Artist Spotlight: Moara Tupinambá
Moara Tupinambá (Belém do Pará, Brazil, 1983) describes herself as a visual ARTivist, whose ancestors are native Tapajowaras (Tupinambá), from the community of Cucurunã and Boim, Brazil. She is a multimedia artist currently based in São Paulo, who works in collage in addition to drawing, painting, installation, video, photography, literature, and performance. Her artworks address the cartographies of memory, identity, ancestry, Indigenous resistance and anti-colonial thought.
Digital Brazil Project: Tell us a little about your background and your ancestry, where you grew up, and how you became an artist.
Moara Tupinambá: I’m Moara Tupinambá, also known as “Moara Brasil,” in which “Brasil” is my last name given to me by the colonizer. Moara is in [the Indigenous language of] Tupi and means “the one who gives light.” I graduated in social communication – advertising and marketing – from the Federal University of Pará. I was born and raised in Belém, Pará, in the Northern region [of Brazil], in the Amazon. Belém’s original name is “Mairi,” which means city in Tupi, for the first people to inhabit this city, the Tupinambá [Indigenous group].
In the first five years of my life, I lived in Santarém, which is my parents’ original territory. My father was born in a small Indigenous community in Santarém that is considered rural. My paternal grandparents were one of the first people to live in this community, which is called Cucurunã (which means “tucumán cuckoo” [a tropical bird]). My grandmother was a healer, a faith healer, a flour miller, made handicrafts from straw, and worked in the fields. My grandfather was also from the countryside and was a religious leader in Cucurunã. The little I know about him is that he was born in a lowland territory called Fátima de Urucurituba (also in Santarém, the location of the remnants of quilombolas [the communities of Afro-Brazilian descendents of slaves]), and that he went to live in Cucurunã due to flooding in Urucurituba. The community of Cucurunã was better to live in and to plant cassava in. My mother is the daughter of a m´boimwara father, of Tupinambá origin, from the village of Boim, one of the first Indigenous villages of Tapajós, and my maternal grandmother was born in Lago Grande, a floodplain region in Santarém. She was of northeastern origin, and her mother was Marajoara. All this path of searching for my origins and connecting with this territory makes up my artistic work of understanding the processes of miscegenation in Brazil that my family went through, and which is part of who I am, what I learn, and how I heal myself daily.
"All this path of searching for my origins and connecting with this territory makes up my artistic work of understanding the processes of miscegenation in Brazil that my family went through, and which is part of who I am, what I learn, and how I heal myself daily."
I became an artist from the moment I decided, with my friend Lorena Cirino (from Belém), to start a thrift store about 19 years ago (around 2002). [In the store], I customized my clients’ clothes by recycling, painting, and personalizing the clothing. But I went through a lot of phases until I was able to attain my first exhibition in a small gallery in São Paulo in 2015. Before that, I went through a lot of processes of visual transformation, financial crisis, identity, and of [questioning] which art spaces I could insert myself into. Migrating from the North of the country to the Southeast region of Brazil
was necessary in this affirmation process, so that my work could have more visibility. But at the same time, it made me realize how invisible we Amazonian people are, and how much prejudice, stereotypes, and fetishism still shape the images of people of Indigenous origin, especially from the Amazon region.
Digital Brazil Project: How does your identity as a woman and Indigenous artist impact your work?
Moara Tupinambá: I think that when we are born as women it is already a struggle, and when we are Indigenous, originating in the Amazon, it triples that struggle, because it has to do with race, class, and gender. In a society that is patriarchal, white, elitist, and that still perpetuates the colonialist system of domination, everything becomes more difficult for us, everything is harder. I am an artist who migrated from the Amazon to Southeastern Brazil. So, I grew up seeing that in the north of Brazil, my art would not be able to gain visibility and that I would need to move away from my comfort, from my original culture, and from my family, to a place of concrete, where it was possible to have my voice and what I do echo around the world. Besides, accessing the seat of power of the local art system from where I came from was never a reality. It has always been a reality for “last name” artists, artistic heirs who managed to invest in their artistic careers by studying in some fine arts school, within a white and patriarchal bubble, under the influence of some of foreign descent, with their Eurocentric art, and thus manage to conquer space in the artistic environment. But moving to São Paulo required a triple effort, and perhaps even worse than if I had stayed in the North, as I had to survive far from my house, my home, my comfort, and my familial safety. My first job in São Paulo was not what I had planned: I was a shoe saleswoman in a mall and I went through several periods of unemployment, until I managed to become what I am today, an artist with more autonomy. Multiple times in these jobs, I even had to submit to the demands of either hiding my physical appearance – my Amazonian characteristics – or I would have to “exploit” it. In both cases, this was very painful.
Digital Brazil Project: Tell us about your activism. What is the relationship between your activism and your art making?
Moara Tupinambá: I have considered myself an “ARTivist” ever since I got a job in the arts in São Paulo at the Ouvidor 63 [cultural center] in 2015. I became one of the activist managers and curators of the “Nuventre” space on the building’s eighth floor, which was a site that I occupied, together with artists from various parts of Brazil, to build an autonomous studio/cultural space. [This space] was an option for people who were not in São Paulo’s mainstream galleries, as we were unable to access that art system. So we did our ARTivism. In this building, which has a great history, we created two independent biennials [that worked as a] counter-narrative to the São Paulo Biennial, where we brought together artists of color and many street artists. I still am an ARTivist, especially of contemporary Indigenous art, influenced by the delightful [Indigenous multimedia artist and curator] Jaider Esbell and by my contemporary [Indigenous artist] Denilson Baniwa.
"My artistic work is closely linked to Indigenous agendas, both as a denunciation and as an affirmation of our origins and traditions."
Currently, I am the vice-president of Wyka Kwara (“Strength in Walking”), an association of Indigenous people from Indigenous territories that were invaded by the city. My artistic work is closely linked to Indigenous agendas, both as a denunciation and as an affirmation of our origins and traditions. I also seek to encourage the appreciation of contemporary Indigenous artists, so that they gain more space. My art is also a way of being able to economically support Indigenous projects, of which I am a part and believe in, like Wyka Kwara, which seeks to become an Indigenous University. At the same time, I am also focused on getting the resources to fix up a small area of forest that my family and I care for and preserve in Cucurunã. The sale of art and my insertion in places where I can talk about my subjectivities, have helped me to get resources to invest initially, but obviously it’s still very little. I am also focused on building a “museum” for the community, with which I also maintain a link in the preservation of its original culture, the “Museum of Cucurunã.” This year I will have the support of the museologist Bárbara Xavier and the artist Daniela Ramos for the organization of the collection that I have been compiling since 2019 (videos, interviews, photos, stories, memories).
Digital Brazil Project: How do you make your collages? Where do you get your source material?
Moara Tupinambá: The first collages I made in 2016 were analog. I took pictures from used bookstores, old botany magazines, encyclopedias, and constructed them on top of
Digital Brazil Project: What stories and legacies do you try to examine or critique with your collages?
Moara Tupinambá: In the Mirasawá series, at the beginning, I was trying hard to give new meaning [or] another reading – an Indigenous reading and interpretation – to women who were portrayed by non-Indigenous people, from photographers to ethnologists. And so I was looking to pass on an original sacred feminine from Abya Yala [“land in its full maturity”], presenting original women who are connected with Mother Earth.
"I believe that mothers and grandmothers always give us an ancestral memory and give us a feminine strength, which we need in this world to achieve vital balance."
wooden strips. Then I moved to digital collage, but in a mixed way. Some images that I don’t find in internet image banks, I cut out from pictures from the encyclopedias I have and from my collection of analog images, and I digitize them. [Through my use of GIFs], I try to convey a message of movement, of eternal movement.
Currently, I’ve been interested in and I’m producing a more collaborative [approach to] collage, in which I’ve been working with Indigenous people who are part of my life and who are my references and influences. And, if I can’t take a good picture, I try to partner with a photographer, or I ask the Indigenous woman to take a picture of herself, working in partnership, and so I put together the images. It’s different from what I used to create, in which I took old photos from the 19th century, from ethnologists, and gave them a new meaning. Today, I seek to project the importance that Indigenous women and leaders have assumed in their own time, as protagonists of their own history.
Afterwards, I brought the women around me, such as Deusa and Milena Tupi, strong women who inspire me and give me strength to continue in the fight. I am connected with women (here I include trans women too). I believe that mothers and grandmothers always give us an ancestral memory and give us a feminine strength, which we need in this world to achieve vital balance.
The Yuíre series means “to return.” This eternal return is the situation that the pandemic imposes on the native peoples of the Amazon, who have faced, and are still facing, lethal diseases throughout their history of resistance. This series of mixed media collages brings to light the problem of tropical diseases and Indigenous genocide, revealing the relationship between the emergence of epidemics and rampant deforestation in the Amazon.
I never thought specifically about legacies, but I think I want to show that it’s possible to make art from collage, and that we can know ourselves, connecting ourselves with our ancestry, to another possible world.
Digital Brazil Project: You work in other media in addition to collage, including large poster murals and painting. How and when did you start making collages and how do they relate to your work in other media?
Moara Tupinambá: As I said, in 2016 I started working with collage, initially in analog, and later I started using new resources and creations. Collage and other artforms somehow dialogue with each other [to communicate] what I can interpret from the reality and spirituality that I experience. Thus, I am able to bring it, in some way, to the world. In 2020, I wrote my first book, The Dream of Buya-Wasú (published by Editora Miolo Mole). It’s all illustrated by me, but it was edited in an audiovisual version that allows audio descriptions and narrations for the visually impaired. From the lyrics I composed from the narrated story and the descriptions of my illustrations (as the book is fully illustrated), we hoped to enable a world of imagination. It was precisely through orality that the memory of our original peoples always resisted all attempts to erase them. But, from generation to generation, ancestral wisdom has been preserved. So, my art seeks to dialogue with the current world through the most diverse forms possible that I find today, so that perhaps, in some way, other worlds become possible.
Digital Brazil Project: You have said that you can connect with your spirituality through your art making. Can you say more about this in relation to your collages?
Moara Tupinambá: In the artistic creation process of making collages, when I enter the creative process, I automatically connect with my spirituality, with the Great Spirit. It is a process of meditation, of concentration, of understanding that we are nature, that we are part of it, that we are not outside of it, nor should we be the center of everything. When I make collage art in connection with my ancestry, I understand that the forest and the animals are my relatives, that we are connected in a cosmos, and that we are this cosmos, this universe. That I am a tree, I am molecules, I am atoms, I am particles of rain that fall on the earth and feed the soil. When I observe every detail of nature, I connect with our ancestral spirituality. I think that many humans have lost this connection and see themselves as the center of everything, in a consumerist relationship with Mother Earth, as if this were their “supermarket,” the inexhaustible source for their desires, ambitions, and greed. For this reason we are living through such an unbalanced time on the planet.
"I understand that the forest and the animals are my relatives, that we are connected in a cosmos, and that we are this cosmos, this universe."
Digital Brazil Project: What would you like viewers in the US to understand about you and your work? How can US audiences who are inspired by your work help support the activist causes that you are fighting for?
I would like US audiences to listen to us in silence and observation. Listen to every collage I make, and let every artwork reach your heart.
To support activist causes, just follow me on @moaratupinamba, which is my artistic and activist profile, and share our voices there. Also accompany the association that I am vice president of, @associacaowykakwara on Instagram, and in whatever way you can support us, both financially and in order to replicate our voices. We also dream of building an Indigenous University in Pará/Amazônia, in Cotijuba, and we are forming our body of Indigenous associates to make this dream come true. The Indigenous University will be the space for preserving our culture, our ancestral traditions, our science, our traditional medicine, our language, and all of our spirituality.
Interview by Gillian Sneed, PhD
November 9, 2021