Katú Kama-rãh: friendship, image and text according to Algot Lange

Raphael Fonseca

FONSECA, Raphael. Katú Kama-rãh: friendship, image and text according to Algot Lange. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. X, n. 1, jan./jun. 2015. https://www.doi.org/10.52913/19e20.X1.02b [Português]

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1.      On September 28, 1912, an article is published in the New York Times about the naval engineer and Brazilian Admiral José Carlos de Carvalho. Entitled Calls America a great school, the article describes his encounter with the Swedish young explorer and writer Algot Lange, during the Third International Rubber and Allied Trades Exhibition in New York, whose organizing committee had Carvalho as a vice-president. According to the text, Lange would make an expedition to the lower region of the Amazon River, with funding from the University of Pennsylvania and the Brazilian government's interest in the biological and ethnographic record of an area supposedly "not yet explored by the white man". According to an interview with Carlos de Carvalho,

2.                                    I was talking to Mr. Lange and we agreed that if we could enthuse Brazil with some of New Yorks spirit, we would quickly convince the world of our importance as a commercial nation. The United States is a great school where the greatest student can learn more than he ever knew before. I have been all over the world, but you do things differently here than theyre done anywhere else. Therefore, I say that any man, no matter how educated he may be, can get a wonderful amount of additional knowledge in the United States.[1]

3.      The original arrangements planned the start of the expedition on October 15, 1912, but only in April 1913 did Algot Lange arrive in Brazil, according to his book published in 1914 in New York, whose full title is The Lower Amazon: a narrative of explorations in the little known regions of the state of Pará, on the Lower Amazon, with a record of archaeological excavations on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the Amazon River, and observations on the general resources of the country [Figure 1]. Before highlighting some points of this publication, an essential question for this analysis should be asked: who is Algot Lange?

4.      Despite the lack of books or research based on Langes narratives, I managed to find an entry dated 2008 on the blog of the New York Public Library. The author, Sachiko Clayton, currently a librarian of the institution, says she had been contacted by a researcher and she had found a great number of documents held in the library. After contacting the institution, I could trace part of Lange's trajectory. Born in 1884 in Stockholm, Sweden, he emigrated to the United States in 1904 and became an American citizen in 1915. In the same year, he went to Pará, Brazil, and stayed there until at least 1917. There is an application in his passport for travel authorization to Japan, China and the Philippines, dated 1923. There are records of a return trip from Marseille to the United States in 1927. Finally, we know that at the age of 57 in 1941, he was alive, lived in New York and identified himself as "unemployed" in the World War II draft lists.

5.      Regarding articles about the author, the few bibliographical references are Denise Schaan, a professor of Archeology in Brazil, and two American researchers, Oriana Lerner and Victor Weiss.[2] The last two authors published articles on Langes first book, from 1912, in the same issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies, edited by the Wright State University in 2011. Entitled In the Amazon Jungle, this text reports the immediate events upon the arrival of the author to the region around the Solimões River in the state of Amazonas in January 1910. After arriving at the city of Remate de Males (currently named Benjamin Constant) in the state of Amazonas, Lange extends his narrative until the moment that he passes out in the woods and supposedly gets captured by indians. He lives with them for about a month until he recovers from a disease, when he is released and returns to town. Taken by memories of the recent events, he devotes most of the book to this encounter between a Western man and savages.

6.      The introduction of Langes book from 1914 was written by Frederick Dellenbaugh, American explorer and founder of the Explorers Club in 1904, also in New York. He is also the author of the introduction of Lange's first book, which demonstrates the good relations the Swedish explorer had in the United States even before his thirties. Divided into 24 chapters, the book  from 1914 begins the narrative with the arrival of the explorer in Pará, where he was welcomed by Emílio Goeldi, director of the Museum of Pará, an institution founded in 1871 with pioneering ethnographic studies of the region. When reading and observing the structure in Langes text, it is clear that the narrative is based on the analysis of cities considered developed by the Brazilian standards of the time - a development caused especially by the infrastructure boom in the North region of the country due to exploitation of rubber - and, of course, on the comparison with previous experiences in the United States and Europe.

7.      Algot Lange was supposedly rescued by indians upon his first visit to Brazil, but there is one fact missing that seems to be corrected by the author during his second expedition: the act of photographing the natives. The narration of his misadventures with the indians in the first publication is textual, with photographs documenting the places he and his team visited before being struck by malnutrition, insect attacks and the continuous distance from urban environments. The adventurous moments on his trail and even the indians are portrayed - as it would be expected from an explorer separated from his camera - with a few drawings, such as the one on the book cover.

8.      Therefore, returning to Brazil after having survived the unexpected peaceful behavior of cannibal indians, like a modern Hans Staden, now with the support of the influential figure of Carlos de Carvalho, was an opportunity to create new connections with explorers in the United States. In order to achieve such an end, his book shows clearly his efforts not only to photograph Brazils native people but also, perhaps as a result of this encounter, to make an archaeological exploration of prehistoric objects also coming from indigenous cultures in the region of rubber exploitation.

9.      After narrating the journey from Belém to Ilha das Onças and Tocantins, Lange follows the course of the Moju River. This chapter of his book, the ninth, demonstrates the anxiety to encounter indians. He reports: "At seven o'clock, Skelly shouts: 'There are the indians!' At the end of their outing, they see a canoe manned by three nude men. But they are not indians. By the painted canoe we assume they are some hunters downstream returning from a long expedition."[3] Each step he takes, the author describes the devastation of the landscape and the indigenous dwellings, as if he were in a treasure hunt.

10.    In the following chapter, entitled Meeting Strange Indians, members of his entourage are surprised by an indigenous group that walks towards them. Lange describes:

11.                                  Loud distinct cries of Katú Kama-rãh come from the dense bush and we reply immediately, screaming our lungs out: Katú Kama-rãh. I realize that I am speaking the Tupi language and that the people hiding in the bushes, who with their greetins are simply sayingGood friends, are really willing to be friendly.[4]

12.    The title of the present paper comes from this quotation. According to the author, the words "katú kama-rãh” mean "good friends". In several passages, with the objective of showing the indians that their intentions were good, Lange describes how he makes use of body language, repeating these words. Currently, there are no similar expressions in the dictionaries of the Tupi-Guarani language, which makes us suspect its documental nature and think of it more as fiction. Having this supposed native language in mind, I would like to reflect on and analyze the approach used by the explorer to establish a possible two-way relationship with the locals. Could we speak of a "friendship" between Lange and the indians, or perhaps using a more appropriate term, a kind of narrative of good neighborliness between the figure of the scholar and the non-Western person?

13.    In the subsequent chapters, the author will focus on photography in order to explain to the reader both his ability to capture images of indians and his efforts to enter a cultural environment different from his own, but always in a friendly manner. This relationship was not successful in the beginning. After a few days exchanging objects, weapons and supplies with the natives, Lange began his photographic adventure:

14.                                  Then I tried to get the Indians together to take a photograph of the group, but this proved to be impossible - actually, as I would soon notice, it was dangerous. When the men and the women found out that my Kodak, the small black box, would suddenly open and get bigger, showing a threatening black eye sparkling in the centre, they became suspicious, and when I pointed this evil eyeat the group, they were really frightened, and the women quickly disappeared into the bushes with their children. [...] But I still had the intention of taking the photograph and I turned to the men, calling my crew from the boat to come up and dance and play with the indians. [...] Then the trouble broke loose. The men who were standing around began growling and stamping their feet, like angry children. An old man with an atrophied arm approached me and tried to take the camera away from me.[5]

15.    This quote is especially interesting for the part highlighted in the very first sentence. Lange describes a standard procedure of ethnographic photography since the mid-19th century: the organization of the bodies of "Others", those seen as outsiders of a culture that considered itself the capturer of an exotic image (either with anthropological purposes or for a sensationalism leading to mockery), as if people were static objects. As much as the final result was a group portrait, even if one of anonymous men, the treatment given to the image referred to an iconographic tradition similar to the example found in Victor Fronds book entitled Brasil pitoresco (Picturesque Brazil), published in 1861 [Figure 2].

16.    Considered the first travel book to document Brazil through photography, its pictures show an effort to document the anthropological types found in Brazil, such as the "jungle worker" and a group of workers leaving home to work in the fields. His pictures formed the basis of a group of lithographs that was spread across Europe and contributed to creating an image of Brazil which was visually as clear as the contrast between white and black: men were framed in the center of the compositions, groups received directions so they would be positioned within the limits of the photograph. In this visual organization, in which symmetry and the geographical and functional identifications are valued, Frond's texts lead the reader, making an effort not to leave any doubts regarding the apprehension of Brazils exoticism.

17.    The ability to dominate the photographed object is also noticed, for example, in several of the images selected by Lange for the final edition of his first book, In the Amazon jungle. In this book, there are several pictures of workers from the Amazon and Pará riverside regions, called caboclos by the author, an expression which, historically speaking, refers to the miscegenation between white men and indians in Brazil. Controlling these Brazilian bodies, mostly the result of the mixture between Western and indian blood, is also controlling the descendants of these savage men [Figure 3 and Figure 4].

18.    These figures have names, such as João or Marques. Their poses and straightforwardness and the distinction between figure and background make us tempted to read them under the classical traditions point of view. Even when the caboclos are working on rubber tapping, their actions seem constructed in order to provide the future reader a clear apprehension and understanding of the space. Even if classic visual culture echoes in these images, the viewer feels a remarkable strangeness for seeing not a noble figure, such as Dom João III, once the king of Portugal, but rather a João that works in the fields. His first name is there, which means the classical compositions of the Old World surrender to the inhabitants of the former colony, who are now no longer anonymous.

19.    After the failure of his first attempt to record the indians, Lange writes two chapters on the only possible solution to achieve his goal: living with the natives. Therefore, in chapters 11 and 12, entitled Alone With the Indians and Discovering the Name of the Tribe, the author describes the many gifts he had taken to give to the Ararandeuara indians, inhabitants of the surroundings of the Ararandeua river, located approximately in what today is the city of Rondon do Pará: "I was there, among the people of the tribe, there were around forty of them including children, and I opened my Santa Claus bag to give away gifts as they looked at me in amazement.[6] After many exchanges, not only material but also affective, the author insists on listing some people that, in his affectionate and eurocentric viewpoint, conflict with his preconceived idea of ​​what an indian should be. As an example, there is the case of Tuté, who accompanies him during part of his stay in the community. In his words,

20.                                  His eyes radiate a light of remarkable intelligence and brightness, hard to find among people who have always lived under the most primitive conditions, almost like beasts in the forest. His features seem to me strongly Hebraic; therefore, I cannot imagine him dressed as a civilized man with clothes from a store, a collar and tie, and a hat.[7]

21.    When he thought he had gained the trust of the natives, Lange gave it another try to the photograph. Having realized the importance of words and gestures to the indians, he used their first communicative exchange, saying "Katú Kama-rãh" while approaching them with his black box. Celebrating the outcome of the new attempt, the next chapter of his book is called Success with the Camera. Sitting in his hammock, he shows the indians how the camera works. Noticing they laugh with the noise made by the click, the famous "tick-tick", he explores this sound to capture images of the members of the tribe. Laughing and beating on his chest, Lange finally makes the desired images. But what can we get out of them?

22.    When looking at some of these pictures, I have the impression they are something between an attempt at more symmetrical formalization, as he had done in his first book, and some details which break the compositional harmony, due to the nature of apparent improvisation of this relationship, in which the indians were not really "tamed" by the photographer, but temporarily convinced not to attack. For the caption of one of the first images supposedly produced with the indians’ consent, Lange writes "Posing for the camera, but what we see is a group of four children who seem to have been coaxed to pose [Figure 5].

23.    One of them is in the foreground, with holding the trunk of a tree with both of his arms, and the three younger ones are in the background, which is a little blurry. The perspective caused by the distribution of the bodies in the space is metaphorically the same technical and cultural distance between the tribe and an individual who invades their space in an apparently friendly way and steals their images with the purpose of scientific dissemination. If the figure in the foreground is centered, on the other hand it is just beside another one in the background, creating an amalgam of bodies that is organized like the trunks around them, generating different leading lines in the photograph.

24.    In another two pairs of images, one can also sense that the objects have been caxed to pose. We are not completely sure if Lange directed the scene, but we can suppose that the indians were leaning on these branches in order to sustain their bodies or try to hide from the violence of the black box facing them. Once more, the captions are malicious. The "Ararandeuara girl," as Lange describes, is "one maiden who, day after day, stands up against a tree staring at me" [Figure 6]. But her peer, called "one of the indians", is "one man, another un-Indian type,[8] portrayed later on in these pages". The relationship between image and text is, therefore, always subject to the narrative of the publication and, in the case of the first image, it tries to condition it to a supposed idea of ​​historical truth, that is, the picture is the proof that this girl actually stood and stared at the explorer leaning against a tree - but who can guarantee that this was actually the truth? Not having other means of documentation or any certainty as for the dimension of reality in these images presented in the early 20th century, it may be better to take Lange as a great storyteller who created images to support these narratives than as a truthful witness.

25.    Finally, two strongly contrasting examples, though close to each other in the organization of the book [Figure 7]. In a picture entitled In the Maloca, Lange quotes himself when writing the caption: "she lets herself be photographed, but her features show that she thinks it all nonsense."[9] In this picture, there is the image of a woman with her hand on her hip, seen from a low angle. Breaking the centrality of the image, tree trunks cross the picture from top to bottom, sustaining the house. Distrust, insecurity, reluctance - many words might be evoked here - but, more interestingly, it would perhaps be better to analyze the statement "she lets herself be photographed": Was there any other option? Which is better: Attacking the one who contributed to her subsistence or giving in to the charm of the "tick tick" primitive dance? The power in the hands of the photographer can be noticed today when reading his publication and clearly perceiving he blurred the male pubis, violating the image in order to mitigate the strangeness any future readers might feel.

26.    In the middle of this catalog of tribal images, opposite to the previous image, there is a double portrait of the indians who most caught the attention of the explorer - Tuté and Domingo [Figure 8].

27.    In  the text, Lange describes Domingo:

28.                                  Domingo is a splendid specimen of a savage, almost six feet tall. [...] His limbs are long and sinewy; his movements, elastic and, like all these peoples, graceful. In the photograph made on my last day with the Ararandeuaras, he stands next to Tuté [...] In this protograph, he shows a very intelligent smile, very far from the indians’ traditional stoicism.[10]

29.    Following this excerpt, when commenting on a portray of the chief of the tribe with his granddaughters, Lange writes: "the mobility of their features and expressions are a matter of individuality, just like with civilized people".[11] In other words, the author is impressed by the supposed spontaneity of the natives before his lens. When describing the few images in which the indians seem relaxed or even smile at the camera, the author draws parallels with "civilized people", the so-called Western, industrialized individuals who are aware of the photographic process.

30.    An interesting parallel and one that says a lot about a discourse based on ethnic prejudices can be made from a brief comparison with a later point of the book. After leaving the area inhabited by the indians, Lange goes to the Marajó Island, also in the state of Pará. In this region, formed by small islands, he finally arrives at the Pacoval Island, a place which became famous due to the concentration of vases and ceramic pieces which the author calls "prehistoric". According to Denise Schaan, that was an archaeological site previously explored by American archaeologists who had published articles about their experiences in specialized magazines.

31.    After his arrival, Lange establishes close ties with Ludovico, a caboclo who had a house with his family, supposedly the only inhabitants of the island,  who became responsible for helping the explorer in the collection of more than six thousand pieces of indian pottery. In order to document this experience, the author invites the inhabitants for a photo and narrates the situation to the reader [Figure 9]:

32.                                  They are all good-natured caboclos whom Ive learned to respect and esteem very much. On the following day, when I invited them to stand in front of the house to be photographed they willingly accept, after spending an hour or so donning their very best clothes. Then, they lined up stiffly with the most serious expressions as if they stood before a court-martial and had been condemned to execution at sunrise. It is unfortunate that the photograph cannot reproduce the multi-coloured dresses of the women whose green, pink and yellow polkadot print-cloth shone brightly in the sun.[12]

33.    With his photographic knowledge and also due to a greater mastery of the Portuguese language, Lange was able to organize these bodies the same way he did with the ceramic pieces of his archaeological findings. Curiously, however, while he subjugates the congenial reaction or strangeness his own race might have regarding the indians, when it comes to the cablocos, as much as he emphasizes their mixed origin in his descriptions, these peoples equally "stoic expressions" are not reduced to ethnic facts. According to Lucio Ferreira, researcher of archeological history in Brazil, there is an intrinsic colonialism that reiterates "one of the basic characteristics of colonialisms legitimacy by the imperial powers: the representation and scientific or literary classification of the Otheras primitive, degenerate, a being that is inert in the face of the developments and transformations dictated by evolution and progress".[13]

34.    Therefore, Langes little-known publication can contribute with the still expanding field of studies on the relationship among anthropology, archeology and ethnography in Brazil, especially with regard to the perspective of the foreign traveler. Through his pictures and descriptions, the "non-Western" element of his narrative refers not only to the indians, but also to the result of miscegenation, the caboclos, and more than that, to Brazil as a whole. It is important to remember that in many art history departments there is no clear distinction between teachers and research groups of "Western art" (or just "art") and "Latin American art" or other terms, such as Eastern art". When many European and American researchers mention a production of images that does not come from a cultural and geographical unit common to theirs, it is necessary to determine its geographical origin. This awareness of an artistic heritage is just as fictitious (and explored by many authors, such as Vasari, Winckelmann, and Burckhardt) as the creation of the "non-Western world ".

35.    Algot Lange returned to New York in 1915, taking with him the material collected in Pacoval Island, and published his book. On April 7th of the same year, the New York Times published a new article entitled Threatens to dump antiques in river: Algot Lange, Brazilian explorer, can find no one to buy his prehistoric pottery dug from Amazon island. In the text, the explorer comments on the lack of a museum in the United States capable of housing the precious material collected in Brazil. Through an aggressive rhetoric, he says that if the situation remains the same, he will throw everything in the East River, near Manhattan. At the end of the publication, he states: "Our team went to a small island in a lake and made an investigation. We found out that the bottom of the lake, which is actually the top of a sunken island, was full of prehistoric items".[14]

36.    In this narrative, far from from Brazil and at the core of the American press, Ludovico, his caboclo family and the essential interchange presented in Lange's book, which was fundamental for reaching the archaeological discoveries, are lost. In the same way, art history has forgotten the figure of Algot Lange to the same degree. What happened in his biography after this return to the United States? With a lack of documentation and known publications, a recent picture taken by Denise Schaan can contribute metaphorically to this reflection; we do not know what happened to the explorer, but it is visible that what was under the ground, the sacred objects made from clay, was converted into a fragmented surface. The past of material culture of hundreds of indians turned to dust, literally. The space that once housed an indian cemetery is now a memorial to the disappearance and appropriation of their material culture, a kind of anti-monument that, according to Robert Smithson, "instead of reminding us of the past, like the old monuments, the new ones seem to make us forget the future." The indigenous objects disappeared, but the pictures produced by Lange remained.

37.    At the end of his book, commenting on the versatility of the Portuguese language, the author says: "Amanhã, literally, means tomorrow, but practically speaking, it means any time starting tomorrow and ending in some remote period when the Halley comet is to reappear or the Amazon is to become frozen".[15] Therefore, let us not wait for this fabulous and fictitious time, for Algot Lange is worthy of further studies, just announced and drafted herein. Let us put ourselves, too, in an explorers shoes and analyze his pictures, his texts and his dubious "friendship" with Brazil.


Calls America a great school. The New York Times, New York, September 28th, 1912.

Threathens to dump antiques in river. The New York Times, New York, April 7th, 1915.

FERREIRA, Lúcio Menezes. Território primitivo: a institucionalização da arqueologia no Brasil (1870-1917). Master's thesis. Unicamp, Campinas, 2007.

LANGE, Algot. The Lower Amazon: a narrative of explorations in the little know regions of the state of Pará. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1914.

English translation by Ricky Toledano e Liane Sarmento


[1] The New York Times, New York, September 28th, 1912. Free translation.

[2] Both short articles summarize the story of Algot Langes first book and establish just a few connections with concepts such as colonization and Otherness. They are not studies on Art History, but, as the newspaper's name explains, they focus on the relationship with post-colonialism.

[3] LANGE, Algot. The Lower Amazon: a narrative of explorations in the little know regions of the state of Pará. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1914.

[4] Ibidem, p. 183.

[5] Ibidem, p. 202.

[6] Ibidem, p. 218.

[7] Ibidem, p. 220.

[8] Ibidem, p. 243.

[9] Ibidem, p. 251.

[10] Ibidem, p. 239.

[11] Idem.

[12] Ibidem, p. 319.

[13] FERREIRA, Lúcio Menezes. Território primitivo: a institucionalização da arqueologia no Brasil (1870-1917). Master's thesis. Unicamp, Campinas, 2007, p 18.

[14] Threathens to dum antiques in river. The New York Times, New York, April 7th, 1915, p. 395

[15] LANGE, op. cit., p. 395.