The collective Mahku, of the Huni Kuin people (Acre), exhibited at the exhibition Encontros Ameríndios
The collective Mahku, from the Huni Kuin people (Acre), exhibited in the exhibition "Amerindian Encounters". Photo: Mauricio Azzolini

In a forceful speech at Flip 2014, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro stated that “we have to learn to be Indians before it is too late”. The anthropologist referred to “us”, white western civilization, and stressed that it was necessary to learn from indigenous peoples “how to live in a country without destroying it, how to live in a world without destroying it and how to be happy without needing credit card".

About six years later, it is difficult to say that things have moved in this direction. The destruction of the environment and the climate crisis are worsening globally and, in Brazil, the situation of indigenous peoples is becoming more and more dramatic. As a country, we have elected a president who claims that the size of indigenous lands is abusive, tries to free up mining in these territories and puts a delegate at the head of Funai, supported by ruralists. In line with government policy, land grabbing and deforestation in the Amazon – where several peoples live – are breaking records, as are the invasions of demarcated land in the country. Among these and others, it should also be noted that the number of murders of indigenous leaders in 2019 was the highest in the last decade.

Pilón de Arroz, spring made by Gilda Tejada, of the Guna people (Panama), in the exhibition Amerindian Encounters
Pilón de Arroz, spring made by Gilda Tejada, of the Guna people (Panama), in the Amerindian Encounters show. Photo: Everton Ballardin

Faced with this panorama, it is in the opposite direction that the universe of visual arts has turned to indigenous peoples, their productions, their ways of thinking and living. This movement seems clear when observing the recent agenda of several of the main cultural institutions in the country. THE sesc, following other outstanding projects in this area, presents in 2020 the exhibition Heart in the Village, Feet in the World, in Piracicaba, and the conclusion of the project Sawé, in Ipiranga, both linked to the struggle of indigenous women. Amerindian Encounters, in turn, at the Vila Mariana unit, will bring together contemporary works from different ethnic groups in the Americas.

The Afro Museum, after exhibitions on African and Portuguese origins, ends its trilogy on the peoples who formed the country with the exhibition Heritages of a Deep Brazil. The Pinacoteca prepares a large exhibition of contemporary indigenous art, vexation, and MASP defined Indigenous Stories as its curatorial axis for 2021. One could still cite works presented in the last biennials of SP, exhibitions recently held at Instituto Moreira Salles – such as The Yanomami Struggle, by Claudia Andujar, an artist who also had a permanent gallery in Inhotim –, at the Museu de Arte do Rio, at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil and at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake, among others.

“One characteristic of these Amerindian peoples is that they do not differentiate between things that we consider to be separate spheres: ethics, aesthetics and morals. So what is aesthetically beautiful is because it is ethically right and morally right.”

Sylvia Caiuby

To state what the motivations for such a movement are would be risky, even because they are varied and imprecise. The very perception of the growing threat to indigenous peoples and the consequences of the climate crisis are certainly among them. But there are also those who perceive other nuances. “I think maybe the art world has awakened more now because things started to reach a 'whiteness' that was calm, protected, trapped in romanticism. But there are people who were already used to persecution, who know what it's like to be at war. When there is a need, everything is learned faster”, said the artist Guerreiro do Divino Amor in interview recent to ARTE!BRASILEIROS. The speech dialogues with the statement recently given by indigenous leader Ailton Krenak: “We have already been through so much offense that this one will not take us seriously anymore. I'm worried about whether the whites will resist. We have been resisting for 500 years.”

The focus given by the institutions is not dissociated from the increasing prominence received by contemporary indigenous artists, members of different ethnicities and with different works in their languages ​​and themes. “Indigenous artists are increasingly important in Brazil today. Indigenous filmmakers have been a known presence for a long time, but in the arts this is something recent, different from what is seen in countries like Canada and Australia”, explains anthropologist Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, general coordinator of Amerindian Encounters. The exhibition, curated by Aristotle Barcelos Neto, brings together contemporary works by members of the Haida (British Columbia), Guna (Panama), Huni Kuin (Acre) and Shipibo Conibo (Peru) peoples.   

where are you talking about

In this context of bringing institutions closer to the indigenous universe, it is not a matter, as in other moments in the history of art, of presenting works by western artists influenced by the production of other peoples (however much that may also occur), nor of working along the lines of of ethnology shows, with a more scientific, academic or historical bias. A striking feature of the current movement is the close dialogue with the indigenous themselves, active participants in the construction of the shows, and a care not to folklorize or exoticize the productions. In this sense, MASP hired anthropologist Sandra Benites, of Guarani Nhandewa origin, for its team, who became the first indigenous curator in a large art institution in the country, and Pinacoteca invited the artist and researcher Naine Terena, of Terena origin, to to cure a show.

The work with the contemporary universe therefore seeks to break the ingrained stereotype that the Indians “are part of our past”. Contrary to the recent speech of President Jair Bolsonaro, who stated that “increasingly, the Indian is a human being just like us”, it is clear that the indigenous world is not only part of the present but can teach us about other possible futures, as asked by Viveiros de Castro at Flip. “In the 16th century, the Jesuits thought of the Indians as wild beasts, that is, beings in transition from animal to human status. And that mentality typical of that time is the same as the president today”, says Caiuby.

Marc Ferrez Indians
Photo from the series Indiens de Mato Grosso, by Marc Ferrez, 1890, on display at the Afro Museum. Photo: Publicity/ Ruy Souza e Silva Collection

The anthropologist also emphasizes that the most preserved areas of the Amazon are indigenous lands. “Many do not realize that wealth is in the standing forest, not in it being cut down. And the Indians, more than anyone else, do not set themselves apart from nature. I think this view of many of them that the rivers, the mountains, the land, they act and react, is important. The earth bleeds,” she explains. “See the rivers of São Paulo manifesting themselves. We build cities on them, we fill them in, we leave them without porosity, and they revolt.” As indigenous leader Marivelton Baré recently wrote in article in Folha de S.Paulo, “what our ancestors already knew instinctively thousands of years ago, today is proven by the science of the white man. The same science these people deny. Are we the backward ones?”

Director of the Afro Brasil Museum and curator of the show Heritages of a Deep Brazil, Emanoel Araujo follows the same line. “There is this unfortunate urge to take the entire forest and turn it into soy and cattle. That's why these exhibitions come at a crucial time. And people need to be aware, because as this seems to be far from us, who live in the city, many people have no idea what is happening.” The exhibition at the Afro Museum brings together a great diversity of material production from peoples such as the Karajá, Marubo, Kayapó, Panará and Juruna – among masks, adornments, baskets and a rich collection of feather art – placed in dialogue with photographs of Western names such as Albert Frisch, Marc Ferrez, Maureen Bisiliat and Nair Benedicto and paintings by José Roberto Aguilar, Claudio Tozzi and Rubens Ianelli. There is also a large thatched construction made by members of the Mehinako ethnic group, named Men's House, and contemporary works by Denilson Baniwa.

Afro Museum
Woman at the Yamaricumã ceremony, by Maureen Bisiliat, 1975, on display at the Afro Museum. Photo: Publicity/Moreira Salles Institute Collection

“This exhibition celebrates the lives of these forest peoples who through centuries have lived and survived being hunted down by white men. (…) These people who were here and who continue here in lands where they have always been the owner, forever”, writes the curator in text about the exposure. Araujo also points out that the show does not exactly have an anthropological or academic character, but proposes a collection of pieces that convey an “idea of ​​wonder” and that show the wisdom of indigenous peoples. He also refers to something that Darcy Ribeiro once called “the will to beauty”, that is, an aesthetic care present in the entire production of indigenous peoples, ranging from the most ephemeral to the most lasting.

“There is this remarkable beauty in things”, agrees Caiuby, referring to the Amerindian production. “Because what is right, what is done well, has to be beautiful. And this is related to another characteristic of these peoples, which is that they do not differentiate between things that we consider to be separate spheres: ethics, aesthetics and morals. So what is aesthetically beautiful is because it is ethically right and morally right.” And she exemplifies: “We can admire a sunset with pollution, because we say it gets redder, but that is unacceptable for them”.

Diversity and art concept

When they highlight the characteristics common to indigenous peoples, the curators and artists of the exhibitions also pay attention to the danger of homogenizing the production and thinking of different ethnic groups, reducing the enormous Amerindian plurality as if it were a single thing. in the exhibition Amerindian Encounters, for example, a diversity of languages ​​and themes are explicit in the works of the peoples of different continents. Mythological beings, forest beings, themes related to contact – in addition to videos that refer to the production of the works themselves – are some of the questions that arise in the works in various supports, whether in the wooden boxes made by Haida, in the panel painted by Shipibo Conibo or in the springs (textile art) of the Guna. Works made from traditional graphics, shamanic themes, spirituality, the issue of exile and works with a strong political nature are also present in the contemporary production of several indigenous artists.

Afro Museum
Baskets and other pieces gathered in the exhibition Heranças de um Brasil Profundo, at the Afro Museum. Photo: Marcos Grinspum Ferraz

“These are peoples that have numerous similarities and differences among themselves. And I think this meeting between them is an opportunity to see that”, says Caiuby. “They are even peoples who value difference a lot and do not transform it, unlike us, into inequality.” Among the similarities, the anthropologist highlights the importance of exchange and reciprocity as principles of social life, as well as the historical process of domination to which they were subjected. There is also a clear perception that the concept of “art” as used in the Western world does not suit Amerindian thought. “For us, there is no such difference between art and life or art and resistance as there is in the West, where art is an instrument of power in relation to other human beings”, says Denilson Baniwa (read more in interview granted to ARTE!Brasileiros).

Thus, the confused and problematic distinction between what would be art or craft in indigenous production starts to have greater space in the contemporary debate of institutions, curators, gallery owners and artists. According to Barcelos Neto, in interview In a recent report to the newspaper Nexo, indigenous production exhibited in museums of modern and contemporary art is usually restricted to that made with techniques and supports similar to those canonized by Western art. In general, a classification specific to Western art is applied to indigenous production, based on aesthetic, plastic and utilitarian parameters alien to the indigenous themselves.

Amerindian Encounters
The singing pigeon that comes from far away, from the sky, has already become a boa constrictor, from the collective Mahku (Huni Kuin), in the show Encontros Ameríndios. Photo: Everton Ballardin

“I can tell you that some of the indigenous artists and collectives I talk to are not concerned with Western art concepts. Nor what this term can mean in Western art schools, if it is guided by the perspective of the non-indigenous intellectual”, says Naine Terena, who is currently working on the assembly of the exhibition at the Pinacoteca. At the same time, the production of several contemporary indigenous artists based on what Naine calls a “gathering” of techniques – indigenous and western – has contributed to the development of a fertile field of creation, in addition to being one of the reasons for the increasing visibility this work.

According to Baniwa, when these artists propose to use non-indigenous languages, it is also a strategy of talking to those who are not part of these cultures. He also states that by working, through art, with themes that he already dealt with in his struggle in the indigenous movement, he manages to touch people through a bias that is more connected to emotion and affectivity. This approach to institutions or the art market, unlike what the “evolutionist” vision of the current government would say, does not make these Indians any less Indians, as is clear in their works and speeches of identity affirmation. “Cultures are not stagnant, stationary. We all live by absorbing things that come from outside”, says Caiuby. And if the Indians are transformed in the contact with the whites, perhaps it is time, before it is too late, to transform ourselves more deeply in our contact with the Indians.

Leave a comment

Please write a comment
Please write your name