TALKS TUPI OR NOT TUPI On Limits and Transgressions
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On Limits and Transgressions

A mosaic with anthropophagic motifs

Antanina Slabodchykava: Purity, installation, 2019 

Purity is an installation by the artist Antanina Slabodchykava also known as ‘The dirt is best seen against a white background’ in German. A long table runs down the middle of the exhibition space. It is covered with a white tablecloth and decked with white crockery. Only white foods are served. Sealed off from the viewer by a glass case, the feast becomes a scene of decay over the weeks to come. The food goes mouldy, stale, rotten, decomposes. Now the putrefaction on the white dishes is served up for the delectation of worms, maggots and insects.

The installation shows what happens to every organic material, our bodies included, no matter how much we try to repress it. It also shows how hermetically sealed systems that strive for cleanliness and celebrate purity are no less vulnerable to the inevitability of decay and, indeed, only make it more visible.

Any socio-political system, any system of ideas or philosophy, can ultimately be understood as a hermetically sealed system that strives for purity when it takes a rigid view of reality that may not be questioned, excluding all that is different, incongruous or frightening. This might be achieved through stigmatising language that prevents all potential for further consideration or understanding. Those who protest against a dictatorship are thus denigrated as outsiders, addicts, prostitutes or extremists. The colonised are characterised as cannibals. All that is unfathomable or transgressive is labelled and thus rendered one-dimensional, isolated as soon as it is evoked, relegated to a box where it might be looked at, but not touched. The paradox lies in the fact that often these systems are themselves cannibalistic, all while holding aloft their supposed purity, chosenness, ‘special path’ or ‘traditional values’ like a monstrance.

The image of the cannibal has remained hugely popular from the myths of antiquity to modern computer games. It supposedly marks a clear, insurmountable delineation between civilisation and barbarism, reason and madness, functioning social order and a humanity that has lost its way: the box appears to be hermetically sealed. This is what the famous Brazilian author Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) addresses in the opening to his Anthropophagic Manifesto:

Only anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.

The world’s one and only law. Masked expression of all individualisms, of all collectivisms. Of all religions. Of all peace treaties.

Tupi, or not Tupi that is the question. Against all catechizations. And against the mother of the Gracchi.

I am only interested in what is not mine. Law of man. Law of the anthropophagus…1

The box remains hermetically sealed, but suddenly it is possible to cross over or change position: one is simultaneously within and without, looking on at the radical other while also being that other.

In his manifesto, Oswald de Andrade shatters monolithic systems of ideas and creates a mosaic2 from the pieces. It does not constitute any fixed picture, but instead continually compels one to discover new patterns, ingest new perspectives, take in various aspects and assimilate that which is foreign, even at the risk of vertigo or nausea.

The notion of anthropophagy is adept at inviting us to overcome our habitual limitations of thought. Not only because it is an attribution3 which tips into self-empowerment, but also because anthropophagy on a sensual level remains beyond the realm of imagination for the vast majority of people, despite its occurrence as an everyday metaphor. Here, too, we are both within and without. Our repertoire of endearment includes phrases like wanting to gobble someone up or finding them sweet, yet cannibalism remains inconceivable. Our insistence on occupying this border of the imagination, our savouring of the unimaginable, is a practice in derailing our habitual ways of thinking.

Moreover, certain components of anthropophagy – exercising power over the other, devouring the other, becoming one with the other, radical surrender and absorption, the violability of borders – are not beyond our imagination at all. We see what makes us human as though in a magnifying mirror which reflects both our own existence and our co-existence with the other right back at us. 

The Belarusian director Jura Dziwakou uses the magnifying potential of the anthropophagic image in his theatre production The Song of Solomon. It features a large table as the central element on stage, not dissimilar to the one used in the installation by Slabodchykava. At once a wedding table and a memorial plaque, the site where desire meets death. At the head of the table there is a woman, self-absorbed, self-adoring, invoking her lover while his image is projected onto her back. They come to meet. At the end of the song he enters the stage, fully naked, and shoots at her. She subsequently stands, wearing a crown of thorns and a gauze tunic. She feeds him her innards and he devours them with relish, coming closer to her. It is only now that they truly come into contact and the song resumes from the beginning.

Scene from the theatre production The Song of Solomon, dir. Jura Dziwakou, 2019
Photo: Anna Scharko

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The Song of Solomon, dir. Jura Dziwakou, 2019

This piece performed in Minsk in 2019 but would be unthinkable in Belarus today. Not just because the theatre OK16 no longer exists (it belonged to a former presidential candidate now imprisoned for many years), but also because such a transgressive consideration of human relations is unwelcome in an ossified dictatorial system. A person thrown back on themselves is vivacious and endangers the dictatorial system. That is why dictatorships interfere in the most intimate aspects of life with no respect for boundaries. No freedom must be left behind: people must be completely absorbed by the system.

The last remaining hope is that once the cannibalistic system collapses, artists for whom art is a kind of laboratory for existence will be in demand once more, as happened in Belarus during the interregnum. The Boom-Bam-Lit genannt. movement was representative of this renewed wave of art. Those involved in the movement probed the physical and semantic dimensions of being human in many different ways, from the shamanic practices of indigenous peoples and breaking taboos on death, to drawing new boundaries in relation to the questions of what art is and can achieve. The Boom-Bam-Lit movement broke open the tight corset of the Soviet conception of art, and transgression was its most important tool.4

At the Navinki 99 festival, Zmicier Vishniou was carried into the Palace of the Republic in a real coffin. Cult of Personality performance piece by the Special Brigade of African Brothers (1999)

Boom-Bam-Lit choir


Transgression is key to setting an ossified system in motion. Artur Klinau uses a moment of anthropophagic transgression in his novel Lokisau (2020) which foreshadowed many of the developments of the 2020 revolution in Belarus. People keep being devoured by the Werebear Lokis, a person who can transform into a bear. No one knows who it really is, so everyone lives in fear that it could be their neighbour, wife or someone else. After a supermarket worker named Sina becomes the latest victim, suspicions turn to an outsider, the artist Lokisau, who has gone to the ends of the earth in search of solitude. Being cast as a cannibal changes the artist’s life. Just like in The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, he gets to know the local elite: one after the other, everyone comes to him to save their own skin. The headmaster, a Russian expat, unenamoured by his new homeland, offers to compile a definitive list of who should be spared and who may be devoured under certain conditions. It is a parable about survival, pre-emptive obedience and (failed) resistance in a system governed by fear.

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Excerpt from Lokisau by Artur Klinau, read by Ales Malczanau.
Translated into German by Ruth Altenhofer

We can understand anthropophagy as the furthest extreme on a spectrum with ossification, the absent encounter, on one end, and the physical act of devouring, of assimilation, on the other. Between these two dangers we must survive on an interhuman, political and cultural level. We can consider the art of translation, the general stance of the translator, as one such mode of survival: an encounter that aims to give the other space, coming closer with the aim not to possess, but to understand. Absorption with respect for boundaries, assimilation without destruction.

Jura Dzivakou: Out of Turn, drawing, 2024



©Nikita Fedosik

Iryna Herasimovich was born in Minsk in 1978 and has been a freelance curator and translator since 2009. She has translated works by Lukas Bärfuss, Georg Büchner, Monika Rinck, Nora Gomringer, Mehdi Moradpour, Jonas Lüscher, Michael Köhlmeier, Franz Hohler and Franz Kafka into Belarusian. She has already organised the Belarusian-German ViceVersa Translators' Workshop three times. Since 2018, she has curated the translation section of the "Literature Intermarium" forum in the Künstlerdorf Kaptaruny.

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