Digital Brazil Project: Tell us a little bit about your background, where you have lived, and how you became an artist.
Denilson Baniwa: I was born in Rio Negro, Amazonas and that’s where I have lived most of my life. There, I also had access to Western education, which made me learn about a world outside the tribe. I dedicated my life to the Amazonian Indigenous Movement, which was my school of politics and struggle. Being an artist was never something I searched for, it happened accidentally when I was invited to be a part of an exhibition in 2016 called Dja Gjuata Porã - Indigenous Rio de Janeiro. At that moment I was able to see
how art could be allied in my work as part of the Indigenous struggle for rights and survival, while at the same time, it could be a voice to open up a dialogue with non-Indigenous people.
Digital Brazil Project: What do your collages communicate about your experience as a member of the Baniwa Indigenous group in Brazil? How does your identity inform your artistic practice?
Denilson Baniwa: The collages are part of my research about colonialist fiction in the construction of the Brazilian State. Brazilian society was created from historical fiction in which Indigenous history was not included. I treat the collage as a right of reply in which I can insert or take out parts of Brazilian symbols and thus create other narratives where I can include my own fiction, and in it, recount Indigenous histories. The collages give the possibility to retell a national history through a different point of view: the Indigenous point of view. Including photographs, sketches, and prints and overlaying them with my life experiences can help all of us in the creation of a new understanding about Brazil, no longer a linear understanding, but one where many histories intersect. This is my Indigenous view on how to rewrite Brazil through art.
Digital Brazil Project: You are an artist who works with different types of media. How and when did you start to make the collages and how do they relate to your art in general?
Denilson Baniwa: The collages were always a part of my life, but in other ways. I always did video and music collages, for example. I grew up in the 90s with a culture of mixing and mashups that I saw on TV. MTV, for example, was always present in part of my youth. The possibility of gathering different parts, putting them together, and remixing were always present in my life and, posteriorly, became part of my work as an artist. In the Indigenous world, this is done through other ways, but today I can contrast these different forms of art. While here, outside of the tribe, the collage, mixing and mashups are essentially visual, in the tribe they are done orally through the mixture of stories from the Baniwa mythology. What I do is to try to think as an Indigenous person in a non-Indigenous world.
Digital Brazil Project: What histories and legacies do you try to examine or criticize with your collages?
Denilson Baniwa: Histories of colonization and Indigenous resistance are the points of origin for my work. I think about the criticism of the appropriation of Indigenous people’s bodies and images, but also how these people were able to resist over time, even with all the violence they suffered in the Brazilian historical process.
" Histories of colonization and Indigenous resistance are the points of origin for my work."
Digital Brazil Project: You use a lot of references to popular culture and mass media. What is your relationship with these types of images and what is your message when you use these images?
Denilson Baniwa: Yes, I do. In the 90s I had access to television and comic books, and through them I caught a glimpse of worlds where fiction existed. Using mass culture as an artistic process is trying to circumvent the Brazilian resistance to talking about colonial violence. What I do is I use mass culture to bring about a serious debate, even if at first glance it does not seem like it. Only by looking at the image more carefully can the more serious layers of it be seen. It provides the possibility to attract through the visual and capture through the message. My message is: look at the cute art, only for the person to ultimately receive a blow of anticolonial speech.
" At the moment I am researching fiction and sci-fi and thinking about how these forms of expression can be metaphors for the colonization of Indigenous people [...] "
Digital Brazil Project: How do you make your collages? Where do you get the original materials?
Denilson Baniwa: I make my collages in two different ways: digital and analog. Both come from a lot of research and analysis of concepts. At the moment I am researching fiction and sci-fi and thinking about how these forms of expression can be metaphors for the colonization of Indigenous people, so, basically, the bulk of my current collage work is about this theme. And my research spans visiting libraries and museum archives, to watching movies, listening to music, and even speaking to other Indigenous people about how they see the process of colonization in Brazil. Everything is a process of reflection, and when I arrive at a thought that could be interesting, I start to mentally piece together all the images that I saw at any point during my research. When the collage is finalized in my head is when I start going after the images to put them together, whether it is from digital or analog archives. In general, the analog sources I buy are old prints from used bookstores or personal archives. I acquire the digital images from the digital archives of museums or universities.
Digital Brazil Project: As you alluded to, many images from science fiction and alien invasions appear in your recent collages. Why do these kinds of images interest you and how do they relate to what you want to express in your work?
Denilson Baniwa: The first movie I have a recollection of was Alien. It probably wasn’t the first movie I watched, but it was the first that made an impression on me. I had nightmares about it, and irrational fear of something I had never seen before: an alien that kills innocent people. I didn’t watch it in the movie theater, far from that, the movie is from 1979 and I was only in contact with it in 1989, ten years later. At that time, I had barely been introduced to a 12-inch black-and-white Philco [television]. I think those were the characteristics of this alien device that had landed in my community. The same one that introduced me to Fernando Collor [Brazilian president from 1990–1992] and Lula [Brazilian president from 2003–2010]. I watched Alien at the scheduled time designated for movies, right after one of the political debates for the Brazilian presidency. The whole community would get together to see the future of Brazil, in front of a tiny TV in black and white, with more ghosts and noises than the movie and the country. The future arrived and it is not better than the past. […]
Now I don’t think the xenomorph alien was the villain, after all, he was there peacefully in his village, living his day-to-day life, and then, a bunch of spaceships arrived, which were alien to him, and started to disturb his and his parents’ way of living.
Just like the metaphor of the arrival of aliens who destroy the human way of living, or of how progress advances through what is natural, and ends up reviving a monster that humanity didn’t know existed. It is basically the colonization process that we live in this territory. We, Indigenous people, are the ones who stop civilization from advancing into the places that have not yet been destroyed by exploration.
" The Western World produces fictional alien attacks that destroy people and cities because that is what they have done throughout time, and they fear a historical revenge."
I think that King Kong, who was taken from his land to be exhibited as a trophy and an aberration, could have very well been the Tupinambás sent to Europe to be displayed in public squares; Godzilla, the Lake Monster, the Kraken, all could have been representations of what happens when progress decides to advance through the forests, rivers, and ecosystems. The Western World produces fictional alien attacks that destroy people and cities because that is what they have done throughout time, and they fear a historical revenge. Because, for multiple Aboriginal people of this planet, at one point in time, the aliens were the Western World.
Digital Brazil Project: Why do you like working with collage and what does it offer you?
Denilson Baniwa: I like to work with collage because it allows me to create debates about colonization, collections, materials, copyrights, image rights, etc. all at the same time. While I create fiction about colonization, I also want to start a debate about, for example, who signed the image rights from that person? Or were these copyrights divided? And through these debates we can propose ways to return these images to their original place, while, at the same time, propose another way in which archives can no longer exist as cabinets of curiosity, but as a place that properly respects Indigenous people.
Digital Brazil Project: Where have you shown your collages and what was the response you got from the audience of your work?
Denilson Baniwa: The collages were shown in multiple places, from exhibitions throughout Brazil to Instagram posts. The responses vary a lot, people who liked the visuals but didn’t understand the message, but a lot of people could
understand the message and sent me responses like: wow! That image was beautiful and a punch to the stomach at the same time. This ambiguity between a beautiful image and a strong message excites me to think more about how collages can be a beautiful means of communication.
Digital Brazil Project: What would you like US audiences to know about you and your work?
Denilson Baniwa: I would like the people in the US to see my work and say: “Oh wow, Mickey Mouse, but why is he with the Amazonian Indigenous people?” This recognition of a global image in the same space as an unknown field, that is the history of Brazil’s colonization. I would like them to know that there are Indigenous people in the Amazon who live by their own culture, language, and rituals, but who also watch Disney and that this is, in a way, a type of resistance toward existing in a world where you can no longer isolate yourself from the rest of the world because that would mean our extinction, since our territory today is constantly being attacked by non-Indigenous people. So, we need to learn about the world outside our tribes, so that we can learn how to fight it.
Interview by Gillian Sneed, PhD
September 22, 2021
Artist Spotlight: Denilson Baniwa
Denilson Baniwa (Amazonia, Brazil, 1984) is an Indigenous artist who was born in the village of Darí in Rio Negro, Amazonas. Currently based in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Baniwa borrows images from colonial archives and appropriates the visual language of Western pop culture imagery in order to decolonize these images and reorient their significations.