Research at the IPEA (Institute for Applied Economic Research), conducted in September 2016, analyzed the Annual Relation of Social Information (RAIS): of 46 million names of workers in Brazil, 87.5% had names of Iberian origin (Spain and Portugal), followed by 7.7% deriving from Italian. In Brazil, the methods for researching family names are insufficient for identifying indigenous or African ancestry. These groups were forced to adopt European, Iberian family names. Which demonstrates that having Iberian family names does not indicate European ancestry, but rather another violent act of identity erasure.
We are not all descendants of Europeans, neither exclusively and often times not even partially, even if the perpetuation of language and of “tradition” was imposed on us, historically, through our bodies and social groups. We speak a European language, have developed our perceptions and knowledge based on codes normalized by Europe, and we’ve developed our life based on a Eurocentric truth.
Erasing real ancestry
We don’t judge our ideas based on a multiparty identity that shapes the Brazilian way of life. Our attitude is undermined by borders that are hardly permeable to the obvious penetration of our past and present of African origin. How do we take over this discourse, this language and way of thinking in its totality? How do we perceive this national identity with the erasure of real ancestry? How can we assert what is national and, in our particular case, how do we take ownership of Brazilian art? And how do we understand the complexity of this erasure, which extends to everything that encompasses our society? These questions today, much more that answers, demand an intensive exercise in repetition.
In some African societies, names can represent the function and character of a person in a certain group. The name would be a marker of parentage or social positioning, a way to project relationships with another group. The American historian Joseph Miller used a list of kings’ names from Angola, the Ngolas, to demonstrate that there the names were perpetual titles, representing abstract principles of power. The notion of naming is different from Occidental logic. As is all construction of thought.
Recovering multiple influences
Naming can be, thus, a revolutionary and intellectual act. The civic act of assuming an erased identity is taking for oneself, in a definitive way, the assimilation of a living tradition as marginal. Historic acts of attack and conquest by erasure are notorious, but often times they are not perceived in the day to day. Proposing to assume this identity, however, is – rather than merely an affirmative act – an attempt to grasp the vastness of the multiple influences that make us the people we are as well and how we think. The search for the Silvas, Costas, Mendonças and Oliveiras, would also mean finding the Dembelés, Mbappés, Nhabombes, Mulungos, Ndlovus, Nymupangedengus, Acatauaçus, Caipós, Paiacãs, París e Saraíbas.
And why is this writing linked to art? Because this is a demonstration of the shift in the gaze, in thinking and in doing. In this way, Brazilian multi-tradition would not be expelling the European – as dominant and character-erasing – but instead seeking another source of equalized knowledge. And you, whose name do you have?
Keyna Eleison is a curator, with a degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Art History. A narrator, singer, and ancestral chronicler, she is a specialist in art education, storytelling, knowledge harvesting – orally, Griot heritage and shamanic ritual. She also contributes regularly to the column “For eyes that can see” in Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.
Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh.