Art Isn’t What it Eats: Lygia Pape at Hauser & Wirth
In 1928 Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral gifted her then husband, poet Oswald de Andrade, an oil painting of a distorted figure sitting next to a cactus, titled Abaporu (The Man Who Eats Man). Mesmerized by the painting’s bright monstrosity, de Andrade began writing the “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibalist Manifesto), which is considered a foundational text of Brazilian modernism. Rejecting European cultural domination, de Andrade called for a culture that would synthesize the country’s Indigenous origins with its later international influences, as symbolized by the act of devouring Western values and digesting them to produce new expressions. The manifesto inspired the Anthropophagic movement of the 1960s, which celebrated Brazil’s “cultural cannibalism” via artworks that attempted to process the worldwide cultural upheavals of the time.
One artist taken by the possibilities of anthropophagy was Lygia Pape (1927–2004). A founding member of Brazil’s Neo-Concrete movement, Pape ignored formal boundaries, driven by a hunger to join art and life. Like de Andrade, she was interested in the history of the Tupí people, especially the Tupinambá group and their practice of ceremonial cannibalism, in which they devoured their enemies “not from hunger,” she explains, “but to swallow and assimilate the spiritual capacities of the other.” Cannibalism was, of course, often cited by Westerners as one reason that Indigenous communities needed to be conquered, despite Europe’s own history of the practice.
On view at Hauser & Wirth, Pape’s exhibition “Tupinambá” considers the limits and possibilities of de Andrade’s anthropophagic vision in light of Brazil’s history of colonialism, Indigenous genocide, and military dictatorship. But rather than focus on the after, the art of cultural hybridity, which can mask the past’s uneven power dynamics (de Andrade sought to stop thinking of “the individual as victim of the system”), Pape dwells on the moment of “vindictive” violence, where the colonized consume the colonizers. While embracing the manifesto’s rejection of European cultural domination, Pape’s work argues for more of an emphasis on Indigenous thought and experience in the resulting decolonial framework, rejecting de Andrade’s push against, for example, “memory as a source of custom.”
Shown for the first time in North America, Pape’s “Tupinambá” series (2000) poetically renders the ways in which Brazil’s Indigenous past continues to haunt and inform the present. Everyday items—chairs, boxes, balls—are swallowed by an overgrowth of artificial red feathers, recalling the plumage of the Guará bird, used to adorn the ceremonial capes worn by the Tupinambá people during their anthropophagic ritual. These works then imagine a Brazil where domestic space has been overtaken by the spirit of the oppressed, in a ghostly process of repossession that reveals the debt modernism owes to Indigenous beliefs and practices. This vision is extended through Manto Tupinambá (2000), which appears to be an enormous floating cape taking up most of the room. A square sailcloth hovers three feet above the floor, pulled taut by metal poles placed around its edges. Dozens of feathery red spheres rest on its surface, collecting like globs of blood on a bandage. Pieces of bone, rendered in lifelike silicone, jut out from some of the spheres, the grotesque motif suggestive of violence against Indigenous people undercutting the scene’s initial whimsy.
Other works in the gallery shift a viewer’s reading of this last work: In Trono Tupinambá (2000), a pair of siliconedisembodied white breasts emerges from the seat of a five-foot-tall feathered throne. Like the sailcloth in Manto Tupinambá, the throne seems to evoke the obliterating presence of European colonizers. However, the feathers and white body parts now seem to interrupt the conquest narratives by visualizing the revenge fantasies of the Indigenous people against their colonizers. Similarly, in a group of works from 2000 all titled Memória Tupinambá, bloody breasts, hands, and feet sprout from red feathered spheres arranged on the floor. With these sculptures, scattered around the darkened gallery and illuminated by rings of light, Pape relishes rendering an Indigenous dissection and desecration of Western bodies and values, emphasizing that there can be no synthesis without the violent unraveling of colonizers and their values.
Lygia Pape, Ttéia 1, C, 2000/2021, silver thread, wood, nails, dimensions variable.
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © Projeto Lygia Pape. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth.
The exhibition also includes Pape’s emblematic sculpture Ttéia 1, C (2000/2021), which is installed in a separate gallery. Evoking a dance of movement, light, and shadow, the work comprises a multitude of silver threads stretched at an angle from ceiling to floor. Its overall shape—echoing the notion of geometry as an expression of bodily sensations that Pape tested in Manto Tupinambá—appears as either an X or a single shaft of cosmic illumination, depending on the viewing angle. This ethereal structure provides a moment of stillness following the ravenous energy of the “Tupinambá” series—and subtly hints at shifting frameworks to come.