The terrible news of the murder of Emyra Wajapi brought my attention, and that of many others around the world, to his people. I wonder if those are right who say “God works in mysterious ways, ” and if that was the only way, in the world as awful as it is right now, that God could find to get this people’s brilliance noted.
I have been fascinated, since I learned about it this afternoon, with the fact that the Wajapi have a body art (done with vegetable dyes that I believe are temporary) that plays an important part, along with words, in communication. UNESCO calls it unique. But I wonder if it is simply indigenous fashion?
Which is not to denigrate it. These people live where it’s hot, in the Amazon, and don’t wear a lot of clothes. So it’s possible that they are using body art in the way that Westerners use fashion: to signal all sorts of messages, of varying degrees of explicitness, about the person adorned and his/her thoughts, feelings, and relationships (real and imagined in past or present, and intended/hoped for/feared in the future). What’s interesting, though, is that in this case instead of fashion being shaped by commerce, it serves the needs of the community. The people who do the body art are apparently highly trained and can’t start doing it before forty, when they have a lot of life experience (I am guessing particularly with regard to sexuality and parenting). If this is correct, and if (I do not know this but am speculating) the body art is changed on an as-needed basis, then the artists are kind of like group therapists-cum-fashion-consultants. They help people find ways of expressing a personal aesthetic that enhance the cohesion and survival abilities of the group. (E.g. , if they saw a trend developing which was the equivalent of groups of young men wanting to wear gang colors, they’d steer them in a better direction.) I also wonder if the body-art could be a kind of indigenous social media platform, on which changes in body art are the equivalent of status updates: ways that everyone can see how you’re doing and what you need. If both of these are true, it could explain why the art is constantly evolving, even as some traditional cultural symbols (such as the jackal) remain popular.I expect that there are fewer and fewer artists who know how to do it, given that the entire people has been reduced–horrifically– to fewer than 600 individuals, and I wonder whether and how the current existential threat to the Wajapi homeland and our planet, of which Emyra’s murder is a vivid illustration, is being reflected in the body art now.
These speculations suggest that climate issues are not the only reasons that preserving the Wajapi way of life might benefit humanity at large. Studying Wajapi body-artists’ work could help articulate invaluable indigenous theories of intersubjectivity (the way that human minds are shaped by interaction with each other), which is a core concern of modern-day psychoanalysis, psychology, and philosophy in the West.