Human beings, animals, plants and gods are bound together in a knot that time has tightened.
Psychologists tell us that it is easier for us to feel compassion for people who are like ourselves, than those who are different. While our deep nature as human beings is to feel compassion for others, we have evolved to be suspicious of those who are not like us and fear those things that are unfamiliar. Yet, at a genetic level at least, we know that the mixing of genes ensures the continuing strength of future generations. And wisdom grows the more we share unfamiliar ideas with each other.
For the Venezuelan photographic artist Antonio Briceño, the manifold diversity of humanity and of Nature is not something to fear, but something to celebrate and from which to learn. His images make visible the powerful mythologies and metaphors by which the various indigenous peoples of the southern Americas wove the narratives that gave life meaning. Narratives that emphasise the interdependence of humankind and Nature, and the moral imperatives that this mutuality bring with it.
A biologist and artist, Antonio Briceño’s images seek to promote the preservation of both the richness of the natural world and the diversity of indigenous societies. His concerns are for the sustainability of environments and of cultures. Both draw their vigour and value from the interplay of variety. In these images, people are not separate from nature, but part of it; just as the indigenous peoples do not see themselves as the masters of nature, but among its subjects.
Alasdair: What motivates your work?
Antonio: I am fascinated by the enormous diversity and complexity of human beings and of nature. At the same time, this diversity contrasts with the uniformity and homogeneity that the Western world tries to impose. I am saddened and frustrated by the way this monolithic Western ideology ignores, despises and invalidates so many cultures and people. In my work I aim to make visible, to represent and to recognise the value of those marginalised by Western ways of thinking. It is an action against injustice, and it is a celebration of the magnificence of diversity. By spreading awareness of the richness of all that which has been deliberately silenced, I seek to awaken in the public a sensitivity to, and love for, these people and cultures. They deserve recognition.
Your most extensive series and the one for which you are perhaps best known is ‘Gods of America: A Natural Pantheon’. How did this series begin?
From early in my career, I felt a special attraction for the archetypal manifestations of the collective unconscious represented in the great variety of human cultures and forms of sacred devotion. At the beginning of this millennium, I discovered by accident that my paternal grandmother had belonged to an indigenous culture. The culture was now extinct, and I found that all record of it had been erased. I realised that in the American continent we know a great deal about the mythologies of cultures from far away, while completely ignoring the hundreds of indigenous cultures in our own lands. I decided then to begin a life project: to research the mythologies of American Indian cultures and to create an iconography for their deities, based on their myths.
How did you go about making this work?
First, I began by reading as much as I could about the people I was going to photograph: their culture, their cosmogony, and the main characters described in their mythologies. Through my professional network, I contacted conservation groups and others who had a relationship with each community. Having establish contact, I was guided by the elders and shamans who confirmed or corrected my research and helped me identify the people whose personality or physicality suited them to portray a particular deity.
Can you give me an example?
For the Kayapó people of southern Brazil, the original owner of fire was the jaguar. He was the keeper of all knowledge and of the Kayapó wisdom. Because he had fire, he ate cooked food and had a source of warmth and light in the night. Human beings, for their part, spent the night-time in darkness, suffering from cold, always eating raw, uncooked food. One day the jaguar met a young man called Botoqué who had got lost. The jaguar adopted him and raised the young man as his son, living together in the warmth and comfort of the fire. As Botoqué grew old, he became nostalgic for his own people and wanted to return to them. The jaguar allowed him to do so, on condition that he promised never to reveal the secret of fire. Botoqué returned to his village and there was a great celebration. But, while he was intoxicated, his friends made him confess his secret. When they heard the story, the whole community urged Botoqué to take them to the jaguar’s house so that they could steal his fire. And this they did, mocking the jaguar. Thus, having learned the secret of fire, humans would reign supreme over all other animals. But the price of this theft … of this betrayal … was very high. The jaguar, who was henceforth condemned to prowl in the cold and dark of night, became the most feared enemy of humankind.
For this photograph I selected the oldest and wisest man in the village as the person who most fully possessed the knowledge and wisdom of the community.
How do you think your images differ from the images made by other photographers documenting traditional and pre-industrial communities in Latin America?
Forms of extermination have varied through the ages. Highly ethnocentric Western culture cannot afford to discriminate openly against what is different, so it does so indirectly. In this way, I believe that most (though not all) of the photographic works about these ancestral communities shown in the Western art world depict indigenous people as victims, as inferior: prostitutes, beggars, alcoholics, pariahs… And when they are shown in their splendour, they are given patronising labels such as ‘the good savage’ and described in terms of ‘exoticism’, ‘folklorism’, and so on. It takes a lot of courage to challenge the stereotypical images imposed by the dominant groups in Western art.
You have spoken of the modern Western society being “possessed by a terror of beauty”. What do you mean by this?
In the world of Western art, we have been trying for more than a century to abolish the power of emotions and beauty; directly or indirectly privileging Reason over all other human attributes. A short time ago, a photographic researcher who reviewed ‘Gods of America’ told me that the beauty of my images prevented him from reading the message behind them. I thought that this comment was deeply significant. Was he similarly unable to perceive the message behind a beautiful Renaissance painting or is he only insensitive to emotional richness in contemporary artworks? I have come to understand that in the contemporary Western art world, beauty and the extraordinary power associated with emotion are much feared by those who wish to maintain the monopoly imposed by Reason.
The next body of work I would like to discuss is ‘Filhos dos Orixás’ [Children of the Orixás]. First, what are the Orixás and who are their children?
Within the Candomblé religion, the Orixás are the human forms taken by spirits. Candomblé is one of the African-American religions practised in Brazil, brought from Africa between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries during the slave trade. Despite being forbidden by the Catholic Church, Candomblé is today one of the major religions in Brazil, with followers from all social classes.
Each Orixá has an individual personality, power, and preferences. Each is associated with distinctive rituals and linked to a natural phenomenon. At birth, a Candomblé priest identifies which Orixá has chosen the child on the basis of that child’s distinctive physical and personality traits.
These images set traditional religious ideas in the contemporary context of street art. Why did you choose this approach?
In the Brazilian city of Salvador de Bahia, the art of graffiti has reached a very high level of development. This is not only in terms of artistic creation, but also as a tool for expressing alternative and unconventional ideas. Each background was painted by a different street artist, and each highlights the diversity of animals, colours, tools and other characteristics associated with a particular Orixá. For example, in the very first picture I made, the portrait is a child of Exú.
Exú is the guardian of the ways; an intermediary between humankind and the gods. He is the great connector, the mobilizer, representing the innate creativity of human beings. Astute, rude, vain and coarse, he is the ruler of thieves, merchants, and cheats of all kinds. He is the most human Orixá of all: neither completely bad, nor completely good. Exú lives at the meeting of four roads, which is how he is depicted here.
Who are the subjects in these images and how did you select them to take part?
The Candomblé priests helped me identify people who were associated with whichever Orixá they were to represent in the photograph. I met Jo Guimarães at the first Candomblé ceremony I attended. She is a dancer and, while in a trance and having never met me before, she wrapped me in a maternal embrace, welcoming me to the world of the Orixás. That’s why I chose her for the portrait that represents Yemajá, the mother of all Orixás. Yemajá is associated with the sea and this photograph was made on the coast, at a place where the land enters the infinite waters and the fishermen return with their catch.
The next series I would like to discuss is ‘Look at us. We are right here’. This takes a different approach to representing indigenous people. How did this project come about?
The indigenous people of Colombia can seem invisible; unrecognised. In 2009, Colombia’s Ministry of Culture invited me to create an exhibition with people from twenty-one of the country’s indigenous groups. This was part of an initiative aimed at creating greater visibility for Colombia’s indigenous people, which is especially bad in the cities where they are in an alien environment, separated from their traditional territory.
Can you explain how the exhibition is constructed?
I made three tall images to represent each ethnic group. These are mounted on a vertical triangular structure, with one image on each facet. The structures are placed in a large circle, symbolising the continuity of the universe. Each triangular structure has three types of portrait: a family portrait including the youngest generation; a leader with his symbols of leadership; and a keeper of ancestral knowledge such as a sage or healer. Each is isolated against a plain curtain. The families have curtains in strong basic colours and these images face inwards, creating a circular rainbow effect. The leader has a black backdrop suggesting the times of darkness when leaders are most needed. The sages and healers have a green backdrop suggesting natural vegetation.
You have worked with indigenous cultures in many parts of the world. Next, I would like to discuss ‘Millions of Pieces. One Puzzle’. Rwanda is a long way from Venezuela. How did this series come about?
This work was undertaken at the invitation of Art Works for Change with the support of the United Nations Environment Program. It was commissioned for World Environment Day 2010, which was dedicated to biodiversity and celebrated in Rwanda.
What ideas do you wish to communicate through this work and what is the significance of the jigsaw motif?
Nature is an infinitely diverse jigsaw puzzle. Each piece – animal, plant, fungus… even virus or bacterium – plays an essential and irreplaceable role. With this work, I wanted to emphasise the fragility of our planet, and the fact that we only perceive a piece of the puzzle when it is missing. The message is simple. We have to choose whether our activities and attitudes lead to the preservation of Nature, or to the destruction of Nature, and of ourselves as part of it. There is no other puzzle like this in the whole universe, nor will we have a second chance. The pieces of the puzzle are in our hands.
The final work I would like to discuss is ‘Omertà Petrolera. La Era del Silencio.’ [Omertà on oil. The era of silence]. First, how would you translate the word ‘Omertà’?
Omertà is an Italian word that refers to the complicity between mafia groups, that each will remain silent about the crimes of the other.
This project may initially seem very different from the other works discussed. It has neither costume not scenic context; it is a video installation. However, I feel that it continues your particular way of seeking to express compassion for the subject.
Who are these people?
The people who posed for these portraits were victims of arbitrary detentions, torture, or excessive use of force by Venezuelan government police, military, or paramilitary groups during the 2014 civil protests. At the time, no country in the international community would acknowledge or challenge these crimes. Their interest was in the oil that Venezuela produces, but not the abuse and killing of Venezuelan people.
Photography deals with surfaces, yet you seek to look inside the subject. How did you build the kind of trust and rapport necessary to create this emotionally charged work?
I left each person alone in my studio, looking at the camera with a light shining into their face like an interrogation. I asked them to think about the abuses they suffered while remaining silent looking into the lens. In this way, they communicate their emotions through their troubled gaze…
What have you learned about compassion in the process of creating your work?
For me, compassion is very difficult to define, because it encompasses many things. It starts, above all, from the possibility of recognising the other person as equal to myself. Everyone deserves as much as I deserve. In my work and my images many things come together: marvelling at the boundless diversity of human beings, the pleasure of celebrating this rich variety, and the urgency of defending it against abuse and injustice.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1966, Antonio Briceño has a degree in biology from the Central University of Venezuela, and a Master of Digital Arts from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain. He has exhibited widely in museums, galleries and festivals across the Americas, Europe, Oceania and Africa. His images have been published in four monographs and three collected works. In 2011, he was named Acclaimed Artist of the Year by the Association of Art Critics and, in 2008, he was presented with the Green Leaf Award by the Natural World Museum in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program. In 2007, he represented Venezuela at the Venice Biennale. He is currently based in Spain.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the January 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.