Published in Third Text, Vol. 18, 2004, Issue 3
The 24th Biennale of São Paulo in 1998 was organised around the concept of cannibalism. Glancing through the exhibition catalogue, I felt excited. There were not only key Cannibalist works such as the bigfooted Abapurú of Tarsila do Amaral or Hélio Oiticica’s interactive colour installation Tropicália, but also international modern and contemporary classics like the hollow men of Giacometti, Bruce Nauman’s video Anthropology – eat me, feed me, and Tony Oursler’s devouringly and detestably shouting couples. Was this a promise for a curatorial exercise in irony, inversion, and intertextuality in the true spirit of the Brazilian modernist movement from the 1920s? In his Manifesto antropófago, or Cannibalist Manifesto, one of the prominents of the group, Oswald de Andrade, had written a virtually inexhaustible programme for unbound imagination on which successive generations of artists have drawn ever since.
A good deal of my Cannibalist joy cooled down when I learned that not only did the governing and sponsoring bodies see the show in the first place as a national project but that Paulo Herkenhoff, the chief curator, also shared this view. He decided to use cannibalism as a means to ‘observe contemporary art and history through the lens of Brazilian culture’. He ensured this interest by explicitly drawing a dividing line between cannibalism as ‘the symbolic practice, whether real or metaphoric, of the devourement of the other’ and antropofagia as ‘a Brazilian cultural tradition’.2 But how did the principally unsettling strategy of cannibalism become involved in such rigidly defined national meanings? This essay attempts to clarify the point and to question the reading of cannibalism as an all‐assimilating cultural practice that fits into Brazil’s national imagery as a harmonious society as well as to suggest another framing of modernity and cannibalism. I will argue that one needs to remain aware of the critical potential of the Cannibalist strategy and its commitment to contesting and undermining all definitions. This could make its modernist ways a critique of modernity.
Download the full text (PDF): Cannibals Crabs and Carmen Miranda