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Tobias Schneebaum claims The Village Voice was founded in his living room. In 1955, Norman and Adele Mailer were his East Village neighbors. “Norman and Danny Wolf and Ed Fancher were sitting around my apartment, when the idea came to them,” he recalls. That same year, the 34-year-old painter took off on a Fulbright for Peru and disappeared into the jungle, where he lived for seven months with the Harakumbut (formerly known as the Amarakaire), a remote Amazonian tribe, and participated in all the rituals of their gender-segregated society, including sex with men. One day the Harakumbut went to a neighboring village, killed people, and ate them. Schneebaum swallowed a mouthful; the memory still haunts him.
“Artist Reported Slain Returns Safe from Jungle,” the Voice noted when Schneebaum emerged from the Amazon. More than 10 years later, he wrote about his experiences in his lyrical memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. In 1999, filmmakers David and Laurie Schapiro convinced him to return and search for his lost tribe in their documentary, also called Keep the River on Your Right, which follows the artist from his Brooklyn Jewish roots to his later years working among the Asmat people of West Papua, New Guinea.
At 80, Schneebaum remains unflappable. Tall with stooped shoulders and a slight tremor from Parkinson’s disease, he has the keen, liquid eyes of a professional observer. His studio apartment in Westbeth, an artists’ residence, looks out onto the Hudson River; it’s filled with Asmat art and artifacts. There are elaborately carved ceremonial shields, ritual daggers, ghostly wooden heads, and a two-foot-long penis wound with strands of rubber. Schneebaum gestures toward two rows of human skulls, decorated with seeds, shells, and feathers. “Ancestors,” he explains. “They’re meant to be hidden in the eaves of their family’s house.” When he returned to New York after life in the Amazon, what bothered him most? “Listening to people talk all the time,” he recalls. “And the fact that I could understand them.”
Schneebaum’s work in New Guinea (which he first visited in 1973, and where he helped found a museum of tribal art) eventually came to consume him. Traveling back to Peru, re-encountering the Harakumbut, and meeting their descendants, he was moved but also saddened by the inevitable changes. “People walk differently when they wear clothing,” he notes. “There’s a whole other aspect to the way they react to you.” Schneebaum insists that he’s not an anthropologist; his sexual encounters with indigenous people pose no ethical quandaries for him. He’s more troubled by the fact that the first person to touch a remote culture alters it irrevocably. “We all know,” he says, “that it takes just one person to change a whole society.”
Amy Taubin’s review of Keep the River on Your Right.