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Lux Boelitz Vidal

Lux Boelitz Vidal: Collector of cultures

A pioneer in the study of Brazilian ethno-aesthetics and indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the anthropologist contributed to the demarcation of lands and the construction of a museum

026-033_Entrevista-LuxVidal_251-1LÉO RAMOS CHAVESThe young woman who came from France in 1955 ended up also becoming Brazilian in a manner completely unlike that of most people born in Brazil:  she immersed herself among the indigenous populations of the Amazon region. And she felt at home. Initially accepting to take care of children so she could have a job in the village during her research trips, today Lux Vidal became a valuable collaborator to the peoples she is close to, both by contributing to the affirmation of their cultures, and by her indigenist activities. During the military dictatorship, she founded the São Paulo Pro-Indian Commission, in which she still serves as a member of the advisory board. Her commitment to indigenous peoples, the respect she holds for them and her understanding of the importance of the art they produce are outstanding features of this researcher who trained an entire generation of anthropologists and pioneered Brazilian ethno-aesthetics.

When she arrived in Brazil with her husband and daughter, she devoted herself to her children: of the three, two were born in Brazil. Vidal began working as a teacher at Alliance Française before moving on to Liceu Pasteur, where her children also studied.

Restless, in 1967 she changed course and began graduate studies in social sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP). Soon after, in 1969, she became a professor at the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH) and soon headed off to her first field trip, to study a nearly extinct indigenous people: the Xikrin of Cateté, a Jê-Kayapó group. There she began the work that put her at the center of early Brazilian anthropology, focusing on artistic expression and body art as key to understanding indigenous societies and cosmologies.

Still active, Vidal continues to visit the Amazon region. As this issue goes to print, she is in Alter do Chão, in the state of Pará, for the annual meeting of the Indigenous Educational and Research Institute (Iepé), of which she is a member.

Undergraduate degree in anthropology, literature and theater from sarah lawrence college (1951); master’s and phd in anthropology from the university of são paulo (usp) (1972 and 1973)
Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (USP)
Scientific production
37 articles, 8 books as author or editor, 13 chapters in books, 13 exhibits, advisor to 15 master’s candidates and 22 doctoral candidates

You went to the Amazon in 1969, soon after becoming a professor at USP. How was that experience?
Very smooth. For me, college was more of a challenge than the village was.  I had lived in a Spanish village during World War II, foraging for food in the forest.  I’ve always felt comfortable in the countryside, living the life of the indigenous along with them.  All my life, it’s given me great satisfaction and now, at 86, I still go into the field because that’s what I like to do: research, study and live with the Indians through the different historical periods we all experience.  In the beginning, I helped care for their sick, demarcate lands and fight invasions from logging companies. Later, we entered into a new phase with the increasing role of the indigenous peoples after the 1988 Constitution.  The Indians gained rights not only to lands, but also to a distinct education.  Thus, the relationships change, the issues change, and the way of sharing life and knowledge with them changes too.  Even more so today because now the Indians attend school; the vast majority go to elementary school, many go on to high school in the villages and increasing numbers of them are attending college.  This makes for a more engaged life, in contemplating both the past and the future.  What was most important in my professional life was having been involved in this extremely complicated trajectory.

In a way, your previous experience prepared you for this challenge.  How so? 
My life did not begin when I became a professor at USP. Much of what came before I now see as important for developing my later personal and academic life, including the fact of not having just devoted myself to academic life.  I was always very dedicated to the problems of the societies we worked with.  I earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology, literature and theater from Sarah Lawrence College in the United States.  It was a leading women’s college that has now changed somewhat.   It was very rigorous, but also offered a lot of choices and no exams.  You were allowed to take three subjects a year, and one of them had to be in the arts.  Today, I see how important this training came to be.

So you were interested in anthropology from the very beginning? 
Yes. I took an anthropology course with Irving Goldman, who worked among the Cubeo of the Amazon region and encouraged my studies.  It was very good, but what was taught at the time was American cultural anthropology and British structural functionalism.  Particularly African studies.  I was born in Berlin, Germany and then lived in Spain, France, England and the United States.  My life was always very turbulent because of the war and other circumstances.  When I got to college, I was mainly interested in Spanish literature.  But when I had my college interview, they told me: “You’ve had such varied experiences, we think you should take anthropology.”

You were guided by your life experiences of cultural encounters, right? 
Yes, that was one of the characteristics of my entire academic life.  After I completed my undergraduate studies, I went back to France, despite having been accepted into a graduate program at Columbia University.  There I got married and worked as a translator while also studying Spanish at the Sorbonne until we decided to come to Brazil. After teaching a few years at Alliance Française and Liceu Pasteur, another excellent experience, I wanted to go back to anthropology so I contacted my friend, Thekla Hartmann, at the Anthropology Department of USP, which at the time was still on Rua Maria Antonia. She introduced me to professors Egon Schaden and João Baptista Borges Pereira and I started taking some courses. By 1969, I applied for a professor position and was hired as an assistant to Prof. Gioconda Mussolini, but she passed away before we started working together and I had to figure things out on my own. I had much reading, but needed field research also to establish academic relationships with colleagues. I then had the opportunity to go to a Xikrin village with a Dominican priest by the name of José Caron. At that time, the Xikrin were a small group considered all but vanished, with fewer than 100 people in southern Pará State, between the Xingu and Tocantins rivers. They had suffered immensely in initial contacts with Brazil nut harvesters, loggers, hunters, and worker recruiters, which were invading the region. My first experience was to live with the Indians in that small village they had rebuilt when Father Caron took them back to their native place along the Cateté River.

That work led to your master’s and doctoral research, describing rituals and life in Xikrin society. It is much more than a catalogue of customs, right? 
At that time, because of everything they had gone through, the Xikrin were trying to reestablish themselves as a society. I had the immense fortune of attending a ritual called merêrêmê, which synthesized, at that particular point in time, their entire world view, their cosmology and their social structure. They assembled all the rituals they normally perform in a rotation over the years into a single ritual. It was extraordinary. I realized that I was witnessing a historic moment in time. They did this by dancing every afternoon, painting themselves the entire time as a way to recover. In my book about the Xikrin, Morte e vida de uma sociedade indígena brasileira [Death and life of a Brazilian indigenous society] (Hucitec-Edusp, 1977), I also describe rituals which they only later resumed, that I was told about but never saw.

Xikrin women always have one black hand, a mark of their status as painters

Personal archives Xikrin women always have one black hand, a mark of their status as paintersPersonal archives

Was it only later that you became interested in indigenous art? 
It was not my intention. But once I was there, I saw that the artistic expressions – in the feather work, the rituals, the songs, the way they built the village and took care of it – were absolutely essential. I was intrigued by their focus on constantly painting and embellishing themselves. Studying this physicality ended up being the key to understanding how these societies work; the notion of self, cosmology, their relationship with the environment and the hierarchy.

There are several elements of body painting that indicate societal roles.  Is there any room for individual variation? 
No. The rules are very strict among the Xikrin. In body painting with genipap fruit, the designs are strictly classified according to gender, age and ritual occasion, and they belong to everyone. Other cultural property that also comes from supernatural beings, such as embellishments, songs and names, are shared among the houses. The houses, which belong to the women, have priority when it comes to certain names, certain objects, heritage that is perpetuated over time and passed along in the great rituals. In other societies in the Amazon region, such as the Wajãpi of Amapá State studied by Dominique Gallois, body painting is related not to social morphology, but to cosmology. It is a dialogue with otherness: others, the invisible or enemies.  There are certain patterns, but each individual has his or her creative way of interpreting that legacy of the invisibles, from which comes the art that is passed along to society through the shamans and dreams.

Do graphisms create a bridge between anthropology and archeology in the form of pottery motifs?
Graphisms found in ceramics also have their own cosmological dimension. Thus, the link between anthropology and archeology has increased, especially when it refers to the embellishments and graphisms so present in Brazilian ceramics and archeology. Modern anthropology theories related to understanding philosophy and cosmology help us better understand the archeological findings.

During her early years in the Cateté village in the 1970s, the anthropologist helped take care of children

Personal archives During her early years in the Cateté village in the 1970s, the anthropologist helped take care of childrenPersonal archives

The title of your first book about the Xikrin, the outcome of your doctoral research, is Morte e vida de uma sociedade indígena brasileira.  First death, then life. Why?
In 1970, there were fewer than 100 Xikrin and now they number close to 1,000, scattered among four villages. The Xikrin contact with Brazilian society was quite brutal; their village was in the world’s largest patch of mahogany surrounded by mining projects operated by Vale do Rio Doce [currently Vale]. There was steel to the east, copper to the north and nickel to the west. The railroads and agriculture were to the south. The Xikrin of Cateté receive financial compensation for being surrounded, but it will not compensate for the environmental disaster. The Cateté River that cuts across the region is now being polluted by mining operations to the west. It is a very serious issue.

How is it possible to operate within a national context while at the same time trying to protect oneself? 
Culture is always reinventing itself! Only now it happens more quickly, in concert with non-indigenous actors: the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI), Vale, professors, physicians and anthropologists, in the context of greater contact with cities. Now, everything is more dynamic and complicated. Awareness of their differences with regard to others makes the Indians understand and better appreciate their own lives and identities, which they are preserving and rebuilding.

At another point in your career, you focused on the Oiapoque Indians. Was the work there very different?
Yes, completely different. Four indigenous peoples live in Lower Oiapoque: the Karipuna, Galibi Marworno, Palikur and Galibi Kali’na. They are societies with a very troubled 500-year history of contact who today live in the far north of Amapá State on the indigenous lands of the Uaçá, Galibi and Juminã. They see themselves as a very mixed people. It is an open society that has significant contact with the city of Oiapoque, in the state of Amapá, and French Guyana. The lands were already demarcated when we got there, so I did not have to referee any of that. But they were kind of a forgotten people who attracted little attention from the government, given their location in Brazil’s extreme north, or from anthropology because they were thought to be assimilated. They said the work would not be interesting to us, but it was just the opposite. We conducted excellent research in tracking and supporting the recovery of their core values, their cosmology and their material culture.

Examples of facial designs

Odilon João Souza Filho, reproduction from the book Grafismo indígena Examples of facial designsOdilon João Souza Filho, reproduction from the book Grafismo indígena

What inspired you to go there?
It happened by chance. An Indian from that region had fallen sick and spent some time in São Paulo with João Paulo Botelho [an endocrinologist at the Federal University of São Paulo, Unifesp]. When he returned to his village, he invited us and we went. I had a small research grant so I took a student, Antonella Tassinari, to be trained even though we had no defined project.  She started working among the Karipuna, completed her dissertation there and is now a professor in Santa Catarina. Other researchers also went there to work and over the course of more than 25 years, much has been done, for the good of all of us. It has been a continuous and productive association that is still ongoing.

Was it this experience that gave rise to the establishment of the Kuahí Museum, in Oiapoque?
Yes. There came a time in which the Indians asked us to return the material we had used in our studies. But there are many villages – today some 7,000 Indians – and it was almost impossible to respond to all of them. In 1998, a group of them went to Germany to take part in a canoeing competition and visit museums there as well as in France and Portugal. They also learned about the Goeldi Museum in Belém, and had seen photos of the Magüta Museum, the first indigenous museum in the Amazon region. Then they submitted a proposal to the governor of Amapá, at the time João Alberto Capiberibe, to establish an indigenous museum in Oiapoque. They asked for my assistance, and Lúcia van Velthem from the Goeldi Museum helped, too. It was designed to be a museum run by indigenous peoples, not just a museum about them. The group who was to make up the museum team took training courses in such subjects as museology, anthropology, archeology, photography and video production. The construction process took 10 years and the museum opened in 2007.

Does the institution help solidify the culture that was recovered? 
Yes. For the museum opening, the Indians wanted to exhibit everything they had created and gathered together during the cultural valuation workshops they’d had for two years in the villages. On special occasions they often enacted a ritual called turé in front of the museum, using actual benches, poles and instruments from exhibits at the Kuahí. The Indians themselves often visit the museum as do local schools, and tourists from Brazil and French Guiana. It is the only border museum in Brazil. It houses collections of objects gathered at different points in time, as well as a library that receives visits from the region’s indigenous peoples who attend college in Oiapoque. The museum really encouraged cultural activities in the villages and sometimes made it appear that the communities wanted to compete with it, which I considered to be a success. In 2014, however, the institution ran into some problems.  Leaks had damaged the building’s structure and the government took a long time to make the repairs, just as inter-party struggles in the state were beginning to have repercussions on the museum team. Most of the Indians who had government contracts were fired, jeopardizing planned exhibitions.  These are the kinds of things we’re seeing in Brazil’s present-day turmoil.

A Xikrin Chief holding a maraca in a ritual recorded during the 1970s

Personal archives A Xikrin Chief holding a maraca in a ritual recorded during the 1970sPersonal archives

In this meeting of cultures, how much do the customs of one affect those of the others? 
It’s inevitable – there are always conflicts and challenges. There are times of high anxiety and times of complete tranquility. The indigenous peoples of the Oiapoque organize general assemblies that each year bring together all of their peoples for an assessment. Every year or two, they also invite people from outside to discuss problems, identify priorities and decide what will be done next. In 2008, over a period of several months, the Oiapoque Indians drafted an extremely interesting long-term Life Plan, which was later published. The organization of indigenous women is very active and effective, and holds meetings to discuss nutrition, agricultural practices, traditional medicine, land management and the drafting of protocols for consultation and consent.

From the State’s standpoint, we need to have a minimum amount of knowledge in order to protect and demarcate territories, but at the same time, there may be concerns about interfering too much. 
The Indians have the right to their lands and to it’s exclusive use, and that’s why the issue of demarcation is key to them. In the Amazon, that process took place in a fairly appropriate way, but there are some populations for which the demarcation of lands is extremely difficult and they find themselves in an utterly disastrous situation, such as the Guarani of Mato Grosso, facing a very aggressive agricultural front constantly moving forward. It is a huge challenge and at present things do not appear to be improving, although the groups that were able to obtain demarcation are organized so they can keep track of their lands. For example, every year the indigenous peoples of the Oiapoque traverse their entire territory to monitor their lands. They have indigenous environmental representatives who are trained to take part in meetings at the state, national and even international level. The Indians today are aware of the global climate challenges as well as other things such as protecting our forests and biodiversity.

When you came to Brazil in 1955, did you think it would be permanent? 
No, I didn’t want to come to Brazil! I was doing very well in Paris. I came to stay two years because of my husband, who was to be an engineer at Renault, but the company’s manufacturing plants ended up not being built in Brazil until much later. Since we stayed on in São Paulo, I started working, but always thought about going back [to France]. Once I’d had contact with the Indians, when I was already at USP, everything changed and I ended up adjusting very well. I already had one daughter when I came from France, but my two other children were born here, as were my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am 86 and feel Brazilian as well as French.

Children performing the Turé ritual in a Karipuna village in Oiapoque, in the 1990s

Personal archives Children performing the Turé ritual in a Karipuna village in Oiapoque, in the 1990sPersonal archives

You participated in anthropology’s inception in Brazil – how was that?
There was a rather culturalist perspective with regard to the Indians in terms of the idea of saving something that could potentially be lost. The Indians were believed to be on the verge of disappearing. Later there were movements that changed this perspective, both at USP and at the National Museum [in Rio] and other research institutions, in addition to collaboration from several foreign researchers, namely the Central Brazil Research Project headed up by Professor Maybury-Lewis of Harvard University and Brazilian researchers like Roberto Cardoso, Roberto DaMatta, Julio Melatti along with many others. That’s when anthropology began to flourish. The XLII International Congress of Americanists in Paris in 1976 reached the conclusion that the Africanist models we were still working with – produced by the British or the Americans – were not suited to Brazil. In the 1970s, we experienced interesting theoretical changes, to a large degree influenced by Lévi-Strauss. A 1978 symposium held in Brazil had a huge impact on the development of Brazilian ethnology, especially with regard to the notion of person, physicality and the symbolic dimension as a foundation of practice. At that time, a systematic and up-to-date survey about Brazilian indigenous peoples had begun, and we took part in it by compiling information on location, population, legal status of lands and infrastructure projects. This survey gave rise to the Indigenous Peoples’ Program managed today by ISA. The program helped shed light on Brazil’s great ethnic and cultural diversity and the existence of many indigenous peoples, especially in the Northeast, who had been silenced. Along with academic studies, that was how the first solid political activities in defense of the rights of indigenous peoples began.

What do you see as your legacy?
I always thought it was important to teach classes and to conduct field research. The financial support of FAPESP helped a lot – early on it was different because the Foundation was very small and we knew everyone. They would ask about the research and we would show them photos. It was a very close relationship. I was an advisor on a great many theses, always maintaining close contact with those I advised, who are now professors all over Brazil, thus providing continuity in research. The academic path is non-linear. It is always being supplemented by research studies and the latest theoretical contributions of former students. This is ongoing and I continue to learn and stay active to the extent possible. It’s good to remember that all my work has been a group effort, the result of research and seminars with students and those whom I advised.

Was ethno-aesthetics always a part?
Yes. I completed the ethno-aesthetics work on the Xikrin by writing the book Grafismo indígena [Indigenous graphism] (Studio Nobel, 2007), and I’ve now completed over 25 years of work among the indigenous peoples of the Oiapoque by writing the book A presença do invisível [The presence of the invisible] (Iepé/Museum of the Indian-FUNAI, 2016), a summary of all the ethnographies and all the studies we conducted in that region, topped off by an exhibition that ran in Rio de Janeiro’s Indian Museum from 2007 to 2013, also related to aesthetics. It is a trajectory of two well-defined and distinct phases but they both point to the same interests and concerns.

Male paintings: very strict patterns for everyday situations (1-5) and specific ceremonial occasions (6 - 10)

Odilon João Souza Filho, reproduction from the book Grafismo indígena Male paintings: very strict patterns for everyday situations (1-5) and specific ceremonial occasions (6 – 10)Odilon João Souza Filho, reproduction from the book Grafismo indígena