Decolonising the Digital: Collaborative approaches to virtual heritage

Sidali Sid
MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology

Virtual reality was once a dream confined to science fiction and futurism, promising endless worlds at the touch of our synapses. These dreams of other worlds and lives have inspired fictional works for decades – the Matrix, Tron and Ready Player One, to name a few – in which VR is the central focus. Although we cannot think commands to our computer systems (yet!), the promise of expanding the definitions of reality into the digital world is being realised at an exponential rate. As anthropologists, we have been set in our theoretical tenets of ethnography and meticulous diary keeping, while technological developments are providing opportunities for multisensory and affective research, based in immersive and virtual realities. And as the discipline has done some serious reflexive and anti-colonial work, which values the Indigenous voice, it is imperative to ensure those voices are heard in the digital space.

Jaqueline Aranduhá documents her community. Photograph taken by Doriano Morales, Guarani & Kaiowá photographer and filmmaker.

This is the ethos of the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab (MAL). Headed by co-founder and director Raffaella Fryer-Moreira, UCL MAL is an interdisciplinary hub for broadening knowledge production through experimental methods and research practice. With over 50 members, the research network has challenged preconceptions of anthropological practice and how we present the worlds our collaborators share with us. UCL MAL’s current project, supported by UCL Grand Challenges Special Initiatives Fund, establishes a partnership between the Guarani and Kaiowá community of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, Fabiana Fernandes at the Institute for the Development of Art and Culture, and Dr Ludovic Coupaye at UCL Anthropology. As one of the most marginalised groups in Brazil, the Guarani and Kaiowá community faces serious threat of erasure from extreme social and political discrimination. As such, with support from the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP), MAL aims to help support the community in their efforts to address heritage management and access. By developing a digital infrastructure that will be curated with Guarani and Kaiowá collaborators, including Jaqueline Aranduhá of the Kunãngue Aty Guasu, the Guarani and Kaiowá Women’s Council, the team seeks to produce a multimedia documentation of the technical processes and material knowledge through which Ogapysy ceremonial houses are built and used. Drawing on technologies of sensory immersion such as VR/360 video and ambisonic sound, MAL’s goal is not only to help ensure Guarani and Kaiowá heritage is included within the EMKP digital archive, but also to support the community to preserve, curate, and display their own material and immaterial cultural heritage through a VR museum exhibit.

Process of construction for the Guarani & Kaiowá ceremonial medicine houses, Oga Pysy. Photograph by Fabiana Fernandes.

As virtual spaces have become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of cultural heritage and access, especially in Indigenous communities, is more important than ever. Here, MAL is in good and growing company, as virtual heritage has been at the forefront of museum innovation even before the spread of the virus. In 2018, with their pioneering project, Queen Mary-University of London and the People’s Palace Projects developed a VR/AR interactive exhibition at the Horniman Museum in partnership with the Kuikuro people of the Xingu in Brazil (Kuikuro Indigenous Association of the Upper Xingu). The Xingu Village Experience allowed for the Kuikuro to personally curate their representation through physical and virtual artefacts, while also incorporating Indigenous-made film and in-person performance. Although the pilot project in London was short, it opened up essential international discussions, prompting participation in events such as the Multiplicidade Festival in Rio de Janeiro, where Chief of the Ipatse village, Afukaka Kuikuro, raised issues of Indigenous rights in Brazil. Queen Mary additionally established a conference in the same city, to develop a guide for good practice in Indigenous research partnerships. 

As the Xingu Village Experience embodies the value of collaboration which MAL works towards, so too does the Os Primeiros Brasileiros (The First Brazilians) exhibition, representing the importance of preserving Indigenous heritage. The exhibition, developed by João Pacheco de Oliveira in cooperation with the APOINME (Articulation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations in the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo), was ravaged by fire in 2018 at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, leaving only a single physical version at the National Archives. This grim reality, coupled with the emergence of the pandemic and the closing of the last physical version, saw a movement to digitise the exhibition and preserve its importance and accessibility. With the help of UNESCO and other contributors, since the 13th of April 2021 the virtual exhibition has been available online and incorporates immersive sound and media, with the aim of “[a]wakening new emotions and perspectives about the Indigenous peoples” (UNESCO, 2021). 

Guarani and Kaiowá female elders compose the Kuñangue Aty Guasu. Photograph taken by Jaqueline Aranduhá.

What was once subject to the imaginings of sci-fi media has now become a viable tool for communities to present their worlds. Virtual reality, and ultimately any non-established methodology that doesn’t subscribe to the Western form, is becoming progressively poignant, as it allows for individuals and communities that are burdened by the narrow field of expression dictated by Western knowledge production to use new forms of presentation which offer communities increased agency in the presentation of their worldviews. MAL wishes to support that access, and in collaboration with the Guarani and Kaiowá, aims to set a precedent for Indigenous representation in a technologically evolving world.

Title image: Guarani and Kaiowá shaman Dona Rozalina experiences VR for the first time. Photograph taken by Raffaella Fryer-Moreira.

Follow the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab on Instagram or visit their website.

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