BY Jens Hoffmann in Reviews | 15 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

Histórias mestiças

Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, Brazil

BY Jens Hoffmann in Reviews | 15 DEC 14

‘Histórias mestiças’ (Mestizo Histories), exhibition view

Oswald de Andrade’s concept of antropofagia proposed that Brazilian culture is a result of the cannibalization of European culture. ‘Histórias mestiças’ (Mestizo Histories), organized by curator Adriano Pedrosa and anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake proposed an expansion of Andrade’s premise to include not only European culture, but African and indigenous cultures as well.

Presenting juxtapositions of more than 400 objects from different origins, times and territories in a highly dense installation, most of the exhibition consisted of historical paintings, sculptures, maps and African and indigenous artefacts. It also included a number of works by contemporary artists, among them new commissions by the Brazilians Sidney Amaral, Thiago Martins de Melo, Beatriz Milhazes, Ernesto Neto, Dalton Paula, Adriana Varejão and Luiz Zerbini.

The exhibition was divided into a number of thematic sections. In ‘Maps and Trails’, for instance, work by European cartographers was mixed with drawings made by slaves arriving in Brazil as well as maps of plots created by indigenous people, which abolish Western notions of space, bringing in spiritual dimensions and cosmographies. ‘Encounters and Dis-Encounters’ offered a synthesis of the exhibition’s premise via three histories, three narratives, three series and three modes of representation – all superimposed. Highlights included 38 watercolours attributed to Joaquim José Miranda, made between 1771 and 1773, describing a meeting between an expedition commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Afonso Botelho de São Paio e Souza and the Kaingang Indians. The contemporary works included photographs by Claudia Andujar – who spent 30 years photographing the Yanomami Indians – from the series ‘Marcados’ (Marked), made in the 1980s, ostensibly as a medical record of the Yanomami, in which the subjects are revealed as not having individual names within their own culture.

‘Masks and Portraits’, breathtakingly presented in a round gallery, was filled with representations of the human face. Here, we saw Princess Isabel, known as ‘the Redemptress’, a 19th-century heiress to the throne of the Empire of Brazil, holding her son with her face hidden behind him, amid a series of images of wet nurses and unidentified slaves who appear stiffly holding other little lords and ladies, who are all named. A 1923 study for A Negra by Tarsila do Amaral and a drawing by Lasar Segall of an old slave from 1925 contrasted with a Makako mask from Angola, reveal qualities beyond the Modernist contexts in which these works are usually framed.

Many traditional societies do not see history as Westerners do: progressive and developmental. On the central wall of ‘Cosmologies and National Emblems’, a set of drawings, collected by the anthropologist Pedro Cesarino, depicted the Marubo universe and philosophies. On another wall, we saw representations of the so-called discovery (or invasion, as the event is generally called today) of Brazil: the first mass, the abolition of slavery, the proclamation of the republic, and the founding of São Vicente (the first Portuguese settlement), seen in both classic paintings (by Benedito Calixto, John Graz and Johann Moritz Rugendas) and contemporary reinterpretations commissioned for the exhibition (by Amaral, De Melo and Zerbini). Colonialists brought with them varied concepts of work, from indentured servitude to collective land use. For a long time in Brazil, the concept of work was inextricably linked to slavery. In the centre of the room devoted to ‘Work,’ instruments for torturing slaves appeared alongside Amerindian farming tools.

The section on ‘Weavings and Graphic Inscriptions’ featured new sources for understanding abstraction, particularly geometric abstraction, beyond the European matrices that have been so important to Brazilian art of the last 60 years. Indigenous and African graphic inscriptions as expressed on bodies, fabrics and utensils involve complex codes of communication. Among the Wayana, dots imitate the patterns of the jaguar and symbolize dominion over nature; the triangle recalls the butterfly and refers to the spiritual world; while the stripe is an allusion to snakes and the supernatural.

The ‘Rites’ section featured images of black saints and references to Afro-Brazilian religions. It also included a collaboration between Iani and Leopardo Yawabane, of the Huni Kuin people in the state of Acre, and Ernesto Neto, from Rio de Janeiro, which resulted in an environment created for a religious ceremony using ayahuasca, the potent hallucinogenic drink produced with Amazonian plants.

What ‘Histórias mestiças’ did well was to give voice to the marginal and subaltern by presenting multiple histories. It took a fearless look at segregation, prejudice and discrimination, which still shape the realities of Brazil today. But it also celebrated histories that are largely unknown, reframing them not as suppressed or secondary. The exhibition signalled an attempt to redefine Brazilian identity as one that is not European-dominated but fully and openly embraces the various influences that have shaped the country.

Jens Hoffmann is a writer, curator, and Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programs, Jewish Museum, New York, USA