Indigenous communities across the world safeguard an extraordinarily rich and diverse tapestry of heritage and cultural intricacies. Despite the depth of this cultural wealth, it has frequently been obscured and reduced to oversimplified, outdated stereotypes. However, beneath these narrow portrayals lies a profound connection to nature, an expansive repository of traditional knowledge, and a history of living harmoniously with the environment.
By Nina Zulian
Beyond the surface issues that indigenous communities confront, such as dispossession of land, forced relocation, and denial of basic rights, there exists a more intricate challenge. Indigenous societies grapple with the gradual erosion of their traditional crafts, languages, and cultural practices. This loss of essential elements of their identity adds layers of complexity to their struggles. To truly understand and support these communities, it is imperative to recognise the depth and breadth of their cultures. This recognition marks the first crucial step towards fostering a respectful and inclusive dialogue, one that transcends the barriers of prejudice and misinformation.
Our planet hosts a large number of Indigenous populations, each contributing to an unparalleled cultural diversity. Unfortunately, prevailing mainstream narratives tend to homogenise these unique identities, reducing them to simplistic, one-dimensional images, and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. In some instances, these stereotypes involve the exoticisation of Indigenous cultures, portraying them as enigmatic and otherworldly. These misrepresentations have historically marginalised Indigenous communities, exacerbating their challenges and undermining the value of their contributions.
“To truly understand and support Indigenous communities, it is imperative to recognise the depth and breadth of their cultures.”
The field of design, with its capacity to shape and influence our perceptions, is uniquely positioned to bridge these divides. However, pertinent questions remain: how can we provide opportunities in a market that is still predominantly European-centric? And what can we — as a creative industry and community — do to better integrate Indigenous knowledge while working actively towards diversity and inclusivity?
Fashion as a Gateway
Amidst this challenging scenario, three Brazilian designers stand out as beacons of hope: Sioduhi Waíkhᵾn, Maurício Duarte, and Dayana Molina. Their work takes place primarily in the world of fashion, which not only reflects societal values but also shapes them. Rather than bow to the pressures of the market, these designers have become vibrant ambassadors of local and Indigenous wisdom, crafting designs that are both innovative and deeply rooted in their heritage. In doing so, they not only enrich the industry but also promote environmental consciousness and empowerment within Indigenous communities.
Sioduhi Waíkhᵾn, the visionary behind Sioduhi Studio, exemplifies this harmonious blend. As a Pira-tapuya individual from the Indigenous Territory of Alto Rio Negro, Amazonas, Brazil, Sioduhi’s designs seamlessly meld past, present, and future. One remarkable creation is Maniocolor, a textile dye derived from cassava peel—a byproduct of Amazonian agriculture—that cleverly repurposes what was previously seen as waste.
Sioduhi often draws upon the concept of ‘Indigenous Futurism’, a term introduced by American scholar Anishinaabe Grace L. Dillon in 2003. This idea reflects how Indigenous populations extend their scientific insights across time, honouring historical roots, thriving in the present, and fostering hopes for future generations.
In a conversation with the Brazilian Sumaúma journalism platform, Sioduhi emphasised the self-taught journey of many Indigenous artists. He voiced concerns over the absence of representation of artists such as Feliciano Lana in conventional education, advocating for a more inclusive curriculum that celebrates the breadth of artistic narratives. Sioduhi is also the co-founder Abya Yala Criativa, a platform that fosters a space for Indigenous artisans to display and hone their craft in contemporary settings.
From top left: Igarapé collection by Mauricio Duarte, photo by Nathalie Brasil. Igarapé collection by Mauricio Duarte, photo by Bruno Barreto. Mauricio Duarte at São Paulo Fashion Week 2022.
Similarly, Maurício Duarte, an indigenous designer from the Kaixana people, has transitioned from hand-painting T-shirts to gracing the stage at São Paulo Fashion Week. Many of Maurício’s creations feature print designs that bear the rich tradition of his community and the visionary use of the region’s arumã fibre. This remarkable fibre, often sourced from palm trees in the Amazon rainforest, holds profound cultural significance for numerous Indigenous communities, having been a staple material for crafting items like baskets and textiles for generations.
Maurício’s innovative approach brings this beloved fibre to the forefront of the fashion world, accentuating its renewable nature and sustainable harvesting practices that leave palm trees unharmed, ensuring the continued availability of this vital resource. In this way, Maurício achieves a seamless synthesis of tradition and modernity, resulting in a harmonious fusion that pays homage to his heritage while championing environmental awareness. Through his partnerships with artisans from the Amazon’s interior, his work with regional raw materials also supports the livelihoods of their communities. Today, the Maurício Duarte brand impacts hundreds of Amazonian families from over 12 Indigenous ethnicities.
Abya Yala Resistance collection by Dayana Molina, photo by Gustavo Paixão.
Dayana Molina, a descendant of the Fulni-ô tribe in Northeast Brazil and the Aymara ethnicities in Peru transcends the conventional designer title to become a genuine catalyst for change. Drawing inspiration from her Indigenous heritage, she creates fashion pieces that challenge established norms, such as redefining gender roles and celebrating diverse body types, all from a decolonial perspective. In Dayana Molina’s perspective, “fashion is a potent political statement.” With 14 dedicated years in the field, she draws profound inspiration from her Indigenous roots to craft pieces that push the boundaries of conventional fashion.
“My deepest inspirations have always been the ancestral women of my family. I hold their memory close, acknowledging the profound significance of my roots in my creative journey.” — Dayana Molina
Through her brand, Nalimo, Dayana exemplifies collaboration and inclusivity. Dayana’s strategic choice to empower women at every production stage has radically transformed her brand. Today, the entire team consists of women, ”fostering financial independence and nurturing female leadership in decision-making,” she emphasises. Nalimo’s dynamic team includes Indigenous women, single mothers, LGBTQI+ individuals, and more, all working together to shape a vision of a more equitable and sustainable future.
The collaborative synergy of Sioduhi, Mauricio, and Dayana highlights the infinite potential residing in the fusion of ancestral wisdom with contemporary fashion design. Their stories urge the industry to embrace age-old wisdom, paving the path for inclusivity and sustainability.
This transition in approach signifies a more profound quest to challenge and reshape the conventional dynamics in the fashion industry, which has often been critiqued for its adverse environmental footprint and societal implications. This trio of visionary designers remains unyielding in their allegiance to their ancestral roots, envisioning a realm where environmental prudence triumphs and the culture of overconsumption is reformed.
By amplifying Indigenous voices in the design sphere, diverse perspectives enrich the industry, fostering an ethically grounded and environmentally conscious ethos. More than a passing fashion trend, this movement transcends fleeting engagement – evolving into a discourse that could significantly shape the design industry’s future. Their stories challenge the audience to delve deeper, encouraging a transition beyond conventional progressive systems towards a society that genuinely appreciates and integrates diverse cultural narratives. They also foster narratives that propel the design industry towards a more sustainable horizon. Through their creative lens, the vision of a design landscape imbued with reverence for both the past and future becomes increasingly vivid.
Top image: Igarapé collection by Mauricio Duarte, photo by Nathalie Brasil.
About the author
Nina Zulian, a Brazilian curator and designer based in Amsterdam, is dedicated to contemporary design, art, and crafts. Her practice involves actively seeking out materials and processes that support regeneration and circular design, underscoring her strong commitment to social and environmental responsibility. She is the driving force behind Plural Magazine, an online platform that centers on design and material research, and a business partner of SOMA Studio Milano circular design consultancy.
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