Jaider Esbell

Jaider Esbell, “The descent of the shaman Jenipapo from the kingdom of medicine”, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 111 x 160 cm, 2021


Homage to writer, artist, indigenous rights activist and art educator: a counterpoint to the madness of progress imposed by the world of merchandise

My friend Walter Gomes da Silva, from Amoa Konoya, in addition to having indigenous ancestry, is black. In the first week of November 2021, Walter sent me the text for the day of my departure, by Jaider Esbell, which I thought was beautiful. Then he sent another text talking about recurrent suicides of indigenous people by hanging, and I replied that I found it moving, but that, for a large part of the Bolsonaro & Cia. It wasn't until Friday, accidentally, that I became aware of Jaider's suicide on All Souls Tuesday. I who, as always, was in the moon world, I was aimless and, when watching the Krenak interview on November 3, I went into a tailspin, I felt completely groundless, helpless. I still remembered the gaffe I had committed when criticizing indigenous suicide, not knowing that Jaider's suicide was already a fact, already consummated.

Walter had spent the entire Saturday before his suicide with Jaider; it was Walter who, years before, had introduced me to two indigenous artists, who I knew to be Jaider and Denilson; and grandma Bernaldina, after she and Jaider were received by Pope Francis. The first cultural outing I had done, during the pandemic, in September 2021, was the exhibition Moquém_Surarî, curated by Jaider, at Bienal/MAM. Very moved, I watched the reading that Jaider recorded of Makunaimã, a few weeks before leaving; I read the play and, I can say, Jaider is still very present in my life, a star that never goes out. Why (you will say) hear stars! Olavo Bilac said that only those who love can have ears capable of hearing and understanding the stars.

At the time of the suicide, I was editing the book 1968 Dreams and Nightmares. At first, I was bewildered, unable to locate myself in time and space. Then I dedicated the 1968 “To Jaider Esbell, a never-fading star, an eternal leader in defense of respect for culture and the rights of native peoples to the lands of Brazil, who did not abandon us on November 2, 2021, at the age of 41, in her definitive artistic performance”.

The culture of the indigenous peoples of Brazil is a counterpoint to the madness of progress imposed by the world of merchandise. Mario de Andrade helped spread the association of indigenous peoples with the sloth of Macunaíma, more specifically Makunáima, or Makunaimã. Jaider Esbell, shortly before his departure, while recording Makunaimã's reading, complained that he was very tired. Denilson Baniwa described Jaider's emotional state and the pressure of the avid market, which required him to be online and available at all times for web meetings that would help him leverage the novelty of his works and build paths for indigenous peoples. Jaider Esbell has been swallowed up by the white world of merchandise. Stressed by the pressure exerted by the market and the historical role he had played in defending respect for the culture and rights of the native peoples of these lands, Jaider ended up hanging himself, which is the method most used in recurrent indigenous suicides. After he left, the mainstream media still preferred to silence the form and cause of his enchantment.

As a Jew, I recall that Szmul Zygielboim, a member of the Polish Government in Exile based in London, committed suicide on May 11, 1943, in protest of the Allied governments' indifference to the ongoing extermination of the Jewish people. I am not making any apology for suicide, but certainly the victim and the Jewish people would not want Szmul's manifesto to be silenced, just as the mainstream media, out of false decorum, silenced Jaider's suicide on November 2, 2021. Chief Krenak always says that the market is a machine that eats everything, mountains, rivers and honor; but seeing the merchandise swallow Jaider, so self-possessed, was a blow, a Greek tragedy (in the whites' reference)… before Jaider had given in and surrendered to the laziness associated by Mario with indigenous peoples.

Jaider Esbell, artivist, artist and activist, had published in 2013 the text “For the day of my departure” in August afternoons, September mornings, October nights (Boa Vista, author's edition, 2013). In 2021, it was featured in the Bienal de São Paulo, ongoing amidst its enchantment; his gigantic inflatable snakes in the lake of Ibirapuera Park amazed the people of São Paulo; and he was very happy, because two of his works had just been acquired by the Center Pompidou. Jaider had reached that place that whites consider success, the best phase of his career, that fake-success-white, in the words of his little brother Denilson Baniwa. Jaider finally lit his star in the sky to never go out again.

On October 26, 2022, SESC São Paulo, curated by Lisette Lagnado, inaugurated the exhibition “The Parable of Progress”, which questions the doctrine of progress, this decoy that led to the invasion of the Americas, indigenous genocide, the trafficking and use of African slave labor and the country’s whitening policy. At the opening of the exhibition, a Guarani indigenous representative from Aldeia Kalipety gave a 20-minute speech to 400 people. Walter, who arrived later, asked if the speech had been in Portuguese or in Portuguese and Guarani, and I replied, “none of the previous alternatives”, because the speech was only in Guarani, not a word was pronounced in Portuguese, not even the traditional “good night”. This is communication, this is a cry of resistance.

Unfortunately for the system, Jaider Esbell is worth more dead than alive; his works, after his suicide, skyrocketed in value on the art market. On the other hand, the artivist Jaider Esbell, who during his lifetime was committed to encouraging countless indigenous artists, began to leverage the self-esteem and artistic manifestation of the native peoples of the Americas.

*Samuel Kilsztajn Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of Shulem, Returnees and Yiddish (https://amzn.to/3ZkegH7).

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