"Tupy or Not Tupy?" Examining Hybridity in Contemporary Brazilian Art

Article excerpt

Updating the 1920s notion of Anthropophagy developed to symbolize through cannibalistic ritual the process of cultural assimilation that influences art, this article examines issues of naming, describing, and representing contemporary Brazilian art. In the first part of the article, the work of four contemporary Brazilian artists recently exhibited in the United States frames criticism to the common practice of labeling contemporary artworks according to national identity. In the article's second section, Brazil's multifaceted cultural and artistic context will be used to outline implications for art education and institutional practices more attuned to the transnational dimensions of art. In conclusion, hybridity becomes a twofold framework. It describes, as Anthropophagy did before, cultural layering, negotiations, and disputes. It also arriculates a political position more fitting to capture and interpret the art produced in our global age, not only in Brazil.

"Tupy or not Tupy? That is the question" was the motto of a Brazilian vanguard movement of the '20s. Reacting to European supremacy, Anthropophagy [Antropofagia] took cannibalism as metaphor for the process of cultural assimilation. The strong, often negative associations we have about consuming human flesh intended to provide an image for the symbolic (and sometimes actual) violence of cultural assimilation. Poet Oswald de Andrade proposed in the movement's 1928 manifesto that to break with cultural dependency on foreign models and create art that was strongly Brazilian, it would be necessary to consume and transform European influences, in the same way Tupinamba Indians would devour and digest the enemy in order to take his strength (Canejo, 2004). Therefore, to name this activist art of Brazil required avoiding the denomination imposed by the colonizer in favor of one used by the region's early habitants-Tupy, the name of one of the largest branches of native languages in South America. An intentionally blatant paraphrase of Hamlet, "Tupy or not Tupy?" encapsulated the cultural politics of national art identity.

Issues associated with naming, describing, and representing the art of different countries extend to present-day. On the one hand, art is in and of a nation. Art is created within the constraints, influence, and support of modern-era nation-states. Often art is exhibited and labeled according to the place it was created or its creator's nationality. Nonetheless, understanding art frequently requires transcending the boundaries of a nation. As the cannibalist approach underscores, at the core of making, exhibiting, and interpreting art are the processes of transforming, appropriating, and exchanging ideas, perspectives, and cultural norms. In the global system we experience today, these boundaries between nation and culture are constantly being re-drawn, raising questions about taken-for-granted practices of labeling works of art according to national origin. I invite readers, especially art educators in the United States, to explore other, perhaps more productive, ways to think about works of art from other nations, particularly Brazil. This article inquires into the contemporary condition of hybridity through the examination of four internationally known contemporary artists recently exhibited in the United States, Mestre Didi, Hélio Oiticica, Anna Bella Geiger, and Adriana Varejao. Brazilian art provides a case in point to investigate the transnational dimensions of contemporary art and invites awareness of the political implications of a hybrid position.

A Renewed Interest in Brazilian Art

In 1998, for the first time since its establishment, the São Paulo Biennial was completely devoted to the truly Brazilian subject of Anthropophagy. More recently in 2000, the large-scale exhibition Mostra do Redescobrimento: Brasil 500 anos [The Rediscovery Show: Brazil 500 years], also held in São Paulo, examined the multiplicity of Brazilian artistic production from the indigenous to the contemporary. …