An encounter with Jaider Esbell in Toronto
Jananda Lima is a social innovation designer
The alarm went off at 3:30am. It was going to be a long day, or rather, a long week. I had to be at the airport by 5am, so I forced myself to open my eyes and get out of bed. My biggest encouragement was the fact that I was about to personally meet the great Jaider Esbell. He was one of our guests at the Arctic/Amazon Symposium, a historic meeting between Indigenous artists from these two regions, held here in Toronto. We had already been talking through the WhatsApp video and audio in the months before and I had fallen in love with his art, his discourse, and his writing. He promised to bring me his book August Afternoons September Mornings October Nights and I could not wait to devour it.
Jaider was the last guest to arrive in town and we went straight to the Harbourfront Center where the symposium would take place. We arrived early, when it was still dark, so we walked by the lake and as we watched the sunrise reflecting on the clouds and on the water he spoke about himself. He talked about his anguish, for the world is an inhospitable place, and about his lack of optimism in love. It seemed to me that he needed to vent and the twilight with a stranger would be a good time to do so. He also spoke of how his art gallery was a playful act to “generate impact and make Indigenous energy circulate in the white art world”, but that in reality he was unemployed. He proudly said that he had resigned as a federal worker to be an autonomous, free Indian “arctivist” (artist/activist). He also spoke of Contemporary Indigenous Art, he spoke of transworlds.
During the Arctic/Amazon event, there were many opportunities for dialogue with those he called – his distant relatives from the cold. He proved everything he had told me, but he also proved the opposite. He proved love. He proved spirituality. And it all made sense. Jaider has always been a great provocateur. Always taking us off the axis. All of us. Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals.
During his stay in Toronto, he insisted that I take him for a naked swim in the waters of Lake Ontario. I took him to the Toronto Islands, an Indigenous territory for ceremonies and a place of healing, that was taken by the colonizers. One of the challenges of promoting an encounter between the North and South is to pick a time of year that is neither too hot for the Arctic delegation nor too cold for the Amazon delegation. Unfortunately for the Inuit, it was a mild fall, but not warm enough for a naked swim in the icy waters of Lake Ontario. As we reached the edge of the water, Jaider wet his hands and washed his face. He looked at the horizon, closed his eyes, felt the wind ruffle his hair, rehearsed a dance, smiled, and we went on to other discoveries.
By the end of those fall days in Toronto Jaider had left his mark. He had made everything different, everyone was different. It was impossible to be apathetic to his presence, his energy.
On his last night in town, he spread all his canvases on the floor and said, “Pick one.” But in the end, he picked one himself. He said that that event was about them, the Amazon artists, making love with their Arctic relatives, making babies, creating life, and that is why he presented me with the Pregnant painting, as the witness of that love.
Before leaving for Brazil he asked me to help him subvert the white art world by including him in paid events and helping to sell his art. With that money he wanted young Indigenous artists to have the same opportunities he was having, to travel, to bring chaos around the world, and to reach much higher flights than himself. He has always embraced the role of a precursor, as a path-opener through his most effective trap, Contemporary Indigenous Art.
One day I received the message: “Jaider Esbell is gone”.
Still unable to believe it, I hurried to check his profile. The last message he sent me was: “Hi. Call me, I want to hear your voice”. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but it was probably about some provocation of his being in the works.
In addition to the pain of losing a person dear to me, I came to tears as I thought about who would play the crucial role he so bravely faced. Who will be the provocateur? Who will be the brilliant thinker as he was? Who dares to be what he was in a world like this? What comforts me is to think that his art is still alive, his words still resonate, and we will keep doing everything we can so they continue to resonate forever. They will resonate in every new Indigenous artist who comes along this trail, as well as those who have already crossed the river.
Jaider Esbell lives.
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