July 27, 2020

"The Camera is our Weapon": Kayapó video warriors featured in new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York

The Kayapó (Mebengôkrê) people of Brazil are living proof of the resistance and adaptability of Indigenous cultures. A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York highlights the dynamism and creativity of this warrior tribe, and their historical struggle to preserve their lands and culture. Originally inhabiting the dry savannahs of central Brazil, the Kayapó were pushed farther north and west by Portuguese invaders, ultimately moving into the Amazon basin hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands. In order to survive in this new environment, the Kayapó had to conquer, capture and appropriate new lands, technologies and knowledge from their enemies and retool them for their own ends. The Kayapó people maintain this warrior heritage through the present day, as they have seized on video cameras, international media visibility and even "Kaya-pop music" to broadcast their voices and defend their culture.

Self-portrait of video warrior Bepunu Kayapó, July 2020.

The exhibit is centered on a striking self-portrait of Kayapó warrior Bepunu in full ritual regalia gazing back at the spectator armed with a video camera. This image creates a dialog with an existing exhibit case in the American Museum's Hall of South American Indians that contains a mannequin depicting a Kayapó warrior brandishing a traditional war club. During the course of creating the exhibit, I was able to locate Kubei, a Kayapó activist who had visited the American Museum in 1990 in the company of anthropologist Terence Turner. Kayapó film maker Pat-I recorded an interview with Kubei in March of 2020, especially for this exhibit, in which he reflects on his visit to New York 30 years ago, describes his reaction to meeting his Kayapó "friend" (his name for the mannequin) and responds to how Kayapó culture was displayed at the museum. 

Above: Kayapó activists Kubei and Tapiet visited the American Museum in 1990 and gifted their Kayapó "friend" with a feather headdress and other body ornaments that remain in the exhibit case to this day (photo: American Museum library). Below: the Kayapó warrior mannequin at the American Museum (photo: David Harvey). 

The exhibit was designed by a group of graduate students at Columbia University's Museum Anthropology program in collaboration with American Museum curator Laurel Kendall, exhibit designer David Harvey and other American Museum staff as part of an annual practical course that invites outside specialists like myself to help develop a new exhibit case every Spring. Because of the COVID pandemic, installation of the physical case was postponed, and instead we prepared an online version that includes a 3D virtual reality visualization of the actual exhibit case containing various Kayapó cultural objects. 

Virtual reality 3D visualization of the exhibit case

The online exhibit includes a series of short films made by Kayapó film makers, an activity booklet for children as well as information and donation links regarding the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kayapó and other indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Playable audio files present the pronunciation of key Kayapó language terms and provide an example of the lively rhythms of "Kaya-pop" music. The exhibit also features images by photojournalist Dado Galdieri. A Portuguese translation of the exhibit website was prepared in a co-launch with the Goeldi Museum in Brazil:

Read our recent paper on Kayapó film-making in Current Anthropology 

Related stories from this blog: 


Special thanks to Laura Zanotti, Janet Chernela, Pat-I Kayapó and Bepunu Kayapó for their invaluable contributions to this exhibit.  

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