic and still known to have some uncontacted members across parts of the forest in Bolivia and Paraguay, the Degui community which I visited adapted to a sedentary lifestyle after they had their first contact with Missionaries during the construction of the railroad between Bolivia and Brazil (Santa Cruz-Corumba) in the 1940s. I was particularly interested in their textile work, their bags, similar to “heybe” in the Yoruk people of Turkey. The weaving communicated certain symbols for the community, for example, whether they were married or single, etc.  They had an oral storytelling and singing tradition which they used to pass stories from one to the other similar to the “aşık” tradition and other oral traditions in Turkey. Also, their societal structure was matriarchal, where all the chiefs were females and they were the breadwinners of the home.

This had parallels with Mother Goddess’s cults of Anatolia which I was researching a few years ago for another body of work and the Yoruk -Turkoman communities which I shot for another project in Turkey who were historically nomadic and have a similar weaving practice. So those similarities were very curious to me. However, post-contact, the Ayoreo in Santa Cruz as with most Indigenous populations, lost their territory and they ended up in preferical situations not belonging to the city nor could continue their traditions as many of them died and the rest were assimilated. To cut it short, the residency lasted two months and I was so overwhelmed and affected that I couldn’t get myself to process- neither the aesthetical or cultural nor the sociological or anthropological part of any of it. Nothing. I was depressed. I was later reading Lucas Bessire’s book on the Ayoreo titled “The Black Caiman” and he begins his book by expressing similar emotions. The residency asked me to at least write something about it but I couldn’t even get myself to deliver that. This was when I realized this would be long-term research. 

Tuire Kayapó by Pınar Yolaçan

How did you become interested in the Kayapó? 

Back in NY, while continuing my research on the aesthetic traditions of the Indigenous people in South America (in the New York Public Library, which I frequent often for all types of research) I came across a book called “Grafismo Indigena” by Lux Vidal. I saw examples and examinations of body paintings by the Assuruni, the Kayapó, and the Xikrin people who used full-body painting, not just as adornment but as a communication tool between the community, similar to the weaving in Assuruni but instead of textiles, the patterns were applied directly onto the body, and carried social symbols, like marital status, childbearing, etc. I researched the areas where these communities lived. I came across information about archeological artifacts from Marajoara island famous for its ceramics and Serra de Capivara national park which is famous for its cave drawings. These were linked to the body painting tradition and its symbols.

The history of ancient civilizations in the Amazon is being repeatedly erased from national and Western art history canons yet there have been celebrated artists of enormous recent success such as the Brazilian modernist Lygia Pape who has been influenced by the Indigenous cultures and their aesthetics. Anyway, back in Brazil, I took trips to all these sites and conducted further research by visiting museums. As the body is at the center of all of my work, I was interested in the Kayapó/Xikrin methodology of painting and its performative and ritualistic aspects. That was my main research focus. I had just finished working on a series titled “Mechanical Body” In Sao Paulo where I had used body painting. So I definitely wanted to pursue visiting and possibly working with either of these communities.

How did you come across Tuire Kayapó? 

Unlike the Ayoreo in Bolivia and many other Amazon communities, the Kayapó were able to preserve their culture and resist and keep most of their territory. In almost all of the books I was researching, there was the picture of Tuire as the symbol of Indigenous resistance. Her picture at the famous Altamira meeting against the building of the Belo Monte Dam holding a machete against the engineer’s face and other pictures of her in other congress meetings where she would be pointing her finger at another “executive” white male. She was such a symbol of Indigenous resistance but, yet, I could not find any interview or any material especially about her. 

How did you eventually manage to meet her? 

Back in Sao Paulo, I was hoping to find a contact leading up to her. I contacted many academics, anthropologists, and linguists including Lux Vidal from the University of Sao Paulo and other artists who worked with Indigenous communities such as Claudia Andujar who is known for her photography work with the Yanomami people. Then eventually I was invited by a Kayapó chief from Mojkarako village to attend the “Seed Exchange week” which is a semi-public event in the Mebengokre Kayapó territory in Para. After a long journey lasting three days, I was able to reach the village where I met many Kayapó leaders and I saw Tuire amongst them. She was the only female I saw, but I couldn’t speak to her directly as she didn’t speak any Portuguese. However, a few months later I was able to arrange another visit to the Kayapó territory, this time to her village Kaprankrere near Redencao with a language professor. I proposed to him that we could use the material for research at the university and that Tuire being a female leader, it was important to interview her. So I was introduced to her by his help and we could conduct the interview with a native translator. That’s how I met her. 

Courtesy of Pınar Yolaçan

Can you tell us about your introduction to the community? How did you present yourself to her and her community? 

I was introduced to her as an artist from Turkey. I was clear that I was not an activist, not an anthropologist, a journalist, certainly not a missionary. Completely independent of all this which gave me autonomy. But in the Indigenous context, as an outsider, as much as I would like to think that I do not carry the burden of the histories that come with such titles, I wondered what I represent for them in their reality? They don’t often have artists come and do “studio visits” with them to see their body painting process. Understandably, there is hostility towards “kuben” the non-indigenous people as they call them/us/me.  So I question my own subjectivity in this context more than theirs. If I were to study their body painting which is considered something sacred, how in practice could we truly collaborate? So these questions are still unanswered and it is not something I can process easily. In no other community, I felt my own presence so intensely. But when I first visited the Mojkarako village, the chief had a welcome sit down with me and said “Look we are happy you are here. My arms are open to you. But do you know what is going on in these territories? Do you know about PEC 215? Do you know about demarcation? Let me tell you” He asked me to attend their meetings with him and the other leaders, record the material and also work to publish it to highlight some of these issues. So on the basis of this, I was accepted into the community. Which of course I was happy to do. For me, the entire video interview with Tuire is an example of the type of negotiation I have to do once I establish access with this specific community and also where the audience is free to witness and question my subjectivity, representation, or my role there. 

In the second part of the interview, you preferred to include your own voice while talking to Tuire. What was the reason for the change in the format? What effect does it create on the audience?  

In the first part, many of the questions were written beforehand and asked through a translator. I knew that there were specific things she wanted to say as a leader, particularly about deforestation, demarcation, PEC 215, and discrimination. Those were the things she wanted me to share and publish to help her with her cause. In the second part, I sensed that she was done telling everything she wanted to say and so I thought we could have a more relaxed conversation about her and her background which I was curious about. And since I didn’t write those questions I just began asking them spontaneously and directly (through the translator) to her. And I think at this moment it became possible for the audience to just be a witness to our encounter and the process of how that relationship of trust that I am talking about was beginning to stem. I also didn’t want to make many cuts and just let the time run as it was. I am a big fan of Claude Lanzmann and Eduardo Coutinho and their use of time and conversation in their work. I realized that translation and language are key especially in an Indigenous context. This was done from Kayapó to Portuguese and Portuguese to English and Turkish. Anthropologists and filmmakers historically were able to build whatever narrative they wanted with the Indigenous people because of the lack of communication with these communities. In the video, there are parts where I don’t fully understand the translator or where the translator doesn’t understand Tuire and I made a deliberate choice to not cut those parts so the audience can see the issues that arise with language in such situations. For example, it shows that today some Kayapó elders speak differently than the younger generation and I don’t have to narrate that in order for it to be understood when I can just leave the conversation as it is and the information becomes self-evident. I am “the author” but I am also present in the footage when traditionally in documentaries the narrator/author is well protected and often a male westerner establishes the truth for us and his subjectivity isn’t questioned but here I expose myself and my own subjectivity. 

As a female visual artist, how did speaking to another female subject directly affect your viewpoint? 

When I visited Mojkarako village during the seed exchange week, everybody that was holding a camera including people from the local community were male. I was the only female and I could sense hostility towards me like “it must be so hard for you being a female here” by other white male photographers. Historically most photographers, anthropologists, journalists have been Euro descendant males and their subjects are also other males. They are the ones responsible for helping to illustrate false narratives about the Indigenous people. Tuire is also among very few females in leadership. So I was not surprised when Tuire revealed to me that nobody interviewed her before because I imagine they were intimidated and it was because she was a woman and they perhaps didn’t know how to approach her. When I met her, I said to her that as a woman I admired her and her leadership and her courage to go up to these government officials and show them that they are not the ones calling all the shots. This was the sort of energy that I needed to brace myself for the Trump era which proved to be very sexist and racist. 

Courtesy of Pınar Yolaçan

The lack of environmental protection, demarcation of the Indigenous lands, education, and human rights are getting more representation in all fields. You did this interview in 2017. Why did you decide to publish the work now?

The Kayapó are historically known for their activism. They know no fight can be won alone and they have their history and established methods. So they are willing to form allyships. They know they need others to help them with getting their voices heard in any way possible. They understand the importance of getting organized from the very beginning (and a good example of this is when the great late leader Paiakan organized the Altamira meeting in 1989 against the building of the Belo Monte dam with the Kayapó and leaders from other tribes) So their resistance is very inspiring at this moment.  Even in the US, or Brazil, or Turkey, one needs to organize and allyship is very important in any battle against racism, deforestation, climate change, etc. This is why I made sure the subtitles were in Turkish and English so people in my own country can also learn about them as an example for environmental activism. The Kayapó philosophy is very simple that, we all need oxygen, we all need air, we all need water, if you destroy the planet, you will not only kill the planet, you will commit suicide.  As Tuire says in the interview, nature is for the survival of all of us, the entire human race, not just the Indigenous.  It is a scientific fact that Covid is a direct result of the environmental crisis and it won’t be the last virus to disrupt our lives so why continue this destruction? For me when you listen to the interview, her words and her fight are a metaphor for what is happening today with Covid, racism, and the climate crisis. This is why it was important to publish it now.

Watch the online screening of “Tuire Kayapo” (First Contact) by Pınar Yolaçan on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Set your reminder for the premiere through the link below!

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