FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Pigmalião Escultura que Mexe

Pigmalião Escultura que Mexe: Macunaíma Gourmet

January 26-28, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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Cannibalizing Global Capitalism: Macunaíma Gourmet’s response to the Anthropophagist Movement

An Essay by Marissa Fenley

“Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question,” wrote Oswald de Andrade in his Manifesto Anthopofago (1928). His manifesto championed anthropophagy, or cannibalism, as Brazil’s greatest weapon against colonization and became a touchstone for Brazilian modernist experimentation. The Tupi ceremoniously cannibalized the European enemy in order to ingest his strength and use it against him, or in Oswald’s turn of phrase, “eat Shakespeare.” Playfully embracing the image of the “primitive cannibal” that looms large in the colonial imaginary and transforming it into a form of “cultural devouring,” Brazilian modernists proposed that they would cannibalize “Western” culture and re-metabolize it as Brazilian lived experience (Jackson, 1978). Andrade thus inverted the barbarism/civilization binary that colonialism upholds. He would take the colonizer’s “civilization” and make it “barbaric.” 

In Macunaíma Gourmet, Pigmalião Escultura que Mexe adapts the Brazilian modernist novel Macunaíma (1928) by Mário de Andrade in order to utilize puppetry to reinvestigate the figure of its title character and interrogate the usefulness of anthropophagist nationalism as a motif for Brazilian postcolonial resistance today. Mário was a collaborator with Oswald de Andrade (though no relation), even if Mário was not an “Anthropophagist” per se. However, many scholars read Macunaíma as a similarly cannibalistic text: Mário fused Indigenous culture, language, and folklore with that of Portugal and Africa in the figure of Macunaíma, a shape-shifter who has come to represent Brazilian interracial national identity (Nunes, 2008). 

If cannibalism was championed by the Anthrophagists as a weapon of the colonized, Pigmalião reminds us that colonialism operates by way of a similarly cannibalistic impulse, which has now, much like Macunaíma himself, shape-shifted into the monolithic enemy that is global capitalism. 

The sector of global capitalism that most ravenously “eats” Brazil is the beef industry. The piece follows the twelve stages of Macunaíma’s life from birth to slaughter. We watch as Macunaíma, who begins as a knee-high, doll-style puppet with a single rod in the back of his head and grows into an adult-sized puppet of the same style, is raised, bred, fattened, and sold like a head of cattle, all while being manipulated by an interracial cast of puppeteers in full-body, whiteface makeup. The literal “whitewashing” of the puppeteers positions Macunaíma as a product of a fictionalized, post-racial Brazil. Pigmalião reminds us that the Taulipang myth from which Mário derived his main character was itself filtered through a white colonial imaginary: Mário only accessed the myth through a German anthropological text (Silva, 2018). 

Eating the colonist in Macunaíma Gourmet does not make Brazilians stronger but, rather, gives them indigestion. During the second stage of Macunaíma’s life, “The Childhood,” a food-and-beverage cooler marked “Gourmand Eats” is delivered to the stage. One of Macunaíma’s companions opens it, and bright fluorescent light floods out of the box. The man pulls out a Coca-Cola, cracks the lid, and takes a sip. Immediately a screen at the back of the stage lights up with a montage of food commercials. We see images of sizzling meat, creamy Nutella, buttery shrimp on a grill, and shaved chocolate rapidly play across the screen. Voiceovers from classic hamburger commercials are heard over the montage: “Where’s the beef?” The stage then goes dark and we begin the next stage— “The Weaning”—as the lights come up on Macunaíma and his companions glutted and sleepy, with the remains of their fast-food feast scattered about around them. Pigmalião demonstrates that the form of reciprocal cultural consumption that Brazilian modernists offered as both a tool for Brazilian nation building and a weapon against colonization is the same tool of global capitalism. And although Brazil exports more beef than any other country in the world, it is not an “authentic” Brazilian product but rather one fattened by the appetites of the Western marketplace (Zia, 2019). Eating the colonizer’s food makes Macunaíma sick.   

As the scene continues, the puppeteers begin to wipe off the white paint that covers their light-skinned and dark-skinned bodies. In some ways, this scene seems to fulfill Andrade’s fantasy of Brazil as an interracial utopia, and, indeed until relatively recently, Brazil was seen as a “racial democracy,” founded on the myth of a “non-racist national cultural” (Winant, 174). Just as Afro-Brazilian activists have begun to dismantle this myth, Pigmalião similarly refuses this fantasy. One of the performers tells us the story of Macunaíma’s baptism: He “got out of the bath [and] he was white, blond, and with blue eyes. The water had washed away his blackness.” This scene, which originates from Andrade’s original text, echoes a minstrel trope of washing off the white minstrel performer’s blackface.¹ Juxtaposed with this image from the text, Pigmalião’s whiteface puppeteers invert this minstrel trope when they wash off their white paint—a rejection of this racist subcurrent in the story of Macunaíma.

However, immediately following, the performers then begin to put on white jumpsuits, white slip-on shoes, white gloves, and white face masks. Whitewashed again by their laboratory suits, they begin to operate on the puppet of Macunaíma while photographic negatives of the earlier commercial montage play behind them in reverse. Pigmalião thus offers us another powerful visual rebuttal to Andrade’s cosmopolitan optimism: Colonialism—and its inherent white supremacy—is the cannibal, and its cannibalism does not incorporate but eliminates the Black colonized subject. Any attempt to invert this cannibalism—to wash off the white paint, to play the montage in negative and reverse—is just to reconsume the same tropes in a new form, is just to swap white paint for white coats.   

Throughout the rest of the piece, we follow Macunaíma as he is forcibly bred through artificial insemination with a birdwoman, packaged in a loin cloth and headdress as a manufactured image of “indigenous” Brazil, and auctioned off to a giant puppet of a gluttonous American, who has his Macunaíma beef cooked in polenta and served on a silver platter. As the hungry American capitalist cannibalizes Macunaíma, audio of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is interspersed with recordings of Donald Trump praising Bolsonaro’s leadership. Bolsonaro’s voice echoes: “I’d eat a native Brazilian without any problems. I do eat it.” The Brazilian Modernist’s cannibalistic project has come full circle, Pigmalião suggests: Brazil is eating itself—a process that does not produce pan-Brazilian national subjects but rather capitalist imperialists who have fully internalized the colonizer. 

Pigmalião teases us with a triumphant ending. Footage of the toppling of colonial statues plays on the screen as the fat American is beheaded—an image that is met with cheers from the (primarily) American audience. The final stage—“The Indigestion”—shows the giant puppet body of the American left behind to be eaten by Brazilian leafcutter ants. The native ants decompose the body of the colonizer, returning him to earth. And yet, the indigeneity implied by the natural scene is here playfully renamed as “indigestion.” The very fantasy of a “primitive” Brazil is a Western one, and we remember that in the stomach of the American is the body of Macunaíma, who was himself fattened on the processed food of the West. Indigeneity is here offered not as an authentic origin but as a mise en abyme of cannibalism: No matter how far down the gullet you go, you only find more commodified Western products. 

However, watching the piece in Chicago, we, too, are consuming Brazilian culture and metabolizing it as our own. Pigmalião quite damningly speaks to us: “You don’t know our western side. Our north is your south.” The piece thus far has relied on a distinction between the hyper-commodified representations of the West with natural representations of the native flora and fauna of Brazil. However, the very notion of the “west” as a distinct place from Brazil makes no sense—at least not within a geography that places the United States as “western” and its southern, but equally western neighbor, as not. Pigmalião here reminds us that cannibalism relies on false notions of the “other” who is really the same. And what might be described as “global cannibalism” similarly requires false geographies to decide who falls into the othered spaces of the “non-West.” If anthropophagism only maintains the fabricated divide between those who get fat and those who get eaten, then the fight against colonization, it seems, requires a new strategy.    

1  While the minstrel show is largely understood as an American performance form, Brazil has its own history of blackface performance. See, for example, Travae (2015).

Works Cited

Andrade, Oswald de, and Leslie Bary. “Cannibalist Manifesto.” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 19, no. 38, 1991, 38-47.

Jackson, Kenneth David. “A View on Brazilian Literature: Eating the Revista de Antropofagia.” Latin American Literary Review, vol. 7, no. 13, 1978, pp. 1-9.

Nunes, Zita. Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Silva, Daniel F. “Mário de Andrade’s Antropofagia and Macunaíma as Anti-Imperial Scene of Writing,” in Anti-Empire: Decolonial Interventions in Lusophone Literatures, series editors L. Elena Delgado and Niamh Thornton, Contemporary Hispanic and Lusophone Cultures, vol. 18, Liverpool University Press, 2018, 33-68. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv69tgxz.5. Accessed August 8, 2023. 

Travae, Marques. “Black Women Activists Call for an End to ‘blackface’ Carnaval costumes!” Black Brazil Today, February 21, 2015. Available at: https://blackbraziltoday.com/black-women-activists-call-for-an-end-to-blackface/. Accessed July 9, 2023.

Winant, Howard. “Rethinking Race in Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 1992, 173-192.

Zia, Mustafa. “Brazil Once Again Becomes the World’s Largest Beef Exporter,” USDA: Economic Research Service, July 1, 2019. Available at: https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/july/brazil-once-again-becomes-the-world-s-largest-beef-exporter/. Accessed July 9, 2023.

Play Video

View Eduardo’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Eduardo Felix at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 28, 2023, Eduardo Felix was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Maya: The Uses of Illusion.” 

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Eduardo's Presentation

Oh, hi. Oh, thank you. I'm glad to be here with you. I will try to speak a little bit about our process and how what we try to do, but it'll be hard for me because my English is terrible. So I hope you understand. Well, the company, the name of the company, Pigmaliao Escultura que Mexe, it's like Pygmalion, moving sculpture. I came from sculpture. When I started the company, I didn't know if it would be a company of sculpture or theater. And I worked already with some other companies with a big company right now in Brazil. The name is... Ah, yeah. Yes there is. Yes. It's a company with 50 years of its existence. But I was a student of art, fine arts. And for me, I would like to make contemporary art. And puppet for me is one thing, contemporary art was other thing.

And it was what I learned in the school. Like the puppet are is smaller than the other arts. Even in the theater, I think there is a lot of people that thinks really that puppet is smaller than the human theater. And during a long time, for me it was really separated. I had my career in sculpting, selling things in galleries. But the theater was not… Was something that I liked. Enjoyed a lot to do. But for me it was something different. And the company starts, when I realized that I could make contemporary arts with puppets. It was not so easy to discover that ’cause I have not references. And when I started to have to see that, oh, I can really make…. What I understand as contemporary art, I think it is when you touch, when I can speak to my time, when I can interact with my time with the things and make people think about some things and to help the society to think about the time we live. So when I left the school and I opened my workshop, it was a sculpture workshop in the beginning. And I was trying to say, how can I do something different? And oh, we start from something that I’ve not seen yet. Puppets with natural size, natural proportions, not like puppets with a big head or… But natural proportions. And after that, I’ve seen that it was really hard to manipulate these puppets. ‘Cause when you have a puppet with a proportion, more , you can make movements with the puppets less natural. And when you have a real proportion puppet, all the movements has to be really real, and it’s hard to do that. And we worked more than other techniques with string puppets. It’s even more hard to do. But it was the beginning and we started the first work of the company was erotic puppet show. It was in 2007. And the initial proposition, it was to think about philosophy with puppets. It’s still in the objectives of the company, the main of the company to work up philosophy in puppets. And the first big show we did was “Philosophy in the Alcove.” She told, it’s the “Philosophy in the Bedroom.” That text of Marquis de Sade. And this, it was really important for us ’cause we were talking about philosophy, but also we discovered how to provoke sensations in the public. Like, the public sensations, like to be horn. To be can’t breathe when in public. To make the public feel angry. Sometimes the public really are angry with us. Even here, I can see it ’cause at the end of the show, “Macunaima,” I can see a lot of people happy and a lot of people like, . And I like it, because if I’m trying to touch the contemporaneity, it will not be a easy talk. I will not talk just about good things. And if everybody’s happy in the end, it didn’t work. Sorry, but I don’t like the public happy in the end. Normally, the public leaves the theater like, ugh. It’s what we try to do. Sorry. And in this work we… In the process, this work, trying to make realistic movements with puppets, there is really illusion. This illusion is something really powerful, because when you give the impression that everything, that the puppet is alive, it’s like a hypnotic sensation. The public is open. Even if the public doesn’t like what I’m saying, but the public listen. It’s something powerful. Sometimes it’s like five seconds of this sensation. But this is powerful. So we try to make this sensation doing more time possible, and using this to make, provoke, it does exist?

Mmmhmm.

Provoke the public to think about things they don’t want to think about. And so the “Philosophy in the Bedroom” was the first big show of the company. We were talking about sexuality and society and rulers of the society. And after we did another show, I think maybe there are some pictures here of the pigs. It’s a family of pigs and it’s a terrible show. Like, it’s terrible. But it’s the show we turn more. It’s because it’s like a respectable family. But you can see inside the head of each character. And it’s not easy because the public will always, will identify with one or other story. And maybe, and sometimes it hurts. And I like it. Sorry. My first show was Sade. Marquis de Sade. So a little bit of sadism is natural. So, we work trying to make this illusion stronger. And how can we convince the public that the puppet is alive? And we started to create, like you discover like a vocabulary of movements. ‘Cause everybody can, you can recognize we are more prepared than we think. It’s really like a language that we all know very well. The language of gesture. You know if you like or not one person just by the movements they do. And so we started to discover how, what means a gesture? Like this? It means one thing. It means other thing. It means one thing. So, like, how to make sentences. We use word gesture, and how to make sentences just with movements. And we started, like, philosophical themes. But after Brazil started to be a disaster in the political themes. And as a contemporary artist also, I started to think, how I could not to let it pass without talk about it. We have a space of speaking. I have like here. I’m speaking, you are listening. This is also a relation power. A power relation. Sorry. And how could we use it well? I think it was not… Sorry, I lost… It’s very hard to speak, to do that in English. But we have to talk about that. We had to use this space to talk about what was happening in Brazil and to think about that, ’cause it’s not when we have a show. We don’t want just to talk about that, to speak about that, want to understand before. And always that we start a process. It’s about, oh, what I want to think about in this moment. ‘Cause I will be the next two or three years thinking about this. So it’s a curiosity thing that make it happen. So after that, we started to be more political, then because its philosophy also. But all the shows after 2000, this mess in Brazil started in 2013. The show we did in 2015, and the others we did after are more political than before. And this illusion, this power of the puppet, this power of this illusion is our guns to fight. It’s what we can do. I’m not a person that goes to internet to say things. It’s the space I have to talk about political, and this is the stage. So we try to do that in the stage. And this show, “Macunaima Gourmet” was not ’cause I… We travel a lot. We don’t talk just for the Brazilian public. So we are in the same mess in the end. And to think about that, I think it’s important. I don’t know. Maybe it’s illusion for me also. We have to think that what we are doing are important in some way. To convince myself we try to do this. And the next, like, we are in the process of a new show and just by the name you can see what is happening. It’s “Anthropophagic Fables for Fascist Days,” that we work with the fables of Aesop and in the Brazilian contemporary philosopher who thinks about fascism. And we are going to do it more. Yeah, well, with that, I think… I don’t know if I used up all my time or more than my time.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 26-28, 2023
MCA Chicago
205 E. Pearson St.

US Premiere

Met by standing ovations at its 2019 premiere, this reinterpretation of the popular Brazilian novel “Macunaíma” by Mário de Andrade is full of spectacle, outrageousness and political perspective that demanded expression through puppetry and object. This adaptation, Macunaíma Gourmet, transports the modernist novel to the present day. In its new guise, the piece discusses the storm that Brazilian and global society faces in its socioeconomic and cultural structures with distinctive raucous imagery, unforgettable Brazilian style, and the urgency with which puppets can make political points.

Past Performances and Further Reading