Oga Pysy: Techniques of Dialogue
Documenting Guarani and Kaiowá Ceremonial Houses in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
A project led by Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, in collaboration with Fabiana Assis Fernandes, and the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab (MAL), with the support of the British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP)
The Oga Pysy: Techniques of Dialogue project is designed to document the material processes and technical knowledge through which Guarani and Kaiowá ceremonial houses (Oga Pysy) are constructed, the local cosmological frameworks that imbue their architecture, and the sacred ritual practices that these captivating structures contain and enable. The close collaboration between the community, UCL MAL and the British Museum’s EMKP will utilise a wide variety of innovative digital media in the process of documenting such practices, knowledge, related traditional objects and construction anatomy, including technologies of multi-sensory immersion such as VR/360 video, 3D models, photogrammetry and compelling ambisonic sound. This project is absolutely crucial for the preservation of the community’s distinct cultural heritage, especially considering the recent threats posed to the Guarani and Kaiowá, including the ruthless arson of Oga Pysy ceremonial houses such as the Guyra Nheengatu Amba, by neighbouring non-indigenous populations, in an attempt to destroy a unique culture that should be respected and protected. The audiovisual material produced will directly contribute to the development of an important collection which will preserve, pay homage to, and educate diverse global audiences about the rich cultural heritage held by Guarani Kaiowá indigenous communities in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.
Guarani and Kaiowá Oga Pysy
Oga Pysy are Guarani and Kaiowá ceremonial houses that play a key role in ceremonial practice, providing a physical space through which community members can establish a direct and personal link to the central deity, Nhanderu Tupã. Within the Oga Pysy several rituals are performed which enable the Guarani and Kaiowá population to conduct seasonal ceremonies and rites that restore harmony with venerated cosmological entities, and therefore ensure much needed social and cultural harmony within the community is maintained. It is also a space where celebrations are held, with singing and dancing prevailing to the tune of revered songs like the Kotehu, Guaxiré and Guahu. The physical architecture of the Oga Pysy and the material components through which they are constructed, are directly informed by local cosmological frameworks and revered indigenous metaphysical knowledge. Consequently, it is the local Shaman known as the Nhanderu, who holds all the technical knowledge and expertise required to build the Oga Pysy, an element which is considered as sacred and endangered knowledge for the transcendental experience they facilitate.
For the Guarani and Kaiowá, the Oga Pysy are very important because they are not just for spiritual leaders, but a house for everyone. It is a space at the heart of the community where meetings are held, members are educated, and where traditional objects that reflect the origins of their culture are made using distinct artisanal craftsmanship that constitutes endangered material knowledge. Surprisingly, despite the fact that over the years the role which the Oga Pysy plays within the community has changed from communal living space for an extended nuclear family to a space predominantly dedicated to religious practices, there are no studies focusing exclusively on the specialised, technical knowledge and material practices through which these ceremonial houses are designed and constructed, something which this project aims to address. The Guarani and Kaiowá strongly believe that because of these ceremonial houses and the sacred rituals that occur within, the principal deity respects the community, just as the Guarani Kaiowá respects God and the Shamans through their worship. If there are no Oga Pysy, then there is no way of connecting and communicating with God, or to ask for help to improve the native’s lives, a crucial aspect given the difficult situation the natives are forced to go through. The absence of ceremonial houses would result in social disharmony and a breakdown in community relations that are already under pressure.
“We Kaiowá indigenous people, are born from the earth and the ceremonial house was born together with us.
It is our life, our mother, it is a very sacred space, a place of guidance, of sustenance, where we teach children
to respect their culture since they are little until their final hour.”
- Dona Alda, Indigenous Shaman from Reserva Indigena de Dourados in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.
This collaborative project was born out of a desire and determination to protect a fascinating culture, its practices and the endangered material knowledge that the Guarani Kaiowá community are endowed with. Unfortunately, these natives have had to live in a context of sustained conflict with the surrounding non-indigenous population, including large-scale agricultural industries which occupy the region and affect the community’s ability to be self-sufficient as desired, as well as the growing influence of evangelical religious groups which repudiate traditional ceremonial practices. There are approximately 45,000 individuals that make up the Guarani and Kaiowá population, however only 30,000 reside in eight officially recognised indigenous reserves.
The remaining 15,000 community members live in temporary roadside encampments with overcrowded, poor living conditions that have no respect for the Guarani Kaiowá way of life and cultural traditions, nor offering the proper capacity to conduct important sacred rituals for connecting with God - for example the annual ritual of "corn baptism" which takes place every March/April to enhance the prospect of cultivating a copious first corn harvest. This precarious situation presents several imminent dangers, including ecological degeneration in the region, but also religious intolerance and tension from outside, as well as within the community; something which in turn has considerably reduced the number of existing Oga Pysy ceremonial houses to fewer than 20, across all territories occupied by the Guarani Kaiowá population.
Dangers have further intensified over the past couple of years. The threat of violent conflicts with neighbouring non-indigenous population, reduced living space, land access, malnutrition, lack of ecological resources and reduced access to the raw materials used for building ceremonial houses, has led to a stark reduction of Oga Pysy being built, at a time when they are need most. In June 2019, the Guyra Nheengatu Amba ceremonial house in Reserva Indigena de Dourados was subject to a deliberate arson attack. Not only was the Oga Pysy violently burnt to the ground, but with it all the sacred objects contained inside, such as the cherished Chiru, Jeguaka, M’baraka, Kiha, Cocho and Apyka were destroyed; emphasising the imminent danger of losing the material practices and technical knowledge through which these architectures and artefacts are made.
The incident was filmed, and all that is left now is a moving video which demonstrates the devastating impact this vicious arson had on Seu Getúlio and Dona Alda, the indigenous Shamans who resided in and were responsible for the ceremonial house. It is resources such as this video that allow the story of the Guarani and Kaiowá culture to be told, so it is crucial to create even more multimedia material of this kind, to use in developing a collection and archive to protect the endangered material knowledge and heritage of the community for future generations. Currently, the community aims to build another three Oga Pysy to be used as vessels to connect with deities and enhance congruency in their community, a process which will be documented by this project.
This project endeavours to use a diverse range of digital media, with the most sophisticated tools and technologies currently available, to provide detailed and comprehensive documentation in its ethnographic investigation of the material practices through which Guarani and Kaiowá ceremonial houses are built, along with the social relations and cosmological paradigms that such houses enable and sustain. The technical process through which the Oga Pysy is constructed from the initial moment when a Shaman decides on the location in which it will be built, and the subsequent spiritual preparation of the site through a series of rites, as well as the input of technicians who will gather, prepare and assemble the required materials for creating the physical structure, will be recorded during the building operation of the new ceremonial houses, with data to also be gathered on existing Oga Pysy used by the community.
The array of digital mediums employed will include VR/360 video, ambisonic sound recordings, photogrammetry, videogrammetry, technical diagrams, 3D models and traditional digital video and photography, to explore the connection between physical, metaphysical and ontological knowledge systems. These digital documents will undoubtedly prove valuable resources for museums, virtual spaces and cultural institutions in the UK, Brazil, and internationally, focusing on the advancement of knowledge for research, dissemination and educational purposes. Utilising VR headsets in museum exhibits for example, will stimulate an immersive and memorable experience, transporting audiences to these sites of praxis, and in turn offering a more sensorially engaged encounter with research data. The project additionally serves to demonstrate the epistemic value of using different digital mediums, while highlighting the urgent need for academic institutions to further innovate existing methodologies through which research data is collected, stored, understood and presented, applying multi-faceted techniques in venturing beyond the discipline of anthropology.
Project AIMS AND FUTURE PLANS
What makes this project special and groundbreaking is the fact that it is a collaborative venture which works directly with the source community, listening to the Shamans, elders and other resident members’ opinions and directives. Most importantly it prioritises making the story of the community heard in the way that the natives wish to tell it. It is a form of self-representation that allows the collective to use their own identity, sentiments, words and specific explanations of cultural heritage and material practices, that are not filtered through a foreign point of view; ultimately rendering the gathered audiovisual content far more potent in offering an authentic insight into the Guarani and Kaiowá culture.
With the approval of the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) and the local community leadership represented by the Aty Guasu (Grand Assembly of Guarani Kaiowá), the research and documentation that will be carried out by UCL MAL (an interdisciplinary research network that incorporates a range of digital technologies to innovate research methods and instruments), has been authorised across all Guarani Kaiowá territories, and will become part of the British Museum’s respected Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP) repository, as a collection ready to be accessed by new audiences globally. This will be presented in a multi-media and multi-sensory manner to enrich the broader public’s cultural awareness of Guarani Kaiowá heritage and sacred practices. The project has established strong links with indigenous members of the community especially the youth, who are interested in acquiring skills with audiovisual recording technologies, and are being trained to contribute in the documentation efforts, making this a truly innovative and creative collaboration.
Furthermore, alongside the British Museum’s EMKP repository, the project aims to directly contribute towards a collection being created by the Indigenous Cultural Heritage Working Group, held by the Museum of Image and Sound in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Notably, a copy of the data and digital documents produced will also remain stored with the Guarani Kaiowá leaders, serving both as a historical archive which will enable the community to retain an in-depth record of existing yet endangered material practices, but also acting as a blueprint to ensure that the remarkable cosmological knowledge and social relations they articulate are adequately preserved and accessible for future generations to explore and learn from, while continuing to foster a dialogue between the source community and the rest of the world.
British Museum EMKP Website:
UCL MAL Website:
Project Investigator: Ms. Raffaella May Fryer-Moreira - UCL Anthropology, University College London
Collaborator: Ms. Fabiana Assis Fernandes - Instituto para o Desenvolvimento da Arte e da Cultura (IDAC)
Supported by: The British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP)
Location of Research:
This project takes place in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, throughout the region surrounding Dourados, Amambai, and Paranhos territories where Guarani and Kaiowá populations reside; including: Reserva Indígena de Dourados (Dourados Indigenous Reserve) in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul; and Reserva Indigena de Amambai (Amambai Indigenous Reserve) in Amambai, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.