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Words by Claudia Augustat

What remains at the end

Mask from the Tapirapé, Brazil before 1964, Coll. Malkin Photo: KHM-Museumsverband

I am writing this text in August 2019. Amazonia is in flames. Every day my Facebook account is flooded with messages that will not extinguish the fire. My feelings? Anger, frustration, disappointment, grief, helplessness.

The first time I am in the rainforest is in 1997. I am lying in a hammock at the Rio Casiquiare in Venezuela. I hear something gurgling in the river. I stretch the mosquito net which is affixed to my hammock and take a peak outside. I spot river dolphins bobbing around in the water. They are the souls of deceased children. I feel secure here: in the hammock, under the mosquito net, at the river, in the rainforest. Alexander von Humboldt was here as well. Him we remember. In Berlin they are building a palace in honour of him and his brother. On the island in the Spree river, they might soon put a dance mask of the Tapirapé on display to remind us of their lives in the rainforest.

In the language of the Tapirapé, a dance mask is called tawa. There are not a lot of people speaking this language anymore. According to statistics, there were 760 speakers left in 2014. In Portuguese the dance mask is called cara grande: the large face. It is the spirit of a killed enemy. Perhaps of a Karajá or a Kayapó: the neighbours of the Tapirapé. Barbaric neighbours they fear. Thanks to the masks and the power of the shamans, they become controllable through dance. Their enmity is characterised by coexistence. You rob your enemies of their songs, spirits and masks. Also of their women and children. Such enmity includes the quality of kinship.

There is no coexistence with other enemies. The Tapirapé stand in the way of their own progress. A progress that is destructible. A progress that does not wish to understand the coexistence of people, animals, plants and spirits. A progress that does not look far enough into the future to see the end. According to Tapirapé mythology, their world was consumed by fire at the beginning of time. Four birds survived the blaze. Their children turned into human beings. Will anything survive when the fire destroys everything once more?

Translated by Daniel Stevens