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The Climate Crisis Is Also a Subjectivity Crisis, Says Indigenous Artist Gustavo Caboco

Caboco, a star in Brazils latest Art Biennial, denounces colonial heritage that excludes Indigenous peoples

Cristiane Fontes

For Gustavo Caboco Wapichana, the so-called climate crisis is, in fact, a generalisation for a range of different relationships that we have with the world. According to him, it could be understood as a consequence of our colonial history, with impacts on our identities and on how we exercise our subjectivities.

Caboco is a multi-artist. He introduces himself as someone born in Curitiba-Roraima — drawing our attention not only to his place of birth, the state capital of Paraná, but also to the territory of his people and families, the Canauanim Indigenous Land, in Cantá (25 km from Boa Vista). His work challenges the historical context that led his own family into forced displacement.

Through his drawings, paintings, embroideries, animations, texts, and performances, Caboco externalises his reflections on how his mother was kidnapped by a missionary in 1968, among other topics. He seeks to strengthen the memories of Indigenous peoples, as well as their multiple histories and stories, their ways of life, and their resistance — which are all still present across the country, and not only in the Amazon.

'When we talk about coloniality, people think about the 1500s, as if it were not happening now — both in current State-led mechanisms and in our education, based on the exclusion of Indigenous peoples', he says. Gustavo adopted Caboco as his last name because it is part of his affective memory, but also as a provocation.

Caboco exhibited his works at the 34th São Paulo Art Biennial in 2021. Last year, he also hosted a solo exhibition titled 'ouvir àterra' [listening to the earth] at the Millan gallery, in São Paulo. Currently, some of his works are on display at the Rio de Janeiro Modern Art Museum (MAM), as part of a show titled 'Acts of Rebellion: Other Imaginaries about Independence'.

For Caboco, the current visibility of Indigenous artists could, however, be a 'trap', since 'it suggests that everything has been solved'. 'We must review our structures and stop focusing on a single star. We want to see more Indigenous artists included in the educational and curatorial bodies of our institutions.'

Retrato de homem jovem com cabelos na altura dos ombros, com expressão séria
Gustavo Caboco - Divulgação

You say that we are in a state of colonial coma. What does it mean, and how does it relate to the climate crisis? Colonisation — and its consequent submission — is something so strong and pervasive that we lose the ability to see things that are right under our noses. It is present everywhere: our public monuments; our streets named after some characters, such as the bandeirantes; or the cancelling and silencing of Indigenous voices.

How can the questions you have been asking about colonial memory and the proposal to rebuild Indigenous identity be understood as responses to the climate crisis and other crises facing humanity? I think that we are facing a subjectivity crisis. Within this colonial coma, there is also a colonisation of our imaginaries.

When we talk about the climate crisis, we are generalising a range of different relationships with the world. In my conversations with Indigenous friends, we talk about nature as our relatives, our brothers and uncles… A river is like a grandfather to us, as expressed by thinkers such as Ailton Krenak.

You then stop looking at things as just raw material. When we talk about identity issues, there is a direct impact on our subjectivities, and consequently on the way we see our surroundings.

Do you think that the demand for Indigenous land demarcation and the process of reclaiming ancestral territories are well understood by the Brazilian population? I think there is a huge abyss in understanding, even with regard to how people assimilate words. The word 'reclaiming' is part of a context. Only those with first-hand experience of a conflict will understand what it means to be part of it.

In our family, we have this memory of our fight for land. Without this fight, we would have nowhere to go back to. That historical context placed our family in situations of forced displacement, abductions, kidnappings of children, and all the violence to which our people are still subjected, having to struggle to survive.

When we talk about coloniality, people think about the 1500s, as if it were not happening now — both in current State-led mechanisms and in our education, based on the exclusion of Indigenous peoples.

We see this in a number of things: the idea of excluding those who do not belong to a so-called 'civility'. This is a very deep discussion, and I wonder why we address difficulties by distancing ourselves.

What are the possibilities of rethinking Brazil also from the perspective of original peoples' living memories? At the Paranaense Museum [in Curitiba], we held meetings with local Indigenous populations — Guarani, Kaingang, and Xetá —, all together with Denilson Baniwa [an Indigenous artist from the Baniwa people]. It was an opportunity for some groups that had been photographed (and whose photographs were exhibited at the museum) to actually see the pictures. These people had never, or hardly ever, been to the museum.

What we saw [in that action] was colonial relationship in practice. Some families found pictures of their grandparents and uncles — but the museum generically describes them as 'Guarani Indian'. That is an example of our depersonalisation in the way that we produce things: content, archive, the way stories are told.

What is it like to work at the Paraná-Roraima Network? Paraná, where you were born, and Roraima, where your people are. How do you feel between these two worlds in your fight for autonomy? I was born in Curitiba-Roraima, that is how I introduce myself. I was born in two lands. One of these lands is in the South, where we also have Indigenous groups — and this is in itself an important piece of information because people continue to believe that you can only find Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, as if the Amazon were not also plural.

We returned to the Wapichana Land in 2001. After 33 years, my mother was finally able to reconnect with her mother. Their separation took place in the 60s. This still bothers me today because it continues to happen.

When I got to Roraima, I could see how our family keeps our culture alive, including through their relationship with our language and our Indigenous education. When I talk about returning home, it is not just about going to Roraima: it is also about identifying all these historical relationships.

Could you tell us a little more about your mother's experience and how you see this still happening? In Roraima, many people incorporate Indigenous people into their families, in a form of affective colonisation. It is as if affection — this food I'm giving you, this roof over your head, this school I'm offering — it is as if these were rewards for your service and availability.

Violence is present in drinking, addiction, prostitution, exclusion or lack of assistance or health care, but it is also present in love.

You were the highlight of the last Art Biennial. Your works are displayed in several exhibitions, and you recently toured North American universities and institutions. How do you see Indigenous presence in the arts at the moment? The fact that we see artists in the media, at the last or the next Biennial, does not mean that this will bridge gaps that are centuries old. We must review our structures and stop focusing on a single star. We want to see more Indigenous artists included in the educational and curatorial bodies of our institutions. Being in the spotlight can also be a trap, as it suggests that everything has been solved.

You say that 'our grandmothers are our libraries'. What do you think is the most urgent thing to do to preserve the memories of the older generation living in Indigenous territories? When I visited our territory for the first time, I was told something that I have never forgotten: 'okay, you are back, but what is back, what is back after this?'.

I keep asking myself this. So many researchers have been there, and they all took something: photographs, thoughts, patents. What are we giving back to our communities? All those museums that took things from our people, what are they giving back to us?

On his recent visit to the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Land, President Lula’s said, with reference to colonisation, 'Despite all the disgrace that it caused our country, a good thing emerged, which was this mix, this miscegenation, this mix of Indigenous, Black, and European people, which created these beautiful people here.' How do you take his words? The concept of mix includes the idea of erasure. When you mix red with black, you get a kind of brown. Under the whitening policies instituted by the Marquis of Pombal, there was a rule that you should not speak your language, and that you had to marry a white person.

This mix ends up homogenising everyone, but we are diverse. In Brazil’s very first Census, there was a category known as 'caboco', referring to Indigenous people who had lost their culture. Over time, this word became linked with prejudice — but identifying as a caboco was also a way to protect yourself.

If a farmer asked you, 'Are you Wapichana, Macuxi, or what?', you could reply, 'Neither, I'm a caboco'. People back then answered like that so as not to be killed — and then they could go back home, and continue speaking their language.

How may we reduce this abyss between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, or address non-Indigenous people's lack of knowledge about Indigenous peoples in Brazil? The first point is always to recognise local Indigenous populations wherever you are, and what historical relationships they maintain. I often invite people to think about it from where they are, and to develop a more critical geopolitical awareness.


Gustavo Caboco, 33 Originally from the Wapichana people, Gustavo is a multi-artist who lives and works between Curitiba and the Canauanim Indigenous Land, in the state of Roraima. He is the author of 'Baaraz Kawau', 'Baaraz Ka'aupan', and 'Message from Bendegó: Conversations with the Stone'. Recently, together with researcher Jamille Pinheiro Dias and curator Naine Terena, he organised activities at several American universities, such as Harvard and Berkeley, to increase the visibility of Indigenous aesthetic manifestations.


Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference that took place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.