View of NAKOADA, in Mam Rio, with MAHKU's work highlighted
"Kapewẽ Pukenibu", by MAHKU - Huni Kuin Artists' Movement, work commissioned for "Nakoada". Photo: Fábio Souza / MAM Rio

A serpent crosses the Monumental Hall of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, swallowing modernist works, creations from different indigenous communities and swallowing the museum's own architecture. What may seem like a short story is the expographic proposal of Nakoada: strategies for modern art, on view until November 2022. Detached from the white cube, the exhibition is built from the silhouette of a snake, and it is walking along its body that we come into contact with the selection of works on display. 

Curated by Denilson Baniwa e Beatriz Lemos, the show joins the long list of programs that seek to dialogue with the centenary of the Week of Modern Art, bringing together works from the collections of MAM Rio — especially that of Gilberto Chateaubriand, which brings together an important and vast collection of the period and is in lending with the institution for years — pieces from the Museu do Índio and works by contemporary artists. However, instead of a celebratory or critical character in relation to the ephemeris, the show proposed another strategy: working on future perspectives, and it did so driven by a baniwa ethic, the koada. 

“There is no translation that satisfies the value of the word 'koada'. It can be understood as revenge, exchange, revolt, resumption…”, explains Denilson in an interview with arte!brasileiros. Its about a war strategy of the Baniwa people from the Alto Rio Negro region, in Amazonas. Practiced from the study of the culture and knowledge of other peoples - allowing an understanding of the present context from the evaluation of past situations -, it aims to give continuity to the existence of the community itself. The term 'na' “is a prefix meaning 'our' or 'us'. Then nakoada it would be 'our recovery', 'our restitution', 'our revolt', 'our return', things like that”, completes the curator.  

As Beatriz emphasizes, this Baniwa ethics is not proposed as a theme, “it is not an exposition about this concept, but it is a possibility of living it in the body”. Thus, it is intended to invite the public to a nakoada for art, to see what we think we know about modernism and the Brazil that it wanted and to review the legacies of the past and its uses in the present. 

For this, great names of the movement, such as Anita Malfatti, Candido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral, are in dialogue with contemporary works created specifically for the exhibition by Cinthia Marcelle, MAHKU, Brand new Edgar and Zahy Guajajara and with creations from different indigenous ethnicities. All of this stitched together in an expographic proposal that takes the form of a cosmic serpent. “This symbology is recurrent in several Western and Eastern cultures. The snake digests our history and carries, within its bulge, this expanded time”. Thus, whoever walks through the institution's Monumental Hall finds dialogues, confrontations and negotiations between the works, their contexts, the periods that housed them, the authors and the worldviews that create them.

“If before, nakoada was used in a context of war and the strategy served as a guide to repay or retake a territory; today, thinking a nakoada for art, we are in this world making small movements of reappropriation of what was taken from us: the voice, the presence, the autonomy, the existence”, says Denilson. 

A capoeira with memory

As the landmark event of modernism completes 100 years, creating an exhibition that works with one of the main collections of works of the period – housed by a museum that is itself the result of this movement – ​​was essential. “When there are these demands, I think the most interesting thing is to look at the surroundings, to understand what makes sense today, what we can bring from new perspectives. Not exactly an exhibition about this collection, but with this collection”, says Beatriz Lemos. 

The choice to establish a dialogue between the contemporary and the modernist collection was a response to an opportunity by the curatorial duo. As Denilson explains: “We wanted to make a comment on modernism, but not invalidate or burn this collection, not deliberately attack all this, because who is interested in burning things, right? I wonder how to make it reflect on the importance of modernism, which had mistakes, but it also made possible an indigenous, black, LGBTQIA+, female presence within a context of art production in Brazil”. To which Beatriz adds: “there is a place to dance with history, which we cannot reach and simply deny everything, throw away and erase this memory. It's important to try to play with your own time, negotiate with your time”.

This negotiation takes shape in a series of small 'nakoada acts' spread throughout the show – sometimes in the choice of works and their placements, sometimes in the wall texts and resources that guide us through the exhibition. 

Counterattacks and Approaches

At 12 meters long, the panel Kapewẽ Pukenibu, made by MAHKU – Movimento dos Artistas Huni-Kuin especially for the exhibition, is the work that first receives those who arrive at the exhibition. nakoada. Depicting the canoe alligator, an enchanted figure from the huni-kuin narrative of the foundation of the worlds, the canvas takes us to the section Nature, invention and landscape, standing side by side with paintings by Alberto Guignard and Anita Malfatti. If the modernist works bring us an interior Brazil and bucolic landscapes under a contemplative look, Mahku's painting proposes re-orientations, trying to relate to the impossibility of domestication of nature and placing it not from an aesthetic point of view, but as a plural, enchanted and familiar being. 

“There is a resumption, a revolt, a retribution, a revenge also in some sense, in placing the MAM collection being swallowed by the cosmic serpent of time, and around it – carrying out the actions of counter-attack and attack, removal and approximation – contemporary artists”, explains Denilson Baniwa. 

This impulse is perhaps even more explicit Wound Meditation or the School of Knives, work by Cinthia Marcelle who distributes 25 cutlery, which contain only the silhouette of knives and daggers used as weapons by different peoples. “The absence of these tools indicates that they are being used in space. So it's just arriving and seeing that they are here in conflict, right? Because conflict is given. So, these daggers are with the colonizer, or with those who are colonized”, explains Beatriz. 

Some of these (symbolic) clashes are perceived in the exhibition. As in the positioning of Pata Ewa'n – the heart of the world, a painting by Jaider Esbell that brings the image of a seahorse, being worshiped by various Afro-indigenous cultures for its connection to the narratives of origin. At over two meters high, the painting stands next to urutu, by Tarsila do Amaral, which measures just over 60 centimeters, and three even smaller canvases by Rego Monteiro. “Putting artists like Jaider Esbell almost swallowing Tarsila and Rego Monteiro — even due to the size of the works — is cool to provoke about the presence they occupy today”, says Denilson. 

The portraits section is largely composed of black, indigenous and women's bodies. Most of them were painted about 80 or 100 years ago, “when the intention was to apprehend this other, as something generalized in this body”, explains Beatriz. The exhibition, however, seeks to awaken another reading about these same works. “As much as these racialized and female bodies have been portrayed in this place from a modern perspective, here they are autonomous, firm, proud and with a lot of ownership of their own identities and subjectivities. So it is one of the gestures of this other perspective of looking at a historical collection”, completes the curator. 

Zahy Guajajara's video installation approaches this section. With a proposal of indigenous futurism, the work reflects on the contact between the original cultures and the colonizer, with their impacts, their contradictions, presences and absences; appropriating technological language as a support for the survival of traditions. 

Next to it, other nakoadas can be seen in the presence of the pieces from the collection of the Indian Museum. Karajá dolls are closer to the studies of Anthropophagy e to black, by Tarsila do Amaral, evidencing the similarity between the formal aspects and the possible references of the painter. And, when exhibited alongside renowned modernist works and works by artists from the contemporary scene, the indigenous creations introduce other clashes: “from provocations about what is art and what is an artifact, to questions about who establishes these definitions. What is the power these people have to define what is big art, what is small art, what is artifact, what is contemporary art? It's really cool to put this up for debate in a museum like MAM”, shares Denilson.

The reflection extends to the complementary materials of the show, to which, along with the wall texts, we come into contact with audio recordings of narratives by indigenous peoples – the tikis. “Putting technical texts together with tiki texts is a way of provoking about what kind of knowledge we consider intellectualized or not, right?”, provokes Denilson.

Permanence Strategies

As the curators say, bringing these clashes to MAM Rio was perhaps the first nakoada. “The entire process of making this exhibition was from small, everyday nakoadas to changing things within the museum's own structure. So, the exhibition is a matter placed inside a space, but beyond that, it is an immateriality built inside the museum, which changes the relationships with the collection, the relationships between the teams, the thoughts within the structure of the institution”, account Dennison. To which Beatriz echoes, also highlighting the contact with the Museu do Índio — an ethnographic-based institution whose collection, which has been closed for so long for public visitation, gains another perspective in the exhibition on display.  

The curator also shares that one of the important points in this process of construction of the show was linked to his participation, by (nakoando) breaking expectations of people from the museum itself in relation to what would be a curatorship done by an indigenous professional. Understanding and affirming its presence beyond an ethnic character. “It is a political role to be in the curatorship of exhibitions. And it's not that I'm ashamed, or that I want to not look like an indigenous person, or not talk about indigenous culture and struggle. It's just that, for me, all of this is already part of who I am. I think I want to think of our presence – of people of indigenous origin – as a presence for more than our ethnicities represent, for more than what is expected of us. We are building, or trying to build, a kind of thought or theory of indigenous art that goes beyond the expectation of any whiteness, or any invitation made just to occupy a specific space. I don't think it's up to us anymore, not in 2022; I think it used to fit before, but now it doesn’t.”  

“For me, the whole challenge was not to make an exhibition about modernism, but to take advantage of an exhibition on modernism to try to think about the structures of a museum”, says the curator, and adds: “We have here a final product of all that we can take the opportunity to build bricks for a new type of museum, I think this is the challenge”.


Nakoada: strategies for modern art
MAM Rio – Av. Infante Dom Henrique, 85 – Rio de Janeiro (RJ)
On view until November 27, 2022
Visitation from Thursday to Saturday, from 10 am to 18 pm; and Sundays, from 11 am to 18 pm
Free entry with suggested contributions (R$ 10 for a half, R$ 20 for a full one)

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