Living by Nature’s Rhythm

Art meets activism in renowned photographer Claudia Andujar’s collaboration with the Yanomami people.

FIFTY YEARS HAVE passed since Swiss-Hungarian photographer Claudia Andujar began spending long stretches in the Amazon. In the early 1970s, after settling in Brazil, she traveled to the forest territory of Roraima in the north of the country, along the Venezuelan border, for a magazine assignment. Here, she had her first encounter with the Yanomami people. This meeting of divergent worldviews challenged her perceptions and came to define her life’s work. “I think the most important thing is the chance to introduce people to another aspect of our world,” Claudia Andujar stated when describing the singular focus of her photographic career.

There are roughly 30,000 Yanomami spread over a territory twice the size of Switzerland, residing in 300 autonomous villages, each centered around a singular communal house. And though each village is independent, they are loosely connected through a labyrinthine network of remembered forest paths — and sometimes marriage. Although the Yanomami are not the only Indigenous group to inhabit the forest, they are the most numerous.

Andujar’s early images capture a reality simplified to the basics of human development: food, shelter, community, and spiritual connection. But these images are not categorical documentary photographs. Andujar is focused on conjuring the Yanomami’s emotional reality. Initially, she used techniques like smearing Vaseline on her lens and shooting with oil lamps or infrared film to capture the ambiance. Within these pictures, we sense our own very distant past. As Andujar explains, this “allows us to recognize ourselves in other human beings who deserve to live their lives as they wish and according to their own understanding of the world.” For thousands of years, the Yanonomi had lived in sync with nature’s rhythms, in spiritual harmony with the land. To date, the forest has provided everything: nutrition, medicine, communion, and solace. Only today do the semi-nomadic Yanomami struggle to preserve their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the depths of an abundant forest, which over the last century has been ravaged for its natural resources.

In late January 2023, Yanomami elder and shaman Davi Kopenawa, accompanied by members of the community’s younger generation, trekked from their collective house near the Demini River to the periphery of their forest universe. From there, the group pressed onward to Boa Vista, the largest city at the jungle’s frontier, then flew south to Sao Paolo, where they boarded a plane for New York City. The purpose of their journey: an exhaustive exhibition of Andujar’s work and an opportunity to advocate for their cause and way of life.

Early on in her time with the Yanomami, Andujar inverted the usual artist-subject relationship, encouraging the tribe to create their own representations of their daily lives and beliefs. As a result, some 80 drawings and paintings by Yanomami artists hang alongside Andujar’s photographs, many exhibited for the first time. Ehuana Yaira sketches female work such as nut, berry, and honey foraging; the tending of cassava, plantains, and maize; and child-rearing. André Taniki and Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe include vibrantly patterned animistic representations of flora and fauna entwined with Yanomami myth. Morzaniel Ɨramari, Aida Harika, and Edmar Tokorino’s films observe life under a communitarian roof, as well as hunting and fishing expeditions along the forest’s trails. Joseca Mokahesi, whose work has been exhibited internationally, focuses on elaborate renderings of the benevolent spirits: the xapiri. Communication with these spirits, asking for their protection, is an essential component of the Yanomami way of life. The scintillating energy of these regular shamanic ceremonies is captured by Andujar’s quasi-mystical photographs, giving static visual form to both the physical and immaterial.


The Yanomami’s complex cosmology weaves through both Andujar’s and the Yanomami’s work. The Yanomami believe that Omama is the creator of their universe: a deity who crafted the urihi-a, the land of the forest, then added rivers and trees to cover its surface, and created humans to inhabit and protect the land. Pointing to his own schema hanging in the exhibition, Kopenawa explains, “This [drawing] shows the beginning of the forest as it was born and formed like a child. Omama drew the land, then stretched it further out, pulling to create the forest’s vastness.” According to their ontological myth, the universe is divided into four horizontal planes that from time to time fall into one another, creating a new era. From this view, the Yanomami have lived in the Amazon since the time when the last sky fell, from which the present forest emerged. If counting by the metrics of science, the Yanomami have been around for between eight and 10 millennia.

The sky once again appears to be in a precarious position. As in most creation myths, Kopenawa points out, there is a maleficent force in Yanomami lore. Yoasi, the twin brother of Omama, was banished from the forest-land after much wickedness. He is responsible for disease, destruction, and death. He is the maker of the malevolent outsiders, the nape, who come to pillage the Yanomami land. Today, this threat of cultural wipeout is real. Daily news abounds with stories of deforestation and illegal mining of gold and minerals across the Amazon. Andujar’s later images are a chronicle of these incursions: poisoned waterways, illness, and disappearing game.

To understand “The Yanomami Struggle,” as the show is titled, is to suspend for a moment our own beliefs around the necessities of growth, ownership, and social hierarchies that guide the trajectories of our culture. To the Yanomami, we city-dwellers are “people of merchandise,” ever in pursuit of accumulation. The show, organized by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (Paris), the Instituto Moreira Salles (Sao Paolo), and The Shed (NYC), offers a real-time window into the destruction of the environment and Indigenous communities.

“What is important for people to understand is that Indigenous people are the hosts and protectors of Mother Earth,” Dario Kopenawa, son of Davi and vice president of the Hutukara Associação, tells me. “Out there, in the forest, it smells like flowers, plants, and healthy earth, like a rich perfume. It is a living environment that smells alive. The forest is our connection to nature. Without it, we don’t have life.”

The exhibition, as the introduction notes, presents a story of cooperation and resistance, dream and struggle, a demand for recognition, and a fight for survival. Andujar’s personal journey commenced when she fled the Holocaust more than half a century ago and found its destination in the humidity, density, and mud of Yanomami land. Now 92, Andujar can longer undertake grueling journeys into the forest, but her driving force remains her solidarity in the Yanomami fight for sovereignty.

“This is why we are here in America,” she says, “so you can understand who the Yanomami people are because they are threatened to disappear if they don’t get more support.” Due in large part to Andujar’s activism, the inalienable right to the preservation of the Terra Indígena Yanomami was written into the Brazilian constitution 30 years ago, defining their forest land as a demarcated, protected territory. When asked why it is important for people in New York City and other cities of the world to know the Yanomami, artist Joseca Mokahesi put it simply: “You are very far from us, and we are very far from you. We know how to be well and live well on our land. This is why we bring you our drawings, the way Claudia Andujar did and taught us to do, so that you can see us and help us protect the forest.”

“The Yanomami Struggle” remains on view at The Shed in New York City through April 16, before moving on to Mexico City.

Additional Resources

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    Founded by Davi Kopenawa in 2004, Hutukara Associao Yanomami represents disparate Yanomami communities in Brazil by advancing Indigenous rights within the country. Hutukara also works to conserve the rainforest.

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Polina Aronova-Cahn is an editor and writer who connects the interrelated dots of culture, style, and conscious living. Her work is focused on lifestyle communication, translating the tools of mindfulness and holistic well-being into approachable yet aspirational stories of deep human connection.


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