This paper is an edited transcript of Sandra Benites’s voice from two recordings of an interview conducted by Anita Ekman. The interview was recorded as part of the filmmaking of Leviathan Cycle, Episode 8: Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine (2023) set in the Atlantic Forest. Sandra is one of the central narrators in the film, which she also co-wrote with Shezad Dawood, Cristine Takuá, Carlos Papa and Anita Ekman.
This text – an extended transcript – felt like the truest format to accommodate the oral tradition of Guarani storytelling used by Sandra. Taken in dialogue with the film, it gestures to a de-centering of predominantly Western modes of producing, sharing and disseminating research and knowledge. Guarani words have been set upright rather than in italics, traditionally used to denote foreignness. The text has been minimally edited, with occasional parenthetical notes for context.
Sandra Benites interviewed by Anita Ekman. Audio recorded by Patrick Angello. Transcribed and translated from Portuguese into English and edited by Inês Geraldes Cardoso.
- part 1–ore ypy rã: origins for the future
I am going to tell you a little bit of our origin story the way my grandmother used to tell me the story. It’s a way of understanding the world, of understanding how to deal with the world. My grandmother, Xejaryi, was a midwife. She used to say that she brought spirits and beings to the world. So for me that was a very important learning process. So I’m going to tell you the way she told me, the way she told it.
Ore ypy rã, is our origin and how the world came about, how it’s organised, and how it is understood. Our own body is organised as though through layers. I would say layers; she used to say the First World had already ended, and we are living in the Second World today.
One thing I truly learned is that the world and its wellbeing is created by us. We are the world itself. And the world I am referring to, is the body that moves, that has a relationship with many other human and non-human beings. That’s why it’s very important to understand your own body, and your relationships.
I believe we aren’t a single thing, we aren’t a separate entity. We are part of the other, part of things in the world. My grandmother used to say that the first layer is Água Grande, which we call Yy Guasu, Iguaçu or Pará, which means the sea or ocean: the Great Water. And the second layer would be called Yvy. Yvy rupa: the earth, the continent. And Yvy rupa is like a cradle, because the cradle is where we rest when we become people, live bodies.
So I believe that Yvy rupa, the earth, is actually Nhandesy Eté (a key female figure in Guarani cosmology), our real mother. So for us it’s the body of Nhandesy Eté, which is spread across the Sea, which we call Yy Guasu or Iguaçu.
In my understanding, of how my grandmother used to tell this story, she used to say…I say story, but it’s not actually just any old story. It’s a story that teaches us to live and to live with, in this way: all of us indigenous people, we each have our understanding of the origin of the world, and I believe that’s what allows us to understand our own bodies.
So that idea of Nhandesy, Nhandesy Eté, which is above the Great Water, which is a body, as though lying on it, across it… Xejaryi, Dona Aurora, who I knew, who is Tataxi Yva Eté, her Guarani name, used to say that Nhandesy Eté is a body lying across the Great Water, which is Pará or Iguaçu, as we call it.
And then the third layer would be the sky, which we call Yva, or Yvategua. Yva means the sky, and Yvategua means something from above. And my grandmother used to say that Yvategua is something we don’t see, but where spirits dwell.
And Nhande pytu…what is Nhande pytu? Nhande pytu is our breath. So the air and Yva Ete is actually our true breathing. So the first layer is Yy Guasu or Iguaçu, the second layer is the body, which is Nhandesy Eté, which in the language of the Juruá (the non-indigenous), of the Portuguese, is called Planet Earth. And Yvategua or Yva, is the sky.
My grandmother would tell us that when the First World ended, the Great Water rose and reached the sky. And then the earth melted, because the water took over the earth and the sky too. And then my grandmother would say that the second end of the world would happen in the Yvategua (sky), by means of Tata, which is fire, which would fall on the earth, and burn the earth.
For us Guarani, fire, and the excess of fire, represents illness, but it could also represent rage and fury. It’s connected with the male body, the Yvategua (sky). It’s not that we are separate from the body, and that bodies are separate from each other. In the same way that our breath is the air: something we don’t see but that is inside our body, which is the sky itself, which is air itself.
It’s as though those bodies are between three layers. That’s why Água Grande (Great Water), Yvy rupa (the earth), and Yvategua, the sky itself, are equally important. They are entwined, strengthening each other. There is no such thing as the earth strengthening itself without the air. Which is to say, if the air is weak, the earth will also become weak. If the water is weak, that weakness may also reach both the earth and the sky. So these three layers are strong when all three are balanced, in equilibrium.
I believe that it was in that sense that my grandmother taught me this story about understanding the world. So our wellbeing, everyone’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing of our existence, relies on an understanding of the way in which the world is in between. The world is in between, so to understand the world is to understand your own relationship and your own body.
You are a part of that world, of those three layers. Health and the wellbeing of everything is the wellbeing of these three worlds. And it means taking care of the Iguaçu, of the Great Water, and also taking care of the Earth and of the Yvategua, which is the sky itself. So the sky isn’t merely the sky – Yvategua is our own breath, what strengthens our ability to breathe well.
I believe in my understanding of what my grandmother used to say, the way the world is interconnected in three layers, and in between those three layers there are many other issues which we can then understand. So she would say that an excess of fire, for example for us Guarani, isn’t good. Fire is important – for example when we say Tataypy, that’s where women make their fires, and that’s very sacred. The place where we can make our fires, and our conversation circles to pass on our knowledge to the world, to our children, grandchildren and siblings – that’s very important for us.
That’s why we always have to be very balanced across those three layers. So that we, women, can say to our brothers, our sons, how to step when they’re on the earth. Because our physical body is only passing through the earth. Which is why we need to understand what is important at every single moment. Before the existence of our physical body there’s our Nhe´ẽ, which is in the sky, which we understand as the spirit, the Yvategua – our breath, which exists even though we don’t see it. But we also take care of that sky where the spirits live.
And then when we transform into our physical body when we’re on the earth, we also have to learn to deal with the earth, with the Nhandesy Eté (a key female figure in Guarani cosmology). And we need to care for the Iguaçu, which is underneath the earth and which supports the ground above the Iguaçu, the Great Water. Because it’s that earth, which will support and balance it, to prevent things from happening…
For example, the fury of the Iguaçu: if the balance between those three worlds, between those three layers, isn’t there, it won’t be possible to hold the world. It’s not that the world will end, it’s just that it won’t be able to present the conditions for our wellbeing. The world will never end. It’s us people, our physical bodies, that won’t be able to sustain themselves if those three layers aren’t in balance.
That’s what we call Joavy. Joavy means imbalance. I think it’s really important to understand that we are Joavy. Joavy exists in our Guarani language. So when we understand this imbalance, we need to understand how to restore balance, and that occurs through our own process of understanding the world. I remember my grandmother used to say that. We need to understand in order to continue learning, so that we don’t Joavy, which is to say, so that we don’t lose balance.
So that idea that we carry with us all the time, that we know and understand, about the world being in balance, is somewhat opposite to our process of understanding as indigenous peoples. Because indigenous peoples already know the extent to which – and our own conception of the origin of the world explains this for us – we’re constantly fighting in order not to Joavy, that is, we’re fighting for Joavy e’yn haguã (the state of non-imbalance).
It’s a little different from the western perspective, I’m not sure what to call that perspective…the Juruá (non-indigenous people) or capitalism, although I don’t really know how to talk about that, but I believe that it’s thought of or experienced as though things are always in balance. But in speaking about the human and non-human worlds, we have to work all the time in order not to lose balance. I mean, to maintain a state of non-imbalance, which is actually what Joavy e’yn haguã is.
We need to work to keep balance. In fact, the act of keeping balance, striving towards equilibrium, is what we need in order to understand the world. We need to understand that that’s what balance is: knowing how to deal with how we take each step. As though we were walking, but taking care with every step to think of where, and how, to take the next step. Stepping lightly…my grandmother always used to say, ‘We need to know how to take a step.’ Because if we don’t know how to take a step, we can send all those layers of the world into imbalance, and the thing is that those layers are ourselves, our own bodies.
So Nhandesy Eté, our mother (in Sandra’s telling, connected to Yvy rupa, the earth) and Nhanderu Eté, our father, as we call them, which is the Yvategua (sky), and our Great Water, which is Yy, or Para, are all completely in balance across the three worlds, right? The truth is, we are complements of each other. To continue keeping those three layers in balance, which are also our bodies…what will allow us to keep the Great Water, the Yvy rupa (earth), and Yvategua (sky) in balance, is our understanding of those three layers; it will help us move ahead and lead longer lives.
Because the truth is our very lives are those three layers: our own breath, our own physical body, and our health, our food, which is the Great Water, which is connected with our own body. And I believe that if we understand balance and the role of those three layers, which are our body, I believe that will allow us to lead longer lives, which is the future.
When we are teaching our children, our grandchildren, in the same way my grandmother used to tell us this story: this understanding of the world for us, is precisely so that we are able to take it with us, and carry on moving forward so that we’re able to lead long lives. And our main concern has always been that: to pass it on. And that isn’t only telling those stories, it’s really moving that world. Because the world we live in is what will allow us to live on, which is to say wellbeing, which we call Teko porã, which is Yvy rupa (earth), Yvy porã (village of the beautiful or sacred land), Teko porã…Teko porã is connected with that, it’s related with the concept of wellbeing, of everyone’s wellbeing.
So I believe that this is how we can understand that the world can carry on, which is what I would call the long life. The long life isn’t only my life, there will be other lives. So I always try to understand what long life, what kind of life, what kind of breath, what kind of air we want to leave for our future generations: my children, my grandchildren, and then my great-grandchildren yet to come.
My grandmother use to say that the care for, towards the other…the balance of those three layers of the world, is also connected with the future. The truth is, when we tell these stories and these narratives to our children and grandchildren, and to the people who understand the world in which we breathe, it is exactly so that we can have a long life. And that’s connected with the practice of being in dialogue with the spirits of the trees, of the rivers, of the waters…Our healthy relationship with all human and non-human beings, is so that we can continue to build our relationship, that of wellbeing, so that it might continue for the future.
I believe that’s how my grandmother used to tell this story. I won’t tell it in any greater depth, because that knowledge belongs to us as Guarani and others who have an indigenous perception, not necessarily Guarani, but with a different way of explaining their origin of the world, in order to understand how to balance and how to take that onwards into the future. These narratives, our origin of the world explains things so that we can continue into the future. So I would say that this is Ore ypy and Ore ypy rã. Ore ypy rã is for the future. Ore ypy is our origin and rã is future, so Ore ypy rã is our origin for the future: understanding origins for the future.
- part 2–nhandesy eté’s walk
I am only going to tell a part of the story. I used to listen to the story of Nhandesy Eté a lot, my grandmother used to always tell it from her point of view as a Guarani woman. Nhandeva, right, I’m Guarani Nhandeva, and my grandmother is Guarani Nhandeva.
She used to tell the story of Nhandesy Eté: they say Nhandesy Eté became pregnant with twins. For us Guarani Nhandeva, twins have always existed, because the sun and the moon are twins. And they say that in her search for Nhanderu who is the father of the Kuaray (the sun) and Jaxy (the moon), Nhandesy Eté walked from Yvymbyte in the direction of the Para rovai – which means in the direction of the sea. Para is the Great Water. And they say she always walked in that direction. That’s why when we try to locate ourselves, we understand that there is sea from where the sun rises.
Why? Because when Nhandesy Eté started to walk, she walked from Yvymybte to Para rovai. We understand that in Para rovai, which is on the other side of the sea, there is another Tekoa (a way of being, a place inhabited by the Guarani, a set of norms and customs), which is the Yvategua, the sky itself. And so to understand how we are able to locate ourselves and understand what side the sea is on, it’s because we know on what side the sun rises. And when Nhandesy Eté walked, when she started walking, her walk also opened the way for this understanding that it is through walking that we are able to open other Tekoa, also like Tata (the fire).
On her walk, Tatayvy ypy (the site where Nhandesy Eté walked) opens up to Nhandesy Eté her Tekoa, her place where we will feel good. There are many explanations about this Yvy Maraevy (land without evil), which is another world. What is the Yvy Maraevy? This is what my grandmother would say: the Yvy Maraevy is where…it’s not that we are seeking Yvy Maraevy, we are seeking a place where we can continue our wellbeing. Spiritually, physically, that relationship with the possibility of living well, of being well, with our spirit and with our physical body.
This is connected with Ka´a porã (forest), with Yvyrupa (continent, earth), and with the rivers where we can enjoy and nourish ourselves with all of these elements of a specific place, that can support and sustain us. So when that place that can sustain our spirit and physical body no longer exists, that’s when we set out in search of that somewhere else, until we find that place.
So Nhandesy Eté’s walk is configured as a quest for spiritual wellbeing and physical wellbeing as well. When we can no longer have that space to maintain our Nhe´ẽ, our spiritual wellbeing above all, that’s what can also cause an imbalance. So everything that is related with the physical life, with Yvyrupa, with the earth, and with us, who are beings of the earth…it’s very connected with the wellbeing of the ground, of the earth. The wellbeing of the earth isn’t just the wellbeing of something of the ground, such as trees, but also to do with the wellbeing of the spirit, which is to say, of the sky itself.
When we talk about that idea of pollution, which I remember my grandmother Xejaryi, (Dona Aurora), used to talk a lot about: if we don’t care for the earth, we can become suffocated. And that’s happening a lot nowadays. We are suffocated by the air, which is no longer pure air. It’s air that is already, as the Juruá (non-indigenous) call it, toxic. Which is produced by us. By us as people, as humans.
And I believe that this teaching about Nhandesy Eté’s walk is very important to understand the importance of the Kuaravy, the sun, and the Jaxy, the moon, and also of the relationship between the earth and the sun. Because the mother of everything, of the sun, of the trees, of the spirits, of the Great Water… of all the beings that nourish our bodies is the earth itself, Nhandesy Eté herself.
So I just wanted to add a few things when we speak about the sun. I remember my grandmother also used to tell the story of the eclipse, of the moon and the sun. I see that many Juruá (non-indigenous) are enchanted by eclipses of the moon and the sun. But eclipses are like news, or warnings for us. Warnings that have other explanations. So when our families see eclipses, they bring worry. It can be a good thing and it can also not be a good thing.
My grandmother used to say that the moon is younger. And the sun is older. They are younger and older siblings. The Kuaravy, which is the sun, is the moon’s older brother. That’s why we say when there’s a solar eclipse it’s more serious. And when there’s a lunar eclipse it’s a warning. When there’s a solar eclipse, it’s when somethings is already strained, already under pressure. So we need to pay attention to these warnings that the sun and the moon give us. The Juruá (non-indigenous) watch eclipses with enormous joy without really understanding what they are. But for us indigenous, the eclipse is a warning to stay alert, to pay attention. The truth is that something is weakened, at risk when eclipses take place.
So our relationship with Nhandesy Eté’s walk… it’s very important to understand that walk. The truth is we’re all walking. But we don’t know how we’re walking. When I say us, I mean the world, humans. So humans need to know their walk and the kind of walk they’re on. And that is what will balance the three layers I spoke about at the beginning. I think that’s very important to understand, so that we can have a long life in the future.
About the Author
Sandra Benites, is a Guaraní Nhandeva curator and researcher, and was the first indigenous adjunct curator of Brazilian Art at the Assis Chateaubriand São Paulo Art Mu- seum (MASP). She is currently undertaking a PhD in Social Anthropology at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and holds a master’s degree in social anthropology from the same university. Benites has presented her thinking and projects at events in museums including MoMA (New York), the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), Harvard University’s Peabody Museum (Cambridge) and the MAR–Museu de Arte do Rio (Rio de Janeiro). Sandra is currently the first indigenous director to hold the government position of Director of Visual Arts at Funarte (National Art Foundation).
Anita Ekman is a visual and performance artist, curator and independent researcher of rock art, precolonial art and the History of Forests. She was born in the Atlantic Forest (São Paulo) in 1985.
Ekman’s collaborative performance takes place on archaeological sites and in archaeological museum collections, addressing the role of women in art and history and proposing the expansion of the conceptual horizon of the Atlantic world. Ekman is currently researching the historical alliances between Indigenous and African Diasporic peoples in the Atlantic Rainforest and in the Amazon. In 2021 Ekman, together with Sandra Benites (Guarani Nhandeva, anthropologist, researcher and curator), received a Visual Arts Scholarship from the Goethe Institute and the French Embassy in Brazil to explore the history of Brazilian archaeological collections in Europe. Her work and research have been published by the websites of museums including MoMA (New York), Harvard University’s Peabody Museum (Cambridge) as well as featured in journals and magazines including Od Review and Select.
Sandra Benites and Anita Ekman recently collaborated on Ka’a Body: Cosmovision of the Rainforest, a project they developed together with Paradise Row. Ka’a Body proposed to support and promote indigenous artists, with a special focus on indigenous female artists, through a series of exhibitions. These have to date taken place at Paradise Row in London (2021) and at the Radicantes Internacional gallery in Paris (2022). Ekman and Benites are currently curating various international projects, having jointly received a Visual Arts Scholarship from the Goethe Institute and the French Consulate in Rio de Janeiro for the exhibition Ore ypy rã -Tempo de Origin, which they will present at Museum of Modern Art (MAM) Rio de Janeiro in May 2023.