Contemporary Indigenous Art of Brazil Travels to Tufts

Combining ancient craft with modern viewpoints, a first-of-its-kind exhibition challenges perceptions of Indigenous art

The first thing you notice upon entering the Tufts University Art Gallery is a pair of huge ceremonial masks flanked by pieces of clothing made of palm fiber, wool, and wood. Suspended on tall metal supports, the towering objects stand like sentinels, welcoming visitors into a sacred space.

But despite their ritualistic quality, the label reveals that these items have never been used in any traditional ceremony; rather, they were created by contemporary Wauja artists as objects of art for an archeological museum. The Wauja are among sixteen Indigenous groups that make up the cultural and multilinguistic system of the upper Xingu River in Central Brazil.

Challenging our assumptions and expectations about what Indigenous art is or should be is central to Véxoa: We Know, a survey of work by Indigenous artists of Brazil today. The exhibit is on view at the Aidekman Arts Center in Medford through December 10.

“We can't really separate the contemporary and the traditional because by doing that we are pushing tradition back into an idealized past,” said Claudia Mattos Avolese, senior lecturer in visual and material studies and co-curator of the show.

Directly in front of the masks, a metal shopping cart lined with multicolored rubber strips woven in a traditional Kaingang pattern establishes a dialogue between centuries-old traditions and contemporary artistic production. It also challenges stereotypes about the identity and geographic location of its creators, an urban artist collective that examines interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups.

“Most of the Indigenous populations in Brazil actually live in cities, which is not where we tend to situate them in our imaginations,” Avolese said. “They also consume, but as they consume, they transform whatever comes to them in different ways.”

Featuring work by 22 Indigenous artists and collectives from across the Brazilian territory, the show includes many pieces that pair traditional craft and aesthetics with modern techniques and materials. Through painting, photography, sculpture, film, and video, these artists ask viewers to consider the richness and diversity of Indigenous art while insisting on its contemporaneity. “I think the important idea is that these are living cultures and living practices, and there's a continuum when you walk through the exhibition,” said Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of Tufts University Art Galleries.

The Curator is Present

Presiding over the entire space, via a video on continuous loop, is Naine Terena (member of the Terena Indigenous people of the Brazilian State of Mato Grosso do Sul). An artist, activist, and educator, Terena curated Véxoa’s original iteration at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo in 2020, the first Indigenous-led exhibition to be held at a major Brazilian art museum. She also curated the show’s only North American presentation at Tufts. “By having her on a monitor here, we're trying to think about curatorial voice and presence,” said Deitsch. 

Throughout the video, adapted from a lecture given virtually at the Clark Art Institute, Terena discusses the changing conceptions of Indigenous art and its relationship to art history and the contemporary art world. By virtue of surviving the process of colonization, Indigenous art, she argues, represents a concept of “internal art” that “does not follow what we understand as art in a classic way” or conform to Western canonical standards.

Two geometric paintings in the Tufts University Art Gallery

Daiara Tukano, "Yiki Mahsã Pâti (World of the Forest Spirits)," 2018, and "Muhipu Saãrô (Sunset)," 2018. Photo: Mel Taing

Fittingly, the video is positioned beside two paintings by Daiara Tukano, an artist and activist whose practice centers on spiritual traditions such as the use of ayahuasca to achieve mystical visions, known as hori. At first glance, the colorful geometric designs conform to notions of modern abstract art and color theory. Yet the patterns represent the traditional graphics of baskets, ceramics, and body art of the Tukano people.

Connecting contemporary art to a traditional cosmology, Tukano’s images evoke aspects of existence that are usually invisible to the eye. Much like the exhibition itself, the paintings serve as portals into another way of thinking and being that resists Western epistemologies.

“When you spend time in front of these pictures, you get immersed in a totally different vision of the world that is very central to Indigenous culture. From this perspective, you realize they have an agency of their own,” Avolese said.

A visitor walks through the Tufts University Art Gallery

Kaya Agari, "Untitled," 2021–2023. Photo: Mel Taing

In the next room, Kaya Agari’s hanging panels featuring patterns based on traditional Kywenu body markings perform a similar transposition. Suspended from the ceiling, the fabric panels invite viewers to walk through the intimate spaces they create. The subtle, almost eerie movement of the fabric in response to passers-by at once recalls the ancestral narratives on which the designs are based and roots the visitor firmly in the present.

“It's about a tradition transported into different materials. These are visuals that we think we understand, but we really don't,” said Deitsch. “So much of art is about creating access into other worlds and other cultures, developing within us empathy for histories and traditions that we may or may not have access to.”

Outside the (Western) Box

Many of the objects featured in Véxoa defy easy categorization—a documentary about the recovery of ancestral land transforms into a fictional narrative about spiritual beings in the forest; images of urban resistance are set against celestial backgrounds depicting origin myths; on the lower level, a mural commissioned for the exhibition depicts animal petroglyphs in luminescent neon paint.

Like their creators, these works inhabit a borderland that subverts the boundaries between fine art and handicraft, ancient tradition and contemporary practice. To Naine, categorizing pretty things in boxes is a very Western mode of dealing with knowledge, and that made no sense for her or for any of the artists represented here,” said Avolese.

The importance of self-representation for Indigenous artists also informed Terena’s decision not to organize the exhibition thematically or chronologically. “Véxoa is conceived of as a unified space, avoiding temporal, thematic, or aesthetic divisions, in order to reflect the organic synchronicity of Indigenous creativity in Brazil,” she states in the exhibition brochure.

“The whole point is that everything is connected,” Deitsch explained. “So that determined the wall color. Everything is a very dark gray that really connects and envelops you, and there are no delineations. [The pieces] are all talking to each other.”

Art as Resistance 

First opened during the pandemic and under a Brazilian president whose administration was criticized for undermining Indigenous rights, Véxoa itself embodies the resilience of its subjects. References to land recognition struggles and political scenarios that have denied Indigenous peoples’ rights permeate the show, none more potently than the final installation by Arissana Pataxó.

In a narrow corridor, four canvas paintings of Pataxó territory overlaid with the words of traditional chants are reflected in four opposing mirrors printed with excerpts from the journals of a 19th century European explorer. Inevitably, the viewer is also implicated in the struggle between erasure and recovery.

But perhaps the greatest act of resistance is the community formed through the process of creating the exhibition. “The building of these spaces brought together a group of artists that started to work very closely in the last five years, creating a community of art workers that are engaged in activism in the fields of art and culture,” Avolese said.

Throughout the show’s run, Tufts Art Galleries is hosting educational programming (in English and Portuguese) aimed at bringing together faculty, students, and members of the local community to showcase the diversity of experience and the dynamic range of artistic production among Brazil’s Indigenous peoples.

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