6 July 2002
THE NORDESTE TRADITION:
INNOVATION AND CONTINUITY IN BRAZILIAN ROCK ART
The Angelim Style
The identification of a new style of rock art was the first objective of this dissertation. This was made possible through a detailed analysis that relied upon the purely formal qualities of style, rather than the previously used criteria of iconography and an assumed iconology. The Angelim Style has been clearly identified, but the deeper questions of meaning and function cannot be addressed by purely formal analyses.
Masks and Rock Art: An Historical Approach
It is significant to note that the masks and masking ceremonies were part and parcel of the original gifts given to humans in ancient times by primary deities. As indicated in the Kamayurá narratives for example, the masks were originally created by Kwat (Sun) as part of vital events instrumental in the origins of humanity (the same origins as is frequently attributed to rock art). The survival of humanity is dependent upon the maintenance of the rules and lessons handed down from that ancient timethe ekwimyatipa for the Mehinaku. In fact, the iconography of a particular mask and all the multiple metaphors embodied within it, acts as a mnemonic device. Their manufacture and subsequent use serves not only the immediate requirements of a given ceremony, but also as a means to pass down the mytho-historic narratives relating to the masks' origins (and by extension, the origins of humanity). It is therefore reasonable to equate the same respect and attention to detail involved in the passing down of oral traditions to that involved in passing down the materials and techniques of proper mask making.
The twentieth century has, without a doubt, seen the most brutal upheavals and widespread cultural exterminations in the long history of the Brazilian Indians. Heckenberger's research confirms the homogeneity of Xinguano culture since around A.D. 900, with a noticeable series of cultural changes since contact with non-Indians.1 As noted earlier,2 little has changed in the masks documented over the course of the last centurya period when non-Indian exploitation of the Brazilian interior has reached its greatest impact (on both the environment and the people). The masks, in fact, show a great deal of resistance to the currents of cultural change over this period. While change is inevitable in any culture or cultural product, the masking traditions of the Upper Xingu (perhaps masking in general) most likely represent an art that has remained relatively unchanged over a substantial period of timeforms and meanings that are more ancient than the cultural memory of the people who make and use them.
The rock art of the Serra Branca and Salitre Stylesthose most resembling the Xinguano masking traditionsis found in the highlands of southeast Piauí. Very similar rock art is found 300 kilometers away, across the São Francisco River Valley, in the highlands of Bahia. The regions where this rock art is found was historically occupied by Jê groups, or by Nordeste Indians whose languages have been lost (yet, possibly part of the Macro-Jê trunk).3 Greg Urban suggested that the northern Jê dialects (Eastern Timbira and Kayapó) began to develop out of their respective language families around 1,500 years ago.4 This correlates to the widespread development of ceramic technology and the appearance of cultivated plants, between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 in the Nordeste highlands.5 Likewise, this is the same general period when Francisco Silva Noelli considers that the Tupí spread into the Nordeste.6 Considering the amount of cultural change between the last millennium B.C. and the first millennium of this eralinguistic diversification, technological innovations, "ethnic" expansionsit is likely that this period saw the dispersal of ancient traditions across a vast geographic area.
Masks and Rock Art: A Cognitive Approach
The previous chapter introduced several masking traditions from Northeast and Central Brazil which are formally similar to the figures painted in the rockshelters of southeast Piauí and central Bahia. In other words, the stylized anthropomorphs of the Serra Branca and Angelim Styles look like masked figures common in many living traditions among the Brazilian Indians. These rock paintings should not be considered as literal representations of masked humans (graphic recordings). Rather, they should be thought of, and approached as, metaphors or metonyms. In fact, any interpretation of these rock paintings is highly speculative. Their similarity to living masking traditions offers only a possible avenue of interpretation; yet, one that conforms to ethnographically supportable ideas of how, when, and why these forms appear in indigenous Brazilian art. Even when Indians have made drawings of spirits which look like masks and maskers (figs. 191 - 193), the artists are clear in pointing out that the drawings are not humans wearing masks, but the spirit themselveseven the drawings become embodiments of the spirits, and are themselves possibly dangerous.7
The term illud tempus ("former time") was used by Mircea Eliade in his dated, yet influential work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, to describe shamanic flight to not only another place, but a former time (the Mehinaku concept of ekwimyatipa). In the context of ritual performance, this is the "making present" of a mythical time and the personages associated with that time. David Cole relates this idea to the Italian intermezzo, "the descent of a divine or mythical world onto the stage;... the manifestation of an illud tempus in human surroundings."8 Cole explains two ways of interacting with the illud tempus:
Cole considers these "presenting rituals" as part of the historical origins of theatre, "because through them, men are enabled to 'know the presence' of the illud tempus."10 By means of performance the maskers become a channel through which past is made present. In the context of the seasonal rounds of hunting and harvesting ceremonies, this re-presenting of the past serves to insure the future.
By wearing the àkkàpa-ri, the Mebengokre Kayapó become (not just dress-up like) living embodiments of their Creation Myth and connect the physical world of the corn harvest with the illud tempus and the original gift of corn. In some circumstances it is enough for the Wauja yakapá (shaman) to simply consult the apapaatai (spirits) regarding an illness or ailmentmaking himself present in their world. Other, more drastic cures require the apapaatai to be made present in the human realm to affect the diagnosed illness or ailment. The Karajá and Javaé bring out the ijasò during the Aruanã ceremonial cycle, just as the Tapirapé invite the anchunga to live in the takana (men's house). The Kamayurá must make the hìwat and jakui spirits present in the village at the onset of the dry season to insure a productive fishing season.
The rock art
was likely a similar channel, a similar re-presenting (or
present-ing), rather than a documentary recording
of maskers engaged in this act. The Morcego figures
mentioned at the outset of Chapter 3 (fig. 140), for
example, might represent the original people who first
descended from the sky, rather than people dressed up
to represent the original people who first descended
from the sky. To their makers, the Serra Branca, Salitre,
and Angelim Style anthropomorphs were, perhaps,
the personifications of the ekwimyatipathe
physical point of contact with the events and personages
of the mythical past; if they were only second-hand
reproductions of this contact, how could they have any
real magical or cultural significance? Due to the yawning
gulf of time between the production of the rock art and
the ethnographic record, the precise identities of the
personages, mythological events, and associated
ceremonies remains completely unknown. However, the most
reasonable interpretations of this rock art are those
which remain consistent with the cognitive relationship
between the living arts of the Brazilian Indians and
their cosmologies, mytho-historic narratives, and
relationships with the natural world.
1. Heckenberger, "War and Peace in the Shadow of Empire;" and "Manioc agriculture and sedentism." Each of the ethnographic studies cited in this dissertation include discussions of the recent deterioration of traditional knowledge as the result of outside (non-Indian) influences, especially in the last half of the twentieth century.
2. In the introduction of the Xingu "fish" masks (Chapter 3).
3. Urban, "História da Cultura," 92, citing work done by Loukotka (Classification of South American Indian Languages). The Tupí were historically limited to the major river valleys, such as the São Francisco (Amoipira, Tupiná Indians), Itapicuru (Apinayé), and Mearim (Guajajára), surrounding these highlands. See the Appendix for a complete discussion of language distribution and glottochronology.
4. Ibid., 90.
5. Martin, Pré-História do Nordeste, 219-224; Guidon, "Ocupações pré-históricas," 52; Guidon and Arnaud, "Chronology of the New World," 51.
6. Silva Noelli, "The Tupi," 656.
7. Barcelos includes accounts of the Wuaja warning him and others about the dangers of the masks and drawings of masks collected and held by museums in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro ("Arte, Estética e Cosmologia," 66-72). The Indians were concerned that either the anthropologists or the visitors to the museums would die. On the other hand, Thomas Gregor reports that the Mehinaku Yakwikatú spirit was once very dangerous, but since they have been making his mask for sale at the Indian Posts he has lost his power, and has not made anyone sick (stolen their shadow) (Gregor, Mehinaku, 326).
8. Cole, The Theatrical Event, 87.
9. Ibid., 13.
Excerpt from Chapter 3
Excerpt from Chapter 4
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