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"Madre de Dios at Dawn" shows the Madre de Dios River that flows past an Ese'Eja community.
highlighting one of the last indigenous cultures of the Peruvian Amazon
and featuring field research, photography, art conservation and
curatorial work by University of Delaware faculty, students and alumni
has opened in Washington, D.C.
The Ese’Eja People of the Amazon: Connected by a Thread will
be on view at the Embassy of Peru until Sept. 15, and will then travel
to numerous museums throughout the U.S. An opening reception and book
signing were held at the embassy on July 13.
A parallel exhibit created by the same team will be on display July
27-30 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, where
it will be part of the Kaypi Perú (“This Is Peru”) festival celebrating
the nation’s cultural heritage. More than 30,000 visitors usually
attend the free, annual festival.
Also connected to the exhibit, a new documentary book, Ancestral Lands of the Ese’Eja: The True People, has been published by the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research
(ACEER). All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to ACEER’s
Community Development Fund in support of Ese’Eja and other indigenous
development projects and conservation education in the Peruvian Amazon.
The team that created the exhibition was led by Jon Cox, assistant
professor of art and design; Vicki Cassman, associate professor of art
conservation; Monica Dominguez Torres, associate professor of art
history, all at UD; and Andrew Bale, lecturer in art and art history at
Dickinson College. Bale, who earned his master of fine arts degree at UD
in 2005, and Cox are photographers whose work is showcased in the
exhibit and the book.
Objects displayed in the exhibit include baskets, bark cloth, carved
wooden bows, arrows with elaborate feather arrangements on their shafts,
a necklace of wild-pig teeth and various items dyed with berries and
other natural materials.
The Ese’Eja, who now live in three villages in Peru, are an
indigenous hunting, gathering and fishing people. Their numbers have
plummeted in recent years, and their traditional culture is threatened
by development, industry and restricted access to their ancestral lands.
“One of the goals of having the exhibition and the book was for the
Ese’Eja to have a voice in the policies that directly affect them,” Cox
said. “My goal was to facilitate them telling their story with the hope
that projects like this one will start a conversation.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
"Pedro Mishaja Shajao and Son," members of the Ese'Eja people who are striving to preserve their way of life.
The exhibit of artifacts and photographs, many previously on view in
UD’s Old College Gallery, grew out of a 2014 “cultural mapping” project
in Peru led by Cox and Rainforest Expeditions.
In that project, UD faculty members, four undergraduate students and
two alumni, including Bale, spent three weeks in Ese’Eja communities.
The interdisciplinary group documented the everyday lives of the people
through photos, video, oral histories and maps created from GPS
coordinates and the recollections of older Ese’Eja who remember the good
hunting and fishing locations and sacred places.
The mapping project resulted in a video titled “The Ese’Eja: From a
Cotton Thread in the Sky to Protectors of the Amazon.” The title refers
to the traditional belief that the Ese’Eja traveled down to Earth on a
The video, hosted on the National Geographic website, can be viewed
via a link on the overall project website, “The Ancestral Lands of the
Ese’Eja — The True People,” at www.eseeja.org.
The cultural mapping project was supported in part by National
Geographic’s Genographic Legacy Fund, and in 2015 Cox was named a
“National Geographic Explorer.”
For the students who took part, the expedition was a unique learning
experience that encompassed research in anthropology, ethnobotany and
education, as well as hands-on photography, videography and mapping
For Brian Griffiths, who graduated in 2016 with degrees in
environmental engineering and plant science, the project led him to a
new passion and altered career plans.
“That trip was really my first research experience in the field,
which was huge for me because now that’s what I do,” said Griffiths, a
doctoral student in environmental science and policy at George Mason
University who continues a particular interest in Peru.
“I’m studying environmental science in terms of people—their impact
on the environment and how environmental change affects them. My focus
is always on indigenous people.”
Another student from the cultural mapping expedition, Chelsea
Rozanski, is completing her Peace Corps service in Panama. A 2014
graduate in anthropology and women and gender studies, Rozanski said the
experience ”profoundly influenced” her plans to study and teach
“The opportunity of being a part of this interdisciplinary
collaborative effort was the richest personal and educational experience
during my time at UD,” she said in an email from Panama. “I grew as an
aspiring anthropologist, world traveler and advocate for environmental
and indigenous rights.”
The exhibition will be on view at the Embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C., until Sept. 15 and will then travel.
When Cox and Bale were deciding how to select and display photographs
for the exhibition and book, they wanted to do more than show what the
Ese’Eja people and communities look like.
They came up with the idea of using photographic processes that would
symbolize some of the challenges the Ese’Eja face from outside
Portraits of community members were created using mercury-developed
gold-gilded daguerreotypes, a labor- and time-intensive technique that
was first developed in 1839 to make the earliest photographic images.
The use of mercury and gold was important, Cox said, because illegal
mining of gold in the Peruvian Amazon releases some 38 tons of mercury a
year, threatening the Ese’Eja’s health and ecosystem, as well as their
way of life.
In addition, because daguerreotypes have a kind of mirrored surface,
the viewer sees his or her own reflection as well as the image of the
person who was photographed.
“You see living people in the image, but you also see yourself,
because we’re all [as consumers] part of the problem,” Cox said.
Other photographs show sacred sites and ceremonies in
platinum-palladium prints, a process developed in 1873. The prints are
made on Japanese Kozo paper, symbolizing the influence of Japanese
refugees who settled on Ese’Eja ancestral lands after World War II.
Support for the project has come from the Amazon Center for
Environmental Education and Research, Dickinson College, the Greater
Philadelphia Latin American Studies Consortium, National Geographic’s
Geographic Legacy Fund, Hahnemuhle, Notchcode Creative and Rainforest
Expeditions in Peru.
University of Delaware units supporting the work include the
Department of Anthropology, the Department of Art and Design, a General
University Research Grant, the Institute for Global Studies, the College
of Arts and Sciences’ Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center, the
Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, and the
School of Education.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Jon Cox and Andrew Bale