Past Exhibition

Denise Zmekhol


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Pictures from the opening reception

The Amazon is home to 60 percent of Brazil's indigenous population, which numbered about five million people when Europeans arrived in 1500. For centuries, the Amazon acted as a natural barrier, protecting the jungle inhabitants from European colonizers. Today there are 210 nations, with different levels of contact, speaking 170 languages and known dialects. They add up to a total population of about 300,000 and are scattered over thousands of villages throughout Brazil. In the year 2002, there are still at least 50 indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon that have not come into contact with outsiders. However, as Brazil has accelerated its exploitation of the wealth of the Amazon, the historical conflict between indigenous people and European settlers has come to a head.

In 1987, I was one of the outsiders who journeyed into the Amazon, traveling north along the Trans-Amazon Highway and BR 364 which joined the western states of Mato Grosso, Rondonia, and Acre with the rest of Brazil. I was working on an international television documentary, one of several that would bring me in and out of the Amazon from my home in Sao Paulo over the next three years.

While in the Amazon, I photographed many tribal communities, as well as rubber tapping families who lived side by side with indigenous peoples. Among the rubber tappers was Chico Mendes, the union leader and environmental activist whom I interviewed and photographed one month before his assassination in December 1988.

The Indians and rubber tappers were pressured from all sides by cattle ranchers, coffee farmers, loggers, miners, and government agents, and desperately tried to hang on to their traditional ways while adjusting to the new demands of the outsiders. Their lives were on fast forward. So it was a relief for me to switch off the videotape and capture the timeless aspects of their daily lives in still photographs: fishing, cooking, ceremonies, songs, rubber tapping, foraging, hunting, and river bathing. In the years since I first visited the Amazon, these still images have clearly reminded me of what the forest people ask: not money or power, just enough land to live on as they wish.

In the 15 years since I left the Amazon, I have been drawn back to my photos of the forest children. Photographing children offers the chance to be taken away by their spirit of integrity, ingenuity, purity and love. I looked at them playing with monkeys, lounging in hammocks, eating cupuaçu fruit, running naked, their bodies painted blue with dye from the jenipapo tree. It was the children who seemed most inextricably connected with the forest, no matter what deals their parents were cutting with the loggers, or what risky underground plans they were making to assure them protection and a sustainable existence from the forest.

Now these children are grown and many have their own children as well as the burden of adult concerns. Yet their connection to the forest still lives, and it is that connection that we want to explore. How has that connection changed over the last 15 years? What do these now-grown Children of the Amazon have to tell us from their place in the center of what ecologists call "the lungs of the world," a place that still breathes for all of us. This is the story of how we are, all of us, Children of the Amazon, all connected, all breathing the same air, all passing on the same heritage and fate. This is the premise of a new production announced by Evolution Film, which will trace the lives of the Amazonian youth I befriended through my earlier photographic expeditions. These photos will be part of the documentary "Children of the Amazon" that I just finished shooting in July 2002 in the Brazilian states of Pará, Rondonia, Mato Grosso, and Acre.

My artistic expression has always been inspired by my personal journey, with consciousness, curiosity and contribution. Of all my work experience before becoming a director, my trips to the Amazon were the most fulfilling. I found the need to do something to bring more consciousness to my work, to help people to get to know themselves, to heal themselves, using creativity for a larger purpose.

- Denise Zmekhol

For more information on Ms. Zmekhol's work, you can visit her website at

Click on images for larger versions

Anita and Sandra Negarotê, 1990 Language: Nambiquara
State of Mato Grosso, Brazil

Many Indigenous peoples, such as the Negarotê, the Suruí and the Kayapó, have become actively involved in the predatory exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon by making alliances with timber companies. However, it must be recognized that they did so while submitted to concrete, continuous, illegal pressure, and as minority partners in these businesses.

Alicia Negarotê in front of her garden, 1990
Language: Nambiquara
State of Mato Grosso, Brazil

After being sent to a barren reserve to make room for settlers and farms, the Negarotê set out on a 200-mile walk back to their homelands. Thirty percent of the tribe died along the road.

Nambiquara Negarotê Boy Playing With His Mother, 1990
Language: Nambiquara
State of Mato Grosso, Brazil

Thousands of settlers invaded and cleared much of the land traditionally occupied by the Nambiquara for cattle pasture. The Nambiquara were removed by force to a tiny, barren reserve where they were infected with malaria and influenza.

Iara Negarotê, 1990
Language: Nambiquara
State of Mato Grosso, Brazil

Iara, was poisoned by juice offered to her father -who was opposed to log sales, by a logger. She died before arriving at the city´s hospital. Unrestricted logging continues to be problematic for the Negarotê, though they seem not to be aware of the extent of the problem.

José, Henrique and Marcelo Negarotê playing on the ground, 1990
Language: Nambiquara
State of Mato Grosso, Brazil

In the 1980s the World Bank funded highway improvements, and thousands more loggers, miners, and settlers poured onto the Nambiquara lands.

Soewá Suruí inside her school building, 1987
Language: Mondé
State of Rondônia, Brazil

Deforestation of the Amazon is one of the major environmental crises in the world today. The Brazilian Amazon contains about a third of the Earth's remaining tropical forest and a very high portion of its biological diversity. One hectare (2.47 acres) of Amazonian moist forest contains more plant species than all of Europe.

Soewa, Ibsor, Gatoya, Naraykopega, Gapamé, Naraietigom and Motira Suruí in front their school building, 1989
Language: Mondé
State of Rondônia, Brazil

The Suruí tribe was first contacted in 1969, until that time 1500 Suruí lived in long houses in the forest: hunting, fishing, and harvesting small gardens. After 10 years of fighting smallpox, influenza, and small farmers who invaded their land, the Suruí finally got their land demarcated by the Brazilian government. Today, 765 Suruí people are struggling against extinction.


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