One hundred years ago, nourished by the spirit of revolutionary freedom professed in France, artists of modernity evoked an “edible” and primitive future. The indigestible technological and industrial crossroads of the beginning of the 20th century, however, challenged human beings to go out in search of their “indigenous essences.” It compelled modern artists to bring their contributions to the table—many times making use of stylistic resources not so easy to swallow!
Brazilian modernism was of a nationalist character. It was not about adapting all of the delicacies that its exponents devoured as diners in Europe, which had already reached the end of the Belle Époque. On the contrary, they sought to answer the following question: what ought to be the unique nature of Brazilianness? Whatever the answer was, it ought to be expressed as an artistic “recipe”—cutting-edge, modern and Brazilian—called “anthropophagy.”
The search for “seasoning” or a visual and anthropological “essence” to the native, meanwhile, appeared to be a project of immense philosophical reflection. The poet Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954) was the theoretical anchor of the movement. Years later, he would defend a thesis at the university entitled “The Crisis of Messianic Philosophy” (1950). In this work, he tried to revise and broaden his original idea from the 1920s. However, he did not succeed—the modernist movement would take another decade to be institutionalized, digested, and regurgitated by Brazilian elites!
In the 1920s, this endeavor could unfold with unpredictable answers, but its conclusions were still quite obvious. Nature and indigenous people, and then, Black people and primitivism, summed up in one word: the mestizo. These would be the representatives of this nativist and liberatory force in both form and content.
Though nebulous in their presence, the metaphors of “assimilation,” “consumption,” and “digestion” were already to be found before their promotion in the Anthropophagous Manifesto (1928) by Oswald de Andrade: in literature, in music (with Il Guarany in 1870—an opera by Antônio Carlos Gomes, a Black composer), as well as in plastic arts, in paintings like A Derrubada de Uma Floresta [Cleaning of a Forest, 1822–25] by Johann Moritz Rugendas and O Último Tamoio [The Last Tamoio, 1883] by Rodolfo Amoedo. They were already a part of Brazilian culture, as anthropophagy envisioned it, “free of catechisms.” Years later, Michel Foucault would teach us to associate those “nutrition metaphors” with “biopower.”
Nutrition as perfect artistic metaphor. The anthropophagy of the European imaginary converted inside Brazil, actually possesses a history absorbed by the three great aspects of “primitivism”: mystery, fascination, and fear. Civilization, to triumph over its malaise, must triumph over death (or the great “mystery,” through a blind embrace of scientism), triumph over superstition (seeking to free itself from fear through enlightenment), and triumph over the human fragility occasioned by the colossal force of nature by means of reason, myth and art.
Cultural acquisition by nutrition—in the early years of Brazil’s agricultural exports, a German explorer and mercenary by the name of Hans Staden (1525–76) witnessed Tupinambá people practicing anthropophagy, and supposed that the “diabolical practice” was merely “a way to take revenge on enemies.” However, both for Tamoios and some Tupi-Guarani Indians, this festive activity commemorating victory by “appropriation, assimilation, and consumption” of the human virtues inside the body of another could be prompted and planned over a period of months or even a full year before actually taking place. Before then, the defeated and handpicked “enemy” was fed, adorned, and offered a beautiful woman with whom he could have carnal relations, awaiting the beautiful day in which the “final assimilation” was to be carried out.
Unassimilated, boasting form without content: the next modernist generations, as well as Brazilian contemporary art, would serve more as the food than feed off of that original spirit—we are not Borg anymore! In form, Brazilian art was in fact free of catechism, but its essence and its content would continue its Eurocentrism and identity crisis. Two reasons for this are among the principal ones, though rarely touched on: Brazilian art as class entertainment (class prejudice), and more appropriately described as racism (racial exclusion), impeded its evolution. Anthropophagy of the modernist variety is 100 years old. Now, like a toothless elderly lady, Brazilian art is left to delight in soup that has gone cold. This soup is of Black content, precisely because of the massacre of 400 years of slavery and its developments in the form of physical and psychological violence against the Afro-Indigenous. And due to this legacy, the day to day, sensitivity, and imaginary of Brazil and its art have stalled. For centuries “hunting in the jungle” has become not only pure adrenaline for the adventurer, but also a virtual return of human primates to the primitive food chain.
Black meat, “the cheapest meat in the market” as the Brazilian saying goes, is, meanwhile, the hardest and most difficult to chew. This is the reason why Brazil, at the time still agrarian, was also called the “Country of the Future” 100 years ago. This is the reason why both modernism and the “primitive future” turn 100 years old, without having been duly chewed on or even swallowed—even if the dishes were served hot 100 years ago.