Indigenous Peoples and the Theater: A Possibility of Reinventing Life


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By Andreia Duarte

It was 2001 and I still can feel to this day the strength that propelled me towards Kamayura village. There live an indigenous people speaking the Kamayura language, which belongs to the Tupi linguistic branch. Their area is part of the Xingu Indigenous Park, an indigenous and environmental land in central-western Brazil in the state of Mato Grosso. I remember the trip I took alone, I was 21, leaving my hometown, Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, to meet chief – cacique – Kotok Kamayura in the small town of Canarana, also in Mato Grosso. From there we went by plane to Xingu watching the shifts in the landscape: the view of the city getting small, the entrance of the immense delimited fields of plantations and livestock, the limits of the indigenous reserve and the vastness of its forest, river and savannah. I have often observed the village from above, as the plane begins to descend until it touches its wheels on the improvised landing strip. It was January 5 and the memory of my body standing in front of the Ipavu lagoon—looking at the clearness of that water totally bordered by Buriti palm and extensive area of forest – recalls that very decisive moment. Overflowing with the experience of being in that territory, I remember saying to myself: “I want to live here.”

Twenty years later, I have more clarity about the passion that led me to live five years with the Kamayura people, with whom I still maintain friendly relationships. That was a moment when the first experiences as an actress brought a shift in the perception of the body and the reality that I lived. The artistic exercise mixed with the desire to get to know the original people raised the question of what it would be like to study the indigenous body for the theater. With this initial desire, I was integrated into the activities of my new family, in the work of the farm, the ritual, listening to the narratives, as well as in the educational construction of the Mawaiaka School, in the publication of the book Kamayura History and participating in several militant actions through the Mawutsinin Indigenous Association which is the legal representative of the community. Of course, my stay in the village was only possible because the Kamayura accepted this partnership, which allowed the construction of an affinity in learning that any long-term relationship provides.

When I left the village, I carried with me this incomparable experience, which even today reverberates in my body and so I end up creating other ways to make it uninterrupted. This is how I have been carrying out various actions in the artistic field; I have become a partner and friend of other indigenous people and leaders. For me, living in the village was most important, but listening, dialoguing and studying for a long time helped me to understand the social context that a community like Kamayura must face. It has profoundly changed my own view about the body, art, history, politics, ethics, otherness, production of knowledge and ways of existing.



Kamayura female tattoo marked on the body of actress Andreia Duarte. Scanner made for the São Paulo International Theater Festival Catalogue - MITsp 2019.


In the field of theater arts, I never stopped pursuing the idea of how to relate the indigenous body and the theater. However, certain notions were crucial for the development of practical and theoretical research. The first is the science of a suppression that occurs in the social devaluation and invisibility of the original people in the formation of Brazilian society – a process that tries to distort the violence, injustice and genocide imposed on indigenous inhabitants from the beginning of colonization to the present day. Another point to highlight is the understanding that that body-knowledge is linked in a conjuncture of senses that distinguishes it from any other body. The Kamayura, as an original people, live and revive their own ancestry in their own way. That is a body memory as far away as the depths of the sea and continuous as the infinity of the universe, since it is updated in the demands of the now. As Professor Leda Martins (Performances of spiral time, 2002) explains: in the "spirals of time everything goes and everything comes back."

Finally, I needed to understand what kind of theater language I could use to carry out the research. I spent years asking about these questions and trying to decipher, initially, how to create performance procedures about indigenous life, especially about the knowledge of the Kamayura body in its ways of doing and existing. I also asked what it would be better to emphasize in a show in view of the social and cultural complexity surrounding indigenous existence.

Practicing the theatrical exercise that I discovered myself inserted in research about staging in which the expressive possibilities of the body constituted the principle of creation. So, I sought in the rhythmic quality, speed and intention of action, a systematization of body movement. I did this practice as an actress exercise separate from a staging project and also within the performance “Ode Marítima,” inspired by Fernando Pessoa’s poetry and directed by Juliana Pautilla. The scene in which I acted brought a dramaturgy about the violence of colonization in the (un)encounter between the European and the indigenous.

In this period it was valuable to understand that mimetic representation, in a simple understanding of the imitation of the movement, risked an emptying over the cultural gestuality independent of the content. At the same time, I realized that the affective experience of a person involved with the indigenous context, as was my case, could singularize the expressive form filling each gesture of meaning in a theatrical scene.



Andreia Duarte in the performance Gavião de Duas Cabeças (Two-Headed Hawk). Presentation at Sesc Pompéia. São Paulo, 2018. Photo: Carola Monteiro


Following the investigation, I performed the solo Gavião de Duas Cabeças (Two-headed hawk), continuing my partnership with Juliana Pautilla as director. We made the choice of directing a dramaturgy (and I am not talking only about the text, but the sense emanating from the whole play) based on autobiographical reference, seeking in personal memory a material embedded in the skin.

In this stage realization we chose to emphasize the politics of the body-I-white in the village and outside, questioning the prejudices generated by this choice. We also dealt with the issues that emerge in the encounter between otherness, questioning one's own actions as a colonialist. Furthermore, we chose to show the different meanings involved in the land conflict in Brazil, considering that for the indigenous peoples territoriality is a sacred space that links the collective to their identity; a completely different understanding in relation to the individualist and capitalist usufruct of the land. The dispute between these notions is central to indigenous life in Brazil and reveals different exploratory mechanisms used on the native people.

All the speeches used in the show are real and sought to validate the discussion in a militancy: the speech itself, the indigenous orality and the argument of representatives of the agricultural group of the National Congress. On several occasions, exchanges took place with representatives of different peoples: the cacique Kotok Kamayura helped to translate the indigenous speech of the dramaturgy into the Kamayura language and we made presentations with the presence in the audience of different ethnic groups. A highlight was when we presented to more than 4,000 indigenous people on the small stage of the Acampamento Terra Livre 2017 (Free Land Campsite 2017), the largest gathering of the indigenous movement in Brazil, that took place on the lawn in front of the National Congress in the Federal capital, Brasília).

We also had guests from Kamayura in 2018 in the city of São Paulo, as well as key leaders of indigenous militancy and of the preservation of the national forest, such as Ailton Krenak and Davi Kopenawa. Krenak is considered one of Brazil's most important indigenous intellectuals and an emblematic activist in the inclusion of Indigenous Rights in the 1988 National Constitution. And Davi Kopenawa, winner of the Right Livelihood Award 2019, is one of those responsible for the demarcation of the Yanomami Indigenous Land in the states of Amazonas and of Roraima.

I am aware of a continuous discussion about how some pedagogical-artistic-white-colonial approaches appropriate aspects of other cultures to insert in their projects. I think that an ethical practice could be that of trying to understand that different lives carry logics that are not only dual but deeply singular. What kind of involvement and exchange is established in each situation?

The task of conducting research that crosses the intersection of the indigenous issue and the theater has been for me a rare opportunity to exercise an activism that recognizes the original people in the essentiality of their existence. It is also a way of reflecting deeply on my practice, which is my own life. Currently, I am interested in asking how can we reinvent the possibilities of existing from a broad, artistic, social, cultural, transcultural, human, non-human, natural, anti-colonial experience and alongside the indigenous people? On my body, I think that the Kamayura tattoo marked on my arm has become like the hybrid image of the final scene of the Two-headed Hawk show: the shallow body of a white-bird-indigenous-woman.


Andreia Duarte in the final scene of the Gavião de Duas Cabeças (Two-Headed Hawk). Presentation at SP Theater School. São Paulo, 2018. Photo: Camila Vech.


Moderating a lecture by Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa, at the SP Theater School in São Paulo, I asked how he perceived the non-indigenous performing a show about the indigenous world. Kopenawa gave the following answer “I think that when you who are not indigenous talk about the native issue, you make people look at me. Look at who I am. We are not different, we are the same person, white, black, indigenous, all the same. The truth is, we're fighting for the same thing. For our life, for us. That's the most important.” The dialogue with Kopenawa brought to the research a deviation that began to question in what place we, indigenous and non-indigenous people, can be together? Or rather, what would be a common place?       

Opening this window in an alliance with the leader Ailton Krenak, in 2018, we made the creation and curatorship of TePI - Theater and the indigenous people, as an artistic show that seeks the expansion of theatrical forms in an appreciation of the body by aesthetic and political production. But it is also a space that recognizes the protagonism of indigenous artists, while suggesting meetings and shows that unite indigenous and non-indigenous. Later that year, I invited Krenak and Kopenawa to create by my side and in co-authorship a scenic experiment called “The Silence of the World,” at the Porto Alegre in Scene Festival in Rio Grande do Sul in 2019. Unfortunately, Kopenawa could not attend because he had to undergo a long period of mourning and seclusion after his father-in-law passed away. So, Krenak and I embarked on a creative immersion through which we built a theatrical result in the format of a lecture-performance that we presented at São Pedro Theater to an audience of 700 people.

In relation to the dramaturgy, we work on the time of myth as a space that opens the possibility of creation. The discussion passed on the mythological universe that is often understood only as the cultural imaginary of the original people and not as memory and history. But, as Krenak states in the interview The power of the collective subject in 2018, it does not matter whether the history called mythology is real or not; what is interesting is to realize that time is a place where there is no anguish of certainty. And if there is no guarantee, what happens is opportunity. That is, it is a way of being active, illuminating new gaps in a continuous process of reinventing life in different directions. For Krenak, that would be a window to cross and go out into the world, to experience and to realize.

The dramatic action alongside Ailton Krenak reinforced the need to coin spaces in which we can speak and experience together. In the same way it reaffirmed the importance of art as an exercise of creation, where it does not matter whether we are dealing with reality or fiction. As in the time of uncertainty that Krenak elucidates, what I am interested in is finding in artistic practice a transmutation over notions of life, reworking meaning, images and time. Especially in the case of the theater that has the body as a privileged place of experimentation, I see a door opening in a crossing of itself, in the construction of a collective event and in a process of transformation.

Of course, indigenous existence and the theater occupy different spaces. But what all this research has shown me is that at this crossroads is a possibility of reinventing life. Even because in the encounter between the theater and the original people there is an appreciation of the body as a space of learning through experience, in an activation of forces that interact subjectively and externally in the now. In addition, by paying attention to the orality of original leaders, by observing the fruition of contemporary indigenous art and a theatrical performance that idealizes new ways of existing, I see a conjuncture questioning the colonial capitalist supremacy. What makes me reflect that another issue that unites them is the desire to free us from the kidnapping done by the epistemology of looting (as Krenak calls colonization), which insists on a dominant essentialist model and an era called the anthropocentric paradigm in which man is the center of everything.

I learned from the indigenous body and the body in the theater to believe in places where everything can come to be. An anti-colonial practice could be that of knowing that the past, present and future are totally connected and therefore can help us transmute and propel our existence to the place we want.

The original peoples’ concept of expanded time is one that connects them with all that is alive (whether human or non-human) and inserts them into a collective dimension where they dance and sing for rhythmic reciprocity with the planet. As an artist, I keep imagining non-indigenous bodies aligned with indigenous ancestral knowledge to reestablish a connection: doing it together because we choose to do it, entering the rhythm of the earth with their own rituals and resonating their creations in the world like the sound in the air.



(Left) Pajé-Onça, by artist Denilson Baniwa. Hacking the 33rd Bienal de Artes de São Paulo, 2018, performance, HD video, 16:9, color, sound, 15`. The figure of Pajé-Onça takes information to the village, performs hunts in the cities, such as São Paulo, questions the absence of indigenous art in exhibitions and artistic meetings. As, in the exercise of the Yawarete (onça Baniwa) shows that all territory in the world is indigenous land.





Andreia Duarte is an actress, director, teacher and curator in artistic productions. She is a Ph.D. student at USP/ECA, who has conducted research on the intersection between theater and indigenous peoples from an anti-colonial perspective for 20 years. Email:

This article was translated from the Portuguese by João Maria Kaisen.