Only Anthropophagy Unites Us?
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“The white man is not afraid, but one day he will be.” — Davi Kopenawa, Shaman, indigenous leader and spokesperson for the Yanomami cause, the struggle against the destruction of his people and the forest.
Anthropophagy had one of its most stimulating theoretical iterations in Brazil. Its baptism, one could say, took place upon the poet Oswald de Andrade’s encounter with the painting (still anonymous at the time) of Tarsila do Amaral in 1928. Among the narratives that helped launch the anthropophagous movement was the choice of the title Abaporu, due to its indigenous origin. The word was one of the Tupi-Guarani entries found by Amaral and Andrade in the dictionary Tesoro de La Lengua Guarani (1639–40), by Peruvian missionary Father Antonio Ruiz de Montoya. This dictionary had assisted the new Jesuit missionaries in their work of evangelizing Indigenous populations in the Americas during the colonial period. The title Abaporu is a blend of the word Aba (man or person) and Porú (an eater of human flesh) and can be described as “a man that eats people” in reference to anthropophagous practices of great importance to the culture of the Tupinambá people. These practices were ultimately abandoned due to pressure from the Jesuit priests.
Amaral and Andrade were both members of the São Paulo avant-garde—mostly white, wealthy, and of European heritage. They both were also prominent participants in the 1922 “Week of Modern Art” in São Paulo’s Municipal Theater, widely recognized as the inaugural milestone of Brazilian modernism. Despite Amaral and Andrade’s ties to the coffee plantation owners and former slave-owning classes, these sectors were resistant to the ideas of the modernist avant-garde, precisely because of the persistence of racial violence and social inequality in the country. It is worth remembering that in 1928, the year the Anthropophagous Manifesto was launched, only 40 years had passed since the abolition of slavery (Brazil was the last country to abolish it). Given this context, the anthropophagous movement sought to establish itself as a true anti-colonial contribution to the arts and for the Brazilian people. At least, as Andrade stated: “the masses will one day eat the petit four that I make.”1
Several decades passed before Anthropophagy became a recurring issue in diverse events of Brazilian modern arts and in the agenda of Brazilian intellectuals. The Tropicália movement of the 1960s was perhaps among the most prominent for various generations of contemporary visual artists. Internationally known names such as Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, among other contemporaries, continue to reverberate as direct and indirect descendants of the innovative proposal to incorporate the other. These artists contributed by establishing dialogue with varied groups from Brazilian society, and by building collective proposals and interventions that had not only an aesthetic impact, but also a political and social one. This helped to solidify demands and issues to raise in making art in Brazil without, however, abandoning exchanges with artists from other countries with different conceptions of art.
Anthropophagy also had repercussions among Latin American and European artists, particularly in the field of literature—it became very influential in many countries throughout the final decades of the 20th century. One example would be the quote offered by Zygmunt Bauman using concepts from Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his book Postmodernity and Its Discontents: “One was anthropophagic: annihilating the strangers by devouring them and then metabolically transforming into a tissue indistinguishable from one’s own.”2 This example of an alternative strategy of assimilating the other demonstrates the reach of these ideas. Further, this text circumscribes the anthropophagic gesture, in a similar manner to Oswald de Andrade, into an action capable of integrating what is different through its unique qualities without negating or reducing it, but rather incorporating it in such a way as to constitute an irremediable transformation. One who digests, swallows, and metabolizes the other also would become a new other, a new configuration of the self enriched by the components present in this symbolic meal.
On the other hand, different flows of ideas were already present in the first decades of the 20th century—such as in the work of the visual artist Vicente do Rego Monteiro or in the journal Cannibale (1920) edited by French artist Francis Picabia. The convergence of these examples pointed to the great many challenges in assimilating the other in the face of modernity. For this reason, it would be dangerous to try to determine the origins of this “peripheral” cultural theory. As the researcher João Cezar de Castro Rocha highlights, Anthropophagy could be seen as “a metaphorical definition of the appropriation of alterity,”3 and not a schema associated with the definition of a Brazilian national identity. To assume the latter risks transforming Anthropophagy into an “exported” cultural theory. In this sense, Rocha appears to share with many other artists and thinkers a refusal to transform Anthropophagy into a Brazilian aperitif and “exotic inspiration” to satisfy cultural consumerism, among other dangers.
These other dangers include the use of Anthropophagy as seasoning for a melting pot served at illustrious banquets where racial violence, the exponential destruction of the forest and wildlife, and the annihilation of traditional types of knowledge and of different ways of seeing the world are left out of the picture. Against this lackadaisical approach, a diverse group of authors have emerged, ready to reconsider the docility of certain interpretations of Anthropophagy, and especially open to hearing voices that had historically been silenced. Now, these thinkers are adding their voices to the long-standing struggles of those groups not seen as legitimate in the hierarchization of thought. This conversation has expanded further due to the 2012 institution of racial quotas at the public universities in Brazil, which was a key step toward boosting critiques of hegemonic narratives, canons, and the imposition of classificatory models.
Thus, what might those who found themselves transformed into lunch—or those who chose to become part of an indigestible meal—say? How might we see the current conditions of this banquet of assimilation marked by setbacks in the gains in rights? And marked by a growing wave of authoritarianism that has a grave effect on Brazilian democratic institutions? And marked by imminent socio-environmental collapse on top of the COVID-19 pandemic?
For this issue of the Brooklyn Rail, we have asked a group of mostly Brazilian artists and thinkers to consider the significance and meaning of Anthropofagia in a contemporary context, on the cusp of the movement’s one hundredth anniversary. Our aim with this presentation is to consider the history of this concept and how it currently exists and is expressed within contemporary Brazilian art. Who has consumed and digested whom before and since Oswald de Andrade penned the Manifesto Antropófago? What has that meant for the polyvalent nature of Brazil as its political powers have swung from dictatorship to democracy and back? Was Anthropofagia ever relevant? Is it now?
This multiplicity of voices including visual artists, curators, and thinkers share perspectives on art and Anthropophagy largely unobserved in Brazil’s art circuits and institutions. For example, Sandra Benites, who became the first indigenous curator employed at a Brazilian institution in 2019, presents her perspective on the importance of knowing the self even when in contact with the other, and how this process is linked to the respect and well-being of other human and non-human beings, especially in the forest. Rosana Paulino, the first Black female visual artist to have a solo exhibition at a major museum in São Paulo—in 2018—shares images from her research surrounding colonial iconography and the place of the Black woman or, to be more exact, the non-existence of her image. However, these inaugural Black and Indigenous presences in São Paulo’s museums cannot be understood as revelatory indicators of the participation of these populations in art’s institutionalized circuit. On the contrary, “the next modernist generations, as well as Brazilian contemporary art, would serve more as the food than feed off of that original spirit,” Renato Araujo da Silva warns us.
The invitation to sit at a fancy table usually involves a series of various etiquettes. Consequently, certain attitudes and positionings can quickly be classified as provincial, precarious, undisciplined or lacking in repertoire. On this point, the reflections of Vivian Braga dos Santos, Luiz Renato Martins and Rafael Amorim help us to understand behavior deviating from the norm as an intelligent gesture of resistance, and we may also say, of courage. The presence of Denilson Baniwa and Viviane A. Pistache are examples of those unafraid to preserve what they have and say who they are, since they are unwilling to bear the burden of annihilating the other. These decisions are also made out of affection and the impossibility of remaining neutral before the other. In their contributions, artists Thays Berbe and Milla Jung nurture our capacity for being affected and moving towards the other. This idea also permeates André Pitol’s reading of the photographic works of Claudia Andujar, where he presents complicity as a form of interlocution.
Many voices in this issue of the Brooklyn Rail deploy strategies of rupture, examining the past in the pursuit of social justice. Maria Iñigo Clavo presents the conceptual relationships between the ideas of racial democracy and Anthropophagy and how they are reflected in different spheres of Brazilian society. In turn, Sergio Vaz recreates the Anthropophagous Manifesto from his perspective from the periphery, calling for different forms of political and aesthetic commitment. Caetano Dias examines the inversion of the anthropophagic cultural experience by exposing the devouring of the self as a response to the false promise of social integration. Cripta Djan and the collective Os + Fortes (The Strongest Ones) test the limits of the capacity for anthropophagic digestion of institutions. They make their interventions on the streets and museums into exercises of resistance to the co-opting of their artistic practices.
This endeavor evolved from a conversation in which Tiago and Sara have been engaged for almost three years, mostly remotely via email, WhatsApp and the shared articles and exhibition notices that now accompany friendships forged in the digital realm. It must be acknowledged that while their friendship is a dynamic one, their exchanges on this topic are mostly one sided, with Tiago generously sharing his expertise and life experience as a conceptual Afro-Brazilian artist with Sara, whose interest in this topic is from the outside.
This issue would not have been possible without the sensitive and rigorous translations of Ramon Stern, who worked closely with us on all aspects of this project.
- In: Campos,Haroldo. Uma poética da radicalidade. In: ANDRADE, Oswald. Obras completas, v. VII: Poesias reunidas. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1971. p. 9–62.
- Zygmunt Bauman, O Mal-estar da Pós-modernidade, Tradução de Mauro Gama e Cláudia Martinelli Gama, Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Zahar, 1998, p. 18.
- Uma Teoria de Exportação? Ou: “Antropofagia como Visão do Mundo” – artigo de João Cezar de Castro Rocha, 2011, pg 662.