28 November 2008

Pre-Trip: Brasilian Modernism

Brasil is complex. Of course this is true for most every country in the world, but it's the conclusion I have reached as a result of reading an article entitled "Brazilian Modernism: An Idea Out of Place?" by Randal Johnson. The article is actually a chapter from the book Modernism and Its Margins: Reinscribing Cultural Modernity from Spain and Latin America, edited by Anthony L Geist and Jose B. Monleon.

Brasil's complexity comes as a result of its indigenous and European pasts, and its identity-seeking present. In broad terms, the history of Brasil can be separated into three important segments: the pre-Cabralian indigenous past, which represents the time before 1500 C.E.; the age of European colonization from 1500 - 1889 C.E.; and the rocky era of modernization since 1889 C.E.

Each of these are rich in cultural contributions about the story of Brasil. However it is also important to recognize that the last chapter of the story -- the modernization of Brasil -- is still being written. What am I saying?: Brasil is even now in the act of writing itself. From its rich and vital roots, along with the graftings it has received from African and European branches, Brasil is a work is progress. In the words of Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, Brasil is "neither Europeans nor North Americans. Lacking an original culture, nothing is foreign . . . because everything is. The painful construction of ourselves develops within the rarefied dialectic of not being and being someone else." Brasil and Brasilians have been for the past 80 years -- and are even now --inventing themselves.

Johnson's article speaks to that invention. It may focus on a short moment in time (1922- 1930), but it reflects a momentous movement in history: Brasilian Modernism. For context, the country was undergoing tremendous changes. The nation had only recently abolished slavery (in 1888) and it had been the last country on earth to do so. A year later, the Portuguese monarchy was deposed and Brasil was enjoying its First Republic (1889-1930). Immigrants, mostly white working class Europeans, were arriving in large numbers (1.5 million between 1905-1923), bringing with them the class consciousness and political militancy of the European proletariat. During this time the radio was introduced to the airwaves of South America, and the country received its first loan from the United States. The latter represented an "eventual rearrangement in the country's relations of dependency with industrialized nations" (Johnson 190), an economic re-positioning that continues to have importance in the 21st century. In short, Brasil was a nation on the fast track to industrialization and modernization.

Along with changes in the economic and social structures in society, Brasil was also experiencing something of an identity crisis. Having recently rejected European monarchy, Brasil was beginning to question how much of Europe it should continue to draw from in the creation of a uniquely Brasilian society. It was starting to evaluate the "contradiction between . . . world and national relations of power, [as] the key to drawing a more precise figure of Brazil in the modern world" (Johnson 193). The political openness of the First Republic allowed for Brasilian citizens to conceive of a Brasil which could step away from the political, economic, religious and artistic influences of Europe that had dominated the country for the past 400 years.

Enter antropofagia. The term refers to cannibalism, but in relation to Brasilian Modernism it carries more than one meaning. The first interpretation associates with the pre-Cabralian past when the Tupinambá -- an indigenous group from the northeast -- practiced ritualistic cannibalism as part of their totemic system. Johnson treats the subject handily, as does Theodore Robert Young in his lecture entitled "Anthropophagy, Tropicalismo, and Como era gustoso meu Francês." Translated into English that last part means "How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman" which is, among other things, a reference to who was dining on whom in the 16th century and the title of a popular film in the 1970s.

The second meaning to the term antropofagia explains the ways in which Brasilian Modernists were employing the concept. Stay tuned for "Eating the Europeans" and an explanation of the image at the top of this entry next time!

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