RIO DE JANEIRO — In Tupi-Guaraní mythology, there exists the Boitatá, a fiery serpent that protects the forests and sets loggers aflame. A portmanteau of the Tupi words boi and tatá, meaning snake and fire, the Boitatá is also responsible for will-o’-the-wisps.
Dja Guata Porã, on view at the Museu de Arte do Rio, utilizes a snake-shaped timeline to present Brazil’s indigenous history (with a focus on Rio de Janeiro) and the future of its current indigenous populations, who often suffer from systemic, governmental marginalization. Dja Guata Porã, though, offers an alternative: put together by a group of researchers, curators, and an education team — all of whom collaborated with the various communities showcased — it functions as an informational platform, showcasing thriving indigenous languages, cultures, and activism. “We are here,” the curatorial text states, adding, “The snake comes as the protagonist of narratives and origins of several peoples, warning us … of other atrocities and possible futures.”
In Rio de Janeiro, carioca is a demonym that refers to anything related to the city and its people. I didn’t know until I visited Dja Guata Porã that the original word for carioca is kara’i oka, a Tupi phrase meaning “house of carijó,” a native tribe. Nor did I know that the 150 indigenous languages and dialects currently spoken in Brazil have dwindled from close to 1,000 in total, at least prior to the arrival of the Portuguese.
In the gallery focusing on the Pataxó people (who live primarily in Bahia and whose population currently numbers about 11,800) is a short film by Anari Braz Bomfim and Luiz Guilherme, “Patxôhã, the language of the warrior people” (2017), featuring a lesson on how to speak the titular language. For them, speaking is a means of resistance against cultural violence. And an animated film, “Konõgxeka: O Dilúvio Maxakalí” (2016), by Charles Bicalho and Isael Maxakalí, is entirely in the Maxakalí language, which today is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people in only 14 villages in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
The last section of the exhibit displays stories of colonization and its ills, including Hans Staden’s widely contested 1557 accounts of cannibalism among the Tupinambá and a photograph by José Louro of a Nambikwára Indian in a Westernized military uniform (taken some time between 1900 and 1922).
Significantly, the exhibition concludes with the history of the Aldeia Maracaña. In 2006, José Urutau Guajajara, a leader in the movement for indigenous rights, along with several other people of various indigenous ethnicities, founded the Aldeia Maracaña (Maracaña Village). They set up camp in an abandoned building that once housed the Museu do Índio, which had moved its operations to new headquarters. The building is next to the Marcaña stadium — the site of the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals — and the community occupied the space until a violent eviction in 2013. (A documentary on the eviction was screened at the museum this past October.) The occupants, who’d effectively created a kind of village, were taken to government-offered land in Jacarepaguá, where the infrastructure was poor and the restrictions were heavy. The state government then threatened to demolish the building to increase the size of the Maracaña parking lot; after much resistance, it was announced the Reference Center for the Culture of Indigenous People would be established there. This never happened. In spring of 2017, a reoccupation of the former museum took place.
At Dja Guata Porã, videos from both occupations are on display, along with a headphone booth filled with the voices of occupants, who describe their hopes for the community’s future. The intention is to get visitors involved, too, in thinking about how the Aldeia Maracaña and other indigenous communities are allowed to truly exist. Where, the videos ask, is their right to be — whether with the assistance of governmental representation, or other means? From here, the snake of the exhibition trails into a community garden at nearby plaza Praça Mauá, where local plants and foods are grown by members of several indigenous communities.
My favorite part of the exhibition is a sound installation in the walkway to the exhibition. Radio Yandê and Rodrigo Marçal’s “Instalação de vozes indigenas (Installation of indigenous voices)” — all recorded in Rio de Janeiro — is presented as a bunch of speakers, blasting songs and conversations all at once. While it’s initially jarring, placing your ear to just one of these speakers is soothing. You can hear the voices clearly, as multitudinous as the populations themselves.
Dja Guata Porã continues at the Museu de Arte do Rio (Praça Mauá, 5, Centro, Rio de Janeiro) through February 18.