Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Amazon Art Institute Helps Recover Indigenous Roots

Mario Osava

MANAUS, Brazil, Sep 24 2008 (IPS) - Dhiani Pa’saro came to Manaus, the bustling city of 1.7 million people in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, eight years ago, after wandering from one village or town to another. At the time he planned to become a dentist, but at 33 he is now a renowned artist.



Pa’saro is one of 14 indigenous people who have studied painting and marquetry (decorative patterns made of inlays) at the Dirson Costa Institute of Amazonian Art and Culture (IDC), which has already built up a collection of 800 works by these artists for the founding collection of the Museu de Arte e Imaginário da Amazônia (MAIA, Museum of Amazon Art and Imaginary).

As a boy, Pa’saro learned the traditional basket-weaving, farming, hunting and fishing techniques of his people, the Wanano, who live on the upper Negro river, near the Colombian border. At 13, he went out “into the world,” living in friends’ houses, learning two other indigenous languages as well as some Spanish, and studying up to the level of secondary school.

His father joined the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Pa’saro has heard that he is now living in Bogotá. The Colombian insurgents “take away even 10-year-old boys to train as guerrillas,” he told IPS.

Five years ago, Pa’saro took the IDC painting course, and since 2005 he has been selling his works for up to 500 reals (270 dollars). At exhibitions, paintings fetch over 2,000 reals (1,000 dollars), he said.

In late August he showed 40 of his works at the “Trançados e Cores da Amazônia” (Weaves and Colours of the Amazon) exhibition in Manaus.

He taught himself marquetry, too, in the evenings, inlaying pieces of different coloured wood. This was against IDC rules, according to which students should only take one course at a time, but when they saw his finished work and his obvious talent, “all we could do was support him,” said Aidalina Costa, the head of the IDC.

“Breaking the rules for the sake of art is a positive sign, and using more than one style is characteristic of great artists,” said professor Nelson Falcao, the coordinator of the IDC art school, mentioning Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso.

The Institute is supported by its six department heads and permanent members, along with small donations from sponsors. The main goal towards which the different activities converge is to set up the MAIA, as a theatre, memory centre and library, as well as the art courses which will soon receive a new intake of students, not exclusively indigenous people.

It will not be a conventional museum, but one that reflects “our different way of feeling about things, that arises from the vast horizons of the Amazon jungle region,” Costa, a medical doctor and museum curator, told IPS.

She leads the project that was the brainchild of Dirson Costa, her late husband, who died in 2001 and was a composer who spread the love of music scholarship throughout the region for 40 years.

“We want to reconstruct the social imaginary of the Amazon,” which is being dispersed and is in danger of being lost among the approximately 185 ethnic groups in the jungle region, she said. In her view, visual arts and the museum are “the best way” to salvage it.

“Human beings understand themselves according to their mythology,” which is part of the ancestral collective imagination, “located in the unconscious and finding its expression in the visual arts,” Falcao said.

As well as indigenous peoples, “caboclos” or people of mixed indigenous and European origin, and white people who have lived for generations in the Amazon, are the bearers and communicators of the myths, he said.

The peoples of the Amazon need “to know their own unique identity, and to engage in dialogue with the world from their own sense of self, in order not to lose themselves in the process of globalisation,” said Salete Lima, head of communications at the IDC.

In 2009, MAIA will begin educational activities with a mobile exhibition of high quality reproductions of their paintings around Manaus, especially in schools, where project members will talk to children and young people, Costa said.

Museums tend to attract very few people, because they are conceptualised as places aimed exclusively at well-educated intellectuals, but if people discover in MAIA “a mirror” of themselves that they can understand, “they will be drawn in” and visit it frequently, she said.

The museum has a site, a historic building with an area of 1,271 square metres which was donated by an entrepreneur and is an exact match for what Costa had in mind: it is large, and can be approached both by land and from the river, as it used to be a naval installation.

Coming across the donor of the house “was no coincidence, but the result of ‘cosmic Theia,’ or the law of attraction,” said Falcao, who decided to “give everything else up” and devote his adult life to the visual arts, after his work as a business administrator gave him gastritis. The doctor recommended a “change of lifestyle,” and taking up an activity he enjoyed.

Falcao used his savings to study fine arts in Sao Paulo, and returned to Manaus “an awakened sleepwalker,” convinced that “only art has saving power.” He has been at IDC for six months.

One of his goals is to achieve recognition for marquetry as an art, not just a craft.

The first group of students, six painters and eight marquetry artists, were chosen from among 55 candidates, all indigenous people who had left their villages and now live in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, which enjoyed great prosperity nearly a century ago thanks to natural rubber exports.

Manaus has experienced another economic surge since the 1970s, due to industrialisation incentives and subsidies associated with its Free Zone.

Talent alone is not enough: the selection process also depends decisively on “willingness to study and record the culture of their people,” Falcao said. For instance Duhigó, a 53-year-old indigenous woman, was hampered by learning difficulties but she had the courage, persistence and spiritual strength to become a painter of real works of art, he said.

The early works of art created by the painters and marquetry artists are often based on drawings and photographs by “travelling” anthropologists and ethnologists, who recorded in books and images many objects, customs and aspects of life in a large number of indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforest.

But the course is a “rite of passage from simple reproduction, or craft, to true art, which is born when a person masters techniques and adds his or her individual poetry, without detaching from his or her cultural roots,” Falcao said.

The stereotype that indigenous people are merely artisans, or craftspeople, must be overcome, he added.

Indigenous people adopt Christian names when they migrate to cities. At the beginning of the IDC course, the students were invited to recover their indigenous names, the “baptismal” name they were given in their home villages, or another of their choice. Some of them took months to find their name, Costa said.

Dhiani Pa’saro selected a name which means “wild duck,” he said.

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