In conversation with Anita Ekman

An Archeology of Afro-Indigenous Issues

In her performance pieces, Brazilian artist Anita Ekman reclaims rock art and pre-Colombian history to decolonize the way we look at the present.

C&A: “Tupi Valongo” also seems to connect past, present and future when it shows the Serra da Capivara (prehistory), Valongo (colonial) and images of Marielle Franco (city council member assassinated in Rio de Janeiro in 2018 for her human rights activism). Was that the idea, to stitch together time and space?

AE: Geographer Milton Santos really sheds light on my ideas when he says that “space is the uneven accumulation of time”. It was in the Serra da Capivara mountain range that 50,000-year-old remains of a bonfire were found and that led Niède Guidon to create her theory that it was migration from Africa, contradicting the version accepted until this day that the first human migration to the Americas came from Asia. For me, decolonization is this, it’s connecting with these ancient, deep and present stories. It’s like the title of a book by Celso Borges says: “The future has an ancient heart.” The performance piece Tupi Valongo: Cemetery of the New Blacks and Old Indians brings these various layers, space, and the uneven accumulation of time to the stage. And this is very powerful for me, the idea that it’s all there: the basket made by the Guarani, the presence of Hugo Germano, who is from the Cantagalo favela (Rio de Janeiro), the use of an ancient stamping technique for body painting, masks from Nzo Oula, an Ivorian refugee of the Gouro ethnic group, a masks expert.

C&AL: Thinking about the place of speech and representativeness: how do you see yourself in the role of artist talking about indigenous issues without being indigenous yourself?

AE: My name in Guarani is jaxuca, or the one that points the way, who leads the journey. That is how I view my place in this story, as a gathering place. Tupi Valongo is not my work, I’m just the one that gathers it all together. I’m here, but this is a work by Sandra Benites, who recites Nhandecy ete; and Lidia Pankararu, who did the music; and Oula, who made the masks. My place there is not representative of an indigenous woman: those stamp designs are not indigenous, they’re mine. I’ve reclaimed a technique that is very old, and I use it to create. I want this open path for everyone to work together in tenondé porã, this idea that it’s only beautiful if everyone comes together.

C&AL: We can see in both, “Tupi Valongo” and “Vagina: caverna da terra”, that your work also focuses on female protagonism in art history. How do you address this?

AE: Much of our fragmented view of Afro-Indigenous issues comes from the profound need to reconsider the protagonism of women in history. Because if most of the slaves who arrived from Africa were men, it’s clear that the blood of indigenous women who were raped and domesticated runs through our veins. But these women have been erased from history. So when I present a performance that invites women to paint their bodies with stamps and repeat the positions found in rock paintings, I’m inviting us to understand our place in this decolonized art history. When I use ocher, which is a clay colored by iron dioxide, I am reestablishing connections with blood, with this element that gives life and death. Lindia [Joselma Santos’s nickname], one of the women who participated in the performance Ocher, is part of the São Raimundo Nonato capoeira group and a member of the Pimenteira indigenous nation, who were almost decimated. It’s the intersection of several stories rising to the skin’s surface as forces from the past.

C&AL: This involvement with the land, with materials available in nature, seems to be at the heart of your artistic practice. Is that correct?

AE: By using these techniques – stamps, ocher, the same materials used thousands of years before colonization – it’s like I’m able to connect with what they were seeking. When we speak of decolonization, we’re talking about territories, structures of power that have been established and that continue to reverberate with atrocious force. The places where people gathered to perform these great rituals were spaces endowed with a force. That is why the Serra da Capivara mountain range has such an huge concentration of paintings, because many people moved there. So when I present a performance – as it’s called in the world of the juruás [“whites” in Tupi], but for me stands firmly in the place of ritual – it is inevitably linked to the force of this land. We’re working on a project for an artistic residence inside the Serra da Capivara National Park, where we can bring together indigenous artists and thinkers from all over the world on this sacred land.

Anita Ekman is a visual and performance artist, illustrator and researcher of Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian art.

Lorena Vicini is an editor, researcher and cultural manager. She coordinated the “Episodes of the South” and “Echoes of the South Atlantic” projects by the Goethe-Institut São Paulo.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.