Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Dorsal Headdress (meiityk-re kru wapu)
The Kayapó are a group of tribes and sub-tribes who reside south of the Amazon River in the rainforests of the Central Brazilian Plateau.
Body arts, which include body painting as well as bead and featherwork, are extremely important among this group. Feather headdresses like this one figure prominently in the ritual dress of the Kayapó, whose beliefs and worldview are very much integrated with the natural environment in which they live.
This particular headdress, a type worn by initiates in the Kayapó name-giving ceremony called Bep, is constructed from the blue, brown, and striped feathers of the harpy eagle and bare-faced curassow. Along the upper arc, three sets of red macaw feathers punctuate the main circle, extending beyond the circumference. When worn, the colorful item would form a kind of feathered aureole around the head of the wearer alluding to the shape of the cosmos. The notion that the universe is arranged like a wasp-nest, comprised of circular layers, is integral to traditional Kayapó cosmology. The Kayapó believe that they originally lived in the upper layer of the universe, but descended to earth through a circular opening at the bottom. The circle is referenced not only in headdresses like this one, but also in other cultural productions. Kayapó villages, laid out as a series of concentric rings, are perhaps the best example.
The heart of the Kayapó village is its innermost ring, a large open plaza containing the men’s house where social and ritual activities take place. The kind of ceremonial dances and performances that occur in this arena are referred to in Kayapó as “flying.” Furthermore, many rituals involve songs in which performers associate themselves with birds. In this context, the wearing of feathers in a ceremony such as Bep takes on a deeper significance. To fly like a bird is to rise above the ordinary world and get a glimpse of the larger picture, the universe in its totality.
Braun, Barbara, and Peter G. Roe, eds. Arts of the Amazon. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.
Mekler, Adam, Dirk van Tuerenhour, and Daphne Lane Beneke, eds. Vanishing Worlds: Art and Ritual in Amazonia. Houston: Houston Museum of Natural Science, 2005.
Reina, Ruben E., and Kenneth M. Kensinger, eds. The Gift of Birds: Featherwork of Native South American Peoples. Philadelphia: University Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, 1991.
Roe, Peter G. The Cosmic Zygote: Cosmology in the Amazon Basin. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1982.