Lenses on Brazil’s heart

Brasil Observer - Mar 11 2016
Two Matis warriors demonstrate the use of blowpipes, their traditional hunting weapon, during the International Indigenous Games, in the city of Palmas, Tocantins State, Brazil. Photo © Sue Cunningham, pictures@scphotographic.com 27th October 2015
First ever International Indigenous Games (Photo: Sue Cunningham)

(Leia em Português)


Exhibition of Sue Cunningham reveals new perspective on indigenous communities from Brazil and all over the world


By Gabriela Lobianco

The Embassy of Brazil in London opens a new exhibition by English photographer Sue Cunningham, from 4 to 24 March, at Sala Brasil. With more than 30 years photographing the indigenous culture, especially in Brazil and Peru, Sue returns to the series In the Heart of Brazil.

In 2007, Sue and her husband, Patrick Cunningham, navigated 2,500 kilometres throughout the Xingu River in the Amazon Forest to register the harmony of a people that respects nature and lives in peace. In this new project, she eternalized with her clicks the first ever International Indigenous Games, which took place in October 2015 and brought more than 2,000 athletes from 30 countries to Palmas, in Tocantins state.

Owner of the largest photo archive of Brazil outside of Brazil, Sue Cunningham spoke to Brasil Observer about her new exhibition, commenting on the threats that the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam imposes to the indigenous people of the region and on the work of the indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro, whose documentary London as a Village was recently screened in London.


What could the audiences expect of this new exhibition?

They can expect a splash of colour in the grey of winter. They will be surprised at the diversity of indigenous cultures from all over the planet, but especially the variety of peoples from within Brazil. They will see the vibrancy of tribal people, their strong traditions and cultural heritage. I hope that Brazilian visitors will realise that the strength of their indigenous cultural heritage is something they can be proud of.


Could you tell us about the process of this exhibition?

We spent ten days in Palmas, Tocantins, where the first International Indigenous Games took place. We were amazed at the positive delight with which the 5,000 non-indigenous crowds cheered indigenous people from everywhere, especially Brazil. Many of the people I photographed asked us to show the world so that is what I am doing here in London.

When we left, we drove across the state of Tocatins into Para and Mato Grosso, taking a road which travels through the Megranoti Indigenous Reserve, a huge indigenous territory occupied by the Kayapó. It took us back to the Xingu River, to a place we hadn’t been to since our six-month expedition in 2007. It was a very emotional experience, like going back to see a good friend after many years. From there we went to visit an indigenous secondary school in the reserve, because they had asked us to help them to re-build the student accommodation – which is the current fund-raising priority for Tribes Alive, the charity we are trustees of.

Then we headed back to the UK. Since then we have been planning and mounting the exhibition. It is exciting to turn an idea into a reality.


Given your experience with the indigenous people from Xingu, how do you think they are going to deal with Belo Monte once it is finished? What are the threats in your view? Is there a way out?

It seems there is no way out; the reservoir is being filled as we speak and the first turbine will soon be turning. Brazil is capable of harnessing the power of alternative energy – there’s so much sun and so much wind; Brazil should be leading the world in developing this technology!

We have visited the tribal communities which are on the front line of Belo Monte. They are already under massive pressure; their territories have been invaded, their river is already polluted and will soon become impassable, and their traditions and cultures are being torn up and destroyed. The ecosystem which has supported them for millennia has been turned upside down, making them increasingly reliant on handouts from the dam consortium, which will eventually dry up, leaving them with no means to feed and maintain themselves and no dignity.

But the major threat comes from the arrival of over 100,000 migrants who were attracted by the promise of work on the construction project. Once the dam is finished they will be laid off, with no alternative but to try to find a piece of land where they can grow some food to feed their families. The ‘improvements’ in the transport infrastructure offer them easy access to indigenous territories, so invasions will be a major issue.

The dam consortium and the government think that it is okay to give them a few thousand reais in ‘compensation’, but how can you compensate a community which has always fed and housed itself from the forest, and has survived – and thrived – without the need for money? If you destroy the forest and the river, you destroy their means of subsistence, you take away their independence and you sweep away their cultures and traditions. There is no way to compensate for that.


What are your thoughts about Takumã Kuikuro’s documentary ‘London as a Village’, recently screened at the Brazilian Embassy?

We visited Takumã’s village during our expedition along the Xingu River, and we’ve followed his career ever since. He is a remarkable person, with a unique way of seeing, his view of London displays a level of insight which some people might find surprising, bearing in mind that he didn’t even begin to learn Portuguese until he was 18, and didn’t set foot outside the indigenous reserve for the first time until he was 12. He is a gifted, hard-working film-maker with a very clear concept of what he wants to achieve. In many ways he is very worldly, yet he is only really at ease back home in his village in the Xingu, making films of his own people, which he then shows them, reinforcing the importance of their culture. Takumã represents the intelligence and spirituality of his people.

While he was filming in London he was struck by the similarities between the problems he encountered amongst small communities here – like the people who live in houseboats on the Thames – and what his own people are dealing with, in terms of threats which affect their communities, and which they have to fight in order to retain their homes and their futures.


What could Londoners learn from Brazil’s indigenous culture?

First, you need to be asking that in the plural. With around 120 indigenous languages still in existence in Brazil, each with its own ethnicity and culture, there is more cultural dynamism in Brazil than exists here. Respect for other people’s values would be a good start.

What else can we learn? Spending time in the Xingu has shown me that our industrial materialism is incompatible with the future well-being of mankind, at least in the way it operates in the present. In an indigenous village you cannot tell which house belongs to the chief’s family, because he has no material advantage from his position. Indigenous people simply do not waste anything, and the small amount of rubbish they generate from their traditional way of life is completely degradable – though this is changing as they begin to use manufactured goods. They have a spiritual connection to their environment, so they just wouldn’t countenance taking anything more from the forest than they need. We would do well to adopt a similar approach. We could leave more natural resources for future generations and create less pollution and environmental destruction.

In a nutshell, we can re-learn from them everything that we have forgotten. They say “we all live on one earth, we breathe one air, and we drink one water; we are trying to give you back the knowledge that we are alive, and that this planet is alive, because you have forgotten this.”


When: 4-24 March (Monday to Friday, from 11am to 6pm)

Where: Sala Brasil (14-16 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5BL)

Entrance: Free