‘Nós Protegemos O que Nos Protege’
‘We Protect What Protects Us’
The small town of Olivenca in Brazil is charmingly unassuming, but its winding streets and bridges are full of histories. Four hundred and fifty years ago, its shores were first touched by Portuguese ships, and home to one of the biggest massacres of Indigenous people in Brazilian history. Legends speak of seven kilometres of indigenous bodies, laid side by side by side on the white sand beach.
Four hundred and fifty years later, the Tupinamba people are still fighting for their land,
colonizers replaced by corporations. The government and police, meant to protect them, are a constant threat. And four hundred and fifty years later, The Fearless Collective found themselves in a village square, collaborating with Pelas Mulheres, FRIDA grantee partner in Brazil, to reclaim an indigenous ancestral graveyard, sacred to the Tupinamba people, taken by the church as part of the ‘civilization’ of modern day Brazil.
Together, they colored outside the lines exploring the theme of spirit and how it affects us. See below the breathtaking photo essay and relive the experience:
Bahia is home to many spiritual traditions, afro-brazilian yoruba spirits secretly invoked across the ocean by west african slaves, ornate catholic churches loom over town squares, and multiple indigenous traditions that honour earth, skin, plants and invisible spirit. In sharp juxtaposition to the stone Catholic churches dotting the landscape, the indigenous communities we met avoid permanent structures for their deities, embracing instead the temporal omnipresent spirit.
The Tupinamba- the people of this land, are blessed in feathers, their skin painted with the ink of the Guinea Pappo. Their gods have no form, no colour, but manifest themselves as a feeling – ‘encantada’ (enchanted), they are called. They grow cassava, sweet potatoes, tobacco. The land is sacred, and everything returns to it – including our bodies and the ancestors before us. 450 years ago, Portuguese ships first touched the shores of Olivenca – home of Tupinamba and home to one of the biggest massacres of Indigenous people in the history of Brazil. Legends speak of seven kilometers of indigenous bodies, laid side by side by side on the white sand beach. For the Tupinamba, the land is power. And what comes from this sacred land symbolizes protection, safety, healing. The Tupinamba use ink and mud of this land to paint each others’ bodies. Protecting themselves from evil spirits and healing the spirit within. The village elders paint their daughters and their daughters paint the elders. While Brazil is no longer under Portuguese rule, signalling the end of colonization to many, the Tupinamba remain in a constant struggle over land right claims by corporations.
Spiritual traditions around the world have variations of protection, talismans, prayers, body paint, rituals and ceremonies, but who are we protecting? What protects us? What about ourselves do we want to protect? In an intimate ritual, the Fearless team articulated this relationship to protection. They worked with traditional medicines and ceremonies of the Tupinamba community by using their body paint. The red paint is from the belly of a fruit called guinea pappo. The soft-pink-white is a rock softened by salt water from the sea, making a soothing paint for skin. Each born from the land, symbolic of protection and healing.
As they began to sculpt a vision for our painting, reciprocity became an important theme. Within the Tupinamba community, protection is always cyclical. What protects us, we protect in return. The earth protects us, and we protect the earth; Our culture protects us, and we protect our culture. Through the ritual, an image emerged of women within the community, painting on each others arms, invoking the traditions and protections of all their ancestors before them. As the Fearless team circled round and round the city square to find a spot or wall to paint, they realized they were circling two cement circles, two circles that lay on top of an indigenous burial ground, claimed by the church, and later by the Brazilian government, as city land.
The Fearless crew, a motley group of school children, the women of Pelas Mulheres, the town administrator, and the friendly faces that joined as they painted, worked day and night to fill the massive circles with the images and symbols of the Tupinamba. Reclaiming this long sacred space with stories of reciprocity and protection. Working with the women in the workshop, they continually layered symbols into the mural, body painting, sacred plants, rivers, curly hair, layer after layer of conversation manifested together. Bringing up issues of identity (the stereotype that one must have straight hair to be indigenous), gender (two women in stances of power), and impermanence (a patch of grass incorporated into the mural). Woven between the lines of protection – wishes, blessings and symbols adorned our women’s arms, as each community member articulated the thing that protected them, and what about themselves they wanted to protect.
In 7 days of rain and ritual, it felt like in their own small way, the Fearless team had reclaimed a territory that had been taken away 450 years ago, by creating some of the first representations of the Tupinamba community in public space, in a town otherwise filled with Portuguese architectures. Celebrations broke out. Under their dancing feet is a land of their ancestors. Under their dancing feet are stories of their people, powered through generations of protecting what protects us.
Today, in the village center, painted on a concrete circle, are two women- the younger girl bedecked in the feathers of her people. Her face is adorned in war paint, her eyes are fierce and she remembers, invokes and reclaims the traditional patterns of her ancestors, painted on the skin of her grandmother. For hundreds of years, the Tupinamba hid their body painting tradition (a symbol of protection) to protect themselves from colonizers. But now, in a resurgence echoed by indigenous communities around the world, the younger generation is reclaiming their traditions and their territory. She says ‘Nós Protegemos O que Nos Protege’ (‘We Protect What Protects Us’)
© All art by Shilo Shiv Suleman and the Fearless team, along with members of Pelas Mulheres and several other children, women-young and old and volunteers who helped and joined hearts in the painting process. Photography by Fabrice Bourgelle a.k.a. Photography by Focus. Captions by The Fearless Collective team. For more pictures and detailed storytelling, check out the Facebook album by The Fearless Collective.
Outside the Lines of Spirit is part of the #FearlesslyFRIDA initiative. The Fearless Collective is on a beautiful mission to paint the world with fierce and fearless colors as they collaborate with FRIDA and some of our grantee partners. Learn more about the global art tour of the #FearlesslyFRIDA partnership.