'Our mainstay is the documentation, promotion and trade of Indigenous art'
Interview with social entrepreneur Jack Wheeler about his Peru-based NGO and Amazon links to new film Tár
It can't be often that a critically-acclaimed, multi-award-winning film starring one of the world’s most famous actresses opens with an indigenous shaman from the Peruvian Amazon singing a sacred healing song, or elsewhere features a photo of another shaman blowing tobacco smoke over that same actress’s head. But that's what happens in Tár, released last month in the UK and nominated for five BAFTAs at this Sunday’s awards and six Oscars next month, including Best Picture, Best Director and Leading/Best Actress. With Cate Blanchett in the title role, it tells the story of fictional conductor and composer Lydia Tár, newly-arrived at the Berlin Philharmonic, who previously spent years living and studying with the Shipibo-Konibo people in a comparatively remote part of Peru.
Tár’s production team connected to the Shipibo-Konibo through Xapiri Ground, an NGO founded by British social entrepreneur Jack Wheeler and based in Cusco. Here Wheeler tells me how Xapiri came to play such a subtle - but significant - role in one of the most talked-about films of the last 12 months, and the work that his organisation does more generally:
DH: I watched Tár at the lovely Glasgow Film Theatre with a friend who has spent some time with the Shipibo and she recognised the song at the beginning immediately. I notice that both Xapiri and you personally are mentioned in the credits. How did this come about?
JW: Thank you, David, for initiating this conversation and good spot on the Shipibo-Konibo references in Tár. In July 2021, a member of Tár’s team sent an email enquiring about a photograph which the director, Todd Field, had purchased during our “Photos x Action” emergency campaign during the height of Covid in June 2020. The photo was “A Family Reunion” by the Shipibo-Konibo photographer David Díaz Gonzales, an artist and friend who we have been working closely with the past years, which then culminated in his debut exhibit at our gallery in Cusco in 2022. I chatted to David, explaining the request, and asked his permission to discuss more with the film’s team about their inquiry, and he gave me the go-ahead to speak with Tár. The idea was to learn a bit more about their request before relaying the info back to David, considering that the phone call was to be had in English. So shortly after I found myself having a zoom conversation with the team at Tár, including the producer, Nigel Wooll and director, Todd Field.
DH: Do you think, then, that it was Todd seeing that photo that gave him the idea of having the main character in his film someone who had lived in the Amazon?
JW: I’m not sure if that gave him the idea but it certainly must have aligned with the character development of Lydia Tár - Cate Blanchett. In my initial phone call with Todd, he explained that Lydia’s character had spent a meaningful part of her 20s living and working alongside the Shipibo-Konibo during her ethnomusicology studies and that now in her adult life she finds herself feeling separated from her earlier experiences as a young woman. Todd had envisioned a photo to appear in some scenes at her studio that would show the younger Cate with the Shipibo, so this facilitated him reaching out to us. After speaking with David, we shared the opinion that rather than use an existing photo from his archive, a better option would be to stage a new photo or series of photos especially for the film. After workshopping the idea together with David and Todd, we organised a photoshoot that reenacted a scenario of a Shipibo shaman performing a tobacco cleansing ritual with Cate, which involved blowing mapacho smoke over her head. As you can imagine, David was excited by the opportunity to shoot a photo especially for Cate, and we had fun going back and forth with Tár discussing it, which involved zoom meetings in English and Spanish as the ideas developed. This photo is eventually seen in the film inside Lydia’s studio, as a memento of her experience with the Shipibo.
DH: It’s fascinating to hear how much preparation can go into creating a character. I must admit that initially watching the film I thought Lydia was a real person and I found myself wondering: “If she’s so famous, and she lived with the Shipibo, how come I haven’t heard of her?!” But I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean. Did Cate actually meet one of the Shipibo shamans?
JW: So Cate did not meet a Shipibo in person. David had the technical challenge of creating such a photo, which could then be “photoshopped” to include Cate, back at the Tár studio in Germany. Together we agreed on the technical specs and David photographed a shaman - Ruperto Fasabi - blowing the smoke, ready for the photoshop magic back in Germany. It took a few attempts to get the photo right, but in the end we had the perfect take, which led to the Tár team taking a photo of Cate with the same technical specs to superimpose onto David’s original photo. It helped that Ruperto is part of David’s family, which allowed such a photo to be developed with calm and trust.
DH: Do you know what Cate thought of the final result?
JW: I just asked Todd that and his reply was: “Both Cate and I were so appreciative of the care and consideration and collaboration we were able to experience with David as an artist. The final photograph was incredibly important, not just as a piece of narrative art direction, but as something that bound all of us in a truly meaningful way.”
DH: Collaborating with a master film-maker like Todd and such an eminent an actress as Cate isn’t how you usually spend your working days for Xapiri, right?! Is this the first time you’ve found yourself doing something like this?
JW: Certainly not normal working days for Xapiri, or for David for that matter! Back in 2015, during our first year of operation, I remember providing some arrows and Indigenous artefacts for a film called The Lost City of Z, but this collaboration with Tár was, of course, something else. I believe the exchange was a new experience for all involved, and it was a pleasure to work with Todd and his team, always taking the time to talk through ideas and processes to ensure the work was carried out in the most sincere and respectful way to Shipibo culture. As you said earlier, the Shipibo connection in the film is subtle but significant, and it was a privilege for Xapiri to be part of this cross-cultural exchange, acting as the bridge between Tár, David and the other Shipibos involved.
DH: How many other Shipibos were involved?
JW: In total there were around 6 Shipibo participants involved in the process who facilitated the photography building segment, the opening “icaro” song, the creation of customized illustrations of the Shipibo “kené” designs and language translation.
DH: Tell us more about Xapiri's work. If this isn't the sort of thing you usually do, what is? What is your main purpose and thrust?
JW: Xapiri is an NGO whose work is dedicated to the art and cultural traditions of Indigenous communities throughout the Peruvian Amazon. Our true mainstay is the documentation, promotion and trade of Indigenous art. From our physical art house and gallery in Cusco, we give visibility to the work of six ethnic groups with whom we share intimate relations, whilst giving voice to their culture through communicative media such as photography, video and journalism. Our public network is a compilation of local Peruvians, academics, artists and international visitors.
DH: Does this mean you travel a lot?
JW: Over the years we have developed sustainable economic relationships with many artists and artisans situated all across the Peruvian Amazon. An essential part of our work is invested in community visits and expeditions, which we try to do as much as possible, in order to produce multimedia and other creative content to share with them and our general public. We work closely with all ages, hosting various types of workshops and activities in the communities which has become a vital part of relationship-building and establishing trust. It is not uncommon for Indigenous elders to meet challenges in their efforts to transmit ancestral knowledge and practices to their younger generations - be it through art, medicinal plant knowledge, songs etc - so it has become our imperative to act as a bridge between these valuable lines of life and cultural heritage.
DH: I’d love to visit your gallery in Cusco one day! What kind of thing goes on there?
JW: We host a full program of cultural activities, exhibitions and events to further disseminate our work. We invite Indigenous friends and artists to share their culture and creativity through talks and workshops, as well as field experts to share their knowledge about the Amazon and rainforest culture. We have learned the importance of entering into a dialogue with our visitors and to speak as openly as possible about the issues that face the Amazon, and that has become our thrust! Xapiri Ground, as an organization having worked many years within the Indigenous framework, carries the responsibility to express from the ground up what those realities are by creating purpose “through the power of art.” I invite your readers to learn more by visiting our website at xapiriground.org.
DH: Coming to the end now. This is obviously a very unusual line of work you’re pursuing. How did you get into it? Why Peru and why indigenous peoples in the Amazon?
JW: I had been traveling for years throughout Latin America but Peru was always in my heart, as it was the first country I visited in the Americas in my early 20s where my time volunteering at an orphanage was essential to grounding me in Peruvian culture. I also had the chance to visit Andean communities for the first time, so I guess you could say this marked the beginning of my passion for Indigenous culture. To cut a long story short, my travels continued far and wide, with no set plans albeit searching for something. Soon after, through my experiences traveling in Venezuela and Brazil, I would meet people who were working with jungle communities. From then onwards, the idea of Xapiri was steadily born.
DH: And how did you get into working with indigenous art and artefacts in particular?
JW: I was initially drawn to Indigenous art for the beauty and detail that, to me, seemed hidden in their everyday items and artefacts, so I began to investigate that art deeper through sharing time in some Amazonian communities. It was there, inside the communities, that I had found meaning. With this, the wind eventually guided me back to Cusco - a familiar feeling of place, which allowed my commitment for this work to grow. The experiences I’ve shared with Indigenous peoples are incredibly rewarding and I continue to honour and respect those relationships and friendships today. You hear this talked about a lot in the media how the Indigenous people are key in the protection of the rainforests. Well, there is a truth to that, but I’d like to add that alongside it, they are the ones graced with the wisdom of their culture and the intrinsic value of their art - a reality that I feel incredibly privileged to learn from and witness.
DH: My final question. That song at the beginning of Tár sung by a Shipibo shaman, who I understand to be Elisa Vargas Fernandez. . . It’s very beautiful! It’s a healing song, or “icaro”, right?
JW: That’s right. Elisa is singing a sacred song or “icaro” that is titled “Cura Mente” which in English is something like “Cure the Mind”, so you kind of get an idea of what it’s about. These healing songs are often combined with plant medicines and are paramount in traditional ceremonies. They play an essential role in Shipibo cosmovision, and can be coupled with what is known as the “kené”; an intricate series of patterns integral to their healing arts which, for example, appear on Cate’s face in the photo. The many elements of the Shipibo art-forms serve as both their spiritual tools and cultural identity.
DH: I think I’ve met Elisa at some point. Some years back, though.
JW: Elisa, aka “Mama Elisa”, is a medicine woman at the Sanke Nete Center. We should note the song was recorded for Tár by Zackiel Lewis Griffiths, a graduate of the University of London School of African and Oriental Studies for Ethnomusicology. Thank you, David, for taking the time to chat!
DH: Jack, thank you very much.