The mind of the forest and Western amnesia

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Geneva, 9 December 2016


Until 8 January 2017, the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève is playing host to “Amazonia, The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest”. An ethnographic exhibition that can also be described as… a political act.

Amazonia remains a poor relative in the world of art exhibitions and ethnography. Preference goes to Pre-Columbian art, Mayan, Aztec or Incan cultures — all far more likely to get crowds through the doors. In recent years, exhibitions in Europe on Amazonia can be counted on the fingers of one hand — the British Museum in 2001, the Mona Bismarck Foundation in 2002 or the Grand Palais in 2005, to name the most important ones. “I want to stir things up, heuristically speaking,” exclaims Boris Wastiau, director of the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève (MEG) and curator of the exhibition. “Amazonia, The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest” sets out to get things moving and offer reparation for an injustice.

What will we find at this exhibition in Geneva? An introduction to the region, which blends voices from the present day to those which have marked its History. Portraits — by Daniel Schweizer — of caciques and shamans, such as Raoni Metuktire, who have done so much towards preserving the Amazonian forest and indigenous culture, stand alongside maps, documents and other more archaeological objects. Further off, displays show tools used by shamans to pierce through the planet’s veil and to penetrate the invisible: psychotropic drugs, flutes and outfits donned for their dances. Finally, the exhibition takes visitors on a voyage to different Amazonian ethnic groups making up the region, including the Kayapos, the Bororos and the Karajas. Flamboyant adornments, masks, crowns and diadems bring colour to the displays, fashioned from mother-of-pearl, plant fibres and feathers. Lots of feathers, in a myriad of bright, vivid colours. Meanwhile, photographs by ethnographers René Fuerst and Daniel Schoepf, or filmmaker Paul Lambert, show some of the artefacts being worn or used by their original “owners”, helping bring these objects to life, summoning them from their silent majesty.

Cuillère Bidjogo Iles Bissagos Guinée Bissau MEG Inv. ETHAM 033549 Photo: © MEG, J. Watts

Recreating the jungle

For empathy is one of the driving forces behind “Amazonia, The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest”. The exhibition — with scenography by Bernard Delacoste and Marcel Croubalian — is more redolent of a period room than the traditional white (or black, depending) cube. A period room, in other words the museum model immersing visitors in the atmosphere of a bygone time and another culture, offering a recreation of the original context. Objects are thus brought to life, and replaced in the jungle. “The black box sculpts the space, the aim of the scenography is to suspend incredulity,” explains Boris Wastiau.

The exhibition bathes in darkness clad with plant hangings and close-up photos recalling the tropical forest. We hear sounds from the jungle: cicadas screech and frogs croak, people chant. Plays of light even conjure up the impression of sunlight seeping through enmeshed plants.

There are around 350 ethnic groups which still live in Amazonia. Those highlighted by the exhibition are given their own space in this artificial forest, as if to avoid encouraging random associations being made between the many cultures, which outsiders tend to see as one and the same, out of intellectual laziness and also ignorance about Amazonia.

Political scope

Why this empathy? Because it’s necessary to act, and it’s not Boris Wastiau who will say the contrary. “Shamanism has survived five centuries of ethnic genocide. It’s an extremely stable and enduring system. And now, it’s space, forest, that’s starting to be lacking.”

Five centuries during which humans shed blood, starting from when the first missionaries arrived right up to the Valladolid debate, which would decide whether indigenous peoples had souls or not. Next to bleed would be the rubber tree, cultivation of which would disfigure the forest and impoverish its inhabitants. Today, the whole of Amazonia continues to suffer, torn apart by rapid deforestation and polluted by gold panning.

“Amazonia, The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest” exhibits the traces of a past which no longer exists, or very little of it anyway, swept away by bulldozers, after being silenced by the “Encounter” — most of the objects on display are no older than 200 years. The aim is not to slap a layer of guilt on white people, but to raise awareness on a reality. “We can’t undo history,” concedes Boris Wastiau.

Cuillère Bidjogo Iles Bissagos Guinée Bissau MEG Inv. ETHAM 040861 Photo: © MEG, J. Watts

While it’s impossible to undo history, the museum director has nonetheless sought to anchor the exhibition in the present. “What’s striking is a pauperisation of the culture. We’re irreversibly losing the age-old link with nature.” In the exhibition, a dialogue is established between age-old practices (rather than the past) and today. Whether through the portraits at the entrance of the exhibition, the superb photos by Claudia Andujar which weave subtle associations with the objects on display, or the space accorded to indigenous peoples, the exhibition avoids the trap of turning cultures into mere museum objects. It gives power to the Amerindians, namely via small films produced by the museum. Nor does the exhibition drip with pathos; humans are accorded their dignity. Humans who show us their present, which is our present.

The damage done is deep, but it isn’t irreversible. Recently, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched its Living Amazon Initiative to save the region. And let’s bear in mind The Salt of the Earth (2014), the superb documentary by Wim Wenders on the life of Sebastião Salgado, in which we see the photographer and his companions replanting entire plots within the Amazonian jungle and reaping success in barely a few decades. Boris Wastiau concludes, with a hint of a smile: “The best time for planting a tree was twenty years ago. The second is today.”


Promoting a collection

The Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève only reopened in 2014, the fruit of an investment of 68 million Swiss francs made by the City of Geneva. It is therefore still fine-tuning its positioning and its means for promoting a collection holding nearly 80,000 objects. For this exhibition, the institution’s curator and director Boris Wastiau has chosen 500 objects from its collections, with its Amazonian ethnographic section carrying nearly 5,000 pieces. No loans were necessary for the exhibition.


“Amazonia, The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest”. Until 8 January 2017. Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, 65-67 Boulevard Carl-Vogt, Geneva, Switzerland. Tel. +41 (0)22 418 45 50.

Tags: Pre-Columbian Art, Exhibitions