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Steps of Endurance

Ka'a Pûera: we are walking birds, Brazilian Pavilion at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

  • May 22 2024
  • Cecilia Vilela
    is a London-based curator and writer focused on contemporary art that addresses ecology, the use of language, the legacy of colonisation and experiences of displacement. Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Cecilia holds an MA Art History and Theory by the University of Essex, UK, and is especially interested in exploring the articulations that are possible between European structures and perspectives of the Global South.

–“Célia or Glicéria?”

“Both names, and more, are mine. You can call me whatever you feel comfortable with. In our Tupinambá culture, the more names you have, the more important you are. It is not about the surname, but the name. You are born and go on to acquire various names.” This is the first thing that gets clarified to me during a conversation in Portuguese with the artist in Venice, as the exhibition was about to open to the public. 

In 120 years of the Venice Biennale and the ups and downs of national representations, it is the first time that Brazil's official participation is exclusively created and curated by Indigenous artists. The pavilion has been symbolically renamed from being “Brazilian” to being “Hãhãwpuá”, stressing that Portuguese is as secondary as any national state label. Brazilian identity and the Portuguese language are, however, taken over not by one Indigenous replacement, but by many: “Hãhãwpuá” derives from Patxohã, a language spoken by the Pataxó people. It is one of the various terms used by local Indigenous peoples to refer to the land more widely recognised as “Brazil”. The exhibition’s title employs a different Indigenous language, Tupi, and, in turn, it unfolds not one but two meanings: Ka'a Pûera means either a small bird that camouflages itself in dense forests, or an undergrowth where there was once a forest, and which could become one again. The term is chosen as “a metaphor for this perspective of regeneration of peoples who have gone through different rights violations [but] who have regenerated nonetheless,” explains Arissana Pataxó, who curates Ka'a Pûera alongside Denilson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco Wapichana. Each surname, Pataxó, Baniwa, and Wapichana, mirrors the person’s community bonds. The three exhibiting artists, Glicéria Tupinambá, Olinda Tupinambá, and Ziel Karapotó, add two more peoples to the cohort of varied Indigenous roots that coexist in the exhibition. New to most, the expansive vocabulary that punctuates the show evidences plurality, of languages and of cultures, as a concept chosen to prevail. Visitors are kept on their toes as foreign words of varied origins gesture a resistance from the kind of simplifications that risk turning Indigenous worldviews into a single, pasteurized entity.

While installations by Olinda Tupinambá and Ziel Karapotó greet visitors on arrival, the highlight of the exhibition awaits in the following room: feather mantles and a captivating multi-chapter narrative, discernible through a series of eight letters exhibited next to each other in a single large glazed frame. Only one of the letters is displayed with multiple translations; the alternation between languages is left uneven throughout the exhibition. Though labels offer a brief summary in English and Italian, much more is revealed to those who can navigate between multiple languages in use, which reveals a powerful reflection of the condition of the artists themselves. As a speaker of both Portuguese and English, the space of exclusivity created feels rather intimate albeit ironically so.

The mantles and letters comprise one of two works signed by Glicéria Tupinambá and her community.They are laid out in a sinuous line that an aerial view would reveal as resembling the infinite symbol, with each work composing one half. The two mantles share the space with a line of other stands displaying fishing nets, which appear flimsy by contrast. They are twelve. The number matches the Tupinambá mantles held in Europe since the 17th century. Since 2018, Glicéria Tupinambà has established contact with the institutions that hold these items, and some of the exchanges compose the set of correspondences on display (along with a letter to the Pope, displayed unanswered). One of the mantles is newly made, collectively produced with the Tupinambá community of Serra do Padeiro, in Bahia. The garment’s sophisticated appearance, with its elaborate silhouette and color patterns, suggests a delicate sensibility, demanding diligent weaving techniques and commitment to a thoughtful execution. In line with such commitment, a task force for the collection of feathers grew spontaneously in solidarity, resulting in feathers collected from as far away from Bahia as Maranhão, where a flock of Guará left behind a trove on the sandy beach. These mantles’ mobilising energy seems evocative of the ancestral.


fig. 1


As revealed in one of the correspondences, the mantles in Europe were seized in an effort to prevent the continuation of Tupinambá spiritual practices and to impose Catholicism. They mention written archives concerning ten mantles seized by Jesuits in a single operation. It stands to reason that such plunder would have left the Tupinambá community deprived of fundamental aspects of their way of life. The mantles’ power lies in their connection with the encantados or “enchanted ones”, spiritual entities from Indigenous cosmologies. Through to today, mantles manifest through dreams and visualizations, expressing the fact that the Tupinambá’s relationship with them does not operate under the logic of ownership; they are not objects to be possessed, but aspects of a sacred realm. Glicéria Tupinambá’s work, thus, established a process, if not a ritual, of listening. Letters sent to European institutions and exhibited at the pavilion do not ask for the mantles back. Instead, they ask for opportunities for connection with them: a mantle currently in Venice is offered to travel to their institution to meet its relative. The artist offers to travel along to receive their messages – to listen to those she calls “Tupinambá ambassadors”.

Previous encounters revealed to the artist fragments of their shared history. Her visions included the process of how a mantle was made – woven by women – and a scene described as “people on the beach looking at the horizon, and I'm with them, looking ahead, seeing a vessel disappear over the horizon. I can feel the sand beneath my feet, and I can feel the longing, of something very important being crossed by that horizon line. I couldn't explain what it was; it was the same feeling as [that of] a relative departing.” The gradual process of visiting, listening to the mantles, and pursuing the realization of their messages is allowing Glicéria to rewrite the Tupinambá’s history in their own terms. In 2022, a mantle held by the National Museum of Denmark expressed its willingness to return to the other side of the Atlantic, and, since then, a movement has begun to arrange its travel. Over the course of 2024, the mantle  is expected to leave Denmark and be kept by the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, in accordance with the artist’s arrangements.

A letter displayed in Nheengatu, Portuguese, and English speaks with clarity about “the will of the mantle and guidance of the encantados”. Among sensitive responses, one comes in Portuguese – a rather good halfway to meet. At the not-so-hopeful end of the spectrum, another verges on the comic when letting slip the term “confess”, and asking that the request be clarified under a predetermined category: “exhibition, dialogue, [or] conference...” As language nuances give so much away, and substantiate the storytelling, it becomes clear how the project’s most exciting part is intertwined with the mantles’ agency: what they reveal from the past, what desires they express for the future, where they go, who they meet next. In this respect, while the story of the mantle is overwhelmingly dynamic, its exhibition is not. The exhibition’s design is stationary and overly reliant on explanations, ultimately falling short of its potential to convey the strength of the mantles’ movements.


fig. 2


The artist’s second work, next to the mantles and letters so as to compose the second half of the infinite loop, presents a space covered in new and old fishing nets that invites visitors to sit and watch videos of crafts being taught and learned, passed on from the elderly to the young. In the videos, mantle-weaving makes a discreet appearance. Outside the exhibition the protagonism of the Tupinambá mantle is unarguable; ultimately, it remains the best representation of their people’s resilience. The Tupinambá have been mistakenly considered extinct since the 17th century, the same period as their ambassadors’ departure from their native grounds. In 2002, the Tupinambá attained official recognition from the Brazilian state, and, in 2009, their territory, Tupinambá de Olivença, [1] in Bahia, was finally recognised and officially outlined by the government. At the time of writing, the Tupinambá still fight for the demarcation of their land, which mandates its effective protection. Though I found no birds walking inside the pavilion, their movement is surely steady, just like the Ka'a Pûera that eventually re-emerges.




    [1] What is formally recognised as Terra Indígena Tupinambá de Olivença [Indigenous Land Tupinambá de Olivença] is a wide area that encompasses land across three municipalities in Southern Bahia: Ilhéus, Buerarema, and Una. It should not be confused with the homonymous, smaller area within it: Olivença, which is a seaside village in the municipality of Ilhéus, inhabited by one out of the many Tupinambá communities of the region.



    Cover: Glicéria Tupinambá, Manto tupinambá [Tupinambá Mantle] (2023). Courtesy of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

    fig. 1, fig. 2: Glicéria Tupinambá, comunidade Tupinambá da Serra do Padeiro. Okará Assojaba, (2024) Courtesy of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo. Photo by: © Rafa Jacinto.





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