A natural pantheon


In the early years of my career as a photographer, I focused on the religious imaginary of a number of cultures, especially from the point of view of archetypal psychology. Over the last twenty-five years, I have worked with more than thirty-five cultures native to the five continents (including the Sami of northern Europe and the Maori of New Zealand).

In the year 2000 I found out, by chance, that my paternal great-grandmother had been indigenous, a member of a group that disappeared completely, whether exterminated directly or through miscegenation. I felt a strong urge to find about their beliefs, their mythology, their cosmogony. But not a trace was left. I therefore set myself a life project: to research the mythologies of native American groups that have survived up to the present without succumbing to the Christian religion, and to suggest an iconography for their gods, before they disappear altogether. These groups, of course, inhabit remote areas, generally quite isolated.

This is a task which, in spite of its urgency, goes against the present trend. The colonialist mentality is deeply rooted - although apparently covered up - in the American continent and in the world in general. We know much more about Greek, Egyptian and Roman mythology than the mythology of groups that still live among us. No one would dare to say publicly now that the indigenous should die and their cultures should disappear from the face of the earth. But in considering the work of a photographer, it is acceptable only that they should be shown as victims: prostitutes, alcoholics, wretches. If they are shown in all their dignity, with their beauty and strength, as representing cultures from which something can be learnt, an interminable bombardment of labels begins: "the noble savage", "folklore", "exoticism", and a long etc. Rhetoric is another means currently used to complete the genocide begun centuries ago.

But, far from inhibiting me, this difficulty became a stimulus for me, another signal that obliged me to undertake a project which, by the way, found the support of the shamans,  teachers and wise men of the communities where I have been. So, since the year 2001 up to the present, I have included eleven indigenous cultures in six countries, and I have created more than eighty images based on the myths, legends and beliefs of these groups. All the images have been sent later to the communities where I worked, for their schools and communal spaces. And each person portrayed has received the image I made of him or her.

The research has consisted, in brief, of studying the mythologies of the groups with which I am going to work, based on the writings of anthropologists. Then, in the communities, my allies have been the wise men and teachers, who describe to me and advise me on how to make each image: they tell me which people in the community will be the most suitable to represent each deity, and what attributes or items should accompany the figure. So, the field work consists of making the portraits with which later, in my workshop, I assemble each icon.

As for the forms of representation, I decided on plurality and avoided restricting myself to a single format or aesthetic, which would be contrary to the diversity of gods and cultures involved. When it comes to representations of deities, I have shared the cult of manifest beauty, not only in the original cultures, but in practically all cultures, except the contemporary western one. Curiously, we are temporarily possessed by a terror of beauty that is otherwise quite understandable: in times monopolized by reason, beauty and its consequence - emotion - constitute a frank threat given its overwhelming transformative power. What is one of its fields of action par excellence, the world of the arts, is temporarily closed to it. 

In a space of less than twenty years, I have seen communities disappear under the waters of a big dam (A'ukre, Kayapo community of Brazil), and be threatened by mining and tourism (Quero communities of Peru), by the drug trade (the Huichol of Mexico), or by evangelizing (the Piaroa and Pemón of Venezuela). The Gods of America are leaving for ever at a faster pace than I initially imagined, and with them an essential part of humanity - of all of us - will sink irrecoverably into oblivion, or even worse, into ignorance. I am working against the clock and the way is still long.

Antonio Briceño

June 2018

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Jikuri. (Chavelo Mijares)

Peyote God, Huichol culture, Mexico. 2001. Peyote is a powerful "entheogenic" plant (i.e. it provides an experience of the God inside). In the trinity of Huichol culture, maize-deer-peyote, it represents the base of the spiritual world. It is wisdom, transcendence, the connection with the sacred, with the timeless, with a world before and beyond the material world of appearances.