MEKARON by Rodrigo Petrella :: Artist Statement

In Denmark’s National Museum in Copenhagen, I saw some paintings by Albert Eckhoult done in Dutch Brazil during the government of Count Maurício de Nassau, between 1637 and 1644. Eckhoult, one of the first European artists to paint scenes of the New World, depicted people of different ethnic groups he named Africans, Mamluks, Tapuyas and Tupinambás, in addition to animals, plants and classic compositions of native fruits and flora.

Stuck by the force and a strange sense of presence contained in the images of the people represented in the paintings, as if they had been captured by eternity in a mirror, I paused, and I wondered if the natives Americans, those men, women and children I photographed for so many years in the Amazon would agree, if they would acknowledge these same feelings. This perception was of the existence of something, which for lack of a better word I would call authentic. Like a spirit, a double, imprisoned by the lenses of my camera.

In spite of the factual truth or not of the paintings, I took some reproductions of them to the Kayapós – according to Darcy Ribeiro, Late Tubinambás. When asked, some Kayapos thought that the painter had in fact captured, encapsulated the “mekaron” of those indigenous “relatives”, distant in time. Mekaron, that kaleidoscopic word of the Kayapó language, which can be used both to describe a photograph, as an incorporeal image or even a spirit. It is also the name given to a peculiar ritual mask of straw, of an almost real human form when seen from a distance, body, limbs and head, but without face, with no visible identity when we approach closely.

Then, in a meeting with a large part of the village present at the warriors’ house, I asked: do you think my photos posess this power to capture the Kayapó Mekaron? Can a Kuben (an outsider, foreigner) define a Mebengokrê (as the Kayapos call themselves, someone from within), without the Mebengokrês’ own agreement? They discussed amoungst themselves and then all of us together, what could be considered a Kayapó Mekaron and they reached a final proposition; that we build this new identity mask together. In the days that followed, separate and distinct groups of men and women with their respective gender differences chose locations, as well as objects of material and immaterial culture from their everyday lives that they believed pertinent to record.

As energy fields, emanating from many bodies that intersect with each other, where they sometimes cancel out and sometimes intensify, I felt the importance, the need for the work to take place in the same hierarchical plane between them, the Kayapós of the Kriny Village, and myself. Not as subject and object falsely separated by a mechanical apparatus called a photographic camera, but as a person, immersed within a group of people, interacting and being interacted with constantly within this process.

These Kayapos would now point the way and indicate what they believed to be pertinent to themselves to be recorded. It would therefore be an attempt to construct a visual identity by means of the collective thought of all and carried out as a group, outside the standard hierarchy of the traditional portrait. They would define themselves as an image of themselves. In short, they would reveal that which is really able to be described, named by themselves as the Kayapó Mekaron.

Rodrigo Petrella