In Langscape Magazine Articles

Overcoming the Odds to Reach My Dreams: An Indigenous Artist’s Story

Story by We’e’ena Tikuna, Tikuna, Brazil, age 30


Indigenous Peoples

We’e’ena Tikuna is an Indigenous artist from Amazonas, Brazil. We’e’ena, whose name means “the jaguar that swims across the river,” was born in the Tikuna Umariaçu Indigenous Land in the Amazon, on the Upper Solimões River. Photo: Anton Carballo, 2018

I am We’e’ena Tikuna, a member of the Tikuna people of Brazil. My name means “the jaguar that swims to the other side in the river.” My story is the story of an Indigenous woman who has overcome many obstacles.

I was born in the Tikuna Umariaçu Indigenous Land in Amazonas, Alto Rio Solimões. I came from my village to the city at the age of twelve. I didn’t speak Portuguese, Brazil’s dominant language, but today I am a visual artist, Indigenous singer, public speaker, nutritionist, fashion designer, and activist. I’ve launched the first brand of contemporary clothing to be designed by a Brazilian Indigenous woman. It was my dream to make and design my own line of Indigenous clothing, and for twelve years now I have been making my dream come true.

Indigenous Peoples

She has won various awards, including being named “Best Indigenous Artist in Brazil.” Twelve of her works have been included in the permanent collection of the Manaus Historical Museum. Photo: Anton Carballo, 2019

All art is a form of resistance. We Indigenous people are the protagonists of our own histories. Today, Indigenous visibility is important. With my fashion designs I want to give visibility to Indigenous culture, to Indigenous women, and to the beauty of the creations of contemporary artists like myself who fight for the Indigenous cause. For instance, my fashion shows have my own Indigenous soundtrack, and the models are all or mostly Indigenous. This helps create opportunities and dreams.

Indigenous Peoples

As a recording artist, her first album was titled “We’e’ena — Indigenous Charm.” The lyrics speak of cultural resistance, Indigenous identity, and preservation of nature. Photo: Unknown, 2019

In my culture we use paints to draw graphics on our skin and wear clothing made from the fiber of Tururi, an Amazonian tree species. Each drawing has its own meaning and importance. As I live in the city, I cannot have my body painted at all times. When I first trained as a visual artist, however, I carried out an in-depth study of Tikuna graphics. Now I incorporate all this ancestral meaning into each piece of clothing I design, and then add my own contemporary touches - because we Indigenous people are up to date with the latest trends, aren’t we?

Indigenous Peoples

“We’e’ena Tikuna — Indigenous Art” is the first contemporary fashion label to be designed by an Indigenous Brazilian. Photo: Gabriella Riveiro, 2019

Ever since white people first came to Brazil, our Indigenous graphics have always attracted the attention of historians, writers, and travelers. Besides the beauty of the drawings, what surprised most whites was that we Indigenous people always paint our bodies and also decorate our utilitarian pieces, such as bows, arrows, ceramics, and other handicrafts.

In Brazil, we Indigenous people use body painting as a means of expression linked to various manifestations of our cultures. It is a way to transmit meaning-rich information. It is a system of visual communication, in which most of our body paintings represent fauna, flora, rivers, the forest, or everyday objects. There is a specific design for each aspect of life we celebrate: one symbolizes our continuing fight for our rights; another, marriage; a third, death; and so on. All our rituals are portrayed in body painting. That is the most intense form of artistic expression we have in all of our graphics.

Indigenous Peoples

Left: We’e’na is the first member of the Tikuna people to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in nutrition. She has since obtained a doctorate degree. Photo: Alex Rodrigues, 2018. Center: We’e’ena and her husband Anton Carballo, a violinist in the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra. They have overcome all the barriers of prejudice that still exist against marriage between a white man and an Indigenous woman. Photo: Muringa Fotografia, 2018. Right: As an Indigenous speaker and activist, We’e’ena has participated in numerous debates at universities and other forums. Photo: Muringa Fotografia, 2018

The Tikuna people are organized by clans. Tikuna graphics represent our clans through face paintings that symbolize clan animals of the sky and the earth. During certain rituals (for instance, the one marking a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood), paintings depicting animals and spirits also appear as graphics on the clothes of masked men, which are made of Tururi wood-fiber fabric. Our paints are made from plants like achiote, genipapo, or babassu, most of the time mixed with yellow clay and juices from palm trees.

Indigenous graphics express more than just a desire for beauty: they are a complex code of communication that, for us Indigenous people, represents our culture and tradition. I create my designs with an eye to our ancestry, but also with an eye to our future.

Indigenous Peoples

Because We’e’ena lives in the city, she feels that she can’t have her body painted at all times. She says, “I have suffered prejudice in the city against my body paintings and my Native clothes. My work in Indigenous fashion design was born out of my desire to overcome this kind of prejudice.” Photo: Muringa Fotografia, 2018

More about We’e’ena Tikuna

The artistic gifts of We’e’ena Tikuna go well beyond fashion design. As a heritage and culture promoter of her Tikuna people, We’e’ena is a deep student of her own culture’s history and the songs of her people. She herself has composed many songs and has completed her first album, titled We’e’ena: Indigenous Enchantment. Her lyrics speak of cultural resistance, Indigenous identity, the preservation of nature, and more. By singing in the language of her people, she stands out in the national musical scene. She appeared at Brazil’s 2017 National Festival of Music, the first Indigenous woman to participate in this, the largest celebration of Brazilian popular music.

We’e’ena is the first Tikuna to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition, and today works at Anhanguera University of Santo André-SP. She has also worked in clinics where she cared for the health of adults, children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

As well, We’e’ena is a graphic artist who has won numerous prizes, and a speaker, writer, and Indigenous activist who has participated in numerous debates, symposia, and forums, speaking on deep themes of Indigenous culture, Indigenous nutrition, visibility of Indigenous women, Indigenous entrepreneurship, and Indigenous spirituality. She lectures on Indigenous culture and the environment for IBDN, the Brazilian Institute for the Defense of Nature, and is currently a columnist for Women’s Connection Magazine. She has appeared on TV and radio and has been featured in magazines. She shares her activities through a YouTube channel and on her website.

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The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!

An Invitation to Young Indigenous People Ages 18–30

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from people ages 18–30 who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:

  • reaffirming cultural identity;
  • breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
  • reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
  • reclaiming ancestral links with the land.

The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.

If you are an Indigenous person aged 18–30 and would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!

indigenous languages

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