Between November 1976 and May 1977, Juan Downey lived with the Yanomami communities of Bishassi and Tayeri. As soon as he arrived in the territory of the Yanomami, Downey engrossed himself fully in the indigenous social structure of the shabono..
Literarily meaning a felling or clearing in the forest, a shabono is the elliptic or circular communal dwelling of the Yanomami, which is subdivided depending on the family structure of the members. The area in the centre of the shabono is the community’s shared space and the outside edge is a continuous structure made of tree trunks and branches with a huge single-pitch roof that covers the domestic domain, running round the space of social life, rituals and shamanic exercises. According to the anthropologist Jacques Lizot, the shabono is a microcosm where the cosmological, religious and social orders of the Yanomami converge. For Downey it is also a perfect instance of invisible, light, flexible, economic architecture – an architecture interdependent on natural forces, an organism with the powers of the universe that feeds nature while at once feeding off of it.
Though it might seem as if Downey were following in the steps of ethnographic documentary by pioneers such as Jean Rouch – in other words, submerging himself in ‘the place of the events’, adopting the community’s customs and entering into dialogue with the ‘observed’ through a visioning of the recorded images – Downey’s engagement with the genre is tempered by a component of subjectivity that subverts its classic rules. He does not maintain a distance but rather involves himself in the observed action as an active part. Similarly to his series Video Trans Americas [see pp. 166-167], the approximation to the ‘other’ in El shabono abandonado [The Abandoned Shabono] involves a process of self-discovery, in this case in an even more extreme form, completely removed from his life and his family. For Downey, the artistic experience with the Yanomami is the document of a process and not the manipulation of passive materials, as is also borne out by the maps and drawings which are the result of his meditations in the forest. – NEM