Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
What does healing look like on a cultural level, on a collective level? How is it enacted? I’m always interested in storytelling as a means of engaging with memory - and as we consider our current theme, healing, I’m contemplating how memory can address historical wounds, articulate a culture and reshape narratives.
“I believe in memory as medicine, to be able to remember who we are, the paths we have already walked, honour our mistakes and successes, and practice the exercise of being alive, allowing the world to live too,” Indigenous Brazilian artist and activist Daiara Tukano tells me, “That's why I celebrate the narratives of my people in my art; these memories also heal me and give me strength to continue paddling in the midst of so much confusion, understanding that life is just a moment in a universe in constant transformation.”
— Daiara Tukano
Tukano’s solo exhibition - her first in Europe - is on view from 8 November to 22 December 2023 in Rome at Richard Saltoun Gallery. Entitled Kihtimori: Creation Memories, the show is anchored by a new series of 12 paintings and works on paper that the artist created during a residency in Rome. She explains to me that these works portray Tukano histories: ancient narratives of the creation of the world, of life, and of humanity. At the Vatican Museum, she recalls finding Tukano objects and artefacts, stolen by Catholic missionaries during the colonial era, housed in the museum’s missionary ethnographic collection. “There are many emotions, being able to see up close so many layers of history that are present here in this city,” she says. These items hold stories of persecution, destruction, prohibition of language and sacred practices and assimilation into Western culture; they are, as Tukano explains, “the inheritance, the legacy left by my grandfather, my uncles, my ancestors… and I try to continue this transmission of knowledge also through art.” Indeed, Tukano’s practice is characterised by deconstructing - as the exhibition text puts it - “the legacies of racism and colonialism that silence and marginalise Indigenous communities around the world, [and] doing so through a powerful feminine lens.”
In several works, Tukano continues her ongoing series about the Amõ Numiã, or ‘first women’ in Tukano tradition; here, female deities are depicted in large scale and vibrant colour, representing the “female origins of creation” and a sense of interconnectivity between humankind and the natural world at large. My first introduction to Tukano’s work was in the Dear Earth group exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery earlier this year, where I was struck by her Amõ Numiã artwork - two of which feature once again in the Rome exhibition. The women of these pieces are drawn, with bold linework, as powerful, majestic and life-giving. Elaborate patterns swirl around each deity, begging a closer glance: the head of a cat, the eye of a bird, peeking out like a Rorschach blot on second glance from the intricate tapestry of motifs.
— Daiara Tukano
Whilst her work is often described as “ecofeminist,” Tukano herself pushes back on a superficial reading of it - explaining that though she is an advocate for both ecology and feminism, it bears noting that the Yepá-Mahsã peoples’ story of the creation of the universe long predates these ideas. But, she points out, patriarchy was one of the many forms of violence brought to her people by European colonialism - including the erasure of women’s stories and female centrality in creation narratives. Tukano’s work, in resisting this, not only speaks to the importance of storytelling for cultural preservation, but also demonstrates the link between a holistic understanding of the human role in nature and the preservation or healing of the natural world. “When visiting the stories of the first women, I identify because I am also a woman, and I like to think about the great-grandmother of the universe and the birth of medicines. For us everything has a mother and a father, our mother is the earth and the waters where life emerges is the milk of her breast,” the artist states. “The earth is a living organism and at this moment it is sick due to lack of care from us who are its children. I hope that this relationship of affection can guide us to have a more respectful relationship with the world.”
In the case of the Tukano community, and other Indigenous groups, culture is inextricable from territory. And territory is at stake: Indigenous communities are defenders and caretakers of more than 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, Tukano reminds me, and Indigenous lands are unduly affected by human-driven destruction. Art, then, is a means to address and redress issues of cultural memory, land, coloniality, grief, violence, connection and resilience. Speaking with Tukano and engaging with her work, it feels clear to me that healing of this sort is a multifaceted notion: encompassing historical time, present action, and future imagining - and spanning humankind and the nonhuman world. The artist puts it best herself: “Our worldviews help us read the world; Indigenous thoughts that maintain a non-colonised worldview have always warned about the possibility of what we witness today in nature. So reaffirming our culture and our narratives is the best weapon we have to maintain a relationship with a living and prosperous world - different from the culture of exploitation and consumption built by colonialism.”
Confluences: on Daiara Tukano