Els Lagrou:
Amerindian Abstract Chimeras: Relational Aesthetics in a Transformational Universe

Within the framework of the KHI Amerindian Lecture Series

Txana & Sebidua. Photo by Els Lagrou, 2015

A look at how Amerindian people think about images and patterns as fluid processes of veiling and unveiling form and connectedness, allows us to discover a specific aesthetic – one that I have proposed to call an ‘Amerindian relational aesthetics’. This aesthetics emphasizes processes of change and becoming, where selfhood is systematically traversed by otherness, and where images point toward being in between, as well as to the fact that every entity is fractal and can be split in two and in many. I will explore this idea in comparative terms for Western Amazonia, being my starting point the Huni Kuin people with whom I have been working for thirty years now and with whom I ‘learned to see’ while listening.
Through the study of form, I explore how relations constitute persons for the Huni Kuin. Shamanistic song and the role of patterned design in it reveals a specific aesthetics that emphasizes processes of becoming, transformation and figure/ground reversal. Since bodily substances and actions of others affect the ‘thinking body’, well-being depends on making visible the relational network that exists inside and outside one’s embodied self. An aesthetic battlefield unfolds where the doubles of ingested substances invert the predatory relation and come to envelop the ‘eye soul’ of the one who ingested them with their design and ornaments. This setting allows us to address the fractal quality of personhood and the permanent disequilibrium between symmetrical and asymmetrical relations in Amazonia, revealing a specific Amerindian ontology of images. This case study will serve as a starting point for some methodological reflections on the study of Amerindian art and ritual.

Els Lagrou is a full professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Graduate Program of Sociology and Anthropology), and a Researcher of the National Center of Research (CNPq). Her research interests include Amerindian Ethnology, its ontological, social and aesthetic regimes, as well as the Anthropology of expressive and agentive forms.
She is the author of A fluidez da forma: arte, alteridade e agência em uma sociedade amazônica [The fluidity of form: art, alterity and agency in an Amazonian society] (Topbooks, 2007), Artes indígenas no Brasil [Indigenous arts in Brazil] (ComArte, 2009), and of the catalogue of the show she curated at the National Museum of the Brazilian Indian No caminho da miçanga, um mundo que se faz de contas [On the path of glass beads, a world made of beads] (UNESCO/FUNAI, 2016); with Carlo Severi she edited Quimeras em diálogo: grafismo e figuração nas artes ameríndias [Chimeras in dialogue: grafism and figuration in Amerindian arts] (7Letras, 2014). Lagrou has published extensively in books and important national and international journals.

The KHI Amerindian Lecture Series 2021 is conceived as a forum to reflect on Indigenous arts/visual cultures and aesthetic practices created on the American continent, past and present. It is organized by Sanja Savkić Šebek (KHI in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) & Bat-ami Artzi (Dumbarton Oaks) within the framework of the Department Gerhard Wolf & the 4A Laboratory: Art Histories, Archaeologies, Anthropologies, Aesthetics.

16. Dezember 2021, 17:30 Uhr

The event takes place online.

To participate please register in advance via Zoom:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. 


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