"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. In 2002 the Guggenheim Museum organized Brazil: Body and Soul, the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Brazilian art abroad. Partaking in the spirit of the Rediscovery Show, the Guggenheim shows in New York and Bilbao, Spain, presented prominent works created by Brazilian artists to foster a more comprehensive understanding of the country and its art.
As a Brazilian art educator working in the United States, I have mixed feelings about the usefulness of the label "Brazilian art." On the one hand, it serves to draw attention, qualify, and perhaps justify, the unfamiliarity of certain audiences with certain artists or forms. By and large, Brazil has been excluded from the efforts of English-speaking America to correct Eurocentric practices by directing scholarship and exhibits on many aspects of Latin American art during the last two decades (Sullivan, 2001). Therefore, the label Brazilian art can be useful in focusing curatorial and interpretive practices on artists and visual culture manifestations at risk of being excluded. …