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Waiwai Project

Rodrigo viewing Waiwai object at the British Museum

Rodrigo Watha Waiwai at the British Museum 


In this blog post, Cinthya Lana writes about the Waiwai Project and Rodrigo Watha Waiwai's experience of visiting the British Museum to research the Waiwai objects held there.

In January 2018 Rodrigo Watha Waiwai, from the village Mapuera in the northern part of the Brazilian Amazon, came to London with the purpose of giving talks on the history of the Waiwai[1] and to research the collections of Waiwai objects held at the British Museum. Theoretical discussions on the importance of engaging indigenous communities in research on museum collections have been profuse since the 1980s as a strategy for decolonising the museum, however, sustained practices of collaboration, particularly between European museums and Amazonian communities, have not been that often realised. In fact, most indigenous communities from the Amazonian region do not know that European museums hold collections of their groups, some of which dating back to the 16th century. One of the aims of the project was to make the objects and collections from ethnographic museums known to the Waiwai and to allow them unprecedented access to the objects that are part of their cultural heritage. In addition, the project intended to establish a platform of knowledge exchange around the objects, allowing space from which they could construct their own narratives through the objects and reflect on new ways in which historical collections may be useful and significant for them in the present.

One of the key aspects of Rodrigo’s talk, was a discussion on how the arrival of American missionaries in the late 1940s impacted their ways of life, particularly with regards to the decommissioning of shamanistic knowledge and practices, the abandonment of their belief in their own gods (Mawari and Worokyam) and the discontinuation of some of their traditional parties (such as the Yamo). This process of cultural change, obviously impacted their material culture, for example, men no longer grow long hair or wear hair-tubes to keep it neatly tied at the back, women’s aprons have become bigger in comparison to historical pieces, possibly as an influence of their new religious beliefs. As Rodrigo explained in the talk, despite the unquestionable cultural impact that the arrival of the missionaries brought, their sense of language and identity is still strong – they continue to speak in Waiwai, to celebrate with their dances, music, body paint and ornamentation and are eager to learn about their past through the stories their parents and grandparents tell them. Discussing the past with younger generations is actually an important mnemonic activity for the Waiwai. Their historical narratives are empirically driven, in the sense that it refers to specific locations and individuals, their character traits, their deeds or whereabouts. Rodrigo is part of a generation that did not have a lived experience of some of the objects related to shamanism and the parties mentioned above, and the immaterial knowledge related to them, however he had heard about it, and seeing the objects some of his ancestors made and used was also an emotional experience for him. This was actually the first time Rodrigo visited a museum and saw historical objects of the Waiwai.

    I was happy to see ancient crafts made by the Waiwai people, which have been kept in the museum for a long time and are well preserved, and also to see that our culture is known world-wide. I recognised some objects that were made by my ancestors, such as bows, arrows, aprons, fans, headdresses, among others, and I also explained a little to them how they were made and used. I learned about  anthropologists who visited the Waiwai in the past and contributed to building knowledge about the Waiwai worldwide. I think it is of utmost importance, the preservation of items that refer to the histories of ancient peoples, because it does not let their history fall into oblivion (Rodrigo Watha, letter 11 February 2018).

Most of the Waiwai objects in the British Museum (approximately 120) were collected in the first half of the twentieth century, therefore predates the arrival of the missionaries and makes it an important source of reference for their discussion of their own history as well as their material and immaterial knowledge. Among the oldest Waiwai objects in the British Museum were those collected by German geographer Robert Hermann Schomburgk during his expeditions along the Orinoco River in the southern region of Guyana in 1830s. Accounts of his travels have been registered in his diaries, which were republished in 2006, giving accounts of his visit to the Waiwai and other groups in the region. Most of the objects collected by Schomburgk, however, are not attributed to any group in the museum records. This partly reflects collecting practices of the 19th century, prior to the development of an autonomous ethnographic field of study interested in the specificity of cultures.

During his visit Rodrigo could tell apart some of these 19th century objects that were Waiwai, and objects of other groups in the area, and explain systems of local trade. For example, the Mawayana were highly skilled in making cotton treads and hammocks, while the Waiwai did it mostly with a plant fibre, and they exchanged the cotton goods with the Waiwai for sieves used in the production of manioc flour. He also highlighted a process of learning new skills from different groups, for example, the Waiwai did not know how to weave baskets with the intricate graphic patters representing different animal skins until they learned it from the Katuena and Tunayana. One of the 19th century men’s storage cases collected by Schomburgk in the British Museum collection did not have the any patterns, while all of the 20th century ones had. Another observation Rodrigo made was that the arrow points of the Waiwai are very similar to those of the Maya in Central America, although the feather at the other end is tied differently. His observations show that retracing and identifying these networks, trade routes, relationships and workshops for knowledge exchange between different groups, and a comparative analysis of the material culture of northeast Amazonia and the Caribbean, is also an important dimension in anthropological and material culture research that is being overlooked. These are also examples of a highly specialised knowledge of their material culture, and that of neighbouring groups, and the consideration of these networks should be a constitutive part of the curatorial and anthropological research in the region.

Cinthya Lana - PhD candidate at King’s College of London, researching the representation of Amazonian indigenous peoples in art and anthropological exhibitions.

The project was kindly supported by Language Acts and Worldmaking, the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London and the Royal Anthropological Institute.

[1] The talks took place at King’s College London (24 January 2018) and at the Royal Anthropological Institute (25 January 2018)