A salvo for Brazil's indigenous population


Brazil's Indians total 270,000 and speak about 170 languages. One tribe, the Makuxi, a group no longer knowledgeable of its ancient religious practices, lives on the arid savanna of the state of Roraima, in the contentious area of Raposa Serra do Sol, on the border between Brazil and the Guianas. In October 1995 the Makuxi and their neighbors, the Yanomami, plagued by the devastation of illegal gold mining, were visited by Manhattan-based Brazilian photographer Valdir Cruz, who stayed with them for two months and photographed them extensively. A year later, obsessed with what he had seen, Cruz returned, accompanied by Patrick Tierney, author of The Highest Altar (1989). This time Cruz expanded his focus, photographing some Yanomami living in Venezuela's Siapa mountain range. He had discovered his mission: to turn the Indian faces into a testimony.

A third, more ambitious trip, underwritten in part by a Guggenheim fellowship, took place between November 1996 and March 1997. Keeping a detailed, linguistically hybrid diary of his penurious sojourns, Cruz engaged in a two-hundred-kilometer hike from village to village, visiting not only the Makuxi and the Yanomami but also the Ingarikó, in the Manalai region; he then returned to the Yanomami, who, because of mercury-contaminated waterways and polluted food sources, confront a faster decline than the other Indians he had encountered.

Cruz's journeys were in line with those of eighteenth-century European explorers to the New World - except, of course, that the foreigner was no longer an 'enlightened" non-Continental and the scientific "I" had been all but replaced by the photographic “eye." The result, as evidenced in the following photo-documentary, is preternatural. Cruz's chiaroscuro faces are the last salvo for a near-extinct civilization, devastated a year after the photographer's departure by fires caused by drought and made worse by the poor farming techniques used in the region. He dialogues with history and the environment on the same level, accentuating their antagonism. His technique was influenced by George A. Tice, whose pictorial studies of James Dean's Fairmont, Indiana; Mark Twain's Hannibal, Missouri; and Ronald Reagan's Dixon, Illinois - are legendary. Tice persuaded Cruz to approach his craft as art. But Cruz's portraitures are altogether unique: postcolonial in spirit, the product of an émigré's return home, of a native looking in - and out.

In Cruz's art the human face becomes a mirror.

Ilan Stavans for Hopscotch: a cultural review – volume I - Number I/1999
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