Above: Two Yawanawá Amazon Indian artists drawing in the Amazon rainforest during John Dyer's Amazon Indian art project 'Spirit of the Rainforest' in 2019. Photo by Martha-Lilly Dyer.
The Amazon rainforest in South America is a place of unparalleled natural beauty, and its indigenous people have carved out an equally stunning cultural identity. In this blog post, we'll look at the work of artist John Dyer, who has drawn inspiration from the traditional art of the amazon's many tribes. His paintings reflect the contemporary world and the timeless traditions of these fascinating cultures.
Painting the Spirits of the Rainforest
Print sizes: Large 389mm x 389 mm - Small 260mm x 260mm
In 1989 British artist John Dyer was awarded a travel bursary by Thames TV in London to travel to the Amazon rainforest to document its remaining natural beauty with his camera. It was an expedition the young artist would never forget, leading to him being the artist he is today.
John Dyer pictured in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil in 1989. Photo courtesy Tim Varlow
"When I journeyed to the rainforest in 1989, I was convinced I could capture and record the essence or the spirit of the rainforest using my camera and the special infra-red photographic technique I had perfected. The rainforest didn't disappoint, and I returned with a stunning portfolio of new work that led to an exhibition at Tottenham Court Road in central London and another in Falmouth in Cornwall. Still, the expedition convinced me to put down my camera and pick up my paint brushes as I realised to capture what I felt in my heart, the spirit and essence of the forest, would require paint on canvas rather than light on film."
Above: John Dyer pictured at Thames TV in London in 1990 at his Amazon rainforest photographic exhibition
John moved back from living in London and started as a young painter in Cornwall in the early 1990s, inspired by the sub-tropical plants that grow freely along the coast and in Cornwall's many historic gardens.
Above: 'Groovy Amazon Birds' painted by John Dyer immediately after his expedition to the Amazon rainforest in 1989. 377x550 mm.
"Having been in Brazil, my eyes were suddenly opened to the wide variety of sub-tropical 'energetic' plants that grew in Cornwall, and these were all inspiring subjects for me to paint; I moved back to my home county and set off on my journey as an artist immersing myself in the landscape, plants and colours."
In 2000 John was appointed as the artist in residence for the Eden Project, a role he still holds today, and this appointment gave the young artist a tropical rainforest to paint on his doorstep.
Above: John Dyer painted the Eden Project and the Amazonian plants as they were being planted. Photo courtesy National Geographic magazine
In 2015 during a VIP event to reveal rainforest photographs in the rainforest biome by John's good friend and world-famous explorer and author Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE who has lived with the Yanomami tribe in Brazil and the Brazillian photographer Sebastião Salgado John was introduced by Survival International to an Amazon Indian Nixiwaka Yawanawá who was co-hosting the evening.
Above: John Dyer and Amazon Indian Nixiwaka Yawanawá painting in the rainforest biome of the Eden Project in 2015. Courtesy Eden Project
"I was fascinated to meet Nixiwaka at Eden and quickly discovered that he had a passion for art and had travelled to the UK with the dream of learning to paint as he had only had access to pencils and his traditional plant-based body and face paints back in his indigenous lands of the rainforest."
A world-first art project residency, 'Spirit of the Rainforest' was quickly organised between Survival International, the Eden Project, John Dyer and Nixiwaka Yawanawá so that the two artists could work together in the world's largest captive rainforest at Eden to reveal to the world a new genre of art; Amazon rainforest art that had previously been hidden from view as it is found painted on the bodies and faces on Amazonian people but applying it to canvas allowed it to develop into a new art form.
Above|: BBC Spotlight - The Spirit of the Rainforest from The John Dyer Gallery.
Above: Painting 100cm x 100cm inches acrylic on canvas
"Every painting we did focused on a specific Amazon Rainforest spirit; it was an enlightening experience."
"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
Amazon Indian Nixiwaka Yawanawa's Amazonian art
The following collection shows the paintings created by Nixiwaka Yawanawá as he worked alongside John Dyer and was mentored to reveal this new genre of Amazonian art and the tribal spirits and visual spiritual language of the tribe.
"John and Nixiwaka were a fantastic team and produced a new genre of amazing paintings."
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, President of Survival International
Nixiwaka and John formed a strong friendship, and at the first opportunity in June 2019, after the Amazon rainy season, the two artists again joined forces to paint, but this time with the Yawanawá amazon tribes in the Amazon jungle on the banks of the Rio Gregorió; in Nixiwaka's indigenous territories and specifically the ancestral home and settled villages of Mutum in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.
Above: John Dyer surrounded by Amazon Indian children as he paints in the tribal village of Mutum in the Amazon Rainforest in June 2019. Photograph by Martha-Lilly Dyer
Print sizes: Large 389mm x 389 mm - Small 260mm x 260mm
Above: Amazon Indian artist Nixiwaka Yawanawá pictured with one of his paintings in his tribal village of Mutum in the Amazon Rainforest in June 2019. Photograph by Martha-Lilly Dyer
How Do Indigenous Tribes Live In The Amazon Rainforest?
Above: A family from the tribe washing in the Rio Gregorió, a tributary of the Amazon Rainforest in the Acre region of Brazil. Photograph by Martha-Lilly Dyer
Many indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest live uniquely, relying solely on their environment to provide them with everything they need. They are hunter-gatherers and often travel between different areas to find food sources such as nuts, fruits and wild animals. They also practice horticulture, growing crops like cassava, plantains and maize to supplement their diet. The Yawanawá also keep pigs and chickens in their villages for food to supplement their hunting in the rainforest.
The tribes also understand the importance of sustainability. They can use the natural resources available to them without destroying the environment while respecting the spiritual significance they attribute to different aspects of nature. They often have a deep connection with their ancestors through the use of 'medicinal plants' during tribal ceremonies, and many still practice traditional rituals and ceremonies as part of their culture in the Amazon rainforest today.
The Yawanawá indigenous tribe
This spiritual connection to the rainforest fascinates John Dyer. Working alongside Nixiwaka in the protected areas and ancestral lands of the tribe's rainforest, he found access to the spirit world in his paintings, combining the rainforest plants and animals with the described spiritual visions and stories from his Amazon Indian friend Nixiwaka.
Above: Painting 24x24 inches acrylic on canvas
The Yawanawá tribe are in contact with the modern world, having been enslaved by rubber trappers in the 1800s and, like many indigenous peoples, forcibly contacted and interfered with by Christian missionaries who spread so many diseases, like the common cold and flu that wiped out so many of the tribe and also caused cultural harm. The outside world has been very damaging to the tribes of Brazil, and the Yawanawá sent Nixiwaka to London so he could learn English, a language they needed to help them to fight, protest and advocate for their rights to their land. European explorers had a hugely detrimental impact on the indigenous populations of the Amazon, both in Brazil and the Peruvian Amazon and for the remaining uncontacted tribes in the area, it is essential to avoid contact.
The Yawanawá tribe live their everyday life now as a mix of traditional Indian culture and contemporary Brazillian culture with a mix of their solid spiritual culture and Christian doctrine imparted to them by missionaries and all whilst wearing traditional feather headdresses and branded t-shirts.
Above: John Dyer painting in the Yawanawá tribal village as a young Amazon Indian family watch. Photograph by Martha-Lilly Dyer
Poison-tipped arrows are out, and guns are in. They struggle with the non-fertile soil that only yields crops for a season, as rainforest soils are of poor quality. Still, they are rebuilding their traditional communities and way of life after centuries of abuse from rubber tappers, missionaries, oil companies, land grabbers, gold miners and other groups who used force to take over tribal lands. The Yawanawá story is about rebirth and joy as they rebuild their tribe and community. They want the world to know their story and spiritual connection to the rainforest and message to the world that we need to live sustainably. The Brazilian government has dramatically hindered the ability of tribal communities to live peacefully on their lands in recent years, but there is hope this will reverse in time.
"Whilst living with the Yawanawá, it was remarkable to take part in their traditional starlit tribal ceremonies set around an open fire where the shaman would administer the tribe's sacred medicine of 'Uni' whilst the tribe gently sang, danced and played music. The evening would progress with more revelry as the 'Spirits of the rainforest' visited the members of the tribe in colourful visions as the 'Uni' took effect and the shaman's leadership took them on their spiritual journeys. The following morning the tribe set off fireworks to celebrate a Christian saints day."
Spirit of the Rainforest
The remarkable paintings created by John Dyer and Nixiwaka give us a glimpse into the rich spiritual world of the tribe. Unlike a traditional religion where there is a faith that a god exists, the Yawanawá meet, see and interact with their gods or spirits. This explains their awe of the Christian missionaries who introduced their all-powerful God, as they know their spirits (gods) are very real and directly impact their lives and futures.
Print sizes: Large 389mm x 389 mm - Small 260mm x 260mm
For example, Yuxi Yuve is the Yawanawá spirit of water, and all the water in the rainforest and ecosystem emanates from her hair. The Vana spirit inhabits their shadows to keep watch over them in the forest, and all of the significant animals they interact with have a spiritual form.
"It was fascinating that Nixiwaka had a spiritual version of the animals in the rainforest that he painted and spoke of; they were far more real to him than the actual animals. This was reinforced when I gave the children in the village brushes and paper to paint with their tribal annatto red dye they created by crushing seeds in the annatto seed pod. They painted spiritual versions of the animals, fish and butterflies and had a deep spiritual connection to the forest."
Above: An Amazon Indian child's drawing in annatto seed dye of the spiritual form of the butterfly and snake.
Above: Amazon Indian children painting spiritual rainforest animals in annattos seed paint in the triball village school at Mutum in Brazil
A Brief History of Indigenous Tribes
Indigenous reserves are now some of the only untouched parts of the Amazon rainforest and a vital sanctuary for indigenous groups and tribes.
The Amazon is the planet's most expansive rainforest and the ancient homeland of 1 million Indigenous peoples. Divided into approximately 400 tribes, each tribe has its language, culture and land rights which have been maintained for close to 500 years by those with contact with outsiders. Conversely, certain 'uncontacted' groups remain isolated from external forces. Nowadays, most Amazonian Indians have access to Western-style healthcare and education. When the Indigenous population manages these, they tend to be exceptionally successful.
By melding their separate South American and British cultures together, John Dyer and Nixiwaka Yawanawá created awe-inspiring pieces of Amazonian rainforest art that people have seen worldwide. This groundbreaking venture has opened a window for viewers to explore the magnificence of the environment and its inhabitants in this treasured region.
Above: Matsa and Nixiwaka Yawanawá in the Amazon rainforest looking at a John Dyer Amazon rainforest spiritual painting
Last Chance To Paint
Following on from John Dyer's expeditions around the world and his experiences with tribal people, he founded the creative and education project 'Last Chance to Paint' in 2018, which currently works in partnership with the Eden Project, The Born Free Foundation and EarthDay.org
Above: An introduction to Last Chance To Paint
Watch all the videos and follow John Dyer's adventures in the Amazon rainforest with his 'Spirit of the Rainforest' resources on Last Chance To Paint with your family now.
Why is it important to learn facts about the rainforest tribes?
John Dyer knows how important it is for children to learn about the rainforest, tribal people and ecosystems. The artist realised that for children to have a compelling reason to tread gently on the planet as they grow and to make changes in their own lives, they needed to meet and bond with families and people from tribes and other parts of the world.
"Through 'Last Chance to Paint', I am giving children all around the world the opportunity to 'travel' with me to meet the Yawanawá in the Amazon, the Penan people in Borneo and very soon the Maasai in Kenya. I paint the tribe, the ecosystem, the plants and wildlife, and every day through a video and blog allow the children to connect and become inspired to make their art. This powerful process can inspire and teach a child to respect the planet."
Above: Video Chapter 1 of Last Chance to Paint - 'Spirit of the Rainforest' in the Amazon Rainforest from The John Dyer Gallery.
Discover and buy John Dyer's Amazonian art poster prints at the John Dyer Gallery and sign your school up for 'Last Chance To Paint' so that your children can connect to tribal people and endangered environments worldwide in the most creative and inspiring way.
You can read all about John Dyer's art, life and travels in the book 'Painting the Colours of the World' by Kate Dine with a foreword by Alan Titchmarsh MBE.
Discover all of John Dyer's Amazon rainforest signed and limited edition prints to inspire and bring the spirits of the rainforest into your home and interior online now.