Collaborative Heritage: Curating The Past To Reclaim The Future
Oga Pysy — a Guarani and Kaiowá ceremonial house. Photograph taken by Fabiana Fernandes, IDAC
‘Who are you?’ This is a deceptively simple question. Currently, I am a writer typing away on my keyboard. However, this is not all I am. Who I am is a culmination of everything I was and everything I will be. My identity, like everyone else’s, is tied to the past. Diaries, photo albums, and museums are only some of the many methods we have of preserving things of importance to share with people in different spaces or times. As Veysel Apaydin (2020) succinctly states in their book Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage, “heritage is a reservoir of memory that allows for the survival of collective identity.” Without knowledge of my cultural origins, I cannot understand my present or chart my future. There is a caveat, however. To inform my identity, I am only able to draw from what’s in the reservoir of heritage, and historically, it is the people with political, economic, or cultural power who have decided what is preserved and how, leading to incomplete and/or distorted histories. Collaborative heritage aims to restore marginalised communities’ right to curate their own legacy.
No one understands the importance of preserving their heritage more than someone whose heritage is being actively stripped from them. The Guarani and Kaiowá Indigenous communities from Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil, have been engaged in a long-standing battle to protect their past, present, and future. Since the 19th century, the Guarani and Kaiowá have been politically and culturally marginalised. Systematic occupation of their land, violence, and exploitation have prevented the community from having access to adequate food, water, healthcare, and education. The recent anti-Indigenous bills, such as the land-grabbing PL490, being debated in the Brazilian congress are the newest chapter in this story of marginalisation.
Watch to learn more about the implications of PL 490 and Marco Temporal for indigenous territories and cultures. Images by Fabiana Fernandes (IDAC), Raffaella Fryer Moreira, Scoot Hill and Mídia India-Oficial. Video edited by Guillaume Tran
This violence was, and is, accompanied by attacks on Guarani and Kaiowá cultural heritage. For instance, Oga Pysy — Guarani and Kaiowá ceremonial houses — which act as an important community space for ritual practices, have been destroyed in conflicts rooted in religious intolerance, creating social disharmony. This is a tactic common to many settler-colonialism projects. Suppressing Indigenous cultural heritage and imposing their own, allows colonists to divorce Indigenous communities from their own identity. Cultural objects and symbols are re-framed to serve the colonial political agenda, becoming trophies instead. A collaborative approach to cultural heritage preservation is the starting point for Indigenous communities to reclaim their political identity.
Knowing this, the Guarani and Kaiowá have embarked on a journey to protect their heritage with Virtual Reality (VR) technology. Since April 2021, the Kuñangue Aty Guasu and the Aty Guasu — the official Guarani and Kaiowá leadership councils, led by male and female elders and shamans, have been collaborating with the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab, led by Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, and the Institute for the Development of Art and Culture, led by Fabiana Fernandes, to create a VR museum, with support from UCL Grand Challenges and
’s EMKP. It aims to address the communities’ concerns about cultural heritage management by creating a digital infrastructure that helps Guarani and Kaiowá communities to preserve, curate, and display their own material and immaterial cultural heritage.
The Kuñangue Aty Guasu council at work, creating space for cultural and political mobilisation. Photograph taken by Fabiana Fernandes, IDAC
This collaborative approach is being embraced across the world, with innovative projects addressing different aspects of Indigenous cultural heritage in a diverse range of communities. ‘Along the River of Space Time’ is an example of one such project, which explores the intersection of Indigenous astronomical knowledge and land practices, and Western space science. A VR game is used as a method to view and share information on constellations and river ecosystems from the Anishinaabe peoples resident in North America. While this project uses collaborative heritage to reclaim Indigenous space in science, the Wunungu Awara partnership between Indigenous Australian communities and Monash university has focused on language preservation via animation. The animations focus on sharing traditional stories, poems, and songs to not only protect cultural property but also to reinforce Indigenous rights. The Guarani and Kaiowá Virtual Museum aims to continue the incredible creativity shown in the wider field of collaborative heritage by employing multimedia methods to preserve and display components of material and immaterial heritage.
Guarani and Kaiowá shaman Dona Rozalina, experiences VR for the first time. Photograph taken by Raffaella Fryer-Moreira
Culture is like a living organism. To authentically preserve cultural heritage, it must be seen, heard, felt, and shared. Meeting these aims has been no easy task. The past few months have seen people from diverse disciplines and professions come together to fulfill the communities’ visions. Storytellers have created beautiful narratives, built on ethnographic research aided by translators, with digital artists and sound designers, using free and open-source VR platforms such as Mozilla Hubs to transform cultural heritage into interactive digital artefacts. Sacred objects, medicinal plants, and village scenes have been recreated as 3D models, while sound recordings have been made of sacred chants. Each step in the creation process has been informed by detailed ethnographic discussions where community members have ensured that every part of Gurani and Kaiowá culture is recorded in the way that they want it to be.
A sacred object represented using 3D modelling (3D model made by Harold Santiago Almeida)
One aspect of the project is focused on documenting the material processes and technical knowledge involved in the construction of the Oga Pysy, as part of a digital heritage project supported by the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme. As Fabiana Fernandes expressed:
‘Older versions of Oga Pysys were 4 to 5 times bigger. There is a lot of contrast between the past and the present. This shows the genocide and the destructive invasion of the white people and its impact on the ecosystem.’
Digital technologies offer new forms of working collaboratively with communities in the preservation of local heritage and enable new ways of sharing knowledge with larger and more diverse audiences around the world. As the Guarani and Kaiowá community continues to fight for the future of Indigenous lives, rights, and ways of living through their participation in the national mobilisation against anti-Indigenous laws currently underway in Brasilia, the team at UCL MAL are committed to supporting their struggle, and helping raise visibility and awareness of the risks these new laws present to Indigenous culture, heritage, and livelihoods.
Jaqueline Aranduhá uses a digital camera to document her cultural heritage. Photograph taken by Doriano Morales
Understanding and curating one’s identity, particularly collective identity, is a complex and difficult process. Communities are not monoliths, and each member of the collective has a different idea of what must be preserved and how. Reaching a consensus can be challenging. However, no matter how difficult it may be, one’s identity cannot and should not be handed over for others to define. Through collaborative heritage, the Guarani and Kaiowá have ownership over not only their past, but also their present and future history. Their identity is theirs, and only they can decide how their story can be told.
Apaydin, V., 2020. Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage. 1st ed. London: UCL Press.
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Manasvini Moni is a Public Health Sciences Masters student at Karolinska Institute, Sweden. Passionate about health and social justice, she wishes to understand and find solutions to health inequalities, and increase public understanding of and access to accurate scientific information through behaviour change and communication.