Macuxi artist and geographer Jaider
Esbell’s “Cattle in the Amazon: Despised Invaders to Prized Possessions?”
exhibition is currently on display at Pitzer College.
The exhibit mainly features works by Esbell, a visiting professor who is originally from the Amazon region of Brazil. In addition to his works, the exhibit features paintings by other indigenous artists. The paintings traveled from Boa Vista, the capital of the Brazilian
state of Roraima, which is located in the Amazon rainforest.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Pitzer is offering a course entitled “Run to the Forest” that blends art with anthropology. Like the works featured in the exhibit, the course focuses on indigenous and global discourses of nature, sustainability, and development while also exploring cosmologies and historical experiences of Macuxi Indians. It is being co-taught this semester by Esbell and Pitzer Associate Professor of Anthropology Lêda Martins.
“My involvement in art comes from
my life experiences growing up with a lot of conflict and violence between my
tribe and the Brazilians in the region as well as prejudice against indigenous
people. It was part of my experience at a very young age,” Esbell said. “When I
started coming of age, there was a movement to address the situation my tribe
was in. All those struggles for respect, land, and rights became part of my
consciousness. At the same time, I worked with the church a bit and became
aware of my ability as an artist. I associated art as part of this struggle for
my people and the Brazilian society.”
At the core of Esbell’s work is a focus on the history of cattle in the Macuxi territory, which were first
introduced by white capitalist ranchers. His paintings explore both the impact
of the cattle on the environment and the ways in which the Macuxi people have
responded to the cattle and the ranchers.
“Cattle was brought to my tribe as
an oppressive mechanism by white ranchers to take away our land, our villages,
our hunting grounds, and our gardens,” Esbell said. “We were eventually able to
use cattle as a means to survive. We started incorporating cattle in our
community to base for protection and to maintain our land. That adaptability
and that willingness to make new connections and think of the future has made
us very successful. We are the living proof that adaptability is possible even
in a powerless position.”
Esbell and Martins come from the same region of Brazil. For the past 20 years, Martins has worked with Esbell’s Macuxi tribe alongside political and human rights activists.
However, they did not meet
until 2012, when Martins’s friends and family introduced her to Esbell, a then-emerging artistic figure. Martins asked Esbell if he would be interested in presenting his work at Pitzer and co-teaching a course with her as part of
the college’s four-year Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, which supports interdisciplinary efforts and the bridging of arts and environment.
“The class is fascinating for me
when we talk about his different paintings. The students are working together
with Esbell to create a wonderful canvas,” Martins said. “It’s a collective
process in which [Esbell] conceptualizes and the students add parts to it.
Every concept we discuss with the students comes embedded in a very material,
visual image. The students are working with myths from [Esbell’s] tribe and
they are going to paint something based on that myth.”
Daniel Segal, Jean Pitzer Professor of Anthropology
and History, is the curator for the exhibit. He is passionate
about Esbell’s artistic capability, and grateful that he was able to bring
the exhibit’s works of arts from one of the most remote cities in the Amazon.
“We have an asymmetrical global
world. It flows from the center outward. This is an exhibit that reverses that
and takes very impressive and important artistic production from an out-of-the-way
place,” Segal said. “It’s a way of making globalization symmetrical and having
flows that move from those places towards where we live in the U.S. rather than
just flows from work districts in the U.S. moving outward to the world.”
Segal stressed the importance of
teaching his students the responsibilities they must take on for the livelihood
of the future.
“Part of [a student’s] political
responsibility is to pay attention to the rest of the world and to take
seriously the political and artistic voices that come from other places,” Segal said. “[Not just talking] about caring about the rest of the world,
[but instead] learning to be attentive to the world.”
Segal said the exhibit experienced various complications during its lengthy setup period. Martins had to translate each of Esbell’s poems, which accompany his paintings and sculptures, from Portuguese to English. Additionally, organizers experienced difficulties associated with transporting large works of art all the way from the Amazon.
Segal had the opportunity to visit Boa Vista prior to Esbell’s
arrival, where he was fascinated by Esbell’s unique approach to art.
“It’s different, and that’s what
happens when one steps outside of boundaries and looks at art done in other
places by other people who are not necessarily following the same conventions that
we’re used to,” Segal said.
As a central Macuxi tribe member
during a very important political and social movement, Esbell has quite
literally come a long way to have the opportunity to share his artwork with the
“I am doing a lot to create a
network of artists and to connect that network of artists to other parts of
life to foster art as use of communication between different cultures,” Esbell said. “It’s very important for me to talk to students and spread this idea
that we do have a lot in common through art. I think of art as a collective
project to bring people together through shared exchanges of ideas and values.”
The majority of the exhibit’s pieces are on display in the Grove House’s Barbara Hinshaw Memorial Gallery, and two more 14 by 12-foot paintings can be found in the McConnell Living Room in the McConnell Center. The exhibit will be on display through Oct. 27.