UJ Art Gallery Tables Culture Empowering Photography Exhibition

Petrella, who is known for his photography of the lives of indigenous Amazonian communities, sought to legitimise the process of photographing the Kayapó by allowing them to decide what he should photograph.

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By Amber Richardson

Rodrigo Petrella launched his exhibition titled Mekaron last week Wednesday at the UJ Art Gallery, APK campus.

The exhibition featured photographs of the Amazon Kayapó tribe, taken over a three-year period.

The title for the exhibition, Mekaron, is a Kayapó word that means photography as well as ghost. Mekaron is as a collaboration between the UJ gallery and the Brazilian embassy.

“An exhibition like this touches on important colonial and post-colonial conversations that are very relevant in South Africa, that can be approached from a different perspective using an artist from Brazil,” said gallery assistant, Mia van Schalkwyk.

Petrella, who is known for his photography of the lives of indigenous Amazonian communities, sought to legitimise the process of photographing the Kayapó by allowing them to decide what he should photograph.

“What I’ve been trying to do as a photographer is to build this bridge . . . a communication bridge, to work as a channel in the sense that people may establish communication,” Petrella said during one of his walkabouts.

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Guests look at artwork during Petrella’s walkabout. Photo by Amber Richardson.

Petrella has been photographing different tribes of the Amazon basin for over fifteen-years and wanted to empower the Kayapó in the process rather than to speak on their behalf.

He discussed this idea with the Kayapó and together they came to the decision that the tribe would choose exactly what Petrella could photograph. “The authorship is not really mine, they defined how they wanted to be portrayed,” Petrella said.

The Kayapó chose what they would be doing when photographed as well as what they would wear – their traditional body paint, headdresses and masks.

“It was something that was built; it was a dialogue,” Petrella explained. “I was much more interested in the process of representation and empowerment, rather than what they are actually doing,” he added.

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Petrella’s Photographs depicting warriors of the Kayapó tribe wearing their traditional headdresses made from Macau feathers. Photo by Amber Richardson.
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Petrella’s black and white photographs depicting the Kayapó’s body painting. This body painting is usually done for special occasions. The paint is made from a mixture of traditional fruit and charcoal. Photo by Amber Richardson.

Petrella was inspired to let the Kayapó take the lead in these photographs after his exhibition Guardians of the Forest in 2008.

Although he allowed the subjects of that artwork to provide the name and the guidelines for his photography, he still felt that the process was “too cold” as they had less involvement in deciding how they would be portrayed.

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The UJ Gallery on opening night. Photo by Nico Ras.
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Guests discuss the artwork on opening night. Photo by Nico Ras.
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Petrella (right) mingles with guests on opening night. Photo by Nico Ras.
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Rodrigo Petrella welcomes guests to his exhibition on opening night. Photo by Nico Ras.

The exhibition will run until 27 February.

Reporting by Amber Richardson; Editing by Kupakwashe Kambasha and Gaby Ndongo.

Feature image: Guests discuss the artwork on opening night. Photo by Nico Ras.

Other image courtesy to Amber Richardson and Nico Ras.

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