MAHKU (Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin), Vende tela, compra terra
September 3 –
October 22, 2022
Bright and richly-patterned paintings boldly occupy the walls at SBC Gallery, presenting the exhibition Vende Tela, Compra Terra. The works, made on large unstretched canvases, teem with tropical wildlife. Trees, birds, fish, snakes, hogs, armadillos, pacas, tapirs, among other figures, are entangled with one another in a dense web of relationships. These flatly-rendered creatures blend with their surroundings, which are filled with vibrant kené motifs—ancient geometric designs that draw inspiration from forests, fauna, dreams and imagination. A black outline delineates all of the elements in these intricate and kaleidoscopic compositions, distinguishing the different entities that coexist within the shared environment.
The paintings are by members of MAHKU, the Huni Kuin Artists Movement, an Indigenous art and research collective based in Jordão, in the state of Acre in Brazil. Each work consists of a visual translation of a sacred song used in the Huni Kuin ayahuasca rituals—traditional healing ceremonies during which the vine mixture is consumed. Referred to as huni meka in Hãtxa Kuĩ language, the songs guide the participants through the ritual experience, and more specifically through the visions the nixi pae (ayahuasca) induces. Curator and anthropologist Daniel Dinato, who co-organized the show with MAHKU founder Ibã Huni Kuin (Isaías Sales), brought the works on display in the exhibition from the Amazon region. The presentation of Vende tela, compra terra at SBC Gallery falls within an artistic program increasingly focused on Latin America following the appointment of Director Nuria Carton de Grammont in 2020.
The show activates and brings attention to forms of documentation and transmission of Huni Kuin ancestral knowledge, which MAHKU and Ibã’s own family lineage have embraced across generations. The huni meka songs, taught and passed down orally for thousands of years, are documented and materialized here in a range of media—printed matter, sound, and video, in addition to painting. A book with transcriptions of the songs is placed on a shelf in the back of the gallery: Ibã compiled and published it in 2006, from the audio recordings he made of his father Tuin Huni Kuin singing, in an attempt to learn, memorize and save the practice from irretrievable loss. One of these audio recordings echoes through the exhibition space, combining Tuin’s voice with sounds of the rainforest in the background. These archiving initiatives inspired Ibã’s son, Bane Huni Kuin, to start making works that functioned as visual translations of the songs; these would become the propelling force behind the creation of MAHKU.
In one of the two videos playing on small screens in the gallery, we see artist Pedro Maná, a member of the collective, singing an huni meka song while he stands next to an unfinished canvas. As he sings, his index finger points to segments of the painting to which the song is referring. At times, he pauses the singing to elaborate on a particular detail or to translate concepts in Portuguese. The video provides entry points into the paintings and the system of notation that undergirds them. Maná’s live interpretation also highlights the works’ referential function and non-narrative approach: the figures and patterns are hinged on the visions and synesthetic experience that the sacred beverage unlocks, also known as the Spirit of the forest.
Underpinning the exhibition is a fundamental principle of MAHKU, which the title asserts: “Vende tela, compra terra” translates as “Sell the canvas, buy land.” These words from Ibã embody a key tenet of the group’s philosophy and methodology, which is to use the available means—in this case art—to protect, revive and disseminate the ancestral knowledge of the nixi pae. The meaning of the phrase is completely literal: sell art to purchase land, which the Huni Kuin people have been deprived of for centuries. In 2014, with the proceeds of the sale of a painting, Ibã was able to buy ten hectares of land bordering the Tarauacá River in Jordão. The purchase allowed the creation of the MAHKU Independent Center, a space dedicated to the preservation of Huni Kuin culture through research, education and artistic experimentation. Buying land for MAKHU is thus a concrete step towards protecting the forest and keeping the Huni Kuin heritage alive.
In the gallery’s smaller adjoining room, a copy of the bill of sale for the land is hung next to a drawing by Maná. The latter features a handwritten note, which describes in a few lines MAHKU’s far-reaching working process, from making and selling art (through negotiation with non-Indigenous buyers, mainly) to the sustainable cultivation of land. Also included is a selection of MAHKU produced merchandise (on display only, not for sale), reflecting other strategies the group uses to raise funds.
The main piece in this adjacent room is a large painting, the only one in the exhibition that is not a translation of a vision or an huni meka visualization. Instead, it depicts another core concept at the heart of MAHKU: the relationship with txai—non-Indigenous friends or “close foreigners” and nawa—“Whites.” Dinato, who since 2016 has developed ties with the collective as a txai, specifically commissioned the painting in 2021. Ahead of the exhibition in Montreal, Dinato supplied the group with canvas and materials to produce the paintings, going so far as to purchase some of the works prior to their presentation at the gallery, while keeping others to be available for sale. This curatorial approach is aligned with MAHKU’s values and modus operandi by honoring its deep commitment to keeping the transformative potential of the huni meka songs alive and active.
Julia Eilers Smith is the Max Stern Curator of Research at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University. She earned a master’s degree at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Université du Québec à Montréal. She has previously held curatorial roles at the ICA London and the Hessel Museum of Art in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and has worked as Exhibitions Manager at SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art, Montreal.