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A Thousand Forms of Life: A Conversation with Thiago Martins de Melo and Germano Dushà

With his experimental platform “Animal Crepuscular ”, Brazilian artist Thiago Martins de Melo presents a digital archive of Amazonian cosmologies that imagine ways of living beyond the annihilative impulse of capitalist accumulation.

Animal Crepuscular - Jaguar hunting under the sun from within (video still)

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

Revisiting the project Crepuscular Animal a year after its launch, I realised that I had mis-titled it all this while. The project’s title is Animal Crepuscular in Portuguese, and Crepuscular Animal in English, a difference which would have been easily deduced, except that the memory of my experience on the digital platform consisted of multimodal scenes of Amazonian life, glitching through a chain of visceral narratives. Although described as an artist’s website, the platform beckons our patience, revealing cryptic prose at every click before unfolding the work of not only Thiago Martins de Melo, but also a host of contributors including other artists, collectives, a graphic designer and an indigenous thinker. Crepuscular animals are active primarily at dusk, and evade predators through the half-light. With the three chapters unfolding in flashes, the platform takes us on a journey into “a chaotic scenario of an infinite end of the day” , where symbols, mythologies and narratives of the Amazon’s indigenous communities are to be found.

While we pace through the ways in which platforms coalesce our lives into uniform patterns, it feels necessary to probe the symbiotic and multitudinous ways of living that, until heard in person or experienced in art, might otherwise be encountered only through the archetypes of wildlife documentary hosts who provide company in the wee hours of the morning. But even if known only through the familiar channels of late-night television, or from a distance — through gazing and clicking through Crepuscular Animal , and a conversation with de Melo and curator Germano Dushà — they are known . And if to be known is also a reclamation of the structures and history that have empowered these alternative forms of life, perhaps they can offer threads of possibilities and perspectives on how we lead our very own, too.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

Thiago Martins de Melo: To start with, Brazil is such a big country but there are regions that are in fact the margins of capitalism. It is where you see the advances of multinationals in mining, and residents of indigenous territories being displaced. The contrast of these different worlds is so much more evident there than in the big cities, so much so that events seemingly from different time periods are coexisting simultaneously.

In the platform, we are talking about traditional communities that are hybrid; we’re talking about the quilombolas (residents of settlements originally formed by enslaved Africans and their descendants), the ribeirinhos (traditional inhabitants of the riverbanks), the peasants, and a lot of other people who may not identify with a specific ethnicity group. Simply, we’re not talking about indigenous ethnicities, we’re just talking about people who live in the Amazon. And a lot of them are Christians. A lot of them have their own religion like the Umbanda[1], or some syncretic beliefs such as myself. Animal Crepuscular is about this hybrid cosmovision.

Germano Dushá: Thiago’s work condenses and combines many different backgrounds and references into a single flux, containing a multitude of perspectives to deal with the violence of contrasts that exist in Brazil. Each painting, sculpture and video contains the same amount of violence and problems as they do joy, freedom and invention. If you go to these regions that we are talking about, you will see the most potent kind of life going on, as well as the worst disasters. Animal Crepuscular has a lot to do with these efforts to see a universal, transcendental way of observing and understanding life, but with both feet grounded on this territory that is our North Region, Brazil or Latin America more broadly.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

Jing Yi Teo: I’ve never been to Brazil. Everything I know about the Amazon comes from documentaries or mainstream news, which portray a region that is full of a diversity that must be protected. But since you’ve emphasised that it was crucial to the project that you are both native to the region, I get a feeling that your understanding of scale, variety and contrast is different from mine. What do you understand about the Amazon’s diversity that I probably don’t?

TMDM: The Amazon is spoken about as a place that has forests and animals, but there are many communities comprising millions of people. We have major indigenous reserves so they don’t get devastated. That’s where the native and the traditional people live in sustainable ways. In Animal Crepuscular , we’re not talking about the Amazon as it is known, but rather describing it as a region that has been the frontier of capitalism under a government led by the fascist ideology of development, and all the cultures and spiritualities involved in this fight.

Here, if you own the means of production, you are also the owner of a kind of spirituality, a mentality. For example, I’m from a leading Afro-Brazilian cult in my region, and we believe that you have the spirits of people that are there fighting alongside us, that their blood has not been spilt in vain. Blood is an important entity of the land — so this is the way I think about humanity. In Animal Crepuscular we reference the jaguar, for example, because for a lot of ethnicities in the Amazon, animals possess a sense of humanity and see the world in the same way that we do, except that they see different worlds. This is a central concept in the work of Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, called “perspectivism” , and many indigenous ways of thinking ascribe to this philosophy.[2] They understand that animals may see humans the way we see animals as “animals”. The human-centred perception of humanity is dislocated.

Animal Crepuscular is not just about the Amazon — about animals and trees — but also about capitalism and its frontiers that are bound in this struggle of two worlds that have been clashing since the arrival of colonialism.

It’s fundamental to forsake a Eurocentric approach in order to understand the history of totally different social matrices.

GD: The media does not reflect the full realities and nuances of the Amazon, although it may be the most emblematic place in the world: the largest rainforest, the so-called “lungs of the world”, a forest full of diverse archetypes of nature. What we get from globalised media is a flattened history. There was a forest and it has been deforested, and that’s pretty much it. What we don’t see is the variation and reinvention of life, which there is a lot of.

Ailton Krenak, one of our most pre-eminent indigenous thinkers, speaks a great deal about this plurality of people and cultures, and how rich that panorama was before colonisation.[3] There are studies saying that when the Portuguese and the Spanish came here, they would have found over a thousand forms of life. How amazing is that?  And how nuts is it to think that we are on the verge of having only one life form — the result of the totalising effects of capitalism built on the foundations of agro-logistics and extractivism. There existed more than a thousand ways of living, speaking, cooking, eating, exchanging, making love, making art, creating families…

Of course there were pre-colonial wars, but there was never a genocidal vector. One group of people would not engage in war with the intent of eliminating the other. In many cases, there was a devotional and ritualistic aspect to the acts of battle, even if they were extremely violent. It’s fundamental to forsake a Eurocentric approach in order to understand the history of totally different social matrices.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

JYT: You held a three-part conversation, documented on Animal Crepuscular , via WhatsApp with Kum’tum Akroá Gamela , an indigenous man who belongs to the Taquaritiua territory and whose ancestral roots are intertwined with that of the Capivari territory in the state of Maranhão. What did he impart regarding what it means to be indigenous?

GD: A lot of people in Brazil identify themselves as indigenous, on a spectrum. In the last census (from a decade ago), this demographic totalled about 1 million, with more than half of this number living on officially recognised indigenous land. Neither Thiago nor myself see ourselves as indigenous, although of course we might have this ancestry in our blood, and for sure it is entwined with our spiritual, intellectual and sociocultural formation.

We invited Kum’tum to the project to listen to someone speak about the historical contexts and struggles within that identity. In our conversations, he spoke about how he needs to reaffirm what it’s like to be an indigenous person, to be Akroá Gamela, because all the time they hear, “No, you’re not Akroá Gamela, you don’t even look or dress like an indigenous person.” Even to enter a name like this into the registry is not accepted because it’s not considered a Brazilian name.[4] So even though he has a registered name, he’s now trying to reaffirm that his name is Kum’tum. There were also people who were not born within a tribe or a community, but are now understanding that they are indigenous and are trying to face this identity monstrosity that was created in Brazil.

Kum’tum begins his dialogue with us approaching the myth of “miscegenation” that has been used as a discourse to back up distortions and misconceptions, and to keep racism under the radar. Even in the work of one of the great sociologists of Brazil, Gilberto Freyre[5], we can find roots for the myth of “racial democracy”, which may mislead us into thinking that racism cannot exist here, as everyone is mixed race. But we are one of the most racist countries in the world. Nothing marks the Brazilian identity more than our social inequality and violent racial system. Debates on identity politics, social justice, and resource distribution cannot go without the discussion of racism.

And so it is crucial that we defend the existence of other forms of life. We need to accept that some indigenous people should have a land of their own, which despite being possibly huge and containing economic potential, cannot be exploited because we need these forms of life to exist. We need to respect that there are forms of life that don’t have anything to do with banks, social numbers and devouring nature. And it is important to say: the indigenous people are doing the most important social work of all because they are defending these remaining pieces of forest, as well as the remaining possibilities for us to imagine a world with multiple forms of life, ways of existing and — above all — coexisting.

TMDM: Kum’tum is an example of an indigenous person who may look like me, someone who wears T-shirts and jeans and has an iPhone, but the Gamelas are one of the oldest ethnic groups. They were the first group to occupy a big piece of land in the state I’m from, Maranhão. But this did not stop external attacks and expropriation of their land, which hit worst during the military dictatorship.[6] Indigenous people could not be officially recognised as such, and instead were classified as farmers. Also, there was a lot of fraud and violence involved in resisting their rights to their land. This was the general strategy of the state and the economic powers, because they didn’t want to recognise indigenous peoples’ right to the land. What Kum’tum fights for is the recognition of a territory because he can only be indigenous if he is connected to this ancestral land.

A curious fact is that this government continuously says that they are defending the right of indigenous peoples to own land, but in fact they want them to attain property rights to the land so they can be sold to multinational corporations. It is an example of how capitalist politics deceive people.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

JYT: You talk about having more than a thousand forms of life being lost through colonialism and capitalist politics. I wish to ask if there are other ways that an economy can run — without banks, or social security systems, or land reforms — but is this question inherently rooted in capitalist thinking as well? Are there other ways of thinking about the way society is organised other than thinking about it as an economy?

TMDM: There is a tribe in the Amazon called Awa, which is considered in the last decade the most threatened tribe by Survival International because there are very few people left in this community. It’s very common for the women of this tribe to breastfeed young animals that do not have mothers. This relationship they have with their environment and the things that live there is very interesting, alongside the matriarchal social structure. It is an example of the variety of ways groups self-organise and live.

In Kum’Tum’s contribution to Animal Crepuscular , he speaks of the desecration of territorial landmarks that production projects necessitate. The Gamelas, the group that Kum’tum is from, for example, are against the system of production. When they produce for the market, they return home and suffer from hunger because what they produce is sold at a low price, which creates disadvantageous dynamics for them. The irony is that when they produce food to sell, they are not being fed. And so they’ve withdrawn from this production system. This is deeply problematic in a country that relies heavily on commodities and goods production.

GD: These ideas relate to something well said by The Invisible Committee[7]: the fight is not against capitalism, but against the economy. Economy, with regards to capitalism, is the management of scarcity. The Zapatistas[8] have learned from indigenous traditions, farmers and ground fighters in the way they manage resources — and that’s what we should learn.

There is a presumption within both the tradition of political anthropology and in common sense, that indigenous people were incapable of abstract thinking, of structuring complex societies, which prevented them from coming up with a thing like an economy. I prefer to believe — referencing the work of French anthropologist and ethnologist Pierre Clastres — that they had tried many ways of living to come to a rational decision of embracing work, production and social organisation in a different way, and to enjoy their days focusing on spirituality, health and social bonds.[9] They have found an optimal point and developed generations through that understanding. This is the magnificent concept, and practical way of approaching life, called bem viver (good living).[10]

The ancient Greeks thought they knew what democracy was, but if you want to learn what true democracy is, you should go to an indigenous community — where everyone decides on everything, all the time. Even the leaders can be understood more as antennas of the people than commanders. They operate an exercise of power, but totally beyond the logic known to our nation states: without centralisation, subordination or coercion. They work only towards what the community wants. If they go against it, they’re guilty.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021

Thiago Martins de Melo, Animal Crepuscular, 2021. Courtesy the artist

What we call a democracy shouldn’t simply be the rule of the majority, or everyone totally agreeing about everything, but a complex and dynamic social game. With the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, differences are well-mediated, but when everyone thinks alike, dresses alike, dances alike, feeds alike, fights alike, things can go wrong when a new way of doing things is introduced. We have a number of other contemporary cases too, such as the Rojava revolution’s communal dynamics .[11] There are other examples of varying scales too: the landless movements[12], local currencies in peripheral areas, squats, anarchist territories, peer-to-peer (P2P)[13] and countless online infrastructures and communities — all of these function without the notion of production, value and exchange as we understand them under capitalist realism.[14]

As for the golden question, “How do we exit the problems that we've been facing in contemporary times?” I think we can start with being open to the multitude of possibilities within the human experience, and we can learn important lessons from these examples, as they offer fuel to the imagination of other forms of living.

  • 1.

    Umbanda is a religion of Brazil that combines influences of indigenous Brazilian religion, African religions, Catholicism and Spiritism. Syncretic religions are formed through the recombination of elements from multiple belief systems.

  • 2.

    Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, edited and translated by Peter Skafish, Univocal Publishing, 2014.

  • 3.

    Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, translated by Anthony Doyle, House of Anansi Press, 2020.

  • 4.

    A 2012 joint resolution by the National Council of Justice and the National Council of Federal Prosecutors grants indigenous people the legal right to use the name of their ethnic group as their last name. However, requests to change from Portuguese names to ancestral names are still commonly denied by local officials.

  • 5.

    Gilberto Freyre was a Brazilian sociologist, anthropologist, historian, writer, painter and congressman. His most well-known work is the treatise The Masters and the Slaves (1933), which discusses the formation of modern Brazilian society.

  • 6.

    The military dictatorship of Brazil (1964-1985) was established after a coup by the Brazilian Armed forces against President João Goulart. Under his leadership, Goulart promised far-reaching reforms and expropriated business interests. The Brazilian elite feared that Brazil, along this direction, would go the way of Cuba and join the Communist Bloc, which led conservative elements of society to call for a coup against the democratically-elected Goulart. The coup was engineered with support from the United States.

  • 7.

    The Invisible Committee is an anonymous French collective of insurrectionary anarchists whose published texts include The Coming Insurrection (2009) and To Our Friends (2015).

  • 8.

    Formed mostly of indigenous peasants, The Zapatistas are a Mexican social movement whose self-governed communities exist autonomously from the state. The movement’s political philosophy emphasises autonomy, cooperation and horizontalism.

  • 9.

    Piere Clastres, Society Against the State, translated by Robert Hurley and Abe Stein, Zone Books, 1987.

  • 10.

    Ecuador and Bolivia officially recognised buen vivir (“the good way of living”, bem viver in Portuguese) as a principle guiding state action in the years 2008 and 2009 respectively. Rooted in principles common across the indigenous communities of Latin America, buen vivir espouses a worldview in which individual well-being is inseparable from the well-being of the natural world and the broader community.

  • 11.

    Rojava, or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, is an autonomous, anti-capitalist territory which practices a form of “democracy without a state” called democratic confederalism.

  • 12.

    The Landless Workers Movement (LWM) is a social movement seeking agrarian reform through land rights. Thousands of Brazilian families live in its land-occupation settlements in an effort to redistribute land to rural workers for small-scale farming.

  • 13.

    In a P2P system, two parties can interact and transact with one another without third-party intermediation.

  • 14.

    Capitalist realism” is a term coined by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher to refer to the sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic framework that pervades every aspect of society. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, 2009.

Artists and Contributors

Jing Yi Teo portrait picture

Jing Yi Teo

Jing Yi Teo is a curator and writer based out of Istanbul and Singapore. She is Co-Initiator of ArtBizTech, an innovation and strategy consultancy driven by interdisciplinary art, and is also Curator of bang. Prix, its non-profit arm supporting practices that intersect art, technology and science. Her work focuses on expanding artistic practices beyond traditional scopes and finding new actors to engage with. Jing Yi is the Lead, Incubator Programme of SO-FAR where she observes, documents and augments the artistic practices and careers of the brightest minds in the SO-FAR environs.

Germano Dusha

Germano Dushá

Germano Dushá (Serra dos Carajás, 1989) is a writer, curator, critic and cultural agent based in São Paulo. He holds a BA in Law (Fundação Getulio Vargas - Direito SP) and a postgraduate degree in Art: Criticism and Curatorship (Pontifícia Universidade Católica - São Paulo); and works mainly with autonomous organizations, and curatorial, literature, and multimedia experiments. He has collaborated with a number of institutions, publications and galleries in different countries; and among his projects, he has cofounded Fora – a multidisciplinary platform for contemporary practices in the public space –, Coletor – an independent itinerant platform for contemporary art practices –, Observatório – an autonomous exhibition space for contemporary art and culture, BANAL BANAL – an online platform for contemporary art –, and um trabalho um texto – an exhibition program for contemporary art and textual production.