Meet the Brazilian Performance Artist Teaching Conservation in the Amazon

Meet Uýra, dressed in a costume made entirely of natural materials, as she stands against a backdrop of a river contaminated by plastic waste
Meet Uýra, dressed in a costume made entirely of natural materials, as she stands against a backdrop of a river contaminated by plastic waste | © Matheus Belem
Photo of Sarah Brown
1 February 2019

Uýra is a Brazilian activist and artist who teaches communities in the Amazon about conservation and sustainability. A drag queen by day, Uýra is the moniker of Emerson Munduruku. Using natural materials that she finds in local gardens and the forest, she spends hours creating elaborate costumes that she uses to promote diversity, both in humans and nature.

Against the jet-black paint that covers her face, Uýra carefully places dry, feathery leaves under her eyes that fan out like misplaced wings. She adds red flowers to the stems for a hint of color, lines her eyes with gold and places a white dab on the center of her lips. Uýra can take up to two hours to get ready, using only seeds, flowers and natural materials that she finds in the wild. She then leaves the house and goes to the small, isolated villages in the Brazilian Amazon to teach locals about conservation through art and performance.

Using only natural materials collected from gardens and the surrounding forest, it can take several hours to design Uýra's unique attire. | © Lisa Hermes

Uýra is a biologist of indigenous descent born in the Amazon region. She takes part in educational projects designed to show locals how to connect with nature and protect the surrounding natural environment. Her teaching method uses performative acts to spread the idea that humans are a part of nature too, and to highlight the importance of preserving indigenous knowledge and using sustainable practices.

She teaches the general public in Manaus and mostly children and adolescents in the riverside communities in the Amazon. She also runs the Incenturita Project from the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), where she educates young people through scenic, visual and musical performances inspired, and made from, elements of the forest.

Uýra says that the reaction to her appearance is either fear or delight. Despite the buzz she creates, she says that people listen to what she has to say and this has become a powerful tool for getting her messages across and making connections. “The best moments to date have been the contact with the children and the smiles and touches of many people with whom I have connected,” she says.

Uýra teaches conservation to locals in the Amazon and shows how residents can use the forest resources sustainably. | © Lisa Hermes

Her passion for conservation began during childhood. Growing up in the village of Mojuí dos Campos in the rural area of Santarém (in the Pará state), Munduruku spent many days bathing in streams, stomping through mud and watching rows of ants crawl across the ground. She reflects that these activities are “the things every person needs to live.”

Munduruku graduated as a biologist and then completed a master’s degree in ecology from the National Institute of Amazonian Research. It was during these six years of study that her perspective of nature began to transform. “I understood that life is not only fauna and flora,” she explains. “Biodiversity also encompasses human life, especially LGBT people, women, black people, minorities and indigenous people. This is the real meaning of the word ‘life’.”

Uýra visits villages along the Amazon river to teach residents about the importance of conservation. | © Selma Maia

It was this realization that enriched her purpose. While her performance acts as an educational tool, her identity is also “an expression of my Afro-indigenous ancestry,” says Uýra. With indigenous heritage, and as a member of the LGBTQ community, Munduruku grew up feeling an outsider and was subjected to daily prejudice. This changed in 2016. The frustration of feeling marginalized, coupled with political instability at the time, inspired her to consider alternative ways to bring a new perspective to the social and conservation issues she encountered daily. “In the midst of all this frenzy, Uýra gained strength and she connected me to many people and the voice on the street. I found my niche. It was time to communicate.”

Uýra dresses herself up for her performance using species of plants with particular ecological properties: they reproduce and grow quickly, they are not rare and they are the first to appear and spread in areas damaged by machines, fire or the spread of concrete. She says, “Uýra is a being of war and peace, and the plants I use reflect this ambiguity.” She sources the plants from her backyard or the backyards of others if she has permission, and always returns the plants to the wild, “so they can decompose as part of the Earth’s energy circle.”

Meet Uýra, dressed in a costume made entirely of natural materials, as she stands against a backdrop of a river contaminated by plastic waste | © Matheus Belem

Uýra also helps people come to terms with their own identity. She believes that society has often attempted to homogenize human nature and standards, when “nature is and always was diverse and never ‘normal’.” It’s this attempt to create a standardized norm, she says, that has led to discrimination that disfavors natural variations (such as in appearance, race, gender or sexuality). Through art and performance, she encourages people to embrace their identities, while preserving the environment at the same time.

Munduruku once grappled for her own sense of identity, but found it – and her purpose – through Uýra. “Uýra was one of the best decisions of my life, because she is, for me, a cure. A cure for selfishness, because she teaches me about empathy and the need for dialogue. Uýra is born from my ancestry and I carry her with me wherever I go.”

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