Paulo Tavares – Memory of the Earth

At the seminar “Art Beyond Art” (September 6, 2018), Paulo Tavares, co-curator of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennale and professor at the University of Brasília, began his speech by proposing a question: “If the city and the territory are rights, can architecture be conceived as a form of advocacy for this right? And what does that mean?".

The architect and curator presented the Memória da Terra project, related to the process of forced displacement of the Xavante Indians from Mato Grosso, in which, precisely, architecture – “the drawing, the modeling, the mapping” – are used as an advocacy tool for rights.

“It must be said that the process of modernizing the Brazilian territory has an intrinsically colonial foundation,” he said. Tavares stated that the project of environmental destruction experienced by Brazil in the 20th century, especially during the period of the military dictatorship, was also an architectural project of territory. He spoke about what was called the “pacification process”, that is, the creation of indigenous posts that concentrated the Amerindian populations and, removing them from their original territories, freed up the lands for exploitation.

Given the difficulty of physically mapping the disappearance of indigenous populations, precisely because of the lack of government records, the Memória da Terra project began to investigate the forced removal of Xavante peoples from their territories based on existing images. With photos taken by journalists of the time about the “conquest” of indigenous lands, Tavares and the other members of the project began to make a kind of “archaeology of the image”, using architectural strategies to reconstruct the map of these disappeared villages.

Thus, relating the design of the villages – always a kind of arched structure – seen in the photos with old satellite images recently made public by the US, the project's researchers were able to map the villages. They also used the marks that can be seen in the territories, such as signatures on the ground, defined by the botanical standard. “The trees grew in the same arched structure on which the villages were drawn. Thus, the history of this people continues to be recorded in the botanical composition of the forest.”

This botanical design, therefore, is a direct result of the architecture of these villages, explained Tavares. “They are products of ruins, but they are living ruins. Can we then understand trees and plants as historical monuments? Can the forest be considered an urban, architectural heritage? Can it be seen as culture, not nature?”

Considering the positive answer to these questions, the project unfolded in a report that, together with the other evidence collected by the Public Ministry, serves as “evidence material” for a petition that was made to IPHAN and UNESCO for this soil to be considered an architectural heritage. The work has also been done in partnership with the indigenous populations of the region, as Tavares showed throughout his exhibition.

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