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Tobias Schneebaum, writer, artist and explorer

Posted Sep 25 2005 12:00am


Tobias Schneebaum, in 2002.

via NYTimes, September 25, 2005
Tobias Schneebaum, Chronicler and Dining Partner of Cannibals, Dies [excerpts]
Tobias Schneebaum, a New York writer, artist and explorer who in the 1950's lived among cannibals in the remote Amazon jungle and, by his own account, sampled their traditional cuisine, died on Tuesday in Great Neck, N.Y. He was in his mid-80's and a longtime resident of Greenwich Village.

The cause was complications of Parkinson's disease, his nephew Jeff Schneebaum said. The elder Mr. Schneebaum, who had several nieces and nephews, leaves no immediate survivors.

In 2000, Mr. Schneebaum was the subject of a well-received documentary film, "Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale," which follows his return to the Amazon, and to Indonesian New Guinea, where he also lived.

Mr. Schneebaum came to prominence in 1969 with the publication of his memoir, also titled "Keep the River on Your Right" (Grove Press). The book, which became a cult classic, described how a mild-mannered gay New York artist wound up living, and ardently loving, for several months among the Arakmbut, an indigenous cannibalistic people in the rainforest of Peru.

...Mr. Schneebaum's work raises tantalizing questions about the role of the anthropologist, the responsibilities of the memoirist, and cultural attitudes toward sexuality and taboo. It also offers a look at the persistence of an 18th-century idea - the Western fantasy of the noble savage - well into the 20th century.

In 1955, Mr. Schneebaum, then a painter, won a Fulbright fellowship to study art in Peru. There, he vanished into the jungle and was presumed dead. Seven months later, he emerged, naked and covered in body paint. The experience had transformed him, he would later say, but in a way he could scarcely have imagined.

Theodore Schneebaum was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, most likely on March 25, 1922 (some sources say 1921), and reared in Brooklyn. Visiting Coney Island as a boy, he was captivated by the Wild Man of Borneo, a sideshow attraction famed for its brute exoticism.

Mr. Schneebaum, who disliked the name Theodore and eventually changed it to Tobias, attended the City College of New York. In 1977, he received a master's in cultural anthropology from Goddard College in Vermont.


image source

As a young man, Mr. Schneebaum was part of New York's flourishing bohemian scene. He studied at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art with the renowned Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and was gaining recognition for his abstract paintings, shown in New York galleries.

But as a gay man and a Jew in 1950's America, Mr. Schneebaum felt, he often wrote afterward, that there was nowhere he truly belonged. Craving community, he began to travel, and lived for several years in an artists' colony in Mexico.

In 1955, Mr. Schneebaum accepted the fellowship to Peru, hitchhiking there from New York. At a Roman Catholic mission on the edge of the rain forest, he heard about the Arakmbut. (The tribe, whose name is also spelled Harakumbut, was previously known as the Amarakaire. In his memoir, Mr. Schneebaum calls it by a pseudonym, the Akaramas.)

The Arakmbut, whose home was several days' journey into the jungle, hunted with bows, arrows and stone axes. No outsider, it was said, had ever returned from a trip there.

Mr. Schneebaum was not inclined to boldness. In New York, he had once called a neighbor to dispatch a mouse from his apartment. (The neighbor, Norman Mailer, bravely obliged.) But when he heard about the Arakmbut, he set out on foot, alone, without a compass.

"I knew that out there in the forest were other peoples more primitive, other jungles wilder, other worlds that existed that needed my eyes to look at them," he wrote in "Keep the River on Your Right." "My first thought was: I'm going; the second thought: I'll stay there."

To his relief, the Arakmbut welcomed him congenially. To his delight, homosexuality was not stigmatized there: Arakmbut men routinely had lovers of both sexes. Mr. Schneebaum spent the next several months living with the tribe in a state of unalloyed happiness.

"Keep the River on Your Right" caused a sensation when it was published. Anthropologists were aghast: ethnographers were not supposed to sleep with their subjects, much less eat them. Interviewers were titillated. ("How did it taste?" a fellow guest asked Mr. Schneebaum on "The Mike Douglas Show." "A little bit like pork," he replied.)

Mr. Schneebaum's other memoirs include "Wild Man" (Viking, 1979) and "Where the Spirits Dwell" (Grove, 1988). His most recent, "Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea" (University of Wisconsin, 2000) moves between the communities he loved: Asmat, now ravaged by globalization, and his friends in Greenwich Village, ravaged by AIDS.

An authority on Asmat art and culture, Mr. Schneebaum was formerly assistant to the curator of the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. He was also the author of "Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat."
[Read on...]

more info, links, articles, reviews, interviews, etc.:

Official film website: Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale
Movie Stills; Watch clips and trailer

Tobias Schneebaum: Film Debuting Nationally This Spring Documents Artist's Life Among Cannibals, Yaddo 2001
Review: Call of the Wild, By Robin Cembalest, ARTnews, March 2001
Review: 'River' treats Tobias Schneebaum as if he were the Wild Man of Borneo, By Richard von Busack, May 10-16, 2001, Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper
Tobias Schneebaum Interviewed by Allan Gurganus, BOMB Magazine, March 2001

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