Paulo Tavares, the Brazilian architect and researcher, examines the conflict and space between cities, territories, and ecologies. Des-Habitat is a graphic-textual investigation into the modernist magazine Habitat and its complicit relationship to the colonial violence that shaped 20th-century Brazil

Created in 1950 by Italo-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, the arts and architecture magazine Habitat – revista das artes no Brasil (Magazine of the Arts in Brazil) – was one of the most important vehicles by which modernism was debated and diffused in Brazil after the Second World War. Habitat was part of a larger project gestated at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) under the guidance of curator Pietro Maria Bardi, Bo Bardi’s collaborator and partner and the founding director of the museum, which opened in 1947. In its heroic years MASP pioneered a unique pedagogic programme, establishing a series of outreaching initiatives with the aim of forming a public constituency around modern art, architecture, and design. Besides showing consecrated European modernists, this programme included the realisation of so-called “didactic exhibitions” on art history; the creation of the Institute of Contemporary Art, a Bauhaus-inspired design school; and Habitat, its own printed medium, which was published until 1965.

Habitat not only propagated images of modern art and design, but also images of popular and indigenous cultures, introducing its audience, the urban elites of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, to the vocabulary of modernism and vernacular and native forms of cultural expression at the same time. Images of Amerindian ceramics, ornaments, and paintings were placed in relation to a constellation of images of contemporary art, architecture, and design, performing a pivotal function in defining the modern sensibility that the magazine sought to impress upon its public-in-the-making.

The articulation between the indigenous and the modern was often didactically conveyed through the texts that accompanied the images, explaining to the reader how indigenous drawings were comparable to the “most sophisticated contemporary painter”, their ornaments with the designs of a “European stylist”, their ceramics aesthetically equivalent to avant-garde sculptures: “some Picassos in thongs, silently modelling their anonymous oeuvre”. Further, the magazine’s constructivist, neat graphic design often displayed images in such a way as to emphasise this relation on the visual plane.

To be modern, Habitat pedagogically communicates, is to be connected both to the language of modernism as well as to popular, indigenous, “primitive” forms of art. Figurations of the primitive, the indigenous, and the wild played a central role in shaping the modern movement in Brazil, and for that matter of modernism tout court. Different from the European context, however, where the avant-gardes sought a radical break from past and tradition, the encounter of Brazilian modernists with the primitive was associated with the fabrication of national culture and identity.

By virtue of its pedagogic design and language, Habitat framed the images of indigenous bodies, arts, and crafts as if they were displayed in a space between the ethnographic museum and the museum of modern art, objects detached from their social and territorial milieu, which should be contemplated as autonomous works of art. Likewise, such framing bracketed out the social processes by which these images were produced. The crucial question they ask is far from anything related to the ‘ethnographic art’ they show; it rather concerns that which is outside the frame. For what was the historical and social context that allowed such images of indigenous bodies and objects to be produced, reproduced, and circulate in sophisticated mass media publications as formal references to the ‘new language’?

After the 1930 revolution, which initiated the 15-year rule of Getúlio Vargas, the Brazilian state embarked on an aggressive project of hinterland colonisation. Government policies, such as the ‘March to the West’, prompted a series of expeditions with the aim of establishing outposts and towns across the unexplored territories of central Brazil. By the late 1950s, under the democratic presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek, this frontier ideology was being pursued through ambitious projects of territorial and regional modernisation, the most expressive of which was Brasília, the modernist capital city built from scratch at the centre of the country. As urban planner Lúcio Costa wrote, Brasília was conceived as “a deliberate act of possession, a gesture similar to that of explorers, in the mode of the colonial tradition”.

In order to accomplish this project, the Brazilian state counted on an agency dedicated to govern indigenous affairs called Indian Protection Service or SPI. The SPI was responsible for executing what was then officially known as the “pacification” of indigenous groups whose territories were designated to development projects. Founded in 1910, SPI’s ideology and practice of protection was integrationist and expansionist, aimed at transforming indigenous populations into national citizens while at the same time opening their lands for colonisation. The agency actualised forms of territorial and social control developed by colonial administrators and missionaries, displacing and concentrating communities in centralised villages, thereby containing their movements and depopulating vast territories in order to appropriate their lands.

By 1950, when Habitat was first published, the SPI counted on more than a hundred outposts distributed across the Brazilian territory. Initially serving as ‘advanced bases’ where indigenous groups were coerced to move, encampments gradually developed into farming colonies governed by SPI officers where communities were indoctrinated into the habits of western civilisation, agricultural labour, and the ideologies of nationalism.

The activities of the SPI were extensively documented in texts, photographs, and films, especially after the creation of the Section of Studies in 1942, an associated bureau under the leadership of anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro dedicated to registering the culture of the indigenous groups that were being ‘pacified’ by the agency. The images and imaginaries of the indigenous, the primitive, and the wild that informed the modern movements in the metropolitan areas were furnished by the circulation of photos, films, and artefacts that were captured and collected during the pacification missions conducted by the SPI, as well as a series of other exploratory incursions that increasingly penetrated the Brazilian hinterlands during the 20th century. Moreover, in the 1940s and 1950s these exploratory missions became connected to burgeoning practices of photojournalism whose images were diffused not only by the general-interest illustrated magazines of that time, but also by architectural publications such as Habitat.


The Karajá people, an indigenous nation that for centuries has inhabited the banks of the Araguaia River in central Brazil, was one of the groups who most prominently featured in the pages of Habitat. Not only was their sculptural ceramic work easily comparable to modernist art, thus serving as an excellent pedagogic device, but by that time it was also easy to get access to these objects and their images.

Since the 18th century, the Karajá villages were targeted by countless missionary and colonising fronts. From the 1930s onwards, their territory was subjected to a series of state interventions by the Vargas regime, including the instalment of SPI outposts and a base of the Brazilian air force. Journalists and photographers came alongside the pacifiers, and the Karajá land turned into a highly mediatised space from where images of nature, primitiveness and national identity were produced, diffused, and manipulated.

In 1956, Habitat issues 33, 34, and 35 published a sequence of long essays on the Karajá by photojournalist Mario Baldi, who often accompanied the expeditions of the SPI. Baldi’s ethnographically informed narrative portrays the Karajá as an isolated cultural entity and erases much of the context that made it possible for him to construct such a narrative. The only traces of it are registered in a short comment by Baldi: “Before, they used to live dispersed in many villages. In 1936, I visited twenty-seven of them… today, however, all of them, or at least the great majority, live on the Bananal Island where they have been concentrated by the SPI.”

By the time these images were published in Habitat, the Karajá territory was undergoing another intense process of territorial and social transformations due to new state-led colonial initiatives. Together with Brasília, the Kubitschek administration envisioned the creation of a luxurious tourism complex on Bananal Island, in the heart of the Karajá ancestral territory, for which architect Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned. Conceived as a tropical resort for the political and bureaucratic elites of the new capital, Hotel JK was built next to the Karajá village of Santa Isabel do Morro, or Hawaló. Niemeyer’s project, with its panoramic view over the river island, translated the articulation between modernism, the primitive, and the wild into a lived experience mediated by means of an architectural panoptic display. From the hotel windows, the Indians could be observed in the same fashion as their images appeared in the pages of Habitat, suspended in between a modern and a colonial gaze. Modern design functioned as a tool to block out the social violence implied in that gaze, fabricating a modern experience of primitiveness and wilderness whose foundations were essentially colonial.


The images published in Habitat are representative of a paradoxical preservationist impulse of collecting and archiving the ‘heritage’ of indigenous populations at a moment when their lands were being rapidly encroached and their modes of life were increasingly threatened. In 1957, one year after the publication of Baldi’s photo-essays in Habitat, Ribeiro published an appalling report demonstrating that most of the 230 indigenous groups known in Brazil in the early 1900s were on the verge of total disintegration due to the violence of colonial contact. In less than 60 years the indigenous population of Brazil had diminished by over 80 per cent, and those who survived were living in wretched conditions.

The Karajá were amongst the most affected nations. Observing the images of Habitat carefully, but also looking to what they do not show, we realise they are close-ups of one of the most dramatic periods in the history of the people they portray, taken at a time when the Karajá population had reached a demographic historic low. They say nothing about ‘the primitive’, but reveal much of the colonial violence inherent to the moderns. Outside the frame, we see episodes of dispossession, des-territorialisation, des-habitat.

Unless stated, all collage artwork courtesy of Paulo Tavares

The second edition of Des Habitat is published by K. Verlag

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here