Postcolonial Perspectives from the Global South – The Case of Brazil

Image Elyeser Szturm

By Laymert Garcia dos Santos*

The following text was posted on the forum Postcolonial Perspectives from the Global South, promoted by the Goethe Institute of Jakarta, Indonesia, in January 2019. Noting that a good part of the discussion of the postcolonial problem was and is done through the Western and Eurocentric framework (not least because in the academic field they were scholars Anglo-Americans who instituted the theme), and that this obscured South-South relations in the past and present, Heinrich Blömeke decided to promote a forum for intellectuals from Africa, Asia and Latin America to talk and exchange ideas about how different societies have been responding to questions of language, identity and the role of culture in the contest of decolonization.

Invited, and considering that my colleagues from Indonesia, South Africa, Singapore and India should also treat the decolonization process as a movement of de-westernization and appreciation of the cultural diversity of their own countries, I thought I should take advantage of opportunity to present what was the experience of cultural decolonization of the popular governments of Lula and Dilma.

I was not mistaken – the interest in Brazilian experimentation was very great, generating intense discussion. Which, by the way, did not surprise me. It is rare to find a cultural policy strategy as thought-provoking as the one implemented in the Ministry of Culture during those years.


The theme of this meeting is absolutely contemporary, due to the geopolitical transformations that are taking place, with the displacement of the axis of power towards a multipolar world, in which the Asian continent acquires an increasing importance. So I'm happy to get to know a little more about Indonesia and to learn from you how you are experiencing this change in perspective.

I come from South America, more specifically from Brazil. And I can say that our continent undoubtedly experienced a very important post-colonial experience, starting in the 80s, when several of the countries in the region moved from dictatorial regimes to democracies. Such an experience, corresponding to a yearning for the inclusion of diverse marginalized portions of the national populations until then, was reflected in the elaboration of new Constitutions, in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina. Several South American countries have recognized the rights of traditional, indigenous and black populations in particular. Right to demarcate and preserve their territories, right to maintain and produce their cultures and knowledge. Some have become constitutionally multi-diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

During the 90s and the first decade of the 2000s, along with the growing weight of the environmental issue on the continental and international political scene, the presence, voice and discourse of diversity grew. And it is clear that the main tone of this expansion had a strong post-colonial component, as it sought to assert the singularities and differences of these peoples in relation to Eurocentric, Euro-American, Western narratives. This happened because the people associated the protection of culture and traditional knowledge with the defense of an environment threatened by accelerated deterioration.

In Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and also in Brazil, we are witnessing the re-elaboration of the role of ancestral cultures as a critical condition for overcoming the development model imposed from the outside in. In this sense, overcoming colonialism and neo-colonialism also includes a geopolitical dimension. This is not restricted to the universe of international relations, to the “world-game” of Nation-States and their interests.

“Geo” needs to be understood as Terra e land, substrate that cannot be forgotten when thinking about politics, culture and technology, as it is no longer possible to ignore the relationship between planet and ground, between the global and the local, if we think that both traditional cultures and technologies are generated in the dialogue between human and environment.

However, it is necessary to pay attention right away to the fact that the irruption of these populations in the political and cultural scene did not mean a regression or a pre-modern anachronism, as the local elites often faced the new questions. Nor was it an eminently reactive, resentful or revanchist posture.

What was seen throughout the South American continent was the claim for the right to a different contemporary way of being, to deal with contemporary situations and problems. It was not about trying to go back, but about building a future different from the one that had been programmed by colonialism and neo-colonialism. In this sense, the contours of the so-called “post-colonial” established by western scholars did not exactly correspond to the new narratives because these departed from other references, other parameters, other logics, other ontologies, other epistemologies. 

The assertion of ethnic and cultural diversity for nearly a quarter of a century has changed our understanding of our own countries. Experimentation spread and became less concentrated – the capitals were no longer the only centers of artistic and cultural production. Interchange between the countries of South America also increased, and Brazil began to turn inwards and towards its neighbors, no longer turning its back on the continent.

Production and creation in music, cinema, dance, cooking, plastic arts, design began to reflect the richness and complexity that came to light. Such appreciation did not occur only in the field of popular culture, but also in erudite culture and digital culture. And it was no coincidence that initiatives such as that of the Goethe Institute, opening up to South-South dialogue, were very well received in several South American capitals. There was an intense desire to exchange experiences and knowledge of the culture of the Other, be it the Other of the past or of the present.

I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that important portions of the population “discovered” or “rediscovered” their own countries, especially the younger generations. But such movement was, at the same time, cause and consequence of changes brought about by new State policies, democratizing policies, aimed at inclusion.

Take, for example, the case of Brazil during the years 2003-2016, years of progressive, democratic and popular governments.

The Brazilian elite tends to consider culture in two ways: as a superior culture, it is a luxury ornament, illustration, distinction trait; as mass culture, it is a consumer product, merchandise, in the logic of the cultural industry and the entertainment. And it was also in this perspective that the successive governments treated Brazilian culture, since always. Until the Lula government.

For this very reason, in cultural terms, the Ministry of Culture has been irrelevant since its creation in 1985. It was necessary to wait for the rise of a worker-president and the appointment of a “negromestizo” minister (singer and composer Gilberto Gil), to that, finally, the country had a State policy for culture, at the height of the wealth, diversity and inventiveness of the Brazilian people. As if the colonized-colonizing elite were incapable of recognizing the strategic importance of culture for building a nation and a future.

It is enough to read Gilberto Gil's inaugural speech as Minister of Culture, on January 2, 2003, to realize that a page has been turned and that we are entering a new era. Looking in the rearview mirror, it is evident that everything was already there, in this discourse that future generations will certainly define as historic.

Indeed, discarding the dominant conceptions, Gil placed culture in another dimension and the ministry in another level. And if this has not yet been clearly understood by all sectors of Brazilian society, it is because the existence of a decolonizing cultural policy was not understood, but also with the bad faith of lobbies and established interests, who did not want any change. and they wanted the maintenance of an anachronistic hegemony, which was being contradicted.

Gil understood that he had been chosen by a man of the people “and that, like his people, he never gave up the adventure, the fascination and the challenge of the new”. “And that is why” – he said – “that I assume, as one of my central tasks here, to remove the Ministry of Culture from the distance it finds itself, today, from the daily lives of Brazilians”.

Making use of an anthropological concept of culture (founded on the three great matrices of the Brazilian people – the Portuguese colonizers, the slaves of African origin and the native indigenous peoples), anchored in our knowledge and know-how, in our gestures, in our ways, Gil thought of culture as a “symbol factory of a people” and, therefore, proposed that the ministry be “like a light that reveals, in the past and in the present, the things and the signs that they did and still do, in Brazil , Brazil”.

And he formulated, with the leadership of the Ministry, the main lines of a strategy that faced head-on the central paradox of the cultural question in Brazil: a people possessing immense creativity, but without access to cultural production! A people who have never been able to go to the cinema, never entered a theater, never seen an exhibition and who, nevertheless, invented, for example, the samba school (“school of life”), that fantastic street opera, staged by thousands of people, which transforms misery into wealth, lack into abundance, negativity into affirmation.

Facing the paradox meant asking the question: what would a people with so much potential and capable of so much power do if they had, in addition to access to the means, recognition of their worth?

Neither the State nor the market had until then posed the question in these terms. Thus, during the first years, it was necessary to design a State cultural strategy, not a government one, that is, a set of public policies that would make the Ministry of Culture an institution capable of mobilizing the existing cultural forces in the country, instead of continuing to as a mere transfer of public funds to the private sector, in the old clientelistic scheme.

To do so, it was necessary, first of all, to build intelligence within the scope of the ministry itself, attracting young professionals who are well prepared and enthusiastic about the new proposal, and re-functionalizing the remaining structures. It was also necessary to draw up a broad diagnosis of the conditions of production and access to cultural goods across the country, identify cultural agents, needs, obstacles and bottlenecks, review the relevant legislation. It was necessary to pay attention to manifestations of unofficial culture, to forms of expression from the periphery, such as pichação, funk and hip-hop, and to build the conditions and spaces for youth and marginalized traditional populations, such as the indigenous peoples and quilombolas, began to articulate the potential of cultural diversity with the potential of digital culture. It was necessary to open a national public discussion on the state of culture in Brazil, through the National Council for Cultural Policy.

It was necessary to stimulate research on contemporary themes and the role of new technologies by opening public notices aimed at financing new projects. It was necessary to restructure museums, support archeology, rethink incentives for cinema and theater, reassess the role of visual arts, find a solution to save the threatened Bienal de São Paulo, with a public-private partnership.

In short, the Ministry of Culture began, therefore, to invest in the elaboration and execution of a cultural policy as part of a general project of construction of contemporary Brazil, that is, of construction of a nation that asserts its presence in the globalized world through through a specific difference, its potentials, its resources and its vision of the future.

In this sense, it is also worth mentioning that, since the beginning of the popular government, the ministry's strategy has always been in direct harmony with the new foreign policy designed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has placed Brazil on the world geopolitical chessboard as a country of Weight.

For this reason, the Ministry of Culture played a central role in promulgating the Unesco Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, approved the Mercosur Cultural seal in 2009, and held the Year of Brazil in several countries. To give you an idea: at the end of the 2010s, the country received an invitation from more than thirty countries that wanted to host the Year of Brazil... This expressed the interest and curiosity of the international community: everywhere they wanted to know that these were the people who entered the global scene so vibrantly.

Opponents of the new policy used to fight it by waving the old scarecrow of “state leadership”, the “danger” of “authoritarianism”, the threat to “freedom of expression” and “free enterprise”; but they systematically ignored the democratic character of a proposal that intended to promote a better distribution of public money raised through specific legislation, combating exclusion and cultural concentration in Brazil.

Of all the initiatives of this paradigm shift, in my opinion the most original and promising was the creation of 2.500 Pontos de Cultura across Brazil, opening opportunities for 8 million people to access the production and enjoyment of cultural goods. The goal was to create 5 additional points, at least one per municipality. To these should be added the adoption of Vale-Cultura and the expansion of mobile broadband access to 125 million people. The aim was to change the cultural landscape of an emerging country that, in fact, had already emerged within the BRICS.

The Pontos de Cultura were central to the Ministry's strategy because it was there that the articulation between culture and technology was woven with young people. Until recently, we were used to thinking that the modern and contemporary development model could only happen if we imitated and incorporated the Euro-American logic's way of relating culture and technology.

But with the entry of the BRICs, especially China and India, it became clear that there are other ways, as Chinese and Indians resort to both modern Western logic and traditional logic to assert their cultural and technological development in the geostrategic dimension. The question that arises, then, is: Will we be able to combine our cultural richness with the production of information technologies, in order to favor a type of creation and invention that at the same time fulfills our needs and aspirations and expresses our way of life? to be?

It is no longer possible to consider the question only from the point of view of digitizing the existing cultural heritage; nor the updating and “modernizing” adaptation of culture to the cultural and technological standards established by the West as “global culture”, in the times of the first globalization.

In our case, we had to think about the strategic importance of Brazilian culture in contrast with the declining Euro-American culture, but also with ascending cultural logics. Because it is no longer possible to think separately of culture and technology, know e know how to do. The American inventor Richard Buckminster-Fuller defined the terms of the problem very well, when he pointed out that in an information society what counts is “information gathering"And “problem solving”. Now, for that, a cultivated people is needed, that is, qualified to process creatively problems and solutions.

This entire decolonizing cultural policy strategy began, however, to be dismantled with the crisis in the government of President Dilma Rousseff and her impeachment in April 2016. The coup, which had the active participation of the most conservative sectors of the Judiciary, of Armed Forces, media and elites, was completed in the 2018 presidential election – pursued and arrested through lawfare, ex-President Lula, the favorite candidate, was prevented from appearing. Consensual electoral fraud, interference by the Armed Forces and massive use of fake news ensured the victory and rise to power of the fascist extreme right.

In short: the rule of law no longer exists, democracy has been shot in the heart. Obviously, in this perspective a postcolonial strategy needs to be quickly annihilated on all fronts. And this is what is happening with the unleashing of violence against Indians, blacks, LGBT and the entire marginalized population, at the same time that labor rights are revoked, the Ministry of Culture is extinguished, cultural diversity is attacked, and censorship is sought. the arts and even textbooks. 

Before concluding, however, I would like to briefly mention how this whole process was reflected in my own work. From 2006 to 2010 I was engaged in the conception of a cross-cultural project to realize a multimedia opera for the Munich Music Theater Biennale. The initiative came from the Biennial and the Goethe-Munich Institute and had the participation of ZKM, Karlsruhe and Sesc, a Brazilian cultural institution. The idea was to present a vision of deforestation in the Amazon to contemporary opera audiences, through a double perspective: the western techno-scientific perspective, which saw the forest from the outside in; and the Yanomami shamanic perspective, which saw the forest from the inside out. Thus, European, Brazilian and Yanomami artists, technicians and collaborators worked together on the challenge of confronting ontological and epistemological differences that need to dialogue, without Western thought being, from the outset, considered superior to the magical thinking of the Indians. It was a fascinating experiment, the result of which was staged in Munich and São Paulo in 2010 and in Vienna in 2013.

During the work, it became increasingly clear to Brazilians and Europeans that Yanomami shamanism consisted of a practice based on a highly sophisticated technology for accessing virtual worlds. And that it was as contemporary technology that shamanism should be considered. That is: an understanding that, beyond prejudices, it would be possible to conceive contemporaneity as plural and diverse, with logics that perhaps can be positively articulated, instead of being opposed in an excluding way.

That four-year experiment left a deep impression on me. On the point of deciding to explore the issue a little further, when the opportunity to make the film arose xapiri, based on a large meeting of shamans in a Yanomami village, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

Our group didn't want to make a realistic documentary, nor an anthropological film that intended to explain shamanism. We wanted, on the contrary, to involve the spectator in the ritual. It was a paradoxical issue, as we were going to make a film about something that only shamans can see: the xapiri pë. How then to show what cannot be seen? From anthropological knowledge and what the shamans themselves told us, we realized that shamanism had a very unique technology for generating audiovisual images, which could perhaps enter into resonance with Western digital technology.

What is the image in Yanomami shamanism? Bruce Albert writes: “The images (utupë) that the Yanomami shamans “invoke”, “make them descend” and “make them dance” – in dreams or in a trance – are (…) those of ancestral “humanimals” who live in the times of origins. (...). It is said that such images constitute the “spectral value” of primordial beings endowed with a human “skin” (body) and an animal name (identity).

They are perceived by shamans in the form of an infinite multitude of tiny humanoids, adorned with body paint and ornaments of dazzling luminosity. Such beings-images corpusculars, a kind of mythological quanta, populate the world in a free state, taken by an incessant activity of games, exchanges and wars that sustain the dynamics of visible phenomena.

Once installed, during initiation, in a celestial abode associated with the young shaman, they become his “children”, a “kin” form of the humanimal images of the “first time”. They are then, according to ethnographic jargon, “auxiliary spirits” (xapiri pë) . The xapiri pë thus tamed are selected and combined in each shamanic session, according to their attributes and skills. (…)”[I].

In B. Albert's understanding, this fundamental way of being-image constitutes the center of gravity of Yanomami ontological and cosmological thought. The anthropologist also warns that shamanic images, dreamed or induced by hallucinogens, should not be classified as what we call “mental images” (mirages, interior visions) as they are described by shamans as direct perceptions of an absolutely tangible external reality. On the other hand, Bruce Albert is adamant: “There is no phenomenon of representation, but the process of presentification of the invisible. (…) Neither replicas nor metaphors, the utupë images are above all ontological states whose intermittent visibility is made effective during the shamanic session by an effect of bodily transduction.”[ii]

With their very refined techniques, shamans see what we cannot see. But we can see how their bodies, by incorporating image-beings, express their passage, that is, metamorphosis. Thanks to a man-machine coupling that actualizes the maximum of human and apparatus powers, we can transform the passage of images into images of passage, modulating the process of realization in such a way that the visible appears as a kind of configuration-disfiguration-reconfiguration capable of allowing us, at least, to contaminate the generation of our images with some operating principles analogous to those practiced by them.

Of course, such a procedure does not make the invisible visible; but it opens up the visible to a movement of expansion of perception and mind that allows us to outline an aesthetic impression of the richness, complexity, beauty, and even vertigo, of the risks inherent in the shamanic journey.

Thus, xapiri was structured in such a way that the spectator can enter the shamanic ritual little by little: first, arriving in Watoriki, and finding these people who inhabit the forest-land and are inhabited by it, people from another world, whose predominant color is the Red; then, watching the shamans get ready, performing their body painting, inhaling the yakohana and starting to dance and call the xapiripe;; follows a series of “portraits”, which seek to incorporate the visible and invisible traits that characterize the xapiri thëpë: the beauty of the ornaments, the variety and strength of the expression, but also the flash of the points of light, the auxiliary spirits that erupt from the forest, and their dancing inscription populating the chest of each one.

In the soundtrack, songs are sung all the time, sometimes corresponding, sometimes not, to what is happening in the image. The ritual thickens, the atmosphere transforms, a new round of hallucinogens indicates that the process is intensifying, extending over time and taking place in the daily life of the village, until the songs and dances announce and execute the passage of the xapiripë us xapiri thëpë, paving the way for healing the sick, sustaining heaven, healing the earth…

A long sequence of Levi Hewakalaxima allows to see the xapiri thëpë stripping himself of his adornments and handing them over to the other shamans, before accompanying the xapiri why are you going to leave? In the final sequence, we return to the forest-land, its people, and its continuity in the future, through the figure of the boys.

*Laymert Garcia dos Santos he is a retired professor in the sociology department at Unicamp.


[i] Albert, Bruce, “Images, traces et « hyper images » : impromptu d´ethnographie noctambule” in imagine ambulat homo Augustin, La Trinité, livre XIV, 4, 6., p. 1

[ii] Ditto, p. 4.

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