Amazon rainforest art is a new form of art and one that only started to emerge on the world stage in 2015, when Survival International funded a residency for British artist John Dyer and Amazon Indian Nixiwaka Yawanawá to spend ten days together exploring the rainforest in paint and the culture of the Amazon Yawanawá tribe.
"It was amazing how empathetic John and Nixiwaka were to each other."
Sir Tim Smit, KBE Executive Chairman of Eden Project International and Co-Founder & Executive Vice Chair of Eden Project
A chance encounter at an event at the Eden Project in October 2014 led to one of the most creative and original partnerships of John’s entire career. The occasion was the opening of an exhibition of photographs of tribal people of the rainforests of the Amazon, Sumatra, Borneo and Malaysia, taken by the Cornish explorer and writer Robin Hanbury-Tenison and the world-renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. It was a joint venture between Eden and Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, co-founded in 1969 by Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who is still Survival’s President. The stunning photographs, which were displayed actually within the Rainforest Biome at Eden, were specially selected to remind visitors that an estimated 200 million indigenous people around the world depend on forests for their home and livelihood. Accompanying Robin to the exhibition was Nixiwaka Yawanawá, an Amazon Indian from the western Brazilian state of Acre, deep in the rainforest in an area bordered by Peru and Bolivia. Nixiwaka had been sent by his tribe, the Yawanawá, to the UK to improve his English and at this time was working at Survival International’s headquarters in London to help raise awareness of the rights of Amazon Indians and in particular to promote the most threatened Amazonian tribes.
As soon as they were introduced, John and Nixiwaka found they had an instant rapport. Both share a deep respect for the connection between people and their environment: in John’s case, an interest sparked by his visit to the Amazon rainforest in 1989 and developed as he travelled around observing and recording crop cultivation in very different parts of the world. For Nixiwaka, his identification with his rainforest home is more visceral, ingrained since birth. ‘The forest is alive,’ he says, ‘it is our life, and the animals’ life. We don’t separate our existence from it, we are all one body and one being: the plants, water, trees…When we see harm come to the rainforest, it is as if a part of our own body has been hurt.’ He believes that the western world could learn from tribal people how ‘to live a life of greater harmony and peace with our surroundings’.
As they talked, John learnt that Nixiwaka had a long-cherished dream to learn to paint. John could see from the drawings Nixiwaka showed him that he already had vision and an eye for composition; all he lacked was the technical expertise to transpose his vision into painting. An idea sprang fully formed into John’s mind; he put it immediately to Eden’s Director of Interpretation, Jo Elworthy, who greeted it with enthusiasm. Within a matter of only a few months, with the help of Eden’s Graphic Manager, Tamsyn Lewis, and of John Frankland, Nixiwaka’s dream and John’s vision were turned into reality in the form of a joint painting residency at Eden, delayed only briefly by the necessity for Nixiwaka to consult his tribe before sharing their closely-guarded traditions, about which few outside their own culture already knew.
The title ‘Spirit of the Rainforest’ which was given to their shared project was a fusion of several interpretations. In particular the spirit guardians of the forest, described by Nixiwaka to John and given vivid expression by both of them in their paintings, are central to the Yawanawá’s way of life. John’s stated aim throughout his career has been to capture the essence or ‘spirit’ of a place; into these paintings he poured his memories, distilled over more than 25 years, of the sights, sounds, beauties and dangers of his Amazonian experience. And for both of them, it was important to convey the atmosphere of the Rainforest Biome, a place where Nixiwaka said he felt instantly ‘at home’, because of the care taken at Eden to recreate the plant life, temperature and climatic conditions of the rainforest. For this reason, both artists worked directly within the Biome, giving the many visitors who were lucky enough to visit Eden during May 2015 the impression that they were witnessing an unusually profound form of performance art.
"Every painting we did focused on a specific Amazon Rainforest spirit, it was an enlightening experience and both Nixiwaka and myself have written about each painting in detail."
John has described the way he and Nixiwaka worked together. ‘Every morning Nixiwaka would enter the Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project alone. I encouraged him to do this so that he could have space and silence to connect spiritually with the plants. He would locate a place in the rainforest for us to paint and that he felt connected to. At the start of each painting Nixiwaka explained the spiritual connections and visions related to the painting we would embark upon.’ Everyone who was involved in the project was struck by their mutual respect for each other’s cultures and the level of harmony in their working relationship. ‘It was amazing how empathetic John and Nixiwaka were to each other,’ Sir Tim Smit has commented. ‘It was like two craftsmen meeting from different territories.’ For ten days, the two worked side by side, producing six paintings each, all of which are reproduced on the following pages with their original captions. While John painted directly onto the canvas, Nixiwaka tended to refer back to the way art is practised by the Yawanawá tribe. As John explains, ‘traditionally the bodies and faces of the Yawanawá themselves are their canvases; the animal and plant-inspired designs they draw onto each other bring the power of the spirits to them. This use of line and bold geometric colour has shone through in Nixiwaka’s paintings.’
"John taught Nixiwaka how to commit paint to the canvas with speed, power and energy and Nixiwaka taught John all about the many spirits of the rainforest, where they reside in the forest, how they connect to the tribe and all living things and through this unique cultural exchange a new genre of art emerged - Amazon Indian Art."
In the tribe Nixiwaka Yawanawá uses body painting, it is a part of daily life to at least use annatto seeds to create a greasy red paint that is applied to the face in symmetrical markings. This shows respect for the rainforest and the guardians of the forest - the spirits and spirit animals. This use of mark making, symmetry and drawing forms the basis of Amazon Indian Art.
"The Rainforest is a vital part of our lives and our future. We don't all realise this yet but the tribal people of the Amazon know it. By engaging children with the rainforest through art I hope it will build a lifelong concern and connection to the environment. When I travelled to the Amazon in 1989 as a photographer with Thames TV I was inspired. Inspired by the beauty and inspired to paint. I have painted ever since. When I met Nixiwaka for the first time at The Eden Project he explained his wish is to paint. I am delighted to be part of granting his wish and in the process to hopefully inspire thousands of young minds."
John Dyer 2015
"The destruction of our rainforest land is terrible, because the forest is alive. It is our life, and the animals’ life. We don’t separate our existence from it, we are all one body and one being: the plants, water, trees and Yawanawá. When we see harm come to the rainforest, it is as if a part of our own body has been hurt. It feels like an illness that rises up in us and needs to be cured."
John’s rainforest paintings are quite different to anything he had produced up to this time. There are echoes of Matisse’s late collages with their stylish, simplified shapes, and of Chagall’s swooping, curved forms – both artists who have influenced John over the course of his career – but the immediate impact of these paintings reflects John’s powerful response to a mysterious and deeply spiritual culture. ‘There is a great strength and history to the Amazon spirits and Yawanawá people. I have taken great care to pay respect to these in my paintings. I have created a fusion of both cultures in my paintings and I hope this will open a door to another world.’ Yet for all this, this series of paintings remains recognisably in John’s style. His trademark seagulls are here replaced by red macaws; the cloud-speckled deep blue sky overarching his characteristic curved horizon by a dense canopy of trees; and the stars and exploding fireworks by brightly-coloured butterflies. Occasionally the threatening bugs which played an ever-increasing role in his Costa Rican paintings make a reappearance, but mostly the scenes are benign, showing the tribal people in harmony and at one with the plants, animals and spirits.
To both John and Nixiwaka, the most important component of their shared residency and creation of new works of art was to communicate their message to a wider audience, especially to younger people. ‘Nature is suffering, it is asking for our help,’ says Nixiwaka. ‘The children are the future…they are the only ones who can save the planet from all the destructive things which are going on. This is our hope…that our children will help to protect Nature for future generations.’ In partnership with Eden, John set up an online children’s art project which, while similar to the community projects he had organised for the Tall Ships Races and ‘Darwin 200’, had a more serious and far-reaching message. ‘The Rainforest is a vital part of our lives and our future. We don’t all realise this yet but the tribal people of the Amazon know it…We ask the children to look at our paintings and see the spirit of the rainforest in them, and start creating with new eyes.’
"John and Nixiwaka were a fantastic team and produced a new genre of amazing paintings."
Robin Hanbury-Tenison President of Survival International
The project attracted a massive response with over 1,000 pieces of art from all over the world. Robin Hanbury-Tenison and John selected the best entries, and in October 2015 Nixiwaka’s and John’s paintings went on display at Eden together with the top 24 winning entries and 300 other selected children’s paintings, forming a huge exhibition hung amongst the rainforest plants and fulfilling John’s dream to connect ‘thousands of young people to the rainforest in a unique and powerful way’. A visiting Chinese delegation was, in Sir Tim Smit’s words, ‘dumbstruck by the sheer effervescence of the display’ and many visitors paid tribute to the exceptional quality of the children’s artwork and to John’s vision in turning the concept into reality.
Above: Exhibition of art in the rainforest biome of the Eden Project from children across the world that was inspired by the rainforest art of John Dyer and Nixiwaka Yawanawá and the 'Spirit of the Rainforest' project.
"Just to say how impressive the display of children's art is. Absolutely astonishing, and the best one I have ever seen. Well done to John Dyer."
"Visitors spoke to me with absolute delight about the display in Spice of the pictures submitted by children for the Spirit of the Rainforest project. It has won a great number of admirers."
Phil Lakeland - Narrator Eden Team
"John Dyer's dream prompts a thousand Eden artists."
The West Briton Newspaper