Three weeks before the opening of the PIPA Prize 2017 exhibition at MAM-Rio – the show begins on September 23rd –, PIPA Institute Curator Luiz Camillo Osorio starts a series of exclusive talks with this edition’s four finalists. The first artist to be interviewed is Antonio Obá. Born in Ceilândia, in the outskirts of Brasília, his work delves into the Brazilian religious universe, questioning the national myth that describes it as a syncretic mix between Catholicism and African faiths. In consequence, he ends up bringing to surface many historical situations that expose prejudice against the black: “I was labeled a macumbeiro, a heretic; some even recommended that ‘God had mercy of my soul’ because I grated a Christian icon in one of my performances”, he says, referring to his work “Atos da transfiguração – receita de como fazer um santo”, in which he grates the icon of a saint until it becomes dust. Here, Obá talks performance, Afro-Brazilian art, positionality, and how art can – and should – surpass gallery walls. Read the complete interview below:
ANTONIO OBÁ IN CONVERSATION WITH LUIZ CAMILLO OSORIO
How was your training as an artist? What were your biggest influences?
The idea of being an artist had been present since very early; however, it wasn’t something I admitted openly, nor it was encouraged by my relatives. I just liked to draw; it was something natural and commonplace for me. The turning point was when, during my sophomore year at high school, I was invited to attend the so-called “resource room”– a special class rendered to students with specific skills (in my case, the artistic ability). There, I was assisted by professor Délcio Batalha who, in my case, had a crucial influence on me, evoking not only a skill, but the understanding that what I was doing innately could conquer greater amplitude; the articulation not only of a production-oriented language, but of a language oriented to research, to study, the recognition of yourself, your place, of what makes you uncomfortable. It was during this period that I started participating in collective exhibitions. This is a point worth stressing: I started being part of a circuit which, as a resident of the low-income outskirts of Brasília, I had no idea even existed; all thanks to an educational initiative. Today, I am also a teacher. I think that this is essential if you want to provide an education that is both aesthetic and sensitive.
After high school, I started studying Advertising. Before that, I was already part of the “Casa da Mão”, a laboratory for image studies coordinated by professor and artist Newton Scheufler who was, in turn, another major influence. I had a seasonal production, participating in at least one annual exhibition, and taught at an arts school created by professor Batalha. It was a rich period when it comes to experiences: with Newton, I would discuss aesthetic issues, anatomy, semiotics, and, with professor Batalha, I would discuss pedagogical transmission of knowledge with varied students. I would assist from children to students with special needs; from adults to the elderly. Eventually, it came to a point when all of that stopped making sense. I was feeling displaced in the Advertising course, was already a member of a school of arts, and although I took part in occasional exhibitions, I still felt like an outsider. Then, knowing that I was an (aspiring) artist, a colleague from the Journalism course asked me if I would like to be interviewed for the university newspaper. I was anxious for some recognition, so I accepted; I was ready to feed a bit of my ego. When he read the story, as a good Nietzschean, Newton lashed out: “You are not an artist”. I gulped. Someone who lashed out words like that had to have a good point. I waited for him to finish: “You don’t have the discipline of an artist, you don’t dedicate yourself to it seriously, so, unless you want to be a weekend painter (which is okay, as long as you see yourself as such) … you better think really hard about your own issues.” One month later I gave up Advertising, after three long years, and started attending the Dulcina de Moraes Art School. I believe that these two influences, as well as painter Clarice Gonçalves’, whom I had the chance to meet during this period, were decisive.
There, at the Dulcina de Moraes Art School, generous individuals, such as João Angelini, an artist who researches and actually gets his hands dirty, produces, experiments, takes risks, and Louise Günter, with her sensitive and accurate poetics, are names that always come to my mind.
The culturally determined position – the African heritage, its religious traditions, and racism – mobilize specific plastic forces in your work. Where does research in the creation of your performances begin?
The anchoring point revolves around the statement of the presence of the body. In painting, in calligraphy, in drawing, it has always been an attempt to reach, find, and make the body present. In painting, for instance, this was an aspect that, the more I advanced, the clearer it was: gesture as power and symbol. It wasn’t by accident that, then, I started to take an interest in the painting and the creation process of Francis Bacon, his disfigured figuration, the act and the surprise of the stain… all this coming from the body, representing and presenting the body; the fine line between abstraction and representation, the ghost of what was once present. It wasn’t by accident, neither, that I developed an interest in Eastern ideographs, which, to a certain extent, share the same principle of a gesture that tries to translate something. It was clear that some performative action was in the making, and I knew it.
However, there were a few obstacles in the few performances I had already watched. Something bothered me, even annoyed me. In a series that I called “Veronica”, which brought together drawings and monotypes done with menstrual blood, I ended up doing my first performing experiment in partnership with a performer friend. However, for me, it resulted more in a study of the performative language; there I was, with my open body. This is an attitude that I’ve always found interesting in art production: I don’t define my work in a specific language; I’m interested in drawing, in painting, in the object, and, by the same token, in performance. This happens because sometimes the idea comes to consciousness and establishes the media, the form. And I feed the process by reading, writing, listening to music… I breath art, and when I mentioned the importance of having an open body, well, when doing so, you become a channel to receive something you never even suspected of.
The starting point was a trip to Olho D’água – a small town in the countryside near Brasília. I had checked into an inn next to the town cemetery. A traditional celebration was being held there; I had stayed out late in the town square, and was heading back to the inn. Alongside the dark and lonely way back, a smell triggered some very intimate and familiar memories. It was not a specific smell… is was the smell of the countryside, or so I thought. I returned to Brasília with the desire to dig into my own roots – my home, my family, the traditions that were present as I was growing up. The Christian religious imagery was always very present, and for a while I thought about taking photos in which I would be adorned with elements of the religious and the profane (eroticism too has always been an area of interest), appearing in the pictures as a sort of allegorical “bantu saint”. Such allegories had a performative character.
This newly-discovered interest in my roots acted as the trigger for performance. I was in a state of both enchantment and terror about aspects that had shaped my body. The quest for the body culminated in the quest for a reflection on the identity that oscillates between a deep memory and a bigger social picture. Diving into historical issues and current situations related to syncretism, racism, processes of acculturation, miscegenation, religious rituals, masochism, eroticism and how these issues transform an individual, was and is the source for the performances.
The dialog between art and anthropology in Brazil has grown a lot. How do you see such dialog from the point of view of the production of narratives that have been excluded from history of art for so long?
First, it is important to realize that this relates to a newly found awareness from groups which, thanks to social media, have very effective ways to articulate themselves. News come up quickly and explicitly; situations that are exposed in the media and whose repercussions can’t be controlled. This is not related only to the anthropological past. It is all there; we have access to facts and attitudes that are exposed in a very crude way and that, in turn, are symptomatic; they reveal behaviors that are not isolated, but rather national, historically based. Glancing back to a potential core of social relations, and trying to understand the other versions of history, in this context, result in an inevitable change in social dynamics; and, of course, the arts are not excluded from it (or at least they shouldn’t).
The escalation of the anthropological discussion and the visibility of Afro-Brazilian art, for example (I will not focus here on the issue of it being considered a trend, the so-called Afro aesthetics) also shows how this production was neglected, either by exclusion or by ignorance; ignorance starting with our educational background, or a presumptuous knowledge about the very notion of Brazilian identity (which, by itself, is an extremely complex concept). Sometimes, you create a piece that intends to dialogue with some anthropological notions and your work ends up going through an essentially presumptuous and violent sieve, the initial idea getting lost in pre-conceived notions and in the habit of opposing to anything that might create noise in people’s certainties, reaching a point in which your physical integrity is threatened, a situation I unfortunately experienced recently. This is something that will put you in a fragile position, that triggers a crisis in you, because you understand how much Hermeticism there is to it, if you dig into certain issues, because your positionality has been hit so ostensibly.
I have been following the Afro-Brazilian artistic production and have perceived in it the construction of a narrative based on religiosity, ethnicity (and all the prejudice related to the term), the usage of black authors to endorse their discussion, dance, clothing… i.e., they are socio-aesthetic points of support used (also) to validate a discourse of resistance (as it is commonly referred to), and that, for me, further calls in question the quest for and a reflection about one’s own identity. I put myself in this situation: I am a mestizo, I build my affective and familiar relationships in a catechizing tradition and most of the artistic references that contributed to my background came from of an European aesthetics construct; as I said above, this is a cultural and educational problem. At some point, it became a nuisance because practicing and living Afro-Brazilian traditions has been denied. A body cast to the shadows that now claims its positionality speech. I attended to all the Catholic rites, at a specific time in my life I almost entered seminary, and part of all knowledge I have acquired comes from a Christian tradition, while the ethnic influence of Africa has always been neglected and rejected. This becomes even more evident when, in the educational system, the studies on our African origins are seen as less important, even biased content, once it would supposedly be indoctrinating students.
Glancing back to our anthropological past and raising it to the language level is urgent in a context of latent underlaying social tensions. In any colonized African country, marked by exploitation and racial tensions, I would probably suffer prejudice because I am only half black; however, in the Brazilian context, the fact that my skin is darker exposed, and still exposes, me to situations that came before me. This should be discussed.
Do you have to be black or a Brazilian Indian to speak of the condition of exclusion of the negro or a native in the history of Brazilian art and give them poetic and expressive power? How do you see this discussion and the many noises produced in the reproduction of exclusion?
My work (mainly in terms of performance) mentions rituals of both Candomblé and Catholicism – either in gestures or in the objects I use. For me, it has in fact the meaning, the preparation of a rite. However, after a performance entitled “Malungo: rito para uma missa preta” (“Malungo: rite for a black mass”), a question was raised about something that was essential: would the aesthetic appreciation and understanding of a person before such action would be the same, that is, would the emotion (strictly speaking) reach the positionality even if the person did not have a religious knowledge? At first, for me, this issue is much more related to a personal purpose: being consistent with what is proposed by the work. This is my first and foremost concern. As to what new meanings the work of art triggers in another person… well, that escapes me completely; this is life, and the openness of the artwork. The issue initiated a discussion involving, on one hand, a group of people who went to “terreiros” and argued that only those who effectively followed such a religious tradition could have a real aesthetic experience; and, on the other hand, those who were equally touched by it, but did not believe or follow this or that creed. I believe that, because of this, I developed a deeper understanding of the rites and religious practices that were very present in my own life but which, after the question was posed, provoked on me further investigations that would “dilute”, so as to say, a mainly religious presence in my work, because I do not know if I believe that “you can only talk about something if you believe in it or practice it in your daily life”, such as a collection of works done by black people, for black people, done by indigenous people for indigenous people, and so on. It is not my kind of attitude, and I try to stay away from labels such as “engaged artist” that in other occasions some insisted on imposing me. I do not know exactly what the term “engaged” means within this or that artistic proposal, but when the discussion starts to revolve around it, I believe that the power of the work of art is lost, or ends up following other paths.
However, on the one hand, the fact of being a black artist, a Brazilian Indian artist, from the low-income neighborhoods, LGBT, and such, – although not a determining factor – puts you in a place that is not restricted to a gallery’s walls. You are exposed to a story that comes before you; you (as I already mentioned) inherit and go through situations that are beyond your control. Have you ever felt what is like to watch a person cross the street when he/she sees you coming in the opposite direction? Have you ever felt what is like to enter a place and notice that some people immediately grasp their bags while looking at you in fear and surprise? That is, what it’s like to experience firsthand your skin color? Those are very punctual issues in the work of specific “black” artists, issues that are not raised until you approach them and realize how much of it is still deeply set in the behavior of certain groups. Stereotypes are kept quiet until it comes to a point when your action subverts them, sheds on them the light of reflection. I was labeled a macumbeiro, a heretic; some even recommended that “God had mercy of my soul” because I grated a Christian icon in one of my performances; Catholic groups and individuals threatened to beat me, should they stumble across me on the streets, an interview I gave was grossly edited to fit in a shallow and conceited perspective, although what I was actually proposing was the reflection about an acculturation process that makes us say with pride that we are a secular country, that our traditions are syncretic, but when such a discourse comes from a tradition that has been marginalized, you can notice how fragile and false such an ideology is. The individuals simply can’t recognize themselves in this history, in this identity. They are transfigured, they disappear.
The so-called uniqueness of black art made by black people, in Brazil, is not spontaneous if we consider that, for instance, most of the prison population is black; blacks make up the largest group of men killed before 18 years old; devotees of Candomblé are thrown out of slums by black drug dealers who were catechized or converted to evangelism. You can’t disregard this but, on the other hand, you can’t disregard the strong emotions of those who are touched by it and encourage its discussion: whether you are gay, white, mulatto, black, man, woman, it’s time to unite, not to disunite with reductionist judgements. In 2009, I developed a series entitled “Veronica” in which I made monotypes with menstrual blood. I was interested in talking about the feminine, and, all of a sudden, the problem arose: how come a man could talk about the feminine? My approach was based on menstruation as a biological fact; a situation that, as a biological individual, I’ll never go through; therefore, I’ll know nothing about the experience, and I won’t be able to reach it. I started out preparing drawings and scientific-poetic writings based on outdated medical encyclopedias. The kind of knowledge that determines the body, even though it is fragile, subject to revocation; mere guesses, attempts to make sense of the body that are not solely logical. Those attempts to determine, to frame the female body inserted into various contexts – from religion to aseptic sanitary pads ads in which the blood flow is blue, not red – became objects of reflection about a sexist behavior (not only on the part of men) stating, among other things, that a woman deserved to be raped. I believe that the importance of attitudes like this is the very idea of alterity, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, of seeing each as a being, different from you, and realizing how vital it is to understand each other’s differences in order to coexistence. “How to live together”, wasn’t that the theme of the 27th Biennial?! Isn’t separating, breaking up, lessening someone’s actions just because he/she is not this or that also a form of exclusion? Will there be opportunistic artists who will take advantage of the so-called “Afro wave”? Yes, as everywhere. But I tend to believe that every opportunistic action determines its own end, none of them survive; they die before anyone does anything about it.
The power of your work goes beyond its specific original context. This has to do with your ability – the ability of your work – to send a message beyond its place of origin. How do you see this contamination with the arts circuit in general and with looks that are strange to the specific universe of Afro-Brazilian culture?
I’ve mentioned my initial difficulty with languages such as performance. I knew little about it, had never been much into it; now and then, when I watched it in practice, it bothered me; I found it suspicious, you know? Likewise, the kind of painting I was doing bothered be: it was technically good, I had a good understanding of the references, but at a certain point all that ended up contaminating the work, and I was lost. It was frustrating. On the other hand, materiality has always interested me a lot, as well as the relevant properties of each element I used and its use in the production of an image. Tàpies’ work impressed me because of the rawness of its material and of its gesture; the subversion of Arte Povera and Francis Bacon’s becoming-animal, the notion not of a representation, but rather of the presentation of an image, represented truth for me. There was a very clear moment in which I thought admiration would have to be set aside to give place to a very intimate quest. I was looking for something that had always been present in my life; I liked doing it, it was a habit from the kind of manual labor household chores that I was used to since a very early age: planting, harvesting, recognizing plants by their smell, knowing their name by heart, by the design and texture of their leaves, watching animals, catching runway chicken, helping with the housework, grating corn to make pamonha, walking quietly in the woods… I’ve said on other occasions that I’m a bit of a hick and, of course, these aspects are ingrained in me almost as if they were an intangible heritage that connects me to those who have already departed. At a given moment, I acknowledged the expressive potential that it all had and how if found a cohesive body in my production. It was, in fact, a journey inside himself. I remember, then, going to less exhibitions and engaging in other experiences, mainly focused on the body. I joined a group of capoeira d’Angola; because I played the guitar, I became interested in root music and in the viola, and always thought about those issues when drawing or writing — this practice was constant. I have the impression that this “going beyond” is attached to a certain moment and, from then on, you recognize your own nativeness, your experiences, and sees in them an aesthetic power that will not always fully fit in this or that language. It fits because people (including me) want to give it a name, compare it to something else, because it reminds them of something some other artist did. However, in my opinion, a work of art does not dependent on any of that. I don’t give much thought to issues like “I’m going to do a performance like that, or a painting of that model”, because sometimes, as soon as the idea pops up in my mind, it imposes how the whole process will unfold. I then work with time to refine one thing or another that comes in the rough (essential?). Once, Dalton Paula [who was also nominated for this edition of PIPA Prize] and I were invited to trade places in a performance. I would do his performance, “Amansa Senhor”, written by him, and he would do “Malungo: rito para uma missa preta” (“Malungo: rite for a black mass”), of my own. During the latter, the artist drinks almost a liter of cachaça out of a cup used in Catholic masses, while marking his body with macerated coal in a gesture forming a cross. Repetition – of both gesture and the intake of cachaça – reaches the unbearable, and that is the point of the performance. After you get there, of course, the body responds to the excess demanded by the act: the artist is totally drunk, pukes, and has a bad time. I remember Dalton was in bad shape. On the same occasion, someone said that it wasn’t a performance at all. I instantly wondered: what is performance? In a way, I was happy; I understood that the work went beyond some type of conditioning that has always bothered me. It escaped to another field that makes sense to me. A kind of contamination that stands on its own feet. The performance was conceived while I was doing an installation that, actually had the same name. It was an environment with a sort of altar resembling a cup with a bottle of cachaça on a floor in ruins, with charcoal and images of burnt saints. The ceremonial place was there, ready; it was the rite that was missing. That’s what I did. Call it whatever you wish – the work does not depend exclusively on a name, I believe. Is that what we would call “going beyond”?
As to Afro-Brazilian culture in works of art, arrogant behaviors are commonplace. I wasn’t innocent enough to ignore that, at some point, part of my work would be under heavy criticism, especially outside the gallery environment. I was talking to a friend who had just stepped in an exhibition room, and it was clear that the so-called lay people have the impression that galleries are a temple, a sacred place inside which anything is true art; where I’m too dumb if I don’t understand; where I am not supposed to disagree with the artistic intention or even question what the artist meant. In other words, in a gallery, there is an edge, a barrier, which part of the public does not feel comfortable enough to surpass. It is when, as I said above, you reach a point in which the work escapes those walls that it achieves the vastness of broader public opinion. The truth is, these opinions replicate behaviors, unite and separate groups in which it is much easier to fend off what is not a mirror, especially when a wound is exposed. Tolerance is kept as long as you don’t violate the status quo: how can a black man, a mestizo, a person who has more melanin than other, talk of syncretism using as reference cultural traits that are marginalized till this day?
I do understand it is a problem that concerns not only the content, but the very notion of art we generally have, about one of the functions of art, i.e., to encourage reflection, discussion, interpretation of the world. As a teacher, I talk a lot with my students about it: interpreting the world through the work of art. And it is then that you realize how superficial is the understanding of the aesthetic dimension when you are faced with a performance, for example. For me, the issue was painted with strong inks – approaching some iconographies, if not for anything else, because of the symbolic and affective load that were part of me; however, another, more powerful part, was dedicated to the deepening of some narratives. Once a priest came to me – he wanted to know the meaning behind some of my works and performances. I was so happy: he was open to dialogue, trying to understand without judging, so to speak. This, however, is an isolated fact in view of the disregard and prejudiced notions about practices related to Afro-Brazilian traditions. From terms like “kick it, it’s voodoo” to the objectification of the alleged black body manhood… well, they do nothing but mirror a social habitus in which practices do not necessarily have to be conscious. I am speaking from a place that still downgrades some traditions and cultural dynamics. It’s a matter of looking at it; on the other hand, I go to places where people look at me as if to say, “what are you doing here?”, “are you sure this is your place?”, and if you literally can’t handle the situation, this is the kind of conditioning that will degrade you without you even knowing why. It’s not just a matter of taking the Afro-Brazilian traditions into the layman’s field of knowledge, but rather of using them as anchors for a broad set of attitudes that try to provoke ethnic awareness and that, in the case of the arts, is part of the aesthetic discourse. Using language to provoke your own recognition. I’m not exactly sure if I have answered the question, but that foreign look towards the Afro culture is far more than mere ignorance; there is an entirely prejudiced concept regarding it. It is this alien look that weaves a tangle of factors stating, for example, that a black Miss looks like a black maid and hence shouldn’t win a beauty contest.
Read more critical texts by the Curator of PIPA Institute, Luiz Camillo Osorio, by accessing Camillo’s monthly column.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.