The Many Lessons of Cannibalism

In November of 2014, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art hosted the work of acclaimed Brazilian painter Adriana Varejão, marking the artist’s first major consideration in the United States. Upon entering the exhibit, the viewer immediately encounters the life-sized figure of a nude woman painted in deep steel-blue against an off-white canvas. Right arm wrapped around an oversized war-axe, and left arm outstretched sweepingly, she appears at first to welcome the viewer into the space. But there is a guilefulness in her smile. Her hand, inscribed with the same floral tattoos that traverse her entire form, gestures beyond the columns behind her, not in the direction of the other paintings on display. Between those columns unfolds what can only be described as cannibalistic bacchanalia. Smaller, nude figures dance and cavort around large fire pits over which legs, ribcages, and various other dismembered human bits roast grotesquely. A few of the anthropophagi participants stand apart from the others. Partially obscured by the gesturing woman in the foreground, they plunge their teeth into human meat, backs bent into the action, heads severely ripping flesh from bone.

Scenes like these are common in the homes and meeting places of 18th century Portuguese aristocrats. Like Varejão’s image 300 years later, they are called “entrance figures” and are typically found on walls adjacent to the entrances of buildings. One such figure painted in the Church of Santo Antão do Tojal in Loures, Portugal bears striking resemblance to the nude warrior woman: though he is clothed and male, his right hand clutches the same weapon as hers, and his left extends the same welcoming motion. However, the viewer will find no cannibalistic orgy taking place behind him or any of the other baroque figures commissioned by wealthy Portuguese nobility. For that, the works of the 16th century Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry must be consulted. Drawing on narratives of cannibalistic indigenous people such as the Tupí, who ceremonially consumed the bodies of defeated warriors, de Bry fashioned dramatically affecting prints that depict naked men, women, and children gathering hungrily around roasting human limbs. Both of these motifs—the aesthetic tastes of Portuguese colonizers and the accounts of savagery that formed the moral basis for their subjugation of native people in the first place—are profoundly important to understanding modern Brazilian culture. In “Entrance Figure I,” Varejão consumes, digests, synthesizes and reorganizes them. In short, she cannibalizes them.

The importance of this “cultural cannibalism” to Brazilian culture cannot be overstated. First espoused by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 “Manifesto antropófago,” (or “Cannibal Manifesto”) it arose as a means to construct a coherent national identity. The Brazil of the early 20th century was a land of confused multiplicity. The progeny of Portuguese colonizers lived among (or rather, better than) the offspring of the same groups against which the colonial state had historically perpetrated violence: various indigenous peoples, the five million black slaves brought over in the Middle Passage. Portuguese influences abounded, yet the remnants of colonial-era tropes like the cannibalistic Tupí filtered through the lens of European supremacy and worked to station the modernizing country between worlds: the savage old and the civilized new.

Drawing from the cannibalisms of both de Andrade and the Tupí, Varejão’s work deals with the devouring of influences and cultural barriers as well as the devouring of human life. She accomplishes both by bridging the gap between the literal and metaphorical conceptions of the “body.”  In her 1992, “Map of Lopo Homem II,” Varejão reconstructs a 1519 world map created by Portuguese cartographer Lopo Homem. The oceans are non-continuous, Antarctica wraps dramatically around the basin of the globe like a well-nourished serpent, and Europe is either bloated or Africa deflated, as they both appear to be roughly the same size. Down the center of the atlas, perhaps where the Prime Meridian would sit, runs a long, puckering gash wound. This jarring evocation of human trauma set against the ostensibly inert illuminates how our conceptions of history and civilization—our beloved bodies of knowledge—are just as susceptible to coercion and violent manipulation as we are. Similarly unexpected juxtapositions appear in “Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh.” Using masterful trompe l’oeil, Varejão presents what appears to be a wall covered in Portuguese “azulejaria” tiling (made ubiquitous in Brazil by colonial tastes) bursting with innards and guts. The piece has a decided dynamism. The intended illusion is that the rupture is new and ongoing, that just before the viewer approached, the wall was intact, its bloody secrets held at bay.

Like the cannibals of lore, Varejão recognizes the power gained in the consumption of human life. In doing such, she acknowledges that sources of authority in our lives—narratives, countries, societal structures—all bear the blood and viscera of the bodies broken for their construction. She also recognizes that in post-colonial, post-slavery societies like Brazil and America, a disproportionate number of those broken bodies have been and continue to be dark-skinned. In a series of three self-portraits entitled “Eye Witnesses X, Y, and Z,” she depicts herself in the skin-tones and garb of three racial minorities that have been marginalized throughout Brazilian history. Each of the Varejãos—Chinese, indigenous, and Arabic—is missing an eye. The bloody sockets painted in their lieu suggest a painful extraction process—perhaps surgery, but more likely, brute force.

“Eye Witnesses X, Y, and Z” is the first of an ongoing series of self-portraits wherein Varejão portrays herself, a light-skinned Brazilian woman, as different races. If authored by a contemporary American artist, such works would undoubtedly be accused of minstrelsy and insensitivity, and not wrongly so. However, Varejão’s work betrays an approach to collective history and racial identity that is distinctly anthropophagic and distinctly Brazilian. Whereas much of the current dialogue on cultural difference in America centers on a general desire to preserve it, Brazilian racial self-conception is much more fluid but also much more concerned with the identity of Brazil as a whole. Americans will readily trace their ancestry back generations, but cultural cannibalism and miscegenation has left Brazil with no desire (or ability) to do so. It’s an interesting approach to the type of diversity that the two countries share, one that lies curiously in the space between assimilation and multiculturalism. To be sure, Brazil is not the “racial democracy” that it often claims to be—a quick glance at the demographics of an inner-city slum versus those of a top-tier four-year university will reveal as much. Still, as a culture that insists on marketing itself as a melting pot, The United States can undoubtedly learn from a society that has made cannibalizing difference into a single, syncretistic identity a source of national pride.