These paintings grew out of a series of recovered photographs taken by five protestant evangelical missionaries slain in the jungles of Ecuador in 1957. These missionaries attempted to convert a small, hostile, and isolated tribe known as the Huaorani. News of the men’s disappearance became a media sensation in the United States. Along with personal effects recovered at the site of their deaths, a number of cameras (both still and motion picture) were found.
A single black and white photograph taken by one these evangelical missionaries in 1956 inspired this story that I have been painting for the last six years. The photograph is of a man in tee shirt, jeans, and sunglasses. His hands are stretched upwards, palms extended, calling into a dense wall of jungle undergrowth. My first rendering of this image sent me on a long artistic journey to paint the forces that led this man and his four colleagues to that Amazonian clearing and, eventually, to their deaths.
The 170 or so paintings I’ve made since that original rendering cut a narrow trail through a dense backstory. The paintings follow from a wider circle of photographs and related ephemera I set out to explore. They tell stories of altruism and the consequences of a rigid worldview. They are pieces of a puzzle that examine the relationship between the call to emancipate, the tragedy of indigenous subjugation, and the unintended collusion with systems of power that oppress.
The five missionaries left a sizable photographic record behind. The early snapshots document the men constructing a makeshift camp, shouting words of invitation out into an impassive rainforest, passing their time waiting for contact by reading or keeping their journals, and clowning around in a nearby river to escape the jungle’s heat and insects. They show images of young boys on an adventure and earnest men on a mission to seek out those they deemed lost or left behind.
After two days, the cameras recorded a change in subject matter as three Huaorani people appeared in their camp. Gestures of friendship seemed to be extended by the enthusiastic missionaries. In the images, we see that a young Huaorani man is offered a hamburger, is dabbed with insect repellent, and is given a tour of the missionary’s plane. Portraits taken of two Huaorani women, one old and one young, show them with gifts of cups and cutlery, sometimes smiling among each other, other times bearing impenetrable expressions that contrast with the men’s gleeful smiles.
But there are other images as well: images that seem awkward, sexually charged, and unaware of the significant power dynamics at play. There is one photograph that captures a younger woman submissively seated with her chin up and eyes gazing down as she hold her arms tightly behind her back. In another, she is posed clumsily with a TIME magazine to discretely cover her breasts. In others, the American men seem to loom over the visitors to their camp with a gawkish bravado that makes the Huaorani appear diminutive. The film captures a shifting record of good intentions and cultural blind spots.
The ensuing deaths of the missionaries from spear wounds was clearly unanticipated by them. Radio silence followed. A military search and rescue team were dispatched; the bodies of the missionaries were buried, and their film was recovered. The grief of their wives and children, captured by the famous war photographer Robert Capa, was splashed on the pages of LIFE magazine. The sensation and fame of their story inspired waves of fresh volunteers to the mission fields. Peaceful contact was later made with the Huaorani people and the challenges of modernity eventually entered their isolated world.
It has been six years, but I still come back to the picture of that missionary in the jungle clearing, arms upraised. His gesture is representative of the complex invitation that these images call out in me.
The visual scope of this project ranges well beyond the photographs recovered from the missionaries’ cameras. Additional sources contrast the Evangelical mission with complex histories of the Amazon and post-war America. Accompanying images have been culled from 1950’s newsprint and copy advertisements, the Amazon field journals of Henry Water Bates, the South American paintings of Martin Johnston Heade, Sebas’ Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, 1724-1765, and etchings from the Spanish Conquest. All are prisms that cast a spectrum of Amazonian history and American culture.
Bradford Johnson is fascinated with the boundaries between photography and painting. He gets a chargein criss-crossing the line between both, in circling around stories that are remembered in photographs, and in rendering them on flat panels with loads of medium and paint. He paints in order to get a bead on the past and a bearing on the present. Visit him at bradfordajohnson.net.