C&AL: Brazil is home to hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups. How can curators adequately account for this diversity of thinking and ways of life?
Sandra Benites: Our work as curators must be well thought-out and coordinated with multiple professionals, regardless of origin. My curation experience has always been collective. I was one of four curators for the Dja Guata Porã | Indigenous Rio de Janeiro exhibition, at the Rio Museum of Art (2017). The same was true for the Sawé project, an exhibition on indigenous leaders’ struggle for territory at a national level, for the SESC Ipiranga cultural center, which never officially opened due to the pandemic. We visited Rio Negro, Pernambuco, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul, all specifically to incorporate the reality of those places.
There is collective labor both in the curation and production of the exhibition, with indigenous and non-indigenous professionals, as well as in the creation of works with indigenous artists. An exhibition on indigenous history is also about indigenous thinking, not a colonizing point of view. So we always try to bring in the indigenous view. Today there are 305 ethnic groups, in addition to the indigenous people living in urban areas, and 274 languages, which are beginning to occupy a place that had previously been erased. It’s very challenging.
C&AL: You are the first Brazilian indigenous curator to be hired on the staff at a major museum, like MASP. What is this role of curator like for you?
SB: When MASP invited me to do this curatorship, it felt like a huge challenge. I did a lot of self-reflection, I talked to indigenous colleagues and some non-indigenous friends working in the field. Then I began to feel stronger. And I decided to occupy that space and engage in dialogue, to facilitate an encounter from the indigenous perspective. I won’t be able to cover everything, but two issues are important: the indigenous perspective and concerns over land. Why is territory important to us? We hold the view that the Earth is the female body itself. It’s important for each body to speak of its own experience and its own path. As a woman, from the Guarani perspective, I will be talking a lot about this. Also engaging in dialogue not only with indigenous people or about indigenous people, but also with the female body. Both the burning of the Amazon rainforest and the environmental tragedies in Brumadinho and Mariana constitute violence to the female body. In addition, there’s an acceleration and intensification of direct violence against women. Why this wrath? We are fundamental to the Earth’s well-being.
C&AL: MASP will dedicate the year 2023 to “Indigenous Histories”. What has this exhibition’s approach been like?
SB: The exhibition methods are being designed with MASP staff. Based on my experience and listening to indigenous colleagues and artists, I would like to address two aspects of indigenous history: the colonization process and the indigenous worldview. This worldview is associated with memory and ancestral knowledge, which are directly related to nature. It would be impossible to specifically highlight each ethnic group, but we can discuss indigenous thought in broad terms. Every indigenous person talks about his or her relationship with the land, with nature, with the spirit of nature, based on his or her own worldview. It will be a process of multiple encounters and approximations with indigenous reality. The challenge lies in how to make this knowledge and these exchanges take shape, how to make them objects for display.
We also have to consider two forms of contemporary indigenous experience: those who live in indigenous settlements and those who live in cities. Indigenous people exist in urban contexts today because of colonization and its processes of occupation. They do not belong and they struggle to reimagine their own identities. Often, they do not identify as indigenous, white, or black. Our cities are indigenous burial grounds. It’s as if indigenous people no longer exist. And, when they do exist, people question: but is he a real Indian? It’s essential that we discuss the violence that all indigenous people have suffered and continue to suffer, because they are forced to follow the vision of the current government, to become “civilized”. The president of Brazil said Indians need to live “like us”. In this kind of society, everybody’s the same and has to follow the same way of thinking, the same pattern. This idea that there’s no other way of thinking, or in other words, not accepting diversity, is a dominant white way of thinking.