*excerpt from 'Skin of Image', 2019:
In his book A Queda do Céu, David Kopenawa, a Yanomami xamã, gives an account of the Xapiri. Xapiri are within a category in the Yanomami cosmology that belongs to invisible beings from the perspective of the common person. They behave as ‘image-beings’ of primordial ancestors that can through the xamã ‘come down’ to earth and dance. By doing so, their subjective perspectives are part of the xamã’s body and they are able to develop different relationships with other entities that populate the universe and make sure that various cosmic events follow its course. The Xapiri are therefore seen as auxiliary spirits. Spirits that not only move the world but that carry the history of the Yanomami people with them.
Kopenawa didn’t write his book himself. It was co-authored by Bruce Albert, an anthropologist and long time friend of Kopenawa, who captured fragments of their lifelong conversations in a series of transcriptions. David Kopenawa is clear with his literary intentions and states that the book is for white people, for them to understand the Yanomami, hoping that this way their children and the following generations may start listening to the forest’s inhabitants. It is with that in mind that he believes in a future with more respect and accuracy towards the Yanomami. In one of the conversations with Bruce Albert , Davi Kopenawa points out the phantasmic aspect of the interviewer as a new body devoid of readability in the community:
A long time ago, you came to live among us and spoke like a ghost. Little by little, you learned how to mimic my language and to laugh with us. We were young, and at first you didn’t know me. Our thoughts and lives are different, because you are son of this other people, that we call napë. Your teachers didn’t teach you how to dream like we do. Nevertheless you came to me and became my friend. You stayed by my side and later wanted to know the sayings of the Xapiri, which in your language you call it spirits. So I gave you my words and asked you to take them away, to be known by the white people, who don’t know anything about us.
Kopenawa shares his message by telling his stories to Bruce, who turns them into the book, published in 2015 in French and recently translated into Portuguese. Throughout the written pages we find drawings by David that illustrate some of his stories. But at the end of the introduction, instead of drawing, he writes down, by hand, the following sentence: “Myself, a Yanomami, give to you, the white person, this skin of image that is mine.”. A skin of image is how David refers to our written material, to our books and stories. For David, as he repeatedly mentions, there is a clear distinction between the oral language used to pass on the messages of the Xapiri and the stories of his kin, and the written language used by white people to pass the stories of their own predecessors. In his own written words, David Kopenawa give us not only the beginning of his knowledge and cosmologies as a Yanomami, but also a different understanding of text. One that is understood through the idea of a body, of the skin, of embodiment per se.