Dja Guatá Porã | A history lesson for the art of Rio de Janeiro

Dja Guatá Porã is an exhibition with indigenous communities that seeks to turn the way history is understood in Rio de Janeiro.

Very rarely do indigenous people exhibit their own creations in art museums, unless they are recognized and have an artistic background that can be demonstrated in their resume. For this occasion, the curatorial team of Rio Art Museum is composed of Sandra Benites -guarani from Espirito Santo- who is studying a master’s degree in anthropology and linguistics in Rio de Janeiro; Clarissa Diniz, permanent curator of the museum; José Ribamar Bessa, anthropologist and historian; and Pablo Lafuente, curator of contemporary art recognized for his participation in the 31st Sao Paulo Biennial54st Venecia Biennal, among others.

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The result of this research was compiled in Dja Guatá Porã. The exhibition is open to the public until 25 March and brings together more than 260 pieces in different formats, including texts, videos, photographs, paintings, ethnographic records and indigenous sacred objects. The meaning of the title alludes to the Guarani spiritual path. They are all those experiences and transformations that have to be lived to reach a land without evil, an idea of heaven that has existed between communities for hundreds of years.

“It all began as a community discussion and consultation project: the contemporary indigenous presence (and history of that presence) in Rio should be built collectively, along with indigenous individuals and communities living in the state, through a series of small-scale meetings in the museum and in the communities. Making sure that indigenous people were present at all levels,” says Pablo Lafuente.

Exposición Dja Guatá Porã - Cortesía Museo de Arte de Rio de Janeiro
Dja Guatá Porã ehhibit – Courtesy of Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro

Creation process

They brought together indigenous people from Puri, Pataxó, Guaraní and communities living in urban areas who would like to make an exchange with the museum. The challenge went from a simple encounter to an anthologic compilation of all the stories produced during that dialog. Moreover, this almost titanic task had as its mission “to express the idea of being Carioca”, as it appears in the curatorial text. Demonym that has been used to geographically locate the people of the state of Rio de Janeiro and is world famous as a synonym of the Brazilian coastal identity. In this case, the word comes from the popular imaginary to be studied in depth from its Amerindian etymology.

Another challenge of the exhibition was to show the indigenous communities as an active part of citizenship. “A field still unknown to many of its inhabitants, who still see them as something that is part of the past,” says Clarissa Diniz during an interview with EBC Radio. What at first seemed impossible became a challenge to update Brazil’s indigenous identity, which has not yet been consolidated.

Tiempo de la Invasión - Cortesía Museo de Arte de Rio de Janeiro
The time of invasion – Courtesy of Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro

To avoid misunderstandings, the project was designed in conjunction with the education team and included the advice of architects, designers, anthropologists, historians and artists. In such a way that the approach to the communities were not from scratch and did not use methods that ended in conclusions that were foreign to the participation of the indigenous people. On the contrary, I wanted to give them a voice so that they could be the ones to introduce their culture and the supporting team were a simple witness of what was happening, articulating the speeches to the museum.

The exhibition is divided into five main nuclei that refer to its relationship with the environment. Each one addresses a different issue that highlights themes such as the forms of trade, the difference between the types of education, the meaning of art for each of the communities, the role played by women and the relationship between communities and nature. The latter came out of the walls of the museum and was installed in the Mauá square, with a garden made by a group of indigenous people that, through a ritual, complemented the exhibition in the public space, and became a provocation to echo outside the walls of the museum.

Univerisdad Indígena de Maracanã - Cortesía Museo de Arte de Rio de Janeiro
Indigenous University of Maracanã – Courtesy of Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro

From the coast to the Amazon

Sites such as Paraty, Sepetiba, Cachambi, Catumbi, Ipanema, Guaratiba, Inhauma, Jacarepaguá, Irajá, Itaboraí, Niterói, Itaguaçu and Itatiaia are reflected in this endless script built in the form of a snake, which plays with the limits of the work of art as a symbolic object, and the indigenous artifact as scientific study material. The route simulates the curving way of a snake. Thought in this way to break with the linear discourse and adapt in space an animal that is in all the original myths. One of the most emblematic pieces was made by Denilson Baniwa, who made a landscape in imitation of the curvilinear contours of the snake, inspired by the phrase of anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: “in Brazil everyone is Indian, except for non-Brazilians.”

Among the strategies for participation, there are initiatives such as the Indigenous University of Rio de Janeiro, designed by a community living in the Maracaná neighborhood (within the urban perimeter of the city of Rio de Janeiro). The community is named after the neighborhood and is in the process of turning the campus into a university that transmits the knowledge and ancestral traditions as a fundamental part of preserving the understanding of endemic nature.

The exhibition has led researchers to return to the processes of adoption that are characteristic of the North or the Northeast. “In Brazil, the greatest number of initiatives that have had an echo in the world of museums comes from the Northeast and is clearly reflected in the times of the exhibition, as an allusion to the freedom of representation that is only possible in the 21st century,” explains Mario Chagas, director of the Museum of the Republic of Rio de Janeiro and expert in social museology, who has shown interest due to the inclusion of new proposals that create collaborative exhibitions and, instead of dividing by historical or linear sequences, have created times to divide the curatorial nodes: Time of the Autonomy, of the Invasion, of the Usurpation and of Retaking.

Exposición Dja Guatá Porã - Cortesía Museo de Arte de Rio de Janeiro
Dja Guatá Porã ehhibit – Courtesy of Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro

Beyond art

The third floor of the museum is dedicated to the city and state of Rio de Janeiro. Some may wonder what this exhibition is doing in an art museum. The more experienced might even ask themselves: instead of art, should this not be considered as handicraft or ethnography? And the most unsuspecting will ask themselves a very valid question: do the Indians make art?

Although these questions seem easy to answer, Ivan Reinaldim, a professor at the UFRJ, questions all the limits of indigenous pieces in an art museum. During a two-hour conference within the framework of the exhibition, the lecturer argues that in order to see how each of the components of the exhibition should be reviewed as a pedagogical and philosophical exercise that takes elements from craftsmanship and ethnography, and observes them from the point of view of Western art.

“In these times we need references to understand what is and is not art. This proposal breaks with the conception of Western tradition and transfers what we understand by the history of others, or by the craft market something that can have as much value as a work made by an traditional artist”, explains Reinaldim.

The discovery of America implied dividing the knowledge into unthinkable parts for indigenous cosmogony. So presenting indigenous people as artists and showing multidisciplinary research seeks to go further. It can be said that he sees the museum as a temple of representation in the same way as a maloca (an amazonian ancestral house), since “he uses interpretative theories to update a system of ideas”, the lecturer continues, quoting George Dicke, and complements “the function of the indigenous artist is to personify the rank of a payé (indigenous spiritual leader of some communities in the Amazon) for those who are from outside”.

Exposición Dja Guatá Porã - Cortesía Museo de Arte de Rio de Janeiro
Dja Guatá Porã ehhibit – Courtesy of Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro

This story is complemented by curator Lafuente, who agrees, arguing that “I do not believe it is possible for an art museum today to continue to consider art only as languages and productions that are the result of a definition of colonial art. Of course, the word art is a problem, because of its origin, but in the face of this I believe that the only possible attitude is to be willing to revise these definitions to the point where the word is fractured”.

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David Felipe Suárez

Periodista cultural y museólogo

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