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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
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I Continue My “Auto-phagy” and Winds Gust Over My Own Ashes

Caetano Dias, <em>Straws - Action with Annato on body at Favela Hill</em>, 2015–16. Performance. Courtesy the artist.
Caetano Dias, Straws - Action with Annato on body at Favela Hill, 2015–16. Performance. Courtesy the artist.
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I first wish to make reference to my work process. This is essential commentary. Between the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the next decade, I started to work on the “digital mundane,” which I denominated at that moment “Popular Saints.” This was a type of fantasy that remains present in my current work. The process itself was quite simple. I picked out images from porn sites and appropriated the figures in order to modify them. I transformed them into some kind of “miniature saints,” that is to say, figures similar to ones previously printed, generally with low-cost material with images and information from religious denominations and political parties that had been distributed for free.

After the appropriation, I digitally edited the images and reduced them to negligible sizes only to immediately invert the process, enlarging them to enormous sizes in succession. This generated a great deal of noise in the two-dimensional structure of the image, in which the pixels ended up deforming the previously even representation. The images became nebulous, transfigured by a loss of definition and the profaning of their “post-senses,” a means by which I tried to subvert the representation. I called this work method “strategies for the loss of the senses.”

To a degree, this is still present in what I do today. In other words, the idea of dismantling structures, to the point that nothing is left. Only to then reassemble them, trying to bring the original sign closer to a signification completely estranged from the original. Even if they were initially mundane, they were ultimately displaced in the opposite direction, in this case towards the sacred.

This became my place, at least temporarily. To use antagonism as a work method was at times a bit conflicting due to my quite rigid Catholic upbringing. On the other hand, it became very stimulating to rouse my already dismantled sense of self and the remains of my systems of beliefs in order to exercise my own uncertainties. Thus, I no longer hold my older religious and ideological beliefs: all I have left is the possibility to coexist with natural and relational idiosyncrasies of the day to day.

Caetano Dias,<em> Christ of Rapadura</em>, 2003. Sculpture in raw sugar, wood, and photographs. Courtesy the artist.
Caetano Dias, Christ of Rapadura, 2003. Sculpture in raw sugar, wood, and photographs. Courtesy the artist.

In this sense, I still have the magic that exists in the fantasies to try to mold reality into a place where everything is almost possible: fiction. In this place, error is a recombination of the paths ruled over by Exu, the orisha who is the messenger between divinities and humanity. It is interesting to cite Exu in this moment where we have a re-encounter with the “second-hand sacred” in crossovers that levitate with ideas, a suspended space in which what happens warps reality. Life also tends to be unpredictable in following its paths.

It was important to briefly cite these ideas, because they make sense of my entire artistic process. I had been exploring the loss of sense, of vertigo. First with an exhibition of paintings at the Chapel of the Modern Art Museum of Bahia (MAM-BA) (1996). Then with mundane, two-dimensional images. After that came the installation Sobre a Virgem (About the Virgin, 2002), at the Palace of the Arts, to then reach the idea of something being consumed, something edible. All of this goes through the notion of autophagy, an anthropophagy of the self. Which by my understanding, is post-anthropophagy, because it does not solely involve the consumption of the culture of the other, but simultaneously the consumption of self. That is how I reach the Eucharist of the body of Macunaíma, or autophagy as a process of existence. At that moment, sugar comes in as a concept in the allegory of the body of a Black Christ (2004) reproduced in hardened brown sugar candy (rapadura). This body made of sugar crystals is the crossroads where everything loses sense to be full in its chaos.

Brazilian history? I tend to have the sermon by Father Antônio Vieira (1608–97) as a reference. In it, he compares the plight of servitude of the man of African origin to Christ’s plight. In other words, the matrix used as a reference for labor relations, broadly speaking, sweat and blood in exchange for nothing. And the idea that one should be grateful for that. This is the history of labor in Brazil. For this reason, when I represent Christ being crucified on the cross of Brazilian hardwood (madeira de lei) taken from our forests, I am trying to question our relational modes of being with the other and with material things. Of course, in the universe of art both the concept and aesthetic are relative to who is using them. In my case, I continue my autophagy to then have the wind gust over my own ashes.

Caetano Dias, <em>Sugar Heads</em>, 2007. Cast sugar, molds of volunteers of various ethnicities. Courtesy the artist.
Caetano Dias, Sugar Heads, 2007. Cast sugar, molds of volunteers of various ethnicities. Courtesy the artist.

As far as the questions that move me to do what I do, I could not comment only on works with sugar that continue to advance independently of my own will, because in that lapse of time other materials of the same nature have arisen such as Annato, bones, etc. I went on a trip to the 3rd Bahia Biennial (2014), to the famous city of Canudos with another artist named Juraci Dórea. Something unexpected happened, a sensorial and mystical experience. The challenge was to don leather different from the installations he had set up in the villages of Bahian sertão [backlands]. I could not find this leather anywhere. However, I came upon a pouch of Annato in the city of Monte Santo and also a bell like the ones used on oxen and goats. At that moment it seemed that I would take part in the process, even if in its initial phase. In the end, the event went on and I suddenly saw myself involved in a ritual with Annato in the Morro da Favela in Canudos.

It was not just a performance, but a reconnection with the sacred. At the event I entered a trance, in which I connected in some way to the energy of the place, and the historical weight of the massacre that happened there. It was all very intense. I felt the dust of Brazilian history entering me through each of my body’s pores. I never thought I would get involved in a mystical experience in such a beautiful way. After my religiosity had come undone, this space naturally could not remain empty, even if I had not taken pains to occupy it with other senses.

Caetano Dias, <em>Sweet River – Annato on body</em>, 2015–16. Courtesy the artist.
Caetano Dias, Sweet River – Annato on body, 2015–16. Courtesy the artist.

From this experience, a new artistic process and new works unfolded between 2015 and 2016: Recôncavo, where I took the action of dying the waters of the ebbing tide with Annato; in Paraguaçu I painted part of the forest with the same edible material; in Canudos I made use of Annato and bones found at Morro da Favela in Canudos; in Rio Doce, the art was in-between the “panning” of precious metals and Annato with the contaminated water from the rupture of the Samarco dam that had taken place at the river that gave name to the project; and also Entre Terras e Águas (Between Land and Water), Céu de Chumbo (Lead Sky), and Como Contar a um Povo Morto a sua Historia/Alfabeto Sinestésico de Canudos (How to Tell a Dead People Their History/The Kinesthetic Alphabet of Canudos). All of these works were constituted with edible materials or by processes related to the atavistic side of human nature and its “things” as in the artwork Levante Negro (Black Uprising). In this work, besides heads made of sugar, I performed a ritual at the mangrove called Mangue de Saubara, part of the Recôncavo in the State of Bahia where I collected sludge to be used in the installation—I would like to point out that this action was realized in partnership with the community of fishermen and fisherwomen and foragers of living things in the mangrove.

When I made the installation Canto Doce—Pequeno Labirinto (Sweet Song, Small Labyrinth, 2006), the playful sense of sugar was implicit regarding the passersby at the Calçada train station in Salvador that currently links the railroad at the outskirts of the city to what was once called the City, which refers to the Cidade Baixa (the former center of the city), flanked by the Todos os Santos Bay. This railway, once called the Western railway, connected the city of Bahia to the city of Juazeiro on the São Francisco River. It was devised by the previous Council of Agriculture (Junta da Lavoura) to serve as a means to dispose of sugar and other agricultural products. Either way, the production of the cane fields had entered a decline beginning in the middle of the 20th century. This was due to the mechanization of agriculture not being adequate for the rough terrain of the Bahian Recôncavo, among other causes. Currently, there is almost no more production of sugar cane there. There is not much left of the old railway. At the same time, the former slave labor of the time, provided in exchange for nothing, remains and continues to function in the peripheral areas including outskirts around the railroad.

Caetano Dias, <em>Sweet Song</em> - <em>Small Labyrinth</em>, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two
Caetano Dias, Sweet Song - Small Labyrinth, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two "U”s out of axis, built with melted sugar, dimensions variable. Calçada Railway Station - old EAST, Salvador, Bahia. Courtesy the artist.

Caetano Dias, <em>Sweet Song</em> - <em>Small Labyrinth</em>, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two
Caetano Dias, Sweet Song - Small Labyrinth, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two "U”s out of axis, built with melted sugar, dimensions variable. Calçada Railway Station - old EAST, Salvador, Bahia. Courtesy the artist.

Caetano Dias, <em>Sweet Song</em> - <em>Small Labyrinth</em>, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two
Caetano Dias, Sweet Song - Small Labyrinth, 2006. Installation, fragment of labyrinth, in the shape of two "U”s out of axis, built with melted sugar, dimensions variable. Calçada Railway Station - old EAST, Salvador, Bahia. Courtesy the artist.

Therefore, sugar symbolizes, in my work, the irony of abandonment. It is evident that the sermon of Father Antônio Vieira only made sense to the slave masters who continue to laugh at us. And for Black people it was never suitable, neither in the past or any other moment in time. All that has remained is both helplessness and resilience of Black people in the terreiros, or houses of worship of African religions run by priestesses and priests [mães e pais de santo] and also the pardos [brown-skinned people also considered Black] historically excluded through the present, who are also socially invisible without a place for resistance or to raise their voices.

In 2010, I was invited to put on an individual show at the Aclamação Palace in Salvador, an old government house located at the historic site of the old Vila Velha, the first area occupied by the Portuguese on the land of the city of Bahia. Today, the Vila Velha Theater functions in the same area; the Tropicalia movement babbled their beginnings in this theater. Considering the fact that it is a government house that has gone out of use, to the point of almost being in ruins, and that 2010 was an election year, I could not avoid thinking about the presence of the story of Catarina Paraguaçu and Diogo Álvares-Correia.

History tells us that an Amerindian woman by the name from Guaibimpará, daughter of Morubixaba Taparica of the Tupinambá nation, married a Portuguese man by the name of Diogo Álvares-Correia, better known as “Caramuru.” Diogo was in a shipwreck at the Rio Vermelho [Red River] coming in from Europe in 1509. The entire crew was killed by the Tupinambá Indians, and only Diogo survived by shooting his musket at a bird, scaring the Indigenous people, who shouted “Caramuru” which means “man of fire.” Another part of the story worth remembering is the dream or vision of the Indian woman who foresaw the shipwreck. Caramuru then ended up living among the Tupinambá, and that was the beginning of the Portuguese domination over the Natives denominated “Black people of the earth” (negros da terra).

I put together all of these pieces and realized that I had the moving pieces in my hands for a unique game in which I could articulate ongoing history and also turn to the past. So I made a site-specific work that also discussed current politics. I scrambled all of the pieces of the game to shoot at the walls of this old and historic edifice. This experience is also the story of the origin of the works Bicho Geográfico (Geographic Creature) and Delírios de Catarina (Catarina’s Delirium). The term delirium refers to the dream of the Native or Black person of the earth, and to the orgy of blood spilled with the occupation of Bahia and of Brazil under Portuguese colonization. It also references the unscrupulous exploitation of slave labor that persists in many current situations. As previously stated, in this work we also have many crossroads and layers that run through the history of Bahia and larger Brazil, its territory, power and historical figures, far beyond my own history and my own family.


Caetano Dias

Caetano Dias (1959) was born in Feira de Santana, state of Bahia. His visual work began in the late 1980s through performance, urban interventions and mural paintings after his training in vernacular letters at the Catholic University of Salvador between 1985 and 1987. His research articulates the sacred and the erotic through realization videos, paintings, three-dimensional works, multimedia installation and digital photography. Between 1995 and 2008, he taught courses in the workshops of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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