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Feature - Issue #11

Wild Arrows

Words by Anna Souter

An ongoing series of films combines Indigenous knowledge with western scientific and philosophical perspectives to show the wonder of the interconnected world.

Drawing by Torãmü Këhíri (Luiz Gomes Lana) from the Desana people for the book Antes o mundo não existia [Before, there was no world] (Dantes, 2019)

When Ailton Krenak was nine years old, he was forcibly separated from his people when their ancestral lands were requisitioned by the Brazilian government. Today, there are only around 130 people of Krenak ethnicity remaining, down from around 5000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Cut off from his culture, heritage and land, Krenak was placed in a westernised education system, although he did not learn to read and write until he was 17 years old. With these skills, he became a journalist and began dedicating his life to revealing and combatting the sufferings of Indigenous peoples in Brazil and beyond.

Over the next few decades, Krenak founded several key Indigenous rights organisations, including the Forest People’s Alliance, which brought together diverse Amazon-dwelling communities in a bid to find common ground and present a united front against authorities and corporations set on curtailing their rights and invading their land.

Animation frames by Lívia Serri Francoio for the Arrows.

In 1987, Krenak became well-known for ritualistically painting his face black during a speech on the reformation of the Brazilian Constitution as a symbol of mourning for the reduction of Indigenous rights. More recently, he appealed to the international community to condemn Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro for refusing to put a stop to the extensive mining in the Amazon which poses a huge threat to the forest ecosystem and, implicitly, to the ecological health of the whole planet.

Krenak and his philosophies have been an important influence on Selvagem (meaning “wild”), a project aiming to connect knowledge deriving from Indigenous, academic, scientific, traditional and other sources. Idealised by Anna Dantes, guided by Ailton Krenak, and produced by Madeleine Deschamps, the project is realised by a collective consisting of scientists, Indigenous peoples’ representatives, artists, supporters and the public.

Animation frames by Lívia Serri Francoio for the Arrows.

In order to project the principles of Selvagem, Dantes and her collaborators have worked to produce Flecha Selvagem (Wild Arrows), an ongoing series of films aiming “to reach more beating hearts with the atmosphere that surrounds the selvagem (wild).” The Wild Arrows films seek to express a non-hierarchical coexistence of ancestral, scientific, artistic, and mythological forms of knowledge, while opening up the possibility of asking new types of questions.

Each “arrow” has a creative script written by project director Anna Dantes, based on her own ideas and experiences working with Indigenous people, Krenak’s philosophies, and a wide range of books and ideas by both western and Indigenous thinkers. Narrated by Krenak and a small cast of other participants, the words are accompanied by music and by archival imagery, ranging from animation to news footage. The Arrows use images from a variety of sources and collections, Dantes explains: “We call our iconographic research process ‘image composting.’ We believe the world has a lot of information already and we need to appreciate it before consuming and generating more.”

Ana Miranda, Drawing from the Felinos series, (1980s). Image courtesy of the artist.

Maria Klabin, Jardim “Pau Brasil”, (2020). Oil on linen. 260 x 405 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

‘It presents “a vision of life where everything is absolutely related, from cyanobacteria to ozone,” in which photosynthesis is the key to maintaining a dynamic balance within the biosphere.’

Several Arrows also incorporate a series of hieroglyph-like pictograms, drawn from a mixture of Indigenous and historic cultures, incorporating images from religious symbology, petroglyphs and artworks. They suggest a universal attempt to use symbols to make sense of the world and to imagine the patterns by which ecosystems are woven through human lives. The sources of the images, extra information, and suggestions for further reading can be found in the PDF booklets that accompany each film, expanding the conceptualisation of the Arrows in multiple directions.

The ideas expressed in the Arrows are complex and sometimes challenging for western audiences. In giving primacy to Indigenous beliefs and modes of thought, the films implicitly reveal the brutality, greed and callousness inherent in the western world view. The Arrows are not simply vehicles for beauty and reassurance; as Dantes puts it: “An arrow hurts. If it doesn’t hurt, there’s something wrong.”

Milky Way, NASA/JPL-Caltech. [Public Domain]

PAULO DESANA, Pamürimasa (the “Spirits of Transformation” or “who came out of the river water”), (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Dantes explains that the project is an attempt to shift viewers’ perspectives: “The western world view, which sees everything from the point of view of money, is that the rainforest is a place of poverty; but that is only because people from the west don’t know the cultural richness of Indigenous peoples. The real Eldorado is not defined by gold, but by knowledge. You will see that the forest itself is the most radiant thing, because it is the sun, it is cosmic. It shows the full intensity of the life force.”

The theme of the sun and its cosmic, life-giving power runs through some of the Arrows, both in the narration and in the illustrations and hieroglyphic-style imagery. In particular, the second Arrow - titled The Sun and the Flower - explores different but complementary ways of thinking about the sun as the source of all life on Earth. It reconciles James Lovelock’s Gaia theory with Yanomami beliefs about the suspension of the sky and Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky’s 1926 book The Biosphere, which hypothesised that life is the geological force that shapes the Earth.

Karl Blossfeldt, Adiantum Pedatum, (1915-1925). Print on silver/ gelatin paper. 29,7 x 23,6 cm [Public Domain].

Wassily Kandinsky, Several Circles, 1926. [Public Domain].

The film opens up “the profound interaction of cosmic rays with green matter, which transform the Earth into a living supra-organism.” It presents “a vision of life where everything is absolutely related, from cyanobacteria to ozone,” in which photosynthesis is the key to maintaining a dynamic balance within the biosphere.
The chemical process of photosynthesis is seen as a powerful planetary force, energising all life and binding it together in a way that is semi-mythologised, in sync with Indigenous ways of thinking.

Here, as elsewhere in the project, the scale shifts rapidly from the microscopic to the planetary. Tiny interactions between particles and cells are treated with the same reverence as horizon-widening plant-induced shamanic visions and the positions of the stars. Every organism is a collaboration between huge numbers of cells; living constellations whose effects we live with every day, but whose functions are invisible to the naked eye. As Anna Dantes puts it, “Everything happens on the level of the invisible, the micro-organism. That’s life.”

‘The Wild Arrows project is concerned with evoking a state of re-enchantment and wonder at the more-than-human world.’

Heather Barnett, The Physarum Experiments, Study No.024: Interspecies Encounter, (2016). [Creative Commons]

Lastenia Canayo (Pecon Quena), El Dueño de la Guayaba, (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 26 x 39 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

This technique of switching scales is part of the Wild Arrows’ attempt to forge connections between Indigenous narratives and western scientific thought. The first film, The Serpent and the Canoe, weaves together the stories of the snake canoe (a memory originating from the Rio Negro peoples) and the cosmic serpent (a motif found in the origin myths of many different cultures). Together, the parallel snake-stories resemble the double helix structure of DNA strands, prompting an understanding of DNA as a form of ancestral memory encoded into the bodies of human beings and other species alike.

The booklet accompanying the first Arrow sets out the importance of treating Indigenous and western scientific forms of knowledge as equals: “In the pedagogical context, the wisdom of Amerindian peoples is usually reduced to a folkloric condition. The same occurs with Afro-Brazilian cultures. Consequently, western culture […] remains sovereign despite the pluriversalism of original and traditional knowledge.”

Paulo Desana, Pamürimasa (the “Spirits of Transformation” or “who came out of the river water”), (2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

Through its explorations of these Indigenous narratives and types of knowledge, the films present wildness as a condition for symbiosis and the self-balancing of planetary-wide systems. The cosmos itself and the role of the sun as the original life-giver are seen as forms of wildness. For human inhabitants of the Earth, wildness can be a state of both redemption and resistance - a mode of being that stands up against capitalist-driven destruction of landscapes, ecosystems and cultures.

The Wild Arrows project is concerned with evoking a state of re-enchantment and wonder at the more-than-human world. It posits that knowledge (in a broad, multivalent sense) is more potent than money, violence and ignorance. Even as non-human nature and the lands of Indigenous peoples are destroyed, they increasingly come to life in our imaginations; Wild Arrows seeks to harness that imaginative power to find alternative, less damaging ways of living in the world.

To view the films visit the website: selvagemciclo.com.br/flecha - where you can also find supporting notebooks, conversations, educational resources, audiovisuals which are all offered free of charge.

Drawing by Torãmü Këhíri (Luiz Gomes Lana) Chuvas e Constelações: calendário econômico, Desana, (1987). Darcy Ribeiro Foundation collection.

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