Film-maker Takumã Kuikuro is a member of the Kuikuro people who live within Xingu Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso state, central Brazil. Through the Kuikuro Indigenous Association of the Upper Xingu (AIKAX) he works to document and preserve the stories, songs, dances and rituals that characterise their culture. Since 2015, he has also collaborated with People’s Palace Projects, an arts research centre set up by Paul Heritage within the Drama department of Queen Mary, University of London, but working internationally to think about the role of creativity in times of social crisis. Dialogue and cultural exchange have been central to PPP’s work since it was established in 1996, and its relationship with Takumã is typical of its process. The interview for this case study was conducted with the support of PPP, with research assistant André Piza providing a simultaneous translation of Takumã’s Portuguese.
Mission: preserving indigenous culture against external influences
PPP works in multiple contexts in Brazil, particularly in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro – but, says André Piza, mostly the art is within “the Western tradition”. By contrast, Takumã Kuikuro “works in a specific culture, which was there long before anyone else, and has a different idea of art or the artist. Even the way he talks about his work is different from any Brazilian-European urban traditions.” This is what drew PPP to work with Takumã: “We’re asking always what the arts or creativity can do in terms of approaching social challenges. So this exchange with Takumã tells us a lot about social impact, what it means for people’s lives to work with culture, work with arts, because they think and work in a completely different language.”
That’s language both metaphorically and literally: the Kuikuro people have their own Carib-family language, and Takumã himself didn’t learn Portuguese until he was 17. Later, at 19, he encountered an NGO called Video in the Villages, who travelled through the Xingu territory teaching people film-making skills. Takumã immediately saw the potential for using film as a tool to document his people. As Piza translates: “Their culture, especially their language, is something very important for them. It gives them wellbeing, gives them health and joy, and they want to keep that – because it has been seen that a lot of the language of the Xingu has been disappearing.”
The way Takumã describes it, art is not a separate practice for the Kuikuro people but embedded in daily life. “There are many artists in our community: people who create the sacred flutes that we play; people who know the songs; people who do crafts, creating, for example, our baskets; people who cultivate or prepare the fields for planting; people who go out to fish.” And every stage of life has a ritual attached to it: “For example, when women have their first period they go into a seclusion time that can last one or two years – and that’s an art, because in this period they learn everything, all the art, that they have to learn to become an adult female, such as how to make our traditional hammocks.” This long learning is necessary because skills aren’t taught on paper but handed down: for instance, when constructing ocas, traditional huts, “we don’t have measurements; the older men know how to teach the younger ones the specific dimensions”. Similarly, the singers of ritual songs “live every day reminding themselves about the music, because they don’t have a notation system. It’s learning by doing, and the art in daily lives comes in these particular learning practices.”
“It’s learning by doing, and the art in daily lives comes in these particular learning practices.”
Takumã seeks to preserve these practices because, over the course of his life, he has seen them being supplanted by “Western culture: it very easily gets into the village and it’s like a virus, it disseminates very quickly and it affects how the young people lead their lives”. This is true of himself too: he made the decision to become a film-maker, rather than a traditional fighter as his parents expected. But he uses his skills to “document and register all the rituals: specific knowledge of certain people; what happens in the morning in this ritual, and then what happens in the afternoon. A kind of systematic documentation for the purpose of preservation.” He now teaches film to others, and travels Xingu territory to give workshops and film others’ rituals; but his primary work is with the Kuikuro people, both “making films to show us outside, in festivals” and “documentation to show the village how things are supposed to be”.
Exchange and immersion
Takumã’s first cultural exchange project with PPP, in 2015, brought the film-maker to London to create a short documentary exploring the city from an indigenous perspective. Since then, the work has mostly happened in the Kuikuro village, where PPP has raised funds to support the building of a traditional oca as a space for artist residencies. Where other Xingu villages had made the decision to exploit tourism, particularly by selling their traditional crafts, Takumã wanted to think about the possibilities of a different form of exchange – one that might support the continued contemporary relevance of the culture, rather than it being “something that is not changing, not developing or progressing”.
Already there have been two iterations of that exchange programme. The first, in May 2017, brought digital technology artist Adam Lowe, of the Factum Foundation, to work with Takumã on thinking about how 3D technologies might be used to “create replicas of the village, a specific ritual, or historical objects, in a very precise way.” The second, in September 2017, brought beatboxer and performance-maker Conrad Murray, who “created a music video mixing hip-hop in Kuikuru language and in English. The children loved it: they all have the video on their phones and listen to it a lot.” Those residencies will continue in 2018, and for Takumã the value of them lies in “the exchange and the learning: the exchange of ways of seeing, what those artists can teach us – and what we can teach artists as well.”
Very quickly film has become embedded in village culture, says Takumã: “Every time something happens people ask me to film it – and one of their requirements is, once you film something, the next day you need to show it to everyone.” And this work has “really benefited the community: a lot of the young people now know their songs, know their dances, and that wasn’t the case before. Old people used to say: they only want to play football because they see football everywhere. But now when they can see their culture, they can see the dance, all the paintings, the songs, etc, it makes them very excited to participate.”
“A lot of the young people now know their songs, know their dances, and that wasn’t the case before. Old people used to say: they only want to play football because they see football everywhere. But now when they can see their culture, they can see the dance, all the paintings, the songs, etc, it makes them very excited to participate.”
The work has been so effective that the village now does “more and more of the traditional rituals: they used to do a celebration at the end of the year for the people to come together, but that was more based in tournaments and for the sake of being together, but now people can see their culture in the documentation, the rituals are becoming more detailed”.
Sharing benefits with People’s Palace Projects
For Takumã, the collaboration with PPP offers many potential benefits: “There are a lot of pressures on the village. For example, we have access to certain kinds of technology, like video, or boats and cars that are important for people to go to hospital, and health programmes that indigenous people can access – but a lot of political decisions are made that threaten these programmes and the access that we have. So I think a lot about how this dialogue with People’s Palace Projects can help us learn how to defend ourselves, how to maintain and develop our ways of living, and how to keep our autonomy, our independence, as a village and as a culture.”
“I think a lot about how this dialogue with People’s Palace Projects can help us learn how to defend ourselves, how to maintain and develop our ways of living, and how to keep our autonomy, our independence, as a village and as a culture.”
For PPP, the relationship is doing much to expand and sharpen questions already preoccupying the organisation. The oca residency model was particularly interesting, says Piza, for thinking about the possibilities of non-commercial exchange. “If the village want to exchange through art instead of other means, what does it change, what will art do in that context? Takumã enables us to understand more about what art does in a specific context of social stress, and a different sort of social stress to that in favelas, where we have been researching for a longer time.”
All the challenges Takumã and PPP have faced so far have related to the tension between wanting to preserve the culture and wanting to develop it. Says Takumã: “It becomes difficult when artists want to do something completely outside of our culture: that’s not about the exchange.” He recalls an incident – predating the collaboration with PPP – when an actress came to his village and made a short film with a group of women there: although “it was a good result, a lot of people had reservations about the work, they thought it was too Western, too white, and their culture wasn’t being represented”. It has made elders in the community wary: “They don’t want other cultures that can change the young people’s minds to divert them from working from their culture.” But this can also be limiting: for instance, Takumã is interested in theatre-makers bringing their skills to his village, but the head chief of the community has decided that “the rituals are already theatre, and we should not be so much influenced by white culture”.
“It becomes difficult when artists want to do something completely outside of our culture: that’s not about the exchange.”
For Takumã, one of the advantages of working with PPP is the support he has in working out “who are the right people for us to have an exchange with? I’m not entirely sure whether I’m making the right decisions, or if the community wants or needs something else. So the dialogues with PPP help us think about who are the people we can learn from, who could bring the things we need.”
The oca will continue to be used for artist residencies, and it’s hoped that through these, new ways will be found to support the life of the village: “There are a lot of things that we need in the community from outside the village. We want to become more independent from government agencies, so when artists come, all the resources – such as fuel – come with the artists as well.”
This year Takumã and PPP will collaborate on a pilot project “creating an immersive digital experience of going to the Xingu and witnessing one sort of ritual”, not so much for the village itself but as a communication with the rest of the world. It’s Takumã’s hope that through this art exchange, “artists can help us tell the world who are the Kuikuru people, what is happening here. There is a lot of pollution going to the rivers, and threats from soya plantations.” When Takumã thinks about preservation, he’s not just thinking about his own culture but his environment and the global implications of its destruction.
Image: Takumã Kuikuro document the Kuarup celebration in the Ipatse village. (CREDIT Coletivo de Cinema Kuikuro)