Disobedient Identities

Living in Two Universes

Visual artist Sallisa Rosa draws from her personal experience to examine indigenous imaginaries in urban contexts, ultimately suggesting decolonial museum practices.

Having grown up in urban centers, Sallisa Rosa became used to living in two universes—and often troubling both sides. In some works, such as in her series Identidade é Ficção (Identity Is Fiction, 2019), she uses parody to frame the stereotypes of how the culture of indigenous groups is depicted. In one of the photos, she is about to throw a cellphone into a pan; in another, she appears next to an artificial dinosaur, as if she were living in a past that was already extinct. Additionally, in this series, she also photographs herself with her hands painted hot pink holding a pequi fruit, an image referring to the indigenous tradition of painting parts of the body, such as the hands, with the black ink of the genip. “It is also a provocation of the idea that these traditions cannot be adapted. If you can’t find genipap, use what you have,” the artist concludes.

Institutional Decolonization

Another aspect of Sallisa Rosa’s work is the tension resulting from art spaces. Even at this moment when decolonizing institutions is a subject that is so present, there is not always an immediate understanding about how to deal with a tradition in which there is no word equivalent to the notion of art, much less reducing this concept to an object. This was one of the challenges the curatorial team confronted with Dja guata porã: Rio de Janeiro Indígena, on display at the Rio Museum of Art (MAR) in 2017 – Sandra Benites, José Ribamar Bessa, Pablo Lafuente and Clarissa Diniz. It was in this group exhibition, conceived together with indigenous groups from the city, among them former members of the Maracanã Village, that Sallisa Rosa debuted as a visual artist with Oca do Futuro (Hut of the Future). The result of research on contemporary models of indigenous houses, the installation consisted of a small enclosed room with a hammock hanging inside. The title was displayed on an LED sign, part of a low-tech futurist aesthetic that would become characteristic of her work, and the architecture referenced the constructions of common brickwork in urban landscapes.

In the project she completed the following year, during the 2018/19 Pampulha Grant program in Belo Horizonte – the planting of a cassava garden by more than 100 volunteers organized with the help of the Minas Committee in Support of Indigenous Causes –, the challenges resulted in an impasse with the Pampulha Museum of Art (MAP) regarding what would be incorporated into the collection. Sallisa Rosa’s suggestion was to donate the garden itself, which had been made on neighboring land belonging to the museum which at the time was unused, and not a photograph as a record of the activity, as was proposed. “The solution that we came to was to donate the methodology of that work, since there was an impasse regarding the donation of either the garden or the cassava.”

Border Thinking

The experiment involving indigenous people’s food traditions developed into another residency last year at the Rio Museum of Modern Art (MAM-RJ). This time, the objective was based on questioning what is ignored when talking about decolonizing a museum, such as food. “In the kitchen, the influence of colonization is very clear. From foods that originate from agrobusiness to the workers that bring them out oven-warmed and from the place they are eaten.” In Passando pela Peneira (Sifting through the Sieve), she elaborated on practices that consider the kitchen to be a social space and one of exchange of knowledge, rituals that are brought together through indigenous traditions. One of them was a picnic with the staff at the Aterro do Flamengo (The Flamengo Park), where each person had to bring a dish and tell the story of what they cooked.

Border thinking, a term created by Argentinian theorist Walter D. Mignolo as a way of avoiding “as much Western as non-Western fundamentalism,” is a good way to understand Sallisa Rosa’s affirmations as an artist or as she presents herself to the world. Especially in such a critical moment of indigenous annihiliation in the country, where the criteria for self-definition as defended by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro are being questioned. The anthropologist’s notorious statement— “In Brazil, everyone is indigenous, except those who aren’t.”—seems to echo in the answer the artist found regarding the policies of erasure of these groups. Assuming a multiple subjectivity in the face of an attempt to eliminate difference is an essentially political act. Or, as she defines it, “the way I represent myself is also a kind of activism.”


Nathalia Lavigne is a journalist, curator and researcher with a Masters in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies Birkbeck, University of London, and is a doctoral candidate at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo. She is currently a visiting scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, and the recipient of a grant from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service).

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh