Anonymous urban writing is often able to accurately convey collective feelings, the sources of which are unexplainable, but they immediately generate awareness on the part of the reader. This is the sort of feeling you’re left with when you encounter the word “Tupilândia” (Tupiland) spray-painted in graffiti around the streets of Rio de Janeiro – an expression used to compare Brazil with any other country in the Northern Hemisphere (“Meanwhile, here in Tupilândia…”). The accepted and supposedly harmless self-deprecating humor is so entrenched to the extent that we do not think about how the joke came from an idea with absolutely no connection to reality: So, is Tupi, a language from which we have been freeing ourselves for over 500 years, the reason we are lagging behind?
The graffiti was photographed by Sallisa Rosa, of Goiás, for a digital exhibition in January 2021—the projeto@rua (project@street), curated by Rony Maltz – and ended up becoming the title of a new series in which the artist records names of indigenous origin or as evidence of a colonial past in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where she lives. The word Tupy also appears on the signs of two different stores selling folk jewelry—both with closed doors, a typical sight downtown in pandemic times. There are also the brands Pajé Pneus (Pajé Tires) and the Tamoio Pharmacy – the only commercial establishment that is open. Among other writings and drawings on the walls, the word jungle also appears and the expression “Indian crackhead” next to a heart with an arrow through it. There is also a huge painting with the image of King John VI next to an indigenous individual and, in the background, a detailed rendering of Saint Christopher’s Palace—formerly the residence of the royal family now the National Museum—on the grounds of the Quinta da Boa Vista (public park).
Urban Indigenous Identities
The combination of those references in the streets is particular interest to the artist, who is examining the contemporary indigenous identity of those living in urban contexts, as is her own case. Whoever followed the violent de-occupation of the Maracanã Village, the epicenter of the June 2013 protests in Rio, must remember how delicate a subject that is, given that the National Indigenous Foundation itself (FUNAI) does not recognize the existence of villages in urban localities—as if cities had never occupied former indigenous areas, which they have.
Sallisa Rosa was indirectly involved with the Maracanã Village, where her father and brother lived until the group was removed from the building which had previously housed the Indigenous Museum. Now she lives in the Multiethnic Vertical Village, an affordable housing project built by the program Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life), where part of the group from the Maracanã Village went, following numerous controversies. Many of them have not conformed to the new setting, including the artist’s father: “It is a place full of rules, like in any private condominium. You cannot have a bonfire or do other rituals”, she says. A daughter of parents who began studying their indigenous roots only after adulthood, the artist is part of a first generation to “accept this turmoil” more calmly. “I felt like a character; I couldn’t fit into the category that people created about what it means to be indigenous. I walk around in jeans and, for many reasons, I don’t feel comfortable wearing a headdress,” she says.