Turn of the Natives

Pierre de Vallombreuse has friends at unlikely places — the Mayas in Mexico,the Himbas in Namibia,the Surma in Ethiopia,the Alifuru in Indonesia...

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published:January 4, 2009 3:15 am

Pierre de Vallombreuse has friends at unlikely places — the Mayas in Mexico,the Himbas in Namibia,the Surma in Ethiopia,the Alifuru in Indonesia,the Tatar in Ukraine,the Papou in Papua New Guinea and the Punan and Jahai in Malaysia,to name just a few. “Last year,I added the Bhils of Gujarat and Rajasthan to that list,” says the 40-something French photographer as he prepares for his first exhibition in Delhi — “Les Hommes Racines” (The Roots People) at the Alliance Francaise.

For the past 22 years,Vallombreuse has been travelling the world in search of indigenous people. Armed with his camera,he has spent months with aboriginal people in places as distant as Alaska and the battlegrounds of Sudan.

Every visit has been an eye-opener,though nothing beats the wonder of the first people he met in the 1980s when he was barely out of his teens. “I was told that the indigenous people of the Borneo islands between the Philippines and Indonesia were violent headhunters. So,I was surprised to be greeted by the words dian,dian,which means “peace,peace”,by the Punan nomads,” he says. Ever since,he has sought out indigenous tribes,an effort which resulted in three books,including one in September.

Last year,he embarked on a new mission — to document 12 indigenous groups who have,over millennia,perfected their unique ways of survival. The exhibition presents a section of what he has discovered.

In Bolivia,which gave the world its first fully indigenous head of state in Evo Morales,the Aymara live on a flat mountain called Altiplana and have learnt the art of surviving extreme climate. “Though the Aymara are my favourite people,I am inspired by the Gwich’in of Canada. They number just a few hundred,yet they’ve successfully kept oil giants out of the protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which is the only place where caribou breed. They teach us that a united people can defeat the strongest powers on earth,” says Vallombreuse. He has lived with the Badjao,the “sea nomads” of the Sulu and South China seas,who have made houses of their boats. “Efforts to bind them to land have had sad results. Many Badjao now live in the slums of Malaysia while others have taken to theft and smuggling,” says Vallombreuse.

His last trip of 2008 was to Rajasthan and Gujarat where the Bhils are confronting deforestation and steady “modernisation”. Coming up next is a trip to Arizona where he will live with the fascinating Navo: “Everything they do revolves around aesthetics. If the landscape is breathtaking,they’ll build their houses there even if the nearest stream is hours away.”

The exhibition is on from January 8 to 22. Contact: 43500200

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