Jaider Esbell, a Macushi artist whose work was included in the current edition of the Bienal de São Paulo, has died at 41. O Globo reported that the artist was found dead in his apartment in São Paulo on November 2. The cause of death is yet unknown.
Esbell had only recently earned international acclaim. In addition to showing at the Bienal de São Paulo, he also curated the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition “Moquém_Surarî: Contemporary Indigenous Art.” When São Paulo’s Galleria Milan brought Esbell’s work to the Armory Show in New York in September, ARTnews listed the gallery’s booth as one of the best at the fair. And this past October, two of his works had been acquired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Esbell considered his paintings, drawings, and conceptual works as a merger of art and activism. His paintings and drawings often portray brightly painted animals interacting with the landscapes in which they are set. They draw on Macushi views about nature, as well as myths and cosmologies.
One recent painting series, “A guerra dos Kanaimés” (Kanaimés War, 2020), depicts a conflict between kanaimés, deadly spirits common to Macushi tales. These beings cause death upon contact and are meant represent malevolent forces. Presented at the current Bienal de São Paulo, these paintings picture the spirits in the shadows of a forest, which Esbell uses as a metaphor for the exploitative, dangerous forces that threaten to upend Macushi life. According to Macushi lore, that which poisons may also cure, and so Esbell views these dark spirits—which are typically viewed as being evil—as potentially good forces.
Esbell also created more conceptual works as well. Carta dos Povos Indígenas ao Capitalismo (Letter from the Indigenous Peoples to Capitalism, 2019) was a performance in which Esbell delivered a letter to a UBS Bank in Geneva outlining the rights of all to live on a healthy planet. For Esbell, artworks such as this one could be harnessed as a form of Indigenous resistance.
Esbell was born in 1979 in Raposa Serra do Sol in the land of the Macushi, in what is commonly referred to as the Brazilian state of Roraima. Under the tutelage of Bernaldina José Pedro, a Macushi Indigenous rights activist, Esbell grew up participating in various social movements. At age 18, Esbell left his village to work as an electrician, a job he would maintain for the next 20 years before quitting in 2016 to focus on his art full-time.
During these years, Esbell traveled around Brazil, in the process meeting with members of Indigenous groups in the country. Those encounters were pivotal, as they shaped both his practice as an artist and activist. At the same time, Esbell taught himself how to draw and paint while furthering his education.
Esbell went on to graduate from the Federal University of Roraima in 2007 with a degree in geography and a focus on environmental management and sustainable development. In 2011, he would run the first “Encounter of All Peoples,” a gathering which brought together Indigenous artists from around the country. That event has since been considered vital to the development of Indigenous art in Brazil in recent years.
Esbell’s death appears to have come as a shock to friends, activists, and fellow artists, who took to the internet to express their surprise and grief. On Instagram, Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, called the news of Esbell’s passing “sad and unbelievable.”
In an interview with Brasil de Fato, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the curator of the Bienal de São Paulo, said, “His lack will be intensely felt. Inseparable from his brilliant artistic production, he leaves a legacy of struggle for the recognition of the value of cultures and the life of the original peoples.”