"Abaporu": the personification of the Brazilian people

Beatriz Freitas
5 min readJul 11, 2021

The story and meaning behind Brazil's most iconic and primitive painting

"Abaporu" is one of the most recognizable paintings done by a Brazilian artist. The gigantic figure is a perfect illustration of Brazil and its people. From the disproportional body to the vibrant and bright colors, everything about this canvas reflects the past and present of a diverse and complex country.

The Movement

The glories and achievements of Brazil are intrinsically attached to the land. We were, and still are, an agricultural country known for exporting primary goods to other nations. Our past has been portraited in other paints, like “Coffee Agricultural Worker” by Candido Portinari, but not with the magnitude that Tarsila did in 1928.

A photo of the Anthropophagic Manifest, in which a black and white sketch of the “Abaporu” is located at the center of the document.
"Abaporu" illustrating the Manifesto of a new Brazilian Modernism — via Itaú Cultural

The 73x85cm painting wasn’t intended to be anything more than a birthday gift for her husband, Oswaldo de Andrade. However, the moment he laid eyes on the canvas, a small seed of a new literary and artistic movement started to grow and develop into what was called the anthropophagic stage of Brazilian Modernism.

In Tupi (a Brazilian native language), “Abaporu” means “the man that eats other people”. The reference to cannibalism, not in a literal way, shaped a generation of artists to rethink, genuinely and creatively, what Brazil was and could be.

The idea of the movement was to showcase the beauty and peculiarities of Brazil and its people in combination with the European influences of surrealism. In a metaphorical sense, Modernism allowed for the remaking of our culture and art by ingesting all the best that Europe had to offer with all the best Brazil represented.

The Foot

The most significant part of the painting, both in size and meaning, is the foot. As soon as the eyes meet the canvas, the hints of white on the skin draw attention to the inferior portion of the painting where the foot is. Even though the foot has an accurate shape, its dimension in comparison to other limbs is disproportional.

Painting representing a naked human being with a distorted figure, with an enlarged foot and hand and a small head, sitting on the edge of a rock. In the blue background, there is a deep green cactus with a yellow circle representing a native flower.
"Abaporu" by Tarsila do Amaral — oil on canvas — via wikiart
Beatriz Freitas

Brazilian. Fourth-year medical student. Love arts and social science.