Excerpt: Art Effects

The following is an excerpt from Art Effects: Image, Agency, and Ritual in Amazonia (Nebraska, 2020) by Carlos Fausto, translated by David Rodgers.

Introduction: The Smirk

There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said, “On the table stood a glass of water,” there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word- mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended. The word- mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems.

— J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

The miraculous object has an effectiveness that proceeds as if the original body were present; but the difficulty lies in cognitively grasping that “as if.”

— D. Freedberg, The Power of Images

The origin of this book is the culture shock I experienced when I began a new research project at the end of the 1990s. I had already completed my thesis on the Parakanã, a Tupi- Guarani people inhabiting the dense forest of the Xingu-Tocantins interfluve in the state of Pará, Brazil. Highly egalitarian and mobile, the Parakanã lived in camp-like villages, somewhat improvised and haphazard in form. Their diet centered on the consumption of large land mammals, hunted during long trekking expeditions in the forest, complemented by a rudimentary horticulture. Their few artifacts were made as needed and possessed a limited temporal existence—the only items of material culture with a longer life span and requiring more time and skill to manufacture were bows and arrows. I had lived with the Parakanã for around a year and a half and their world had become my Amazonia—an Amazonia that I had reencountered to varying degrees in the literature and in conversations with my fellow students at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1998 I visited the Kuikuro of the Upper Xingu for the first time. On arriving, I was faced with a circular village with houses distributed around an immense plaza. In the center stood a single construction, entry to which was barred to women. Everything contrasted with my previous experience: the redness of the soil, the sky-blue horizon, the exclusive fish diet, the profusion of artifacts, the frequency of ritual events. Not a day went by without some ceremonial activity: food was offered to the spirits on the plaza, quintets of flautists toured the ring of houses, young people trained to wrestle in the heat of the afternoon, women with heavy bead necklaces danced at the end of day, the chief greeted foreign messengers with a formulaic speech. In the Upper Xingu there were as many artifacts as one could imagine: various types of masks, effigies, musical instruments, basketry, pottery, body adornments—and, of course, all of these associated with stories, myths, rites, songs, and ways of making. Confronted with this new landscape, I invented (in Wagner’s sense) Kuikuro culture in contrast not to my own but to that of the Parakanã. My Amazonia, the one I thought I knew, fragmented, proving more diverse than I had ever imagined.

I had absorbed the image then prevailing of Amazonia as a region uniformly poor in artifacts and possessing a low objectification of social relations—a regional characteristic that apparently justified the idealism of which Africanists accused us (Taylor 1984). This image, though, was of little pertinence in the Upper Xingu case. I soon realized that I lacked the instruments to describe what was happening before my very eyes. So I set myself the task of studying the anthropology of art and ritual. The steps that I took along this path were determining factors in writing, somewhat belatedly, this book. Art Effects was born from the recognition of my ignorance and the efforts to remedy it.

Read more here.

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