MAHKU’s Mythology of the Brazilian Amazon

Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Rare Huni Kuin, Ayani Huni Kuin, Ibã Neto Sales Kanixawa, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Yube Inu Yube Shanu, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 135 × 220 cm. Photo: Eduardo Ortega. Courtesy the artists

Visions at MASP, São Paulo brings hallucinogenic works rarely shown in a museum into the light

As an entering rite, the Huni Kuin Artists Movement (MAHKU) has overpainted the usual red of MASP’s long ramps to the lower galleries with a mural of colourful intertwining images and vivid figures drawn from the mythology of the western region of the Brazilian Amazon. It is an opening ploy that echoes the traditional narrative of the kapewë pukeni, the mythical bridge-alligator that allowed the crossing between America and Asia through the Bering Strait. This is just one of several complex myths that inform the themes in this show by 15 members of the indigenous art collective.

Many of the works on canvas that follow in the main exhibition gallery are the hallucinogenic results of rituals involving ayahuasca and sacred chanting, in which the images conjured relate to the Huni Kuin’s millennia-old traditional stories. In ayahuasca’s origin myth, ceremonies guided by a boa constrictor allow one to see the past, the present and the future simultaneously, here represented in MAHKU’s paintings, drawings and ceramics.

Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Rare Huni Kuin, Ayani Huni Kuin, Ibã Neto Sales Kanixawa, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Sem título, 2017, hydrographic pen on paper, 29.70 x 42 cm. Photo: Eduardo Ortega. Courtesy the artists

In keeping with the Huni Kuin people’s traditional visual systems, most of the canvases are bordered by geometrical snakeskin motifs (as in Yutâ isinipatu [Vision Healing Music, 2022], and Yube Inu Yube Shanu [Origin Myth of the Sacred Beverage Nixi Pae, 2020]), depicting the image as what is seen by the snake and what can be viewed while guided by it – such as food preparation, collective dances, facial painting and intercourse between animals and humans. But it would be incorrect to read these elements as formal framing devices; instead their existence reinforces both the need for the presence of the body in anthropological, political and artistic terms, and the possibility of these visual phenomena happening in such elevated, yet real, states of mind and body.

Although the works are collectively made, individual artists for each piece are identified – from two to five artists per work, with often repeated pairings. This reveals different subjectivities: such as the attention to facial features and emotions in the paintings to which Isaka Huni Kuin contributes; the optical vibrations of pointillist colour in Bane Huni Kuin’s paintings; and the representation of various everyday acts – such as eating, hunting, bathing and dancing – identified by numbers like an index, as in the works by Acelino Huni Kuin.

Alongside efforts by other Brazilian institutions to engage with indigenous histories and peoples – such as Pinacoteca de São Paulo and Instituto Moreira Salles – MASP presents a show still rarely seen in a museum with international reach. For someone like me, born and raised in the Amazon, Visions presents a respectful amplifier of thus far silenced voices, attentive to the individuality of each artist from the collective and to the hybridity of Brazilian culture.

Visions at MASP, São Paulo, through 4 June

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