Brazil’s First Indigenous Curator: ‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore’

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Sandra Benites’s work is all about finding common ground. As Brazil’s first Indigenous art curator, the 45-year-old educator, who grew up with the Guaraní Ñandeva people in the village of Porto Lindo, wants to use art to bridge the gap between Indigenous Brazilians and those from other backgrounds.

She is searching for a way to show their commonality, and is looking to represent many of her country’s 305 ethnic groups in “Indigenous Stories,” a yearlong exhibition of global indigenous art set to take place at the Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, known as MASP, in 2021.

That shared thread, she said, will come in examples of storytelling and the profound connection all Indigenous Brazilians have to their land. “My favorite thing is to look at the narrative — everyone has their own way of telling a story,” Ms. Benites said. But what unites Indigenous people, she added, “is our vision of the world and how it relates to our territory.” As one of several curators of “Indigenous Stories,” she will organize an exhibition that will feature sculpture, paintings, photographs, dance, narrative song, performance and audiovisual art associated with the land.

In recent months, Brazil’s Indigenous land has been at the center of a battle between the current administration of the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, and environmental activists, many of whom are Indigenous. As fires raged toward the end of 2019 across the Amazon in the country’s north, Indigenous leaders called for an end to the decades-long deforestation of the rainforest, along with the violent attacks on leaders who were trying to protect their land. Illegal miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers became emboldened by a president who promised not to give “one more centimeter” of land to Indigenous people so that it could be used, instead, for activities he deemed more lucrative for the country’s economy.

Credit…Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE, proved that the environmentalists’ suspicions were not unfounded. The agency’s Deter database showed that annual deforestation in the country’s Amazon rose 85 percent in 2019 compared with the previous year. In November, figures from the space agency’s Prodes project, which monitors clear-cut deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, showed deforestation in 2019 was at its highest in over a decade, and up 30 percent from 2018.

Now, Mr. Bolsonaro has moved to legalize activities like commercial mining and hydroelectric energy production projects on Indigenous land, a key pledge of his 2018 election campaign. He announced in early February his intention to present a bill to Congress.

For Ms. Benites, the struggle to protect Indigenous land has been a flash point since Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, giving groups centuries of practice to learn how to handle the current situation. “This has always happened, but it used to be more veiled,” she said. “Now it’s been completely unmasked.”

She added, “We’ve been up against it basically since 1500, meaning we’re not afraid anymore. I remember all of my relatives saying, ‘The more we’re attacked, the more we’re encouraged.’ We’re aware of our own wisdom and know how we have to fight back, and that’s by creating a dialogue with others.”

These days, Indigenous Brazilians are facing another immense challenge, as the coronavirus has made its way into their communities. As of Monday, the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health confirmed 402 cases and 23 deaths from the virus.

Memories of Europeans who brought smallpox and measles to Indigenous communities in the 1560s were reawakened when a judge issued an order on April 17 banning evangelical missionaries from the Amazon’s Javari Valley, where the world’s largest concentration of isolated tribes live. But there are still concerns that illegal miners and loggers, who continue to work in the region, will help spread the virus there.

Ms. Benites, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, had been traveling to São Paulo several times a month to prepare for “Indigenous Stories,” looking at art that plays the role of conversation starter, pushing people from all backgrounds to have more frank discussions about history, Indigenous rights and culture, and the protection of the environment.

Credit…Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times
Credit…Sallisa Rosa
Credit…via Museu de arte de São Paulo

While MASP shut its doors on March 17 and Ms. Benites is working from home, “Indigenous Stories” is still scheduled to take place next year.

She hasn’t yet made specific selections for the exhibition, but she said she wanted to include artists who paint about cosmology and its important symbolism in Indigenous cultures and origin stories; artists who make photos about their and other people’s connection to nature; and who sing as a form of resistance.

Ms. Benites is particularly concerned about the rights of Indigenous women in Brazil, who she said still haven’t had the chance to delve into issues like autonomy and better working conditions, because “Indigenous women are still fighting for survival, for the Indigenous way of life.”

She looks to her grandmother, a Guaraní Ñandeva leader and midwife, as an inspiration. “She said that when I grew up, I had to learn to embrace the world because the world won’t embrace you,” Ms. Benites explained.

The inclusion of female artists in the exhibition will give them the opportunity “to be the protagonists of their own voices,” Ms. Benites said. She hopes to include women from various ethnicities and disciplines, like a Guajajara performance artist, a Karajá photographer, a Huni Kuin painter, and Guarani and Maxacali audiovisual artists.

The work of the artist Sallisa Rosa speaks to the themes Ms. Benites wants “Indigenous Stories” to represent. Ms. Rosa uses photography and video to explore contemporary identity in Brazil through stories of violence, forced migration and the erasure of memories, rituals and ancestry.

Ms. Rosa’s “Facões,” from a photo series called “Resistance,” features knives as a symbol of survival and resistance for rural workers. The piece was part of the 2019 exhibition, “Histórias feministas: artistas depois de 2000” (“Feminist stories: artists after the year 2000”), and is now a part of MASP’s permanent exhibition.

Before she was asked to join the museum as an adjunct curator of Brazilian art last year, Ms. Benites was a teacher in Indigenous schools, which offer the same subjects found in all public schools but add classes on Indigenous culture and language. She noticed, however, that the history and geography books they were given weren’t adequate. “We didn’t see ourselves in it,” Ms. Benites said, explaining her decision to pursue her master’s degree in intercultural Indigenous education so that she could broach these subjects with decision makers.

Credit…Museu de arte do Rio; Alexadre Araújo

She had little experience working with artists. Her first step was in 2017, when she was one of four curators of an exhibition at the Art Museum of Rio called “Dja Guata Porã: Indigenous Rio de Janeiro.” Indigenous art presented in museums is often researched and selected by non-Indigenous curators and put on display based solely on their vision, Ms. Benites said. With “Dja Guata Porã,” she made sure the planning included Indigenous people and the artists themselves.

That same year, she was invited by the museum to present a seminar that would introduce museum-goers to the 2021 Indigenous art exhibition as it began its preparations for the project, which led to the request that she come on permanently.

“It’s a turning point in the history of Brazilian museums and institutions,” Adriano Pedrosa, MASP’s artistic director, said of her hiring. “We see many institutions now realizing the necessity of bringing Indigenous art and culture to art museums, beyond the ethnographic museums.

“It’s often we’re looking at something as foreigners, as outsiders,” he added, “so it’s fantastic to have someone who sees things as an insider.”

As with “Dja Guata Porã,” Ms. Benites said she would make sure that decisions on how to present the pieces in the show will be made by everyone working on the project, including the artists.

For Indigenous people, she said, art is not about the work, but the artist who creates it. There’s no equivalent, for instance, to the word “art” in the Guarani language; the closest translation is tembiapo, or related to someone’s abilities,” she explained. “The artist is fundamental for this work to exist. That’s why we first look to the artist and not the art itself.” Most Guarani boys, for example, learn to carve animals out of wood from a young age, but when you look at a carving, you know who created it, because the artists bring their own story and hard work to their pieces.

“Art makes so many things possible,” she said. “These narratives, or songs, or dances, or paintings, they all help you understand that other person behind it.”

At the same time, she’s also co-curating “Sawé,” an exhibition about Indigenous political leaders, set to open at the end of this year at São Paulo’s SESC Ipiranga cultural center.

She hopes that others will learn from the art she chooses, particularly about perspective and the importance of including the voices of women artists in the conversation.

“I’m going to learn so much here,” Ms. Benites said of her job. “And I hope they learn from me too.”

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