Tapioca (I) Dialogues Between Art & Anthropology, Tate Modern

Tapioca (I) –  Fieldworks: Dialogues Between Art and Anthropology, Tate Modern, University of East London, Goldsmith College, UCL, RAI

Tapioca (I) –  Installation Projection – Fieldworks – Tate Modern  ©SALT glass Studios – Credits – Umana Yana Construction Film by G.K. Henry, 1972. The artist would like to thank Mr Henry’s Estate for permission to use this film. Discussions with Denis Paul (Gunn’s Strip, Upper Essequibo River, Guyana) and Michael Patterson (Santa Mission, Guayana) Recordings – ©Dr Fiona  Wilkes 

Tapioca (I) draws from discussions within Amerindian communities of Santa Mission, St Cuthbert’s Mission and Gunn’s Strip, Guyana and a film by the architect Mr Henry of eighty men from the Waiwai Amerindian community of Kanashen (Upper Essquibo River) constructing a replica round house in the capital of Guyana Georgetown for its initial role was a meeting place during a Non-Aligned Conference.

With its large, thatched, conical canopy, the round house know as a Umana Yana (meeting place) is a replica the Waiwai’s traditional round-house (müimó) traditionally constructed as a focal point of village life and the processing and consumption of bitter cassava for many Guyanese Amerindian communities as a symbol of ancestry.

Shodewika Ritual – ©SALT glass studios

With a dependency on different levels of transparency and multiple readings synonymous with the heritage, leisure and tourism industry, Tapioca discloses this film documenting the construction of a replica Umana Yana, recognised in 1999 as a national conservation site and motif of nationhood, strategically positioned by the and multi-national hotel The Pegasus Hotel (Fore Crest and now Le Meridien) and Atlantic Ocean and the Demerara River estuary the main trading route into the heart of the interior

Looking beyond the quasi constraints placed on traditional ‘fieldwork’ objectives, Fiona’s practice encompasses a wider cultural discourse which moves away from the restrictive parameters of traditional fieldwork practice and the exclusivity of the remote locale as the primary focal point, in order to reveal the seemingly arbitrary, unconnected or peripheral aspects of understanding Amerindian culture which encompasses a wider cultural discourse/within a broader context of local global interaction. Departing from the passive record and distancing devices associated with the assumed neutrality of the anthropologist in the ‘field’ Fiona’s work is one of engagement, interaction and articulation of differing levels of transparency and interpretations.

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Tapioca –  Shodewika Ritual- Waiwai  Amerindian Community, Gunn’s Strip, Upper Essequibo River, Guyana) ©Dr Fiona  Wilkes Bitter Sweet: Cassava Culture Project

The sound recordings accompanying the film draw from contemporary views with both the Arawak and Waiwai communities. Fiona’s use of image and sound projections focuses on the transitional value of cassava culture as a currency of mediation, trade and exchange, whether as tourist souvenirs or ethnographic collection, its local/global role in the 21st century is equally one of consumable imagery, performed, displayed and collected, nourishing a desire for mementos seemingly representing the quintessential ‘real thing’. Such mementos and associated artifacts, from the apparently simple utilitarian woven matapi vessel, to the donned regalia of feather headdresses and paraphernalia of traditional drinking sprees, are synonymous with Amerindian cassava culture’s role as a currency of mediation in the 21st century. Such image and sound scapes reveal a complex lexicon of images, voices and temporalities, documented and discussed within Amerindian communities concerning cassava culture, from the domestic and private to the public and political, for example its the role as a currency of exchange within the colonial trading post system and the modern counterpart the cultural broker and eco-tour operator.

Tapioca – Wai Wai Shodewika Ritual

Encompassing the Waiwai’s Christmas activities each year is the traditional cassava harvest celebration, the Shodewika Ritual in round house, Umana Yana which Fiona recorded as a community’s expression of the inherent value of the cassava cycle throughout the year, as part of a complex social, political and cultural economy associated with a body of social memory and rich iconography.

Documented by earlier colonial writers as ‘… the southern tribe of the territory…’, the Waiwai were renowned for their ‘… pale skin…’ , and known as the ‘Indios do Tapioc’ and they were considered by many as the legendary ‘… wild and beautiful… White Indian[s]…’ (Guppy,1959). The name Waiwai (a term derived from the Amerindian for tapioca) was given to them by their southern neighbors the Wapishana, on account of their liking for tapioca and starch foods (Roth,1929;Fock,1963).


Shodewika Ritual

The Carib-speaking Waiwai live in the southern forests of Guyana near the Brazilian border perform the Shodewika ritual in which tapioca is finally exchanged for meat is an ritual encompassing notions of nourishment, conception, and rebirth/of sexual consummations.

 The Waiwai continue to perform the Shodewika ritual, which combines elements of both Christian and traditional belief systems revolving around the processing of tapioca yauyukún (tapioca drink) as a powerful fertility image of ancestral property, the ritual culminating in the reciprocal exchange of tapioca for meat, as a metaphor of marriage and consummation.

Renowned by earlier colonial writers as the southern tribe of the territory, the Waiwai were famous for their exceptionally pale skin and preference for white tapioca, and according to Guppy were even called the Indios do Tapioc by the Brazilians and considered by many as the legendary ‘… wild and beautiful… White Indian[s]…’, about whom ‘… many fabulous tales were told about their land, of villages of women and aquatic people, and of a city… deep in the jungle…’ (Guppy, 1959,4,41).

The term Waiwai derives from tapioca (pure starch), a name given to the Waiwai by their southern neighbours the Wapishana, on account of their preference for tapioca and starch foods. It suggests that such substances processed and consumed, not only form a linkage to social relations, but serve also as powerful imagery of identity (Roth,1929,x; Coudreau,1887,378; Fock,1963,5). 


Within Waiwai society tapioca starch is conceptual a seminal property, not only in relation to tapioca consumption during fertility rituals, but also as a dietary restriction during stages of the life cycle, due to its refined, pure, sedimentary consistency, aligned with procreativity, specifically semen and bodily processes connected with the social reproduction of the group. Valued nutritionally and metaphorically, this superior, purified property is essential in many contexts of social consumption, including female and male initiation seclusion rituals.

In myth, ritual, and social rules, the stages of cassava processing are constantly bound to wider social and mythical imagery associated with purification, transformation and renewal. The Shodewika ritual is a principal example, with the ritualised processing of yauyukún (tapioca and ite palm fruit beverage) serving as a central symbol of purification, social reproduction and continuity. In the settlement of Aakonoiotó [1] (Old Mortar Pestle), the Shodewika is performed during the month of December and although fostered as a Christian celebration, in line with the conversion of the majority of Waiwai and the denial of ‘… old time…’ beliefs systems [2] this ritual continues to focus on the elaborate processing of cassava into yauyukún culminating in the reciprocal exchange and consumption of this rich tapioca drink, for meat, during a fertility ritual and drinking spree in the müimó (roundhouse). 


Thus although not acknowledged as the Shodewika  this festival continues as a major fertility ritual of the year, in celebration of new cassava gardens and their harvest, and traditionally was not only a sign of status, power and control over the exchange of food within the socio-political and spiritual spheres, but also of new matrimonial alliances, as an opportunity for villagers to invite their neighbours  so that unmarried men and women could promote their social status and willingness to alter that status, during the drinking spree, which is a clear metaphorical expression of marriage itself.

Such processes and substances as core imagery of ancestral resources, hospitality and fertility within many Amerindian groups, which were paradoxically categorised as domestic, secular activities by missionaries and subsequently ignored, apart from the prohibition of intoxicating fermented beers associated with drinking sprees and the more overt manifestations of religious practices.

Thus an important aspect absent from today’s Shodewika is cassava fermentation and the serving of beer (kuchukwá). The denial of this vital aspect of the ritual not only displaces the historicity of fermentation processes associated with the maturation of substances in the timing and decomposition of cassava, but also the absence of related acts of ritualised consumption of beers, as powerful social imagery of reciprocation and social reproduction. The processing and consumption yauyukún thus served. The missionaries’ disapproval of fermented substances consumed during sprees is perhaps not so surprising, as the sprees involved five or more days of intensive drinking, festivities and overt religious practices. As Butt suggests, the sprees were occasions for dancing, singing and feasting and they should be seen as part of religious rituals and as a form of worship[3] (1954,304-307)

The Shodewika was discussed in conversations prior to the ritual, although the Waiwai would not acknowledge it was the same ritual and were reluctant to discuss the significance of, for example, traditional ite palm headdresses and capes worn by the hunters, because of their connections with traditional belief systems. The ritual begins with a group of Waiwai men leaving the village on a two week hunting expedition, to replicate the role of guests traditionally invited from neighbouring villages. While the majority of the men are absent, the head woman from each eta (family household) performs a lengthy ritual in the processing of yauyukún and cassava-tapioca bread. This ritual revolves around the purification cycle associated with the detoxification of the cassava tuber, through to the final consumption of the yauyukún. The cycle begins and ends within the parameters of the müimó [4] the central meeting place in the plaza, an edifice representing a conceptual construct linking the Waiwai cosmos and powerful spirits, which further reinforces the significance of the processing of yauyukún, as a substance drawn, to and from, the ancestral world.

[1] Aakonoiotó means Old Mortar Pestle deriving its name from the mortar (sakó) and pestle (sakonió) used for pounding cassava fibre.See Appendix F on places names.

[2] During the mid-1950s the Waiwai were converted to Christianity by an American protestant sect, the Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM). With the missionaries departure during the 1960s, the Waiwai have  recently adopted the Brethren Church.

[3] When the Akawio say ‘… they are going to a spree, they also infer that they are going to pray…’ (Butt, 1954,304-307).

[4] The large conical shaped müimó draws from the root word mu, a Carib word meaning child, growth and semen. 

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