Drumming the Earth: Ernesto Neto on dancing at the MAAT
We speak with Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto and curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti about Nosso Barco Tambor Terra, currently on view at the MAAT in Lisbon.

A vessel for shared experience, spirituality and sound, Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s monumental work Nosso Barco Tambor Terracurrently on view at the MAAT in Lisbon — is quite literally making noise. The title proposes ‘our’ Earth as both a drum and a boat; in this conversation, both Neto and curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti speak to its more profound, collective and convivial resonances.

KOOZ I would like to start our conversation by focusing on MAAT as an envelope which hosts Nosso Barco Tambor Terra by Ernesto Neto. How does Ernesto’s work sit within the wider agenda of the international institution which aims to foster new understandings of the historical present and responsible commitment to our common future?

JACOPO CRIVELLI VISCONTII think Neto’s sculpture for the MAAT, and his work in general, address in a direct way the challenge of how to acknowledge that we carry a very heavy historical burden, but we don’t want to be paralysed by it, that we can and should build new ways of being together, all the living beings of the planet, not just those we call humans. Nosso Barco Tambor Terra (Our Boat Drum Earth) is the result of a collective effort, through the participation of hundreds of people in both Brazil and Portugal, and I believe this is in itself already a statement.

"Nosso Barco Tambor Terra (Our Boat Drum Earth) is the result of a collective effort, through the participation of hundreds of people in both Brazil and Portugal, and I believe this is in itself already a statement."

- Jacopo Crivelli Visconti


KOOZ Nosso Barco Tambor Terra is extremely contextual, both in terms of how it responds to the immediate context of the museum and of course also in relation to the poignant history which links Portugal and Brazil. Could you talk about this multiscalar contextual approach?

ERNESTO NETO Well, we could talk for hours about this. The idea of Brazil begins with the birth of a child to a European father, probably Portuguese, and an indigenous woman. This had happened for many years — then came generations of African mothers. Besides the violence of the colonisation there is also this void, the absence or abandonment of the father. In Brazil, teachers tell us that we are part of the Global West and part of us grow up really believing that we are. If you say, “we are not the Western world" they get mad, as if we would demote ourselves to a second, or third class of humanity… Since I clearly realised that we are not, it’s been such a relief for me. But we don’t study, or even, respect our two other cultures, the multi-indigenous and pan-African cultures that are part of our soul. They are both really sophisticated cultures that have been crushed by Western arrogance.

At the same time, when we (or at least when I) arrive in Portugal, we feel pretty much at home. There is a common language, the architecture, even the paving stones. For better or worse, we see our history, because when the ships left the Tejo river, the world changed forever. It was a catastrophe for the indigenous peoples and for the Africans, but at the same time, it was the birth of what became to be known as Brazil — a weird country, which despite its profound inequality and state violence, insists in believing in joy. Nosso Barco Tambor Terra is not just about Brazil; it’s about where we come from and where we are going.

"Nosso Barco Tambor Terra is not just about Brazil; it’s about where we come from and where we are going."

- Ernesto Neto

The colonial violence has fed the high western development, not just economically but also with ideas. Reading Graeber and Wenlock’s book The Dawn of Everything, you can see that political ideas from the enlightenment were already part of Amerindian peoples’ culture and which can also be used as a criticism of western way of life. Meanwhile we know that indigenous and African philosophies are highly underestimated in international and intellectual debates. Colonialism is not over yet; it is still active but in a more disguised way — the capitalist spirit that drives it has always unbalanced social and ecological relations.

We are now facing global warming, big droughts, huge floods, besides ultranationalist and fascist ideologies, wars which are sprouting everywhere. What kind of development is this? Where is homo sapiens and this high technology we are proud of taking us? What are our real values?

The drums of our boat — Tambor Terra — ask us to calm down, to try to play together. When we play drums together, when we batuca (play) together, there isn’t any winner or loser; there is Ubuntu — being together, being rhythmic together, not faster or slower but listening to the other. To be together; it’s beyond rationalism. If we think, we lose the beat; it happens through our body: “Bumbumpaticumbum prugurundum” is a healer, it’s common to every society — different traditions, different drums but the same spirit. When we are playing together there are no flags, no borders. “My God against your God” doesn’t exist; this is pure spirituality, a mixed spirituality. It's the very nature of a drum to be made up of the trunk of a tree and the skin of an animal; it’s our family… We are just one family on this body called Earth, our home-boat-drum-earth, flying and spinning in the sidereal cosmos with us inside; it’s so beautiful, we deserve more love!


KOOZ The work itself is a truly collective project. Made out of chintz, the cotton fabric is first cut into strips and then crocheted by various assistants, based on a technique developed over the years in your studio. What is for you the social value of this collective process?

EN I feel the collective process at Atelienave, in Rio de Janeiro, is like the gestation of the artwork. So many hands have touched it all the way, from my fingers touching this computer’s keyboard right now, to the artisan who crocheted a net, loop by loop, weaving between layers and layers of drawings. It’s a kind of dance, perhaps a dance of the fingers, and from the fingers to the whole body, and from our bodies to other people’s bodies. This spirit, this energy, is inside it: on the skin of the artwork, in every loop, fold, colour… From the start of the process until the people get into it and feel this collectivity, it’s inclusive, it’s all about relationships. Sometimes you start to talk to someone on one side of the work, you see yourself in the other; everything there, including us, is in a state of relationship.

The weight, the counterweight, the content, the continent, it’s an archipelago of relationships. Doing crochet together is healthy, it’s an internal debate with time, it organises a bit of our own selves, like a meditation. if there is a social value, it would be something like being together, growing together. Many people have come, others have gone, some fall in love. But we are always learning; it’s quite open and somehow familial. When we are doing a big piece, new people turn up — someone brings a friend, a brother or a sister; we are dancing together, even though we are still the boss and the employees, but this social value exists in this dance that we are all part of.

"So many hands have touched it all the way, from my fingers touching this computer’s keyboard right now, to the artisan who crocheted a net, loop by loop, weaving between layers and layers of drawings."

- Ernesto Neto

KOOZ In your introductory text you write about how the artwork seeks to reflect on how “from the mix of races, populations and peoples emerge surprising cultures and worldviews whose strength and beauty one must recognise, reaffirm and celebrate.” What is the importance of sharing such messages as an institution at a time of such individual isolation?

JCV This way of thinking is what we have learned from truly postcolonial thinkers such as Édouard Glissant, among others. These references were recurrent in the conversations that lead to the conception of the works and the public program that accompanied the opening days. The way the audience engaged with the sculpture from the start — walking in it, touching it and “playing” it — confirms that along with more contemplative works, installative and interactive actions such as Nosso Barco Tambor Terra are needed, and urgently.


KOOZ Reflective of your interest in percussion, the sculpture incorporates a series of instruments from a range of provenances, which will be periodically activated by a musical programme. What is the importance of this more performative part of the work?

EN We can amplify the work with this musical program, but that isn’t the main subject; the most important thing is freedom. Here you can take off your shoes, get inside and touch the body of the work and the instruments with your own body. You can experience its form, hear its sound, try to find a rhythm, listen to the others and try to play together. We opened a space for this contact. Most of the time, we keep away from drums, as we are intimidated by them, but they are here to be touched. Children already know this, but adults have forgotten, so we are inviting them to feel free to touch, hear and play. Freedom is also a responsibility.

I don’t really know if “performance” would be the right word, because for me, a performance has a beginning, an end, and an audience. Tambor Terra is more ritualistic and inclusive, there isn’t any beginning or end. You can get inside and then come out again, but other people might be still playing and others can still arrive, so the point is to have your own experience of being there with your body, soul, spirit, conscience or mind, exchanging within Nosso Barco Tambor Terra together with others; feeling it, living it and creating with it. Every sound that you hear is about living, expressing yourself and being together in the moment; without desire or fear, just being together and above all, listening. If we want to play, we need to listen, not just to others, but also to our inner selves. In the world we live in, that’s not easy — there are a lot of flies buzzing around — but we try!

KOOZ How do the rhythms and beats in Nosso Barco Tambor Terra seek to nurture a common language that transcends the verbal and facilitates authentic and profound encounters?

EN Well, I feel like you’ve already answered this within your question! The fact that Nosso Barco Tambor Terra made you think about this question already means that it is nurturing this common language. First of all, to find a common language, we need to desire it, to open within ourselves a space for this question. I believe Nosso Bá Tanbô Té (written colloquially) tries in its own atmosphere to open spaces for us to get in contact with our inner selves — and also with the trees, the smells, the leaves, flowers, roots which also live inside of us — to create a continuity between our bodies, the body of the Earth and the collective body. Without our shoes, walking on the crisp, tree-bark covered ground, we lose some of our cultural frontiers. When we play an instrument, we show ourselves to others and especially to ourselves, as more tender, more aggressive, softer or harder... The drum can start to teach us something: we see people start by banging the drum and slowly everything gets softer, finding a rhythm, tuning the self and its expression, connecting to the inner soul and to others. Tambô Té — or Tambor Terra — opens this space, gives us this opportunity, and as a metaphor, proposes the possibility of collective dance with no professionals. On this wonderful and beautiful planet, we are all amateurs: no one knows what life is, from grandmas to children; life might never end, but we are all alive!


Ernesto Neto has produced an influential body of work that explores constructions of social space and the natural world by inviting physical interaction and sensory experience. Drawing from Biomorphism and minimalist sculpture, along with Neo-concretism and other Brazilian vanguard movements of the 1960s & 70s, the artist both references and incorporates organic shapes and materials – spices, sand and shells among them—that engage all five senses, producing a new type of sensory perception that renegotiates boundaries between artwork and viewer, the organic and manmade, the natural, spiritual and social worlds.

Jacopo Crivelli Visconti is an independent critic and curator. A resident of São Paulo, he holds a PhD in architecture from the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and is the author of the book Novas derivas (WMF Martins Fontes, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014; Ediciones Metales Pesados, Santiago, Chile, 2016). As a member of the team of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo (2001 to 2009), he curated the official Brazilian participation at the 52nd Biennale di Venezia (2007).

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and storyteller whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2022 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

20 Jun 2024
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10 minutes
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