Why Identity Matters: the Politics of Indigenous Representation

Identity is a multi-faceted thing: we all have one and we are all in a constant process of making one. It is both explicit and implicit, conscious and unconscious, defining and subtle. It is comprised of pieces: our gender, our race, our community, our nationality, our beliefs, values and interests. It is all the little and big things that make us who we are.
Jack Wheeler
April 2, 2020

And while identity may seem straightforward and inalienable, it is actually very much a socially, culturally, and historically constructed concept. We, as humans and communities and as societies, do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, we largely get to know ourselves through the reflection of others. We understand who we are by having the opportunity to be seen and to be known.

And that’s where representation comes in. Because identity is a socially- and culturally- constructed concept, representation serves as a powerful tool for reinforcing, or ignoring, identities that are presented in our world. Representation produces and reproduces culture and identity by validating what is known, what is real and what is deemed as worthwhile.

Social constructionists argue that systems of representation do not reflect an already existing reality, but rather, that they organize, construct and mediate our understanding of reality, of identity, of what is in the world. Representation then is a matter of power: those that are able to determine what is represented in our world also have the ability to augment and guide consensus reality.

The danger of a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently puts it, is that we lose diversity of thought, of perception, and of different realities. With only one story of the world, we lose imagination as a collective whole. More drastic, but just as valid, is that when only one story of our world is being told–when there is just a single representation of what is–we run up against hegemonic thought.

And for us, at Xapiri, we strive to disrupt hegemonic thought. Power is not only maintained through economic surplus and political capital, although that is the most obvious way in which power imbalances are perpetuated. Power is also consolidated through cultural means: through using outlets of representation, such as social media, to influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, and outlook of the rest of society.

So, who is narrating the story of our world? Let’s run a thought experiment. When you think of the Amazon, and the indigenous groups that inhabit it, what is the initial image conjured in your mind? Do you think of the rubber barons of the turn of the century, large-scale cattle operations clear-cutting the Amazon, indigenous peoples running through the forest with their bodies painted? Have you ever had the opportunity to hear from an indigenous community themselves who they are, what they stand for, and how they relate to both the forest they call home and the modern world they are learning to navigate? Have you ever heard an indigenous individual give their two cents on their perception of the modern world, and not just hear an outsider’s two cents on the indigenous world?

When we begin to ask ourselves these questions, it dawns upon us that, in many cases, we aren’t as free of thinkers as we would like to think. Much of our imagination is informed by representation–news articles we read, Facebook posts we see, movies we watch. A little Inception-like, right? Cultural hegemony enters our brain insidiously, and what we consider to be real we begin to realize is nothing more than a suggestion that we have consented to.

And moreover, upon reflection, we see that almost all of our thoughts about indigenous people, and of the Amazon, are not coming from them at all–they are thoughts and perceptions sourced from without and projected upon.

At Xapiri, we see this, we acknowledge this, and we want to do something about this. This March, we held our first museum exhibition, with the aim of telling a different story about the Amazon and the indigenous groups that call it home. Working with the Matsés of the northern Peruvian Amazon, we were able to give a platform of representation to this little-known ethnic group that has maintained a larger-than-life identity. Highlighting their daily life, their intricate artistic traditions, and the pathways they are actively creating to develop a sustainable future for themselves and the rainforest they protect, we were able to provide an alternative portrayal and a living example of indigenous identity–one not so embedded within the outsider’s gaze.

Perhaps one of the most significant milestones of this exhibition is the fact that this exhibition was the first time the Matsés have had comprehensive representation outside of their traditional territory of Loreto. Staying true to our mission of providing a platform for indigenous communities, we, alongside the support from the NGO Acaté Amazon Conservation, were able to bring two Matsés elders and community leaders to Cusco for a week to present the exhibition themselves at the inaugural night. This provided the Matsés with a unique opportunity to be able to present themselves, with full agency and autonomy, to the outside world.

Through it, we are presenting an alternative perspective of indigenous identity. Disrupting hegemonic thought, we are allowing marginalized communities to assert for themselves who they are and how they want to be represented in the world. And that, we believe, is a worthy cause.

A smashing success in Cusco, we’re now looking to bring this platform of representation and the Time Is Life exhibition beyond our Cusco hub.