As I was coming of age as an artist in Mexico City during the 1980s and the early 1990s, I worked primarily in the studio, creating works on paper that sought connections between the inner self and nature by looking to the natural environment. Seeds and germination offered to me the perfect metaphor: a seed can remain dormant for an extended period until one day—placed in the right conditions combining moisture, warmth, and light—that seed that had remained unchanged for years begins to sprout, undergoing continuous transformations henceforth. In my drawings, I was searching for a way to communicate visually what happens on an interior and intimate level—when our interior self “awakens” and begins to transform and grow—and to map it. One of these drawings received an award during the exhibition Eco Art 92 at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM), which was held in conjunction with the 1992 Earth Summit convened by the United Nations. It was a hopeful moment, as that conference yielded Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which was adopted by 178 Governments, a document that laid the groundwork for environmental protection safeguards for the twenty-first century (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?page=view&nr=23&type=400&menu=35).
The award I received was a fully funded residency in Caracas, Venezuela, to create a lithograph of the drawing. Because I had never been to Venezuela, I reached out to local artists and curators whom I had met in Mexico City for recommendations. They encouraged me to go to the Venezuelan Amazon and generously offered to organize the trip for me. In retrospect, I was unprepared for all that I would encounter. As an artist born and raised in Mexico, I considered that my heritage—its historical richness and complexity—had given me a strong aesthetic background and provided me with a consciousness of continually changing social and environmental pressures. I was well aware of the erasure of Native voices from history and conscious of the power held by those who owned the narrative, especially on the threshold of the quincentennial of Columbus's arrival in the Americas. These were the subjects that preoccupied us (and still do), and many of my contemporaries were addressing the consequences of 1492 directly through their work. Although my practice at the time focused primarily on the interior process and its relationship to our environment through drawing and sculpture, the experience of being in the Amazon rainforest and meeting members of the Yanomami and Ye'Kuana communities forced me to reevaluate my position as an artist and changed the course of my life and work.
On my first trip, I met the Ortiz family. They are members of the Ye'Kuana community from Culebra. At the time they were teaching a neighboring Yanomami people from Mavaca how to build a canoe. The Ye'Kuana are skilled canoe builders—Ye'Kuana means “people of the canoe”—and they generously teach neighboring communities their techniques. The process of constructing this canoe made a very strong impression on me. It is a collaborative endeavor in which everyone plays an important role. I was attracted to their way of working with very simple elements. They only had two basic tools, a machete and an axe, but they would go into the forest and utilize the natural materials available to them to create a collaborative working space for all participants. I felt drawn to that process and wanted to learn and incorporate into my own work their way of making things as a group, their use of the immediate resources available, and their woodworking techniques. So I asked the Ortiz family if they would accept me as an apprentice. They replied that I had to make that request to the whole community and village council, a request that required me to return a month later for my interview.
The village elders, women, men, and children assembled, and I showed them catalogs with illustrations of my work. I also had with me photos of my charcoal and graphite drawings on paper that were based on seeds and growth, and of my sculptural installations made with wood and assemblages (fig. 1). I explained that I wished to learn from them how to build a canoe, because I wanted to learn their woodworking techniques and their use of materials, as well as participate in—and learn from—their communal process. I also told them that I was inspired by the shape of the canoe, its symbolism beyond being a vessel for transportation. To me, its form and process spoke of natural forms and processes: pods, seeds, and cycles. They passed around the images of my work and commented among themselves. After studying the images they said to me, through a Ye'Kuana interpreter, “Your work is from the soul.”
After lengthy discussions—to which I was not privy—an assemblage of elders, women, men, youth, and children conveyed the following response to me: “If we teach you how to build a canoe, what can you teach us in return?” This question changed my life and made a permanent impression on my work and my approach to art making. It immediately set the basis for our relationship, allowing us to recognize each other's value on reciprocal terms and establishing the circumstances under which we could all be active participants in a mutual exchange of knowledge as teachers and as learners. The Ye'Kuana taught me a lesson on the value and importance of responsibility, reciprocity, and balance, and that these qualities must be present in all interactions. To this day, it is the basis of my work.
As soon as I found myself among the Ye'Kuana, Yanomami, and Piaroa people, I was able to witness firsthand how Native traditions and oral histories had been systematically replaced through violent conversion tactics dating back five hundred years. The impact was evident throughout these communities, at every level. The villages I visited were primarily run by missionaries. Whereas in Indigenous tradition, shamans and captains are the leaders of their societies, here, the church representatives held the power. The Yanomami were organized into Catholic missions run by the Salesians, and the Ye'Kuana were part of an evangelical mission run by US Americans. Most of the Indigenous groups in the region had relationships to particular missions, which were the centers of education, commerce, and medical services. Regardless of the fact that missionaries had taught the people to read and write in their own languages, the only book to be found in their villages was the New Testament. There were no books written by members of the community. I found this absence of written documents in a literate society to be outrageous, especially given the number of books on Yanomami, Ye'Kuana, and Piaroa history, traditions, and culture widely available in bookstores and libraries and today, ironically, on Amazon.com. I proposed—in exchange for learning from them how to build a canoe—that I could teach them to make paper. I explained that we could make paper from discarded used paper and also with leaves and natural materials. And that they could use this paper to make their own books to tell their own stories in their own words and illustrated by them.
On my first trip to the Amazon, I visited the Yanomami community of Platanal (Pori-Pori Mahekoto, in Yanomami) and the mission school. I saw that there were piles of used notebooks stacked in the corners of the school, and I asked about them. The mission nun told me that they were single-use workbooks that often had inaccurate information, and that they were soon going to be discarded by burning. I had brought a handmade notebook with me. Just after my arrival, while I was sitting under the wing of the small plane that had brought me there, children had come up to me, and because I did not speak Yanomami I felt we could communicate through drawing. I handed them each a piece of paper from this notebook and a pencil. No one drew on it except for me. One child looked at it against the light of the sun; another rolled it and just put it in his loin cloth for later; somebody else put a little reed on it and began to run with it as a type of kite. And somebody else put it on the ground and sat on it. I realized then that I was in the presence of great papermakers!
On that trip, I saw at a distance a person who looked different. He had the same stride and body posture of the Yanomami but was taller and white. I asked the nun who he was, and she replied that he was an anthropologist who had been living with them and writing about them for some time. I also asked her what I could bring on my next trip, and the response was notebooks, since they only received one notebook per child per year from the Ministry of Education, which had them irregularly delivered by boat. These interactions and the things I saw became the seeds for the paper- and bookmaking project that were planted in my mind. I wanted to share with the community the skills for recycling old discarded books to avoid the environmental harm of burning them in the forest, and also make fine quality natural fiber paper to make books for them to write their own histories in their own words. In addition to proposing the project to the Ye'Kuana community, I also received the approval of the Venezuelan Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, the Ministry of Parks, and the mission schools.
My first experience working with the community to build a canoe was in 1993. The vessel is referred to as bongo in Venezuela and curiara in the Amazon. A tree is selected by a small group of elders; then the community is called to collaborate on the construction. All go to the site with only a few tools, mainly machetes and axes. The tree was cut down and a clearing made. The tree trunk is supported horizontally with reeds and vines that are cut in the area. First the bark of the tree is removed with the machete and a zigzag incision is made along the length of the tree, leaving uncut about 30 cm from each of the two ends (fig. 2). From the zigzag incisions, the precise hollowing out of the tree trunk takes place and must be evenly consistent in thickness, around 8 cm thick with the ends intact. Once this process is finished, you have a long hollowed out cylinder with closed ends at each tip and must widen the opening, expanding it so that it can become a wide canoe. This is a beautiful and difficult process.
The hollowed-out tree is then taken to an area close to the river and elevated about one meter from the ground with reeds horizontally, and leaves and the bark are placed on the ground along the length of the tree trunk (fig. 3). Different lengths of branches of wood are cut and placed inside the opening of the trunk to stretch it open and then filled with water. Next, the leaves and bark are lit using the technique of twirling a piece of wood onto a wood base and adding dry leaves to ignite a fire. The fire is carefully controlled so that it does not burn the log but only heats it and the water. As the water heats, the sides of the tree trunk become softer and the pieces of wood inside are moved to continue stretching the opening of the canoe and adding more water as necessary. This process of widening the mouth of the canoe continues until it reaches its maximum opening. Then the wood is sealed by using natural rubber where needed, and the outside is painted by hand with clay. The smoke from the fire allows for the pattern to set on the outside of the canoe. Once the canoe has cooled, it is lowered and placed on the ground and a straight board or two are cut and fixed inside. These will become the seats of the canoe. It is then slid onto the river and used for the first time.
I accompanied the process from start to finish, unable to contribute much, as I was just learning how to use a small axe and machete. After a few days of work (and a lot of blisters), the desired shape had been achieved before it underwent the skilled process of heating the canoe filled with water, using sticks to slowly widen the shape and cure it. Enrique Ortiz lifted the canoe to move it for its curing and expanding process. When he held it up and faced me, I felt that he was holding up a mirror to me. It was as though the hollowed-out pod shape and raw wood were a reflection of the process I had been going through internally, and I saw myself. I asked Mr. Ortiz if I could take a photo (Fig. 4).
We began papermaking workshops and experimenting with natural fibers. The objective was not to introduce anything new, but to adapt traditional methods for papermaking purposes—for example, we adapted a local process of making ropes from pineapple leaf fiber to make paper. Of course, there was no electricity and no machines for making paper, so a lot of experimentation took place. The paper-making workshops began at the Platanal mission school, and they were open to all of the community (fig. 5). I also directed workshops for the Ye'Kuana and Piaroa communities. But when I was not there, interest dwindled, and activities slowed down. Through conversations, we explored ways in which the project could continue without my presence and without the mission. For some time, the captain of the Yanomami led the project, but due to internal politics this arrangement did not succeed. That is when Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë's mother stepped in. She had seen that her son had been interested in the work and saw great potential in it, and worried that the project was in danger of being abandoned if someone in the community did not lead it. Sheroanawë volunteered to direct the project, the community agreed, and his leadership invigorated it. We began to hold regular meetings with the community and the captain to evaluate the progress and its objectives. Thanks to the support and interest of the Salesian priest José Bortoli at Platanal Mission and to the Hakihiiwë family, the project continued to move forward.
Since 1996, workshops within the Yanomami territory have taken place, all led by Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë as part of the Yanomami Owë Mamotima project, which translates roughly as “Yanomami working together to make paper” (fig. 6). The first book that the Yanomami Owë Mamotima papermaking project made is entitled Shapono (1996), which is the name given to their traditional “Communal House.” It uses text and images to recount a chapter from the history of the Yanomami when twin brothers Omawë and Yoawë built the first communal dwelling (fig. 7). Shapono is written in Yanomami and illustrated by the children of the community. The story was traditionally passed on orally by the elders of the community and transcribed by local Yanomami scholars. Workshops were held in which the children of the community drew passages from the story. The story is part of the creation beliefs of the Yanomami people. Since this first version, Yanomami paper and printmakers made a limited edition of the book, which is now part of collections all over the world. To date they have continued to make books recounting important events in their history, such as Iwariwë (2008), about how the Yanomami first obtained fire, and Porë Awë (2012), which teaches about plantain. These books are the first written records in the Yanomami's own words of their oral histories. Shapono received the Best Book of the Year award by the Centro Nacional del Libro of Venezuela.
In the early 1990s, I also began taking samples of our paper to papermaking specialists Melissa Potter and Mina Takahashi at Dieu Donné Papermill in New York to seek advice on what to do with the locally available tropical fibers of the Amazon. We tested the natural fibers in the controlled environment of their studio, and they helped me develop formulas to improve the quality of the paper we were making in Venezuela. When I returned, Sheroanawë and I analyzed the progress made and obstacles faced by the project, assessed the results of my research at Dieu Donné, and set new goals, which were reviewed and approved by the community. Over time, as I left the Amazon with samples of our work, interest in what we were doing grew, both in the United States and Venezuela. Because I needed to expand my own knowledge of paper- and bookmaking, I contacted experts in both countries, and I soon realized that it was extremely important that Sheroanawë meet them and build his own relationships with them. What I could teach him was reaching its limit, and I did not want to thwart the growth and potential of the project. It was imperative for Sheroanawë to learn from the same experts I was learning from, and they were eager to work with him.
When I was invited to be part of La Llama residency held by Luis Romero in Caracas in 2004, I accepted with the condition that Sheroanawë participate in the residency that year. He began to meet the experts, gallerists, artists, collectors, and advisers that I knew. In 2010 we were invited by Melissa Potter to a residency at the Center for Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago, in conjunction with an exhibition of my social practice work. There, Sheroanawë worked with expert papermakers and for the first time created large-scale paper works in their state-of-the-art papermaking studio with others assisting him in realizing his vision. I understood from my own interdisciplinary practice that this experience could expand Sheroanawë's appreciation of his potential as an artist, encouraging him to develop a different level of narrative for his work and distribute it more widely. During this time, he and I visited museums, collections and curators, all of which helped him place his work in a wider context—as a collaborative community social practice work and an individual artistic vision. At the Center for Book and Paper, he made a series of works that won him international recognition, including winning first place in the International Biennial of Indigenous Art. This award took him to Mexico, where he and I visited studios in Oaxaca, including the papermaking studio of Francisco Toledo and the printmaking workshop of Demián Flores. As an ongoing initiative of Potter's, Sheroanawë and I were invited to return to the Center for Book and Paper in 2012.
My last trip to the Amazon was in 2008, with the highly respected artist, bookmaker, and conservator Álvaro González from Caracas. Sheroanawë and I took him to see the Yanomami Owë Mamotima project, whose participants were working on the book Iwariwë. González and Luis Romero both maintain their own relationships with Sheroanawë and support and advise him and the project as needed, for it is not simple to live a traditional life in the Amazon of Venezuela, while also having commitments and a career outside. Sheroanawë often needs assistance in logistics, travel, language, and finances. To date, his career continues to grow, and he has become an international artist with a solid trajectory of its own merit. His exposure to Indigenous and other cultures outside of the Amazon has reaffirmed his own commitment to his community—to educate his peers on the obstacles Indigenous people face elsewhere and on the environmental threats that affect our planet and their impact on the Yanomami's own culture and future.
Since 1998, the Ye'Kuana, Piaroa, and Yanomami communities have directed their projects and continue to this day. From the start, each community was evaluating results and guiding their direction. Over time, my presence was not fundamental for the projects to continue. To this day I still maintain a deep friendship with Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë. We have grown professionally and traveled together for years, and we regularly correspond and talk on the phone. I love him dearly and consider him family.
As far as my individual work, the document that I made during this process that I value most is a compendium in which I recorded all of the plants in the Amazon that we found useful to the making of paper. Typically called a Fiber Log, it is a compilation of all the papermaking tests, formulas, scientific names of fibers and plants (whenever possible) and photos of seeds and the plant itself, local names for fibers, traditional uses for the fibers and samples of the resulting paper made in the Amazon, as well as samples made at Dieu Donné utilizing the tropical fibers tested in their studio. Of the only two in existence, I felt it was important that one copy be kept in Venezuela where it could benefit research there; that copy was donated to the Instituto de Estudios Avanzados (IDEA) in Caracas, Venezuela. The second copy I donated to Dieu Donné Papermill; it is available for consultation in their library.
The year 1992 was seminal for me as an artist, but the experiences that changed the course of my life were propelled not by the quincentennial but rather by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, one of the United Nations' earliest convenings on environmental policy. In 2017, the UN held the Ocean Conference in New York. On that occasion, I was commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary's TBA21-Academy to create a cross-disciplinary performance to unfold at the United Nations Plaza at the conclusion of the first day of the summit. Titled Ocean Calling, the work integrated spoken word, dance, stilt dancing, ritual, procession, protest, costuming, and music, with my reading of the Declaration signed by the Pacific Island countries and territories in Suva, Fiji at the Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting earlier that year, affirming their commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 14, “Life Below Water.” Goal 14 is one of seventeen sustainable development goals that were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of 2030 Agenda, the successor to Agenda 21 implemented in Rio in 1992. Ocean Calling integrates firsthand experiences, research, and ancient wisdom to chart the physical and emotional relationship maintained with the life of our oceans as well as the urgent need for collective transformation. The work, developed with artists from the Caribbean diaspora, continues to evolve as it includes new collaborators around the world.
Now, at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we may look back on the progress spurred in 1992 that marked an important shift in global policy and social consciousness for the protection of our environment and the communities that live in close relationship with it. These gains stand at risk of being systematically erased and replaced with shortsighted agendas that serve the privileged few. We are at a crossroads and have an urgent obligation for a public reckoning. Not only is it necessary to change the values and practices of private industry and policy, but we must address our own personal choices and take responsibility for the future of our planet and its people. As an artist, as a woman, as a Mexican, I consider it my duty to address these concerns through my work, going beyond the studio to seek out collaborators and integrate various forms of expression, presenting on diverse platforms and reaching multiple publics in the hopes of making waves.