“Tupinambá,” an immersive posthumous exhibition installed in two immense warehouse spaces, focused on one of Lygia Pape’s final bodies of work, a series in which she aimed to move beyond the object’s conventional boundaries. Underscoring sensory experience, its sensuality and embodiment, the show was presented in near-total darkness, with individual works picked out by spotlights that magnified their dramatic beauty and other-worldliness. Like Neolithic caves and Romanesque churches, such dimly lit environments can become metaphorical arenas of awe and spirituality; but they can also reduce the liminal to the merely theatrical.
The monumental Manto Tupinambá (Tupinambá Cloak, 2000) pulses with strong color and power. Its multiple components are displayed on and under a 33-by-33-foot square of tightly stretched red sailcloth. Above, the cloth supports 190 polystyrene balls differing in size and shape, each one covered in dyed red feathers. These balls are not perfectly round, and some are further distorted by protruding bone fragments. Seen below an overhead bank of red lights, they glowed like alien frogspawn. Numerous larger balls shelter underneath the cloth, their feathered surfaces disturbed by plastic cockroaches and scorpions or stripes of a black, tar-like substance.
Manto Tupinambá is grounded in obscure metaphors, but Pape intended it, as well as the other works in the series, to pay tribute to Brazil’s nearly extinguished Tupinambá peoples. Almost every element is thickly surfaced with delicate red feathers—a reference to the exquisite red feather cloaks made by the Tupinambá from the plumes of the scarlet ibis. For Pape (who died in 2004), the sailcloth refers to the European arrival, and the cockroaches, considered despicable, unimportant insects, symbolize the Tupinambá—dead but ever present in Brazilian art and culture. The Tupinambá’s ceremonial cloaks were worn during a cannibalistic ritual in which prisoners of war were sacrificed and eaten to give warriors access to paradise when they died. Pape distilled that act of devouring, reinterpreting it, and overturning what might be considered its historical inversion. As she explained, “I wanted to make my Manto Tupinambá an extremely beautiful thing, like original Tupinambá feather art, and at the same time seize the terror of death.”
The Tupinambá ritual was one of the sources for poet Oswald de Andrade’s concept of Anthropophagy, a notion that has fascinated Brazilian artists for generations. Pape was part of the Tropicália movement, which considered Brazil’s history of cannibalizing other cultures as a way of asserting independence over European colonialism. Through the process of Anthropophagy, Brazilian art devoured influences from Europe and America, internalized them, and then rooted them in the culture and politics of Brazil.
Ttéia 1, C (2000/2021)—as dramatic as Manto Tupinambá—takes its title from a play on words in Portuguese: teia (web) and teteia (something or someone of grace). Centered in a dark room, the ethereally gleaming construction provided the sole light source. A floor-to-ceiling, geometric configuration that manages to be both magical and contrived, Ttéia 1, C consists of nothing more than thousands of feet of silver thread configured into two transparent, intersecting rectangular shafts that rise from two large black squares on the floor. The work is a perfect illustration of Anthropophagy, embodying the principles of Constructivism and recalling the wire works of Naum Gabo.
These works, and others, were not well served by the theatricality of the exhibition, which wore thin. Though Pape understood the red feathers as expressing her sense of connection to Brazil’s Indigenous populations and certain aspects of their history, here (at least without full context) Manto, as well as other red-feathered works, could appear to be rooted in an ethnographic impulse that all but erases the tragedy of Brazil’s Indigenous people, its inflated size reducing it to spectacle; while Ttéia 1, C was almost reduced to a trick of lighting. The darkness surrounding these works gave them a false aura, obscuring the real significance they might embody.