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The return of the Tupinambá mantle

The National Museum of Denmark will return to Brazil a sacred relic that has been in Europe since the 17th century

Elisangela Roxo | 04 jul 2023_13h45
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Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

versão em português

One of the most preserved among the eleven remaining mantles of the Tupinambá native people, from the 17th century, will definitely return from Europe to Brazil. By the end of 2023, the treasure made with red feathers of the scarlet ibis will leave the ethnographic collection of the Nationalmuseet, the National Museum of Denmark, and will join the collection of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. The Danish institution announced the donation on June 27. The piece, which the native people consider sacred, has been in Copenhagen since 1689, according to official records.

“It is a great honor for us to receive one of Brazil’s main ethnographic artifacts, which has been abroad for so long. The return shows the confidence of the Nationalmuseet in our work, after everything that happened,” Alexander Kellner, director of the National Museum in Rio, said to piauí. On the night of September 2, 2018, a short circuit triggered by the overheating of an air conditioner produced a fire that destroyed a large part of the Brazilian institution.

Kellner met with the Nationalmuseet management in April, in the Danish capital, and saw the red mantle for the first time. “The relic awakens in us a huge sense of responsibility. Being honest: if the mantle had been with us before, it would have burned. Brazil needs to understand the significance of caring for its cultural heritage. We are still waiting for actions by the federal government that will allow the transfer of BRL 180 million by private and state companies to complete the museum’s reconstruction by 2026.”

In an official note, the Nationalmuseet highlighted that the donation of the mantle is a “unique and significant contribution” to the recovery of the Brazilian collection. “Cultural heritage plays a decisive role in the nations’ narratives about themselves. This is the case all over the world. That is why it is important for us to help rebuilding the National Museum of Brazil after the devastating fire a few years ago,” said anthropologist Rane Willerslev, director of the Nationalmuseet.

The mantle in question measures 1.2 meter high by 0.60m wide. It has a bonnet and a cape, which constitute a single costume. The scarlet ibis feathers fit over a natural fiber base that resemble a fishing net. The Tupinambás wore similar garments on formal occasions, such as assemblies, burials of loved ones and anthropophagic rituals, the most imposing celebration performed by them in Brazil’s colonial period. The Copenhagen museum has no information about who took the sacred piece to Denmark, or why.

The institution in Rio intends to exhibit the mantle from June 6, 2024, when the museum will complete 206 years. On that occasion, only a small room will be reopened, where the relic will be shown. The scenography will be planned by the entity’s team together with the indigenous people. “The National Museum and the Tupinambás have maintained a close relationship for more than two decades,” recalls João Pacheco de Oliveira, anthropologist and curator of the institution’s ethnographic collections. He explains that the return of ritualistic objects is complex and involves the contribution of indigenous intellectuals and people acquainted with the tradition, including those who know how to work with art, dreams and shamanism. “We are preparing the museum’s professionals to properly receive such a rare piece.”

Over the past two years, Brazil’s ambassador to Denmark, Rodrigo de Azeredo Santos, has discreetly stitched the donation process. He took over his post during the pandemic in December 2020, after serving in Iran. When the Danes ended the quarantine, in the spring of 2021, Santos visited the Nationalmuseet with his family and was enthralled by the mantle, also feeling that the relic was in the wrong place. Months later, in November 2021, he read the article Longe de Casa (Away from home), in piauí_182, which discussed the artifact. The ambassador then learned that Brazil had never officially claimed its return. From there, Santos tried to gather the required letters to formalize the request.

“The dreams of our ancestors, which are also ours, are still alive. Amotara preserved in her memory the existence of a Sacred Mantle for our people. Our mantles are icons of our spirituality and, therefore, we believe that they should be up and alive, close to their original people,” wrote native chief Maria Valdelice Amaral de Jesus in a communication addressed to the Nationalmuseet’s direction, on July 29, 2022. She is one of the leaders of the 23 villages that make up the Tupinambá Indigenous Land of Olivença, located in the municipalities of Ilhéus, Buerarema and Una, in the state of Bahia.

In the letter, the chief refers to her own mother, Nivalda Amaral de Jesus, Amotara, who had her first contact with the relic in May 2000, when the Nationalmuseet lent it to the exhibition Brasil + 500 Mostra do Redescobrimento, in São Paulo. After visiting the exhibition in the company of a reporter, Amotara declared to the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper: “We are Tupinambás. We want the mantle back.”

In addition to Valdelice, letters were also sent by chief Rosivaldo Ferreira da Silva, Babau, another leader of the Tupinambás from Olivença, and the direction of the National Museum in Rio. The three documents were delivered by the ambassador to Willerslev. The Nationalmuseet’s director was touched by the letters and prepared a favorable opinion on the return of the piece. He then took the Brazilians’ claim to the six members of the board of the Danish museum. The councilors, in turn, recommended that the relic be donated to the Ministry of Culture of Denmark. On May 31, minister Jakob Engel-Schmidt finally authorized the definitive return of the mantle to Brazil.

The Brazilian Embassy worked relentlessly to ensure that the negotiation took place exclusively between the museums and the Tupinambá community. “Our goal was that Danish society would see the devolution as a cultural cooperation between the two countries to help rebuild the Brazilian institution. We wanted to avoid sensitive debates in Europe about the repatriation of items belonging to original peoples from other continents. For this reason, the entire process took place in secrecy,” says Santos. “For me, it is an honor to participate in the devolution. I am from Rio. I remember visiting the National Museum with my father and grandfather. Later on, I took my daughter there myself. When the museum burned down, I was still in Tehran and was very touched. Upon arriving in Copenhagen, I saw that I could contribute to recover the institution’s collection.”

As soon as she received the news that the mantle would return to Brazil, chief Maria Valdelice was moved. “My grandmother used to say that the loss of the mantle weakened the Tupinambá people. I hope the relic will return soon to reinvigorate us. It doesn’t matter if it arrives in Bahia or in Rio. The fundamental thing is that it returns. To date, no ordinance was issued recognizing our territory. The federal government has already identified the land as belonging to the Tupinambás, but has not yet ratified it. Meanwhile, the territory is invaded by resorts and sand mining companies. Without the ordinance, we cannot do anything. May the mantle bring new strength to the Tupinambás of Olivença! We need our land to be demarcated.”

While formalities were unraveled in the offices of Denmark, the Nationalmuseet invited artist Glicéria Tupinambá, sister of chief Babau, to visit the country in September 2022. She applies in her works the same methods her ancestors used to make sacred garments.

Glicéria stayed in Copenhagen for a week and walked around the Nationalmuseet. There she met the relic that will return to Brazil. Afterwards, she made three visits to the institution’s technical reserve, in the north of the Danish capital, where she was shown four other pieces identified by the museum as Tupinambá mantles. The artifacts have been locked away in the collection’s metallic boxes for decades.

The artist also took part in the seminar Different Pasts – Sustainable Futures. The event was part of the Taking Care project, conceived by European national museums to periodically discuss the future of their ethnographic collections. Glicéria spoke at the Stories of Revitalization table, on September 16, a Friday. She shared the stage with anthropologists Mille Gabriel and Matthew Walsh (from the Nationalmuseet) and Renata Curcio Valente (from Rio’s National Museum), as well as Shgendootan George, an artisan woman of the Tlingit people, of Canadian origin, and Te Arikirangi, the repatriation coordinator of the Te Papa Tongarewa museum, in New Zealand.

Before the talks started, Gliceria described the dream she had had the night before. “A hand carried cotton and a feather in a shade between yellow and red.” On Sunday, September 18, around 2 pm, while former president Jair Bolsonaro spoke to supporters in London, where he would attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, the artist was singing in Copenhagen. She marked the rhythm by stamping her right foot on the floor: He! He!/ Tupinambá went down the mountain covered in feathers/ He went, but he is/ He is the king of Jurema. The indigenous woman was starting the Mantle Out of the Box workshop, open to Nationalmuseet visitors. There, one of the four cloaks kept in the technical reserve would be shown to the public for the first time. With rubber gloves, an employee carefully removed the artifact from the metal box and showed it for a few minutes to about thirty people who gathered in the room dedicated to Brazil.

Glicéria wore a headdress of blue macaw feathers and a yellow dress. She spoke in Portuguese, with simultaneous translation into English and Danish. On her left, the mantle that will be returned rested upright, inside a glass case. “In the year 2000, the piece in this room visited us in Brazil and was recognized by Valdelice Tupinambá’s mother, Dona Nivalda. This meeting helped our struggle, it helped people to know that we never left our territory. We live there traditionally until now. Today, I find myself here by the call of the mantle. The link between the past and the present is not broken. The threads of the mantle brought me to Denmark and made it possible for us to be together in this moment.”

Workshop participants learned how to make sacred garments using the Tupinambá technique. For such, each of them paid 100 crowns to the Nationalmuseet. Glicéria provided them with beeswax, cotton string and a handmade wooden needle. At the end of the activity, one of the present people asked the indigenous woman: “How do you feel when you see the mantle in a museum in Denmark?” The artist responded with diplomacy: “I thank the local people for taking care of my people’s heritage.”

The Danish donation comes at a time when several European institutions face requests for the return of cultural and archaeological artifacts by their original countries. This month, for example, Germany sent the fossil of the dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus to Brazil. Removed in 1995 from the paleontological site of Cariri (Ceará) by German researchers, the piece will be exhibited in a museum in the region.

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