I’m currently reading the book Brasil – A História (Brazil – The History) by the Brazilian writer and Historian Eduardo Bueno which, on one of its pages, has a significant statement that summarises how indigenous people from Brazil are seen and treated.
“After 500 years of conviviality always in conflict, the indigenous are still a little more than just a Brazilian myth. After all, they are uncured pessimists who commit suicide out of sheer desperation, like the members of the Guarani-Kayowá, or successful businessmen as the Kayapós. Can they be only seven, as the Xetá, or 23 thousand as the Tikuna? Where are they going? The answer doesn’t depend on them.”
It is believed that the Brazilian Indigenous population was over 2 million when the country was discovered in the 1500s. Nowadays, the remaining people consist of 215 tribes and speak 170 different languages. Where are they going? Again, the answer does not depend on them.
On the other hand, many people care about them and do extraordinary things to preserve the history and art of the remaining indigenous people in South America.
There is a project to resource and become informed about indigenous culture through art, media and photography.
Xapiri – which is a sacred word the Yanomami people from Brazil & Venezuela use for “spirit” – also works as a gallery and shop, holding a unique collection and artefacts about South American indigenous culture available in the UK.
It’s the first time such an important collection of artefacts and information has been accessible here in Europe.
I had the chance to talk to Jack Wheeler, one of the founders of Xapiri to know more about this amazing project.
Midlands T: Tell me about your interest in Brazilian Indigenous culture:
Jack Wheeler: When leaving college, I was working in a local bank but was not content so I decided to pack up and explore South America. I began in Cusco, Peru, where I ended up living for a year and this was where I first got in contact with the Inca spirit and fell in love with the indigenous culture.
I then travelled high and wide through the Americas over the following 3 / 4 years, culminating with my most recent trip in 2014, when I travelled to Brazil for the first time.
I and Gareth Evans, the other half of Xapiri, began in Venezuela before reaching the border of Brazil via the jungle and indigenous homeland of the Yanomami people.
There, we learned about the Yanomami culture and visited many of their sacred sites. Next, we travelled deeper into the Brazilian Amazon, getting to know more indigenous people such as the Ticuna people who inhabit a large area of land on the Brazilian / Colombian border.
Midlands T: Tell me how the Xapiri project started:
Jack Wheeler: The idea of Xapiri was not born in the jungle but actually in our later visit to the coastal colonial town of Paraty where we met with Nina [Takerta] who has an indigenous art gallery there.
She has 10 years of experience, making connections and working with the indigenous people and their art. She was also the first person to do this kind of work in Paraty and is at the forefront of developing an appreciation for indigenous art in Brazil.
We discussed how unique the art was and that we had never seen many of the artefacts before on our travels. We knew that were looking at special and original items so we then started to talk about the possibility of bringing this art to Europe and spreading the indigenous message from Brazil to the U.K.
Midlands Traveller: What does Xapiri mean?
Jack Wheeler: Xapiri is a sacred word the Yanomami indigenous people of Brazil & Venezuela use for “spirit”, the Yanomami shamans contact the Xapiri for guidance and to listen to the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. If you get the chance, there is a great trailer for an experimental film called ‘Xapiri’ on our website, it gives a flavour of what the magical spirits Xapiri are.
Midlands Traveller: What are the goals of Xapiri?
Jack Wheeler: The primary goal of Xapiri is to spread messages about the diverse indigenous culture in the Amazon.
By unifying the beautiful art, emotive photography and informative media we are able to raise awareness for the region and its people. The vision is to empower these people and help them preserve their heritage and identity.
The problems and threats in the Amazon are well documented and we want to actively be involved in the defence of these indigenous homelands. As we grow and develop our relationships with the communities we will work together on social projects and also in the fight against many of the issues they face today.
Midlands T: Have you had a positive response since beginning Xapiri?
Jack Wheeler: We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the public from all corners of the world. We are engaged with many anthropologists, journalists, activists, artists and all the other indigenous supporters who believe in the importance of the cause. By making these connections with like-minded people we are able to work together, share ideas and use our different skills to make a bigger impact.
Midlands T: Talk about the indigenous products traded by Xapiri:
Jack Wheeler: We have a wide selection of artefacts which we trade in from everyday items like jewellery to the more special ceremonial pieces such as masks!
It’s incredible how much the indigenous people love their art, it is a huge part of their culture. Often, there is a surplus of artistic creations in the villages and if we can develop the market and appreciation for this art, we can form a sustainable economic option for the tribes.
We like to buy all items upfront at a fair to high price to encourage top-quality craftsmanship and transparency. Our strategy is to reinvest the money raised back into the communities to develop the trade structure and help with any other social projects which are needed.
Midlands T: Talk about the partnership with Nina Taterka:
Jack Wheeler: Nina has a gallery in Paraty, Armazem Paraty, and she is quite well-known by the indigenous peoples and their support organisations. At the moment, we work closely with friends and Nina gives us advice based on her own experiences.
She has a close understanding of the people and has a wide knowledge in regards to art. With her eye, she is able to manage the quality of the art which is produced, ensuring the items we purchase are original, authentic and well-made.
Nina is dedicated to establishing good relationships with Indian artists while working with awareness and proximity.
Midlands T: What are the challenges of keeping a project like this?
Jack Wheeler: The project is unique outside of Brazil. Few people have seen these indigenous items before, so we have to develop an appreciation for the art. The art is a tool and a portal to start a conversation about the indigenous situation and in turn, increase awareness and understanding.
Many of these products come from the deep jungle so logistically alone there are high costs involved with bringing them to the UK. Sometimes, our clients feel the price may be high for ‘what it is’ so it can be a challenge explaining the reasons for the pricing. However, once the provenance is understood the client will usually recognise the pricing is fair.
Midlands T: Tell me about your partnership with the photographer Alice Kohler:
Jack Wheeler: She was introduced to us by Nina as she is a close friend of hers. Alice has spent a lot of time in the jungle with different tribes over the past 10 years and now has some close relationships with communities she keeps re-visiting. She also works as a volunteer in the Xingu Indigenous Reservation where she promotes sport and fights against the base of alcohol and drugs.
We speak with Alice frequently and use many of her photographs on our website and media platforms to illustrate the Xapiri project. A selection of her images is also available to buy via our website with money raised going back to the communities. Later this year we will hopefully travel with Alice during one of her trips into the jungle.
Midlands T: What about the future plans?
Jack Wheeler: 2016 will involve around six months of fieldwork in Brazil where we will be developing the project.
We have some solid foundations in place, so it is now time to work closely with the communities we support as we discover the most effective ways of growing the project sustainably. We have many ideas of the different directions Xapiri can go but we want to spend this time in Brazil to speak with the indigenous people and our colleagues to ensure we make the right decisions for everybody involved. Exciting times for sure, so please keep up to date with what is happening via our website and social media platforms!