Tarsila do Amaral who painted with the Cubists in Paris in the 1920s, then came home to create something essentially Brazilian that helped inspire Latin American modernism.
Abaporu (1929) is the painting which inspired Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto). At a time when the whole world looked to Europe for models of modernity, the manifesto asks, “Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question.” Tupi were an indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon who practiced cannibalism.
“Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question”
The big question was do we copy the Europeans, do our own thing, or create a mix of both? The answer is obvious. Once you have knowledge, it can’t be taken away. But at the same time, you can’t be someone else. That’s a version of hell. You have to be yourself.
We Brazilians are a happy people. Because we are Native Americans, we are attached to the land. Yet we are also European and African. We have body shapes that are different from the Europeans. Our country is filled with sunshine that brightens all the colors. Our hearts dance to the simple, yet unmistakably Brazilian rhythms of the jungle, the forest, the river, and the sea.
Looking again at the painting, she has a different body shape. From a distance, she looks African. Up close she looks European. Her arm from far away reads confusingly like a big nose, but up close resolves differently.
The sun is ever present. She is with a cactus which you might not expect from Brazil, but we are a big country with all kinds of life. The pose with a hand on the ground could be the Buddha at the Bodhi tree in the moment of enlightenment.
Tarsila showed that we could be absolutely Modern and absolutely Brazilian at the same time. Our work stands with the great European traditions. It is different, but the ground is just a good. It is Brazilian.
Tarsila do Amaral in New York City
Tarsila do Amaral Inventing Modern Art in Brazil is at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, Manhattan, daily from February 11 – June 3, 2018.
For more information, visit www.moma.org