Walking towards the indigenous protagonism: on the work process in Dja guata Porã: Río de Janeiro Indígena

Through the exhibition «Dja Guata Porã: Rio de Janeiro Indigena», the curators Sandra Benites and Pablo Lafuente reflect on the discursive powers and agencies that the indigenous communities of Brazil can achieve from exhibition and institutional devices, and question the concept of the art object in the production of these communities.

Dja Guata Porã: Rio de Janeiro Indígena is an exhibition being presented at the Museu de Arte do Rio from May 16, 2017 to March 25, 2018. It was a collective and collaborative project constructed among the indigenous communities of the state of Rio de Janeiro and representatives of indigenous communities from other regions such as Josué Kaingang, Anari Pataxó and Edson Kayapó, along with a curatorial team made up of Clarissa Diniz, José Ribamar Bessa, and the authors, as well as a group of researchers, in conjunction with the museum’s permanent teams. The project was built through a series of encounters that began in 2016 at the museum and in villages located in Rio.

The encounters were built around general and specific topics (such as indigenous visions of what we might call art or the roles of indigenous women currently inside and outside their communities) and brought together approximately 30 to 40 people, indigenous and non-indigenous, to talk about the thematic process or the structural aspects that would give shape to the exhibition. All based on the single conviction that the museum cannot treat issues, cultures, or indigenous people and groups the same way that it treats Western notions of art, the artist, or the public. For this, we opted for a format that seemed obvious to us: to meet up to talk about what could and should happen; to think in a group, from different positions, about what to do together. All of this after deciding whether doing-together would make sense because the need—or perhaps simply the convenience—of that presence should not and could not be decided before it began.

In Brazil, indigenous peoples are little recognized by the majority of the population, and it is not uncommon to hear stories of discrimination or total ignorance. Stereotypes of “generic Indians” [1] constantly appear in school books and in the media, as if they were “beings from the past,” and very few instances show particularities such as the linguistic or cultural diversity of the approximately 300 distinct indigenous communities that exist today in Brazil. For this reason, we believe it is necessary for indigenous people to occupy the spaces of museums, universities, and libraries. Hence the decision to occupy the Museu de Arte do Rio in order to try to show the multiple realities of the indigenous peoples of the state of Rio from their perceptions and complexities. To avoid being co-opted or paralyzed, we did not pretend to be ignorant of the interests and dynamics present at the museum, but rather we made use of the museum as one more instrument.

Despite the existence of some academic researches made by members of indigenous communities in Brazil today, the presence of these perspectives does not seem sufficient for the invisibility persists. That is why we believe that it is fundamental to promote the cultural production of indigenous peoples from a position of prominence; in the curation, graphic design, visual identity, mediation activities, public events for the elaboration of materials, the works or art, the exhibition guaranteed indigenous presence in (almost) all areas.

Residing in the city of Río, and contributing to the exhibition, there are approximately 17 different indigenous groups and non-indigenous [2] (jurua as they are known in Guarani) working for the museum as educators, producers, curators, researchers, or invited by the museum to contribute to the project. During the planning and construction process of the exhibition, apparent differences arose between Guarani and Pataxó, who live in villages, and Puri indigenous people living in more urban contexts.[3] This heterogeneity contrasted processes, structures, requirements, ways of doing, and ways of presenting expectations and rewards.

Even if we tried to approach the Guarani practices from what the whites call, or we call, “art,” many precisions, adjustments, and reservations were required.

Achieving this collaborative experiment required luck. The first artistic director departed before beginning the process and the second had other concerns and did not pay enough attention. Likewise, self-critical attitudes were also needed from the beginning through to the final results to allow for collective decision-making processes. We started from our experiences as indigenous, anthropologists, mediators, and organizers to build bridges between conflicts and to seek common sensibilities, inspired by a text in Guarani: “walk collectively, and build that path while walking.” This text inspired part of the title of the exhibition. We had to discuss without forgetting the teachings and thoughts of the other members in order to understand their teko [way of being].[4]

Several explanations were needed from both sides: with members of the villages, this involved communicating details and logic of the museum: economic, symbolic, and operational. With the non-indigenous institution and teams, it involved introducing other ways of being, ways of approaching, other possible temporalities, visions, and economies. In this process, there were misunderstandings and also desperation when faced with the obligation to frequently respond to complex demands and not to resolve conflicts between thoughts (because that would be impossible), but to make decisions collectively. For this, it was important to consider different ways of seeing things, without eliminating or rejecting individual perception, but rather to share ideas and collective agreements. Despite that, or maybe for that very reason, it was a challenge. We understand that it will always be like this: to consider and respect the rhythms, formats, ways of exchanging in each of the meetings, give shape to different paths and ways of walking, and to always question the structures that confront our differences. These walks were translated from the realities and experiences of each individual person. When they are set free, they demonstrate disagreement and conflict and we believe this can be found in the exhibition. To achieve this as curators, it was necessary to learn to listen, to listen to the demand of rights of the indigenous peoples, to clearly pronounce and show themselves, taking care of their own words and doings.

To avoid misunderstandings caused by images without context, several angles were shown, and we tried to avoid reinforcing the prejudices in the eyes of those who do not recognize indigenous ways of being, customs, and languages. Moreover, although the objects are important for the native groups, we avoid privileging them so as not to reduce the communities to their material culture, as many of the jurua museums do. In this way, special attention was given to oral histories, thinking about how to dialogue and with whom so that the act of exposing oneself to others, an already difficult act, made sense.

Even if we tried to approach the Guarani practices from what the whites call, or we call, “art,” many precisions, adjustments, and reservations were required. For the Guaraní, the artistic questions are related to the abilities of each person and also to the specificities of each village, of each group. That is why it is necessary to discuss, from the point of view of the village or group, the realities of its existence, and see what the implications might be. To listen to what must be shown and how it should be shown, without letting the most significant thing get lost along the way.

The Mbaraka Mirim, for example, is a sacred instrument for the Guarani, and the jurua call it a rattle or pumpkin cowbell. The Mbaraka is simple, not flashy, and is used in prayer. To being-sacred refers to a form of use at a particular time. As tembiapo (art), the Mbaraka is the result of a person’s work, as a small wooden figurine. Each particular skill or work is considered equal: to know how to sing, to speak in public, to pray, or to play instruments. Every person becomes an artist by their ability, by their particular gift, and whatever they do can be sacred. However, it is not possible to define exactly what is and is not art, for there is no separation or hierarchy between skills. So, any attempt to show an object requires the consideration of the processes of its production in relation to the particular history and place where it is were carried out. In this case, in a museum (MAR), a city (Rio), and a specific country (Brazil), for which indigenous people are not only not considered artists, but simply are not considered.

Today, two years later—and with the transition from a government that was the result of an administrative coup, to a government resulting from an electoral process characterized by massive illegally financed defamation and disinformation campaigns—indigenous peoples are perhaps more visible. Although perversely, through the point of view of a government that despises them and seeks their disappearance. If we were to begin again the process that gave birth to Dja Guata Porã, we would need to do some things differently. However, there would certainly be a constant: the protagonism. This is to have at the center of the process the original communities and everything that this implies, within the institution and the art world—the conflicts, the negotiations, the inability of our own resolve as well as the will to build that road together, as the indigenous peoples did long before the arrival of the Europeans.


  1. Generic Indian refers to an image projected over all the members of indigenous peoples in Brazil, without considering the differences between existing peoples or be- tween individuals in a specific circumstances.

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