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Jaider Esbell.
Jaider Esbell.

Jaider Esbell (1979–2021)

Indigenous plastic artist Jaider Esbell, a rising star whose vibrant, energetic work skillfully wove together ecological, mystical, and sociopolitical themes, died November 2 at the age of forty-one. According to Brazilian news portal G1, he was found dead in his apartment in São Paulo. Esbell had recently participated in the 34th Bienal de São Paulo as both a curator and an artist, with his work there gaining acclaim as a highlight of the exhibition. The self-taught artist was additionally a tireless champion of his people, the Macuxi, on whose behalf he frequently wrote and campaigned.

Esbell was born in 1979 in Normandia, in the northwest of Roraima, an isolated, sparsely populated state bordering Venezuela and home to the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous reserve. Trained as a geographer, he worked for two decades as an electrician at a state-owned company before leaving in 2016 to focus on his art; that same year, he won the Pipa Prize, one of Brazil’s top contemporary art awards. The adopted grandson of Indigenous cultural educator Grandma Bernaldina, who died of Covid-19 in June 2020, Esbell was an advocate of what he described as “artivism”—the concept that art can aid political fight for Indigenous rights, land, and cultural recognition. He embraced painting, drawing, mixed media, video, and performance in his multivalent practice. “Whatever the medium,” Ela Bittencourt wrote in a review of his work in Artforum earlier this year, “Esbell’s works evince a potent earthbound sensuousness.” Esbell also ran the Jaider Esbell Contemporary Art Gallery, which he founded in Boa Vista, Roraima, in 2013.

The government of Roraima lamented his loss in a statement, noting that he “leaves a legacy for the cultural and artistic values of Indigenous peoples.” The Museum of Modern Art São Paulo additionally issued a statement on the artist’s death, lauding him as one of the central figures in the movement to affirm contemporary Indigenous art in Brazil,” noting that he “always sought to increase the visibility of contemporary indigenous art and the struggle of the Macuxi people.” Esbell’s sculpture Entidades, comprising two thirty-foot-long snakes, is currently on view in São Paulo’s Parque Ibrapuera, where the serpents rise into the air above park’s lake. The artist created a slightly smaller iteration of the work for Parque da Redenção, in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, which were exhibited during the 28th edition of the arts festival Porto Alegre em Cena last month. Speaking in September, he told G1 that the work “is related to mysticisms and mythological figures that are not contemplated by European Neo-Pentecostal Christianity. It is a reminder that all original peoples have their gigantic creatures, their importance, their semiotic signs, their entities that protect and care [for them]. It is an invitation,” he continued, “for everyone to research their origins, to access their cosmology, not straying from their own essence. May each one manifest their beliefs as they wish for the expansion of the world.”