BY Ela Bittencourt in Opinion | 12 APR 24
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The Venice Issue

MAHKU’s Monumental Murals Depict the Unspoken

The Indigenous Brazilian movement brings to life its ancestral musical traditions

BY Ela Bittencourt in Opinion | 12 APR 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 242, ‘Mother Tongues

Brazil’s Indigenous peoples will play a major role at this year’s Venice Biennale. Adriano Pedrosa stressed in his curatorial statement that the Indigenous communities of his native Brazil, though predating the Portuguese colonizers as original inhabitants, are often treated like foreigners. It’s a paradoxical exclusion, considering how widely Brazil’s national identity – in, for instance, Romantic literature or the modernist anthropophagic movement – draws on Indigenous tropes. To highlight the more than 300 Indigenous idioms spoken throughout the country, the Brazilian pavilion at this year’s biennial has been renamed Hãhãwpuá (Great Land), in the Pataxó language.

Indigenous contemporary art will be further featured in the Giardini with works by the Huni Kuin Artists Movement (MAHKU), which will paint a monumental mural on the entire façade of the Central Pavilion. Originally founded to preserve ancestral musical traditions, MAHKU uses murals to lend a visual form to the linguistic, rhythmic and spiritual richness of ritual chants. The movement re-signifies the notion of foreignness by offering a record of exclusion and oppression while also focusing on the revelatory potential of communing with that which is alien, as expressed in the Huni Kuin’s traditional myths and sacred rituals.

Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Rare Huni Kuin, Ayani Huni Kuin, Ibã Neto Sales Kanixawa, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Yube Inu Yube Shanu, 2020
Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Rare Huni Kuin, Ayani Huni Kuin, Ibã Neto Sales Kanixawa, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Yube Inu Yube Shanu, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 135 × 220 cm. Courtesy: MASP, São Paulo; photograph: Eduardo Ortega

Translation implies a frictious yet fruitful negotiation between a mother and a father tongue: in the case of the Huni Kuin, between the hatxa kuin dialect and the official Portuguese. Historically, the Huni Kuin, who today live primarily on the border of Brazil and Peru, have endured numerous invasions and conflicts – from early colonization in the 18th century to 20th century rubber extraction to today’s extractivism that encroaches on demarcated and officially protected lands – all marked by massacres and displacements. Against this background, MAHKU’s works underscore the Huni Kuin’s ethnic, social and spiritual identity, not as fractured, but as integral and whole, stressing unity, harmony and fluidity in their compositions.

MAHKU was founded by Ibã Huni Kuin, a native researcher at the University of Acre, who recognized that his people’s ritual chants might one day disappear, and so began to record and study them with his community. In 2012, on the invitation of anthropologist Bruce Albert, a group of Huni Kuin artists contributed a video, The Spirit of the Forest, to Fondation Cartier’s exhibition, ‘L’ Histoires de voir, Show and Tell’, which described dreams and visions as crucial, altered modes of perception. Shortly after, MAHKU formalized its existence as a movement in its native village.

Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Sem título, 2017
Ibã Huni Kuin, Bane Huni Kuin, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU), Sem título, 2017, hydrographic pen on paper, 29.7 × 42 cm. Courtesy: MASP, São Paulo; photograph: Eduardo Ortega

Translation as transit, between lands and idioms, is inscribed in the Huni Kuin mythology, which frames them as bridge-makers. For instance, Acelino Tuin Huni Kuin’s large-scale, acrylic on canvas Kapewë pukeni (2022) – installed as part of the 2023 exhibition ‘MAHKU: Visions’, at the Museum of Art of São Paulo (MASP), where Pedrosa is director – depicts the mythical bridge-alligator, kapewë pukeni. In this foundational myth, the creature is also linked to the splintering of the single-original language into many – an incarnation of how translation became a sociocultural reality. MAHKU’s gesture of turning the museum’s ramp into a painted portal, through which viewers moved into the maze of freestanding murals encapsulating visions, also framed the movement’s practice as a cosmic one: traversing between the modes of perception and of being, between reality and dream.

MAHKU’s emphasis on the transitive and dialogic extends to murals as architecture in public space that combines collectivity, spirituality and linguistic exchange. As art historian Raphael Fonseca noted in the catalogue for the MASP show: when MAHKU collaborate with non-members – as they did in 2021 for the exhibition ‘Sweat’ at Haus der Kunst, Munich, when they painted the mural Rashuaka with students from the city’s Academy of Fine Arts – ‘some initial lines are drawn, pauses ensue, conversation permeates the air.’ Simultaneously, MAHKU’s murals favour opacity, in the sense defined by Caribbean post-colonialist thinker Édouard Glissantas an emanation of the invisible. In this context, the meaning of translation departs from the prosaic notion of rendering legible. Instead, the chants, and the murals, point back to the fact that nixi pae – the ayahuasca ritual – which the drawings embody, not only offers a hallucinogenic-based cure, but also engenders a new aesthetic reality. In their pulsation of colour and line, superimposition and collapsed temporalities, MAHKU’s compositions convey this expanded notion of the real by becoming song, relaying the lyrical and rhythmic qualities of ritual chants without necessarily explaining them.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘Silently Chanting’

Main image: Acelino Tuin Huni Kuin, Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin, Kapenawe pukenibu, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 140 × 115 cm. Courtesy: MASP, São Paulo; photograph: Eduardo Ortega

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.