In Conversation with Sandra Benites

“Cities Are Indigenous Burial Grounds”

In an interview, Sandra Benites, adjunct curator for Brazilian Art at the Museum of Art of São Paulo and one of the lead organizers of “Indigenous Histories”, a year-long exhibition slated to open at the museum in 2023, talks about the indigenous art produced in Brazil and comments on her experience as a curator.

C&AL: Is it possible to find central themes in contemporary indigenous art?

SB: You might say that all indigenous people, whether artists, academics or activists, are beginning to speak from their people’s worldview. Denilson Baniwa, for example, speaks from Baniwa knowledge. Why? We’ve always respected differences. So we didn’t have this division of space that exists today between settlements. White people, colonizers, are the ones responsible for these divisions, often putting many people in the same space and saying they’re all the same. We have another way of thinking. We had these divisions by differences, people who speak different languages, for example. Our borders were the division of difference, of respect for diversity. Artists always bring this worldview, the vision of their own people and their community, and they create their work based on that.

C&AL: Most of the indigenous artists on the art circuit are men. What is the women’s work like?

SB: There are very few indigenous people in Brazil occupying this space of visibility. The women’s struggle is also part of this group, but the ones who stand out are men. We have our own political form within the community, which is more discreet, precisely because we aren’t familiar with what’s outside. And what’s outside is unfamiliar with our way of thinking. Leadership doesn’t just mean someone who acts as a mediator with non-indigenous people, like Sonia Guajajara or Joenia Wapichana, who became a federal congresswoman. These are women who were already organizing within the community itself. There are a handful of artists who circulate outside their communities, such as Graciela Guarani, who works with video; Zahy Guajajara, who does performance art; Sallisa Rosa, who has participated in several residencies; Tapiti Guajajara, who sings traditional Guajajara songs and does body painting on canvas or directly on the wall. There are other women who do wonderful work, but who are not recognized in the non-indigenous world, they are only recognized in their own communities.

Sandra Benites, of the Guarani Nhandewa ethnic group, is adjunct curator of Brazilian Art at the Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand – MASP, an educator, and a doctoral student in Social Anthropology at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Camila Gonzatto writes about cinema, literature and the visual arts for several magazines and academic publications. She is a member of the Contemporary And Latin America editorial team.

Translation: Zoë Perry