A Recipe for Cannibal Pâté: Indigenous Peoples and Representation in 20th Century Brazilian Modernist Art

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Haverford College. Department of History
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In 1922, a group of friends in São Paulo, Brazil, decided to organize the country’s first arts festival, which they called the Semana de Arte Moderna, celebrating modernism and lauding themselves as the creators of a new Brazilian art. This was an opportune moment for the elite artists of the festival, who hoped to construct a “true” and authentic Brazilianness, as the nation had recently been in the market for a new identity after experiencing a couple of major historical shifts, such as the abolition of slavery and the official declaration of the Brazilian republic. It was these artists of the Semana de Arte Moderna who proposed the idea of a diverse and heterogeneous Brazil, composed of European, Indigenous, and African racial and cultural influences. This construction of national identity would remain at the core of the art produced by elites for the duration of the decade. Among them was Tarsila do Amaral, the daughter of a wealthy coffee grower, whose journey led her toward developing the Anthropophagy movement. As the name would suggest, this movement was inspired by the image of the cannibal, more specifically, by Portuguese colonial descriptions of Indigenous people as consumers of human flesh. This thesis focuses on that concept of anthropophagy and its role in 20th century artistic representations of Indigenous people. It aims to fill the silences left by Brazilianist scholarship that has questioned essentialist modernist claims through a critical lens of Afro-Brazilian identity and representations of blackness in Brazil but has largely ignored analyzing the Indigenous question. The thesis begins with discussing various mediums of artistic representation in the 1920s, before addressing the Anthropophagy movement, explicating on the diverse forms of Indigenous representation during this period, and exploring their diverging and converging purposes. Next, the thesis delves deeper into Tarsila do Amaral’s anthropophagic phase, embodied by her three paintings: A Negra (1923), Abaporu (1928), and Antropofagia (1929). This section discusses the redefinition of cannibalism by the artist, and the appropriation of an Indigenous image as a form of resistance against the Europeanization of Brazil. The Anthropophagy movement believed it could find a true sense of “Brazilianness” by appropriating the Indigenous cannibal. Finally, the last two sections investigate the impact of the Anthropophagy movement on national identity for the rest of the century. A look into the art of Djanira reveals the legacy of Tarsila and how her anthropophagic phase changed art in Brazil. Then the Tropicalia movement acts as a more direct successor to the Anthropophagy movement, adopting its embrace of cultural mixing, and message of resistance, this time not directed at the European threat overseas, but the domestic threat of the military dictatorship. This thesis argues that modernist art in Brazil appropriated Indigeneity to redefine national identity in a way that did not include Indigenous people. It scrutinizes the contradictions of these visual representations, their subversion, and yet simultaneous reinscription of anti-Indigenous colonial ideology.