WELCOME TO MY REALITY
In recent years the Weltkulturen Museum has invited various indigenous and Afro-Brazilian activists from North and South America to come to Frankfurt. Americas curator Mona Suhrbier reports on these visits and on the collaboration between the museum and the activists.
People are regarded as activists when they publicly campaign for and are committed to an issue that is of great personal importance to them: the environment (Greenpeace), civil and human rights (Amnesty International) and animal rights (Animal Rights Watch), to name but a few. Some figures have achieved worldwide fame, such as the civil rights activist Martin Luther King and social activist Angela Davis, both from the USA, while South America has the Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and in Europe there is the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. In 2019 the latter shared the Right Livelihood Award – known as the “alternative Nobel Prize” – among others with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, the indigenous Brazilian “Dalai Lama of the rainforest”.
Activism is expressed in many different ways, which are by no means limited to petitions, lectures or demonstrations. Politically motivated artworks, performances, films, poetry and music are also suitable genres for passing on critical messages. In recent years, a range of activists from North and South America have been guests at the Weltkulturen Museum, where the people of Frankfurt have been an eager audience for their causes. These activists have included political leaders, artists and rap musicians, who have each presented their issues in their own unique way.
Political struggle and art
The artist Shan Goshorn, an Eastern Band Cherokee artist from the USA who died in 2018, viewed her own indigenous origins as an important point of reference both for her political struggle and her art. She campaigned politically for indigenous autonomy and the return of cultural goods, and against genocide and violence, particularly that directed at women and children. The critical works produced by this basket weaver aid the personal and collective remembrance of the traumatic history of Native Americans in the USA. As a guest artist at the Weltkulturen Museum’s 2016 exhibition “The Common Thread: The Warp and Weft of Thinking”, Shan Goshorn presented several colourful baskets woven from strips of paper and featuring unique patterns composed of lettering, photos and abstract geometric shapes. Her works are both a tribute and a protest. “We Are Them” (2015) comprises eight miniature baskets with women’s portraits; this was the artist’s way of immortalising indigenous US women and children portrayed on historical photos, which were taken by Western photographers and then left to languish in the archives. A further work criticises the boarding school system in the United States and recalls the fate of Shan’s grandmother who, like many other indigenous children, was forced to attend a state-run boarding school, the aim being that the pupils would adopt Western culture once removed from their own parents. The names of indigenous boarding-school pupils alternating with the text of a Cherokee song of memory have been woven into the basket, which is entitled “Embracing the Precious” (2015). The words of the song surround the names of the children like an embrace, finally offering solace, ensuring that the suffering is not forgotten, and helping to overcome a trauma that crosses the generations.
The trauma of slavery
The memory of the Brazilian slave trade, which lasted almost 500 years, and the trauma of slavery in Brazil was explored in the 2017 exhibition ‘Entre Terra e Mar. Between Land and Sea. Transatlantic Art’ by Afro-Brazilian artist and scholar Ayrson Heráclito. His critical art aims to transform and heal humankind’s historical wounds through the power of memory, yet devoid of any accusations. His performance “Transmutação da Carne” (Transmutation of the Meat), which was presented in Metzlerpark behind the Weltkulturen Museum in 2018, gave the audience an immediate sensual impression of the physical and psychological horrors inflicted upon slaves in the past. The artist clothed a procession of voluntary participants in garments stitched from dried meat and then branded the items with a hot iron. “The memory of abuse and slavery. […] The body, branded by this past. […] half fat, half meat – a metaphor for the bodies of the slaves. The enslavement of black people, inflicting pain and wounds on the entire world, affects all of us. Everyone is invited to attend the ‘transmutation of the meat’. A glowing iron placed on the ‘skin’ (garments of dried meat) awakens primeval memories. Noise, odour and smoke – wounds needing to be transformed by art...” (Ayrson Heráclito).
Documentary about the performance “Transmutação da Carne”, a cooperation of the Weltkulturen Museum and Hochschule Mainz:
The displacement and genocide of the indigenous Guarani
Six activists visited the Weltkulturen Museum in 2017, 2018 and 2019 in order to draw attention to the displacement and genocide of the indigenous Guarani in Brazil. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the Guarani Kaiowá people were almost entirely displaced from their ancestral lands by the large agro-industrial landowners, over 40,000 Kaiowá are now crowded into slums, next to large farms or in camps along highways and motorways. The armed landowners have violently curtailed attempts by the Kaiowá to return to their land. Guarani are under threat from urbanisation, road construction and property speculation near the metropolises São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Their work as day labourers leaves them without a regular income and their lack of land means they have no way of being self-sufficient. In 2017, the indigenous leader and historical scholar Ládio Veron, a Guarani Kaiowá from Mato Grosso do Sul, travelled to ten European countries, meeting politicians, NGOs, church representatives and journalists, and giving talks to the general public. In the Weltkulturen Museum Ládio Veron talked about the everyday murder of children and adults and the systematic killing of indigenous leaders. He summed up the situation as follows: “The large landowners’ militias come along, shoot and kill”. This was how Ládio Veron’s father was murdered in 2003 in a dispute about land. The conflicts, which have often ended up being deadly for indigenous peoples, are still ongoing.
Discrimination against indigenous women
In 2019, the school principal Alenir Ximendes and the health official Janete Alegre, both leaders of the Guarani Kaiowá women’s organisation Kuñangue Aty Guasu, travelled through three European countries. They reported on human rights abuses in Kaiowá territory and appealed for international attention and help. In the Weltkulturen Museum they denounced practices that affect women in particular: sexualised violence, discrimination and abuses in the state health system, especially maternity services. They reported too on the beauty of their culture and their struggle to preserve it. As they said: “The land is our life, our identity, our heritage”.
Critical and political: indigenous rap in a museum
The year before that, in 2018, three young indigenous rap musicians – the brothers Bruno and Clemerson Veron of the group Brô MCs from Mato Grosso do Sul along with Wera MC from São Paulo – visited the Weltkulturen Museum for the exhibition “Entre Terra e Mar”. They gave concerts, performed with Frankfurt rappers, and held discussions with students. Their warrior-like performances and critical political lyrics demand the return of Guarani land and decry the poor living conditions: “There are more than 15,000 of us / Crammed into the reserve, while the landowners / Occupy our land / Native fighters, the Brazilian legacy […] / The belligerent white man who kills and massacres” (Brô MCs song “Humildade”). The rappers want to lead a self-determined life, to differentiate themselves from white people, and maintain indigenous lifestyles and world views as part of modern life in Brazil. Rap, as a new musical artform, is one aspect of a movement of young, dedicated Guarani who present and rap their issues in their own words to a wider audience: “Welcome to my reality”. They seek to use this as a medium for proudly communicating the beauty and value of their culture. “My land is not dust / My gold is the clay I walk on and sow plants on...” (Brô MCs song ‘Tupã’).
Dr. Mona B. Suhrbier studied anthropology in Frankfurt and Marburg. Since 1990 she has been the curator for the Americas at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. Her focus is on contemporary anthropology, indigenous land rights in the Amazon region, decolonisation, slavery, culture, religion and art. She works with many indigenous partners and with international artists and has collected contemporary indigenous and Afro-Brazilian art for the museum. Not only has she been responsible for various exhibitions, catalogues and scholarly publications, she has also realised three films: about the Candomblé religion in Salvador da Bahia and the visit of indigenous Brazilian rap groups in Frankfurt. She has done fieldwork in Brazil with Guarani and has taught at USP in São Paulo and at the universities of Marburg and Frankfurt.