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  • Three Glad Races: Primitivism and Ethnicity in Brazilian Modernist Literature
  • K. David Jackson* (bio)

Joy is the proof by nines.

—Oswald de Andrade, “Cannibal Manifesto”

December 24, midnight—Christmas dinner. The European tradition was imitated in everything: the music, the large illuminated pine tree adorning the back of the drawing room and even in certain delicacies: chestnuts, dates, apricots. This lack of authenticity irks the purists of customs, who demand a tropical expression of the Christmas celebrations. I don’t know whether they’re right and if a substitution is really possible. I’m inclined to believe that all this might even be more powerful, here, than in its countries of origin.

—Osman Lins, The Queen of the Prisons of Greece 1

Antropofagia (cannibalism), an iconoclastic movement within Brazilian literary modernism, drew upon the theme of cannibalism as a central motif for its theoretical and artistic program in the insouciant Revista de Antropofagia (Cannibal Magazine) (1928–29); its principal figures, the writer-intellectual Oswald de Andrade (1890–1954) and the painter Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973), have long been recognized as powerful artists of major significance and international status. Brazilian cannibalism created one of the most innovative theories to be derived from the modernist fascination with the primitive, 2 and was characterized by its mocking appropriation, inversion, and local application of European [End Page 89] models, among them the rhetoric of manifestos and the primitivist discoveries of the European avant-gardes, both transposed to the spaces and races of Brazil’s vast interior. Antropofagia exploits its avant-garde posture to address the question of Latin American cultural autonomy in dialogue with the primitivism then attracting attention in Europe. Vitally engaged with the question of Latin American cultural autonomy, Antropofagia was a bold, provocative, if also ambiguous, attempt to respond to the conflicting imperatives of cultural nationalism and pluralist cosmopolitanism in a post-colonial context. Yet ever since the movement was first formed in the late 1920s, and continuing to the present, their work has been repeatedly taxed with charges of impurity and inauthenticity, with being essentially a derivative imitation of the European avant-gardes and lacking genuine roots in the soil of Brazilian culture. Moreover, since the revival of interest in “cannibalism” in the 1960s, antropofagia has been accused of failing to offer a cultural program with serious social or political consequences for Brazil, a charge that indirectly reinforces the earlier complaints about cosmopolitan uprootedness. While these claims usefully acknowledge certain limitations inherent in antropofagia from the beginning, they also slight the genuine ambivalence of the movement’s responses to European culture and neglect the complexity of the Brazilian socio-cultural setting in which that response was formulated. The choice that faced the cannibalists was not so much between imported art and indigenous practice, or between cultural colonialism and native resistance, but between one version of nationalism, itself already saturated with European notions of the telluric and soon to prove all too amenable to the spurious nationalism of the Vargas regime, and another more nuanced sense of cultural autonomy that explored the cross-relationship of primitive Brazil with modernist Europe. 3 Antropofagia owed little to ideas of recovering a lost authenticity and instead adopted a more self-reflective and theoretical concept of national identity as constructed difference. Largely forgotten, or even studiously neglected by official cultural authorities in Brazil, this notion of identity may prove to be a strategy of enduring value. Moreover, it may also help us reconsider the increasingly reductive dichotomy between European derivatives and indigenous authenticity. In the fractured world of post colonialism, the choice is not between purity and its opposite, but between competing kinds of impurity whose values are inseparable from settings and circumstances.

To be sure, the origins of antropofagia are inseparable from contemporary European fascination with the primitive. One of the crucial lessons the Brazilians learn from the Parisian movements is how to value the ethnic diversity and racial heterogeneity that would allow Brazil to claim a primitivism of its own. The modernists from São Paulo assert the primacy and superiority of man and nature in the New World, in a reversal of nineteenth-century ideas about race and climate. Their position...

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pp. 89-112
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