THE VANISHING ART OF BRAZIL'S INDIANS
By Alan Riding - The New York Times
Saturday April 30, 2005
PARIS - Long before Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealized the "noble savage" in the late 18th century, the Brazilian Indian was entrenched in the French imagination. As early as 1505, just five years after the Portuguese discovered Brazil, the first Indian was brought to France. Then, in 1550, 50 Indians were imported to people a reconstructed Indian village in Normandy as a curiosity to entertain the royal court.
But for French thinkers, the Indians also displayed unique qualities, notably the innocence of their nakedness, their generosity, their indifference to possessions and, yes, their cleanliness. And this led first Montaigne and later Montesquieu, Diderot and Rousseau to meditate afresh on the human condition. Then, in the mid-20th century, another Frenchman, Claude Lévi-Strauss, helped found modern anthropology through research carried out among Brazilian Indians.
Now, in a sense, the Indians have returned to France, in a new exhibition called "Indian Brazil: The Arts of the Amerindians of Brazil". The show, which has been drawing crowds to the Grand Palais in Paris, runs through June 27 and also includes objects collected by Lévi-Strauss in the 1930s. It is the centerpiece of a lively program of Brazilian art, music, dance and movies called Year of Brazil in France.
Still, compared with displaying, say, Mayan treasures, this is not an easy show to present. In 1500, Brazil's Indians were Stone Age hunters and fishermen living in small villages and never constituting what might be termed a civilization. They were certainly exotic, but they displayed no obvious wealth.
As it happens, in recent decades, archaeologists have found evidence of more settled communities near the mouth of the Amazon, some dating back 12,000 years. Ceramic works, some 1,000 years old, have also been excavated. Thus, "Indian Brazil" opens with a surprising collection of pre-Columbian urns: some large vases decorated with abstract designs, several resembling human figures, others evoking real or imagined animals.
The rest of this exhibition reflects a culture still alive, with objects distant from us in spirit, but not in time. Yet, just as those made of wood, bark, reeds, feathers, and animal skins are fragile, even ephemeral, so is this culture. The ancient stone sculptures of Mesoamerica will be around for centuries; the arts of Brazil's Indians may not.
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