Essay Alejandra Hernández Munoz, 08/2008

The invisible layer: an oblique gaze at Ayrson Heráclito’s video work

Ayrson Heráclito’s artistic work analyzes the complexity of values pertaining to African heritage in Brazil, while laying bare the colossal size of the historical and conceptual gap regarding the subject. His pieces promote a needed reflection on the black man’s contribution to the formation of the Brazilian identity—I emphasize the use of the term “black man” in its ethnical, cultural, and geographical dimension, instead of the euphemistic “African-Brazilian.”

In a time of “high-definition image,” what are the undefined images in our culture? What is it that is unclear in our history? More than a physical issue related to image quality, there is a process of historic “invisibilization” of certain aspects of Brazilian culture, which little by little unveils an ethic component to what is visible in our everyday lives.

Bearing in mind that the relevant in art is not the media, but rather the strategies that materialize the creative energies of culture, in the last two decades this artist developed a series of works using organic materials present in the culture of Bahia, such as sugar, charque [jerked beef], and dendê [palm oil]. Based on various data (historical, sociological, economic, etc.), his work proposes reflection on several cultural issues pertaining to African-Bahia.

Ayrson Heráclito is one of the leading names in the new generation of artists from Bahia. He holds a degree in artistic education from the Catholic University of Salvador, a master’s degree in visual arts from the School of Fine Arts at the Federal University of Bahia, and is presently a professor with the Federal University of the Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB). Since 1989, he has held four solo exhibitions, participated in more than twenty exhibitions in Brazil and abroad, and won the Braskem Culture and Art Prize, and the Acquisition Prize at the 9th Bahia Art Salon, both in 2002. His artistic activity developed in the field of painting until the early 1990s, when he started exploring other languages, such as installation, performance, photography, and video. A significant share of his production is recorded in a comprehensive catalogue launched in 2003.

Generally speaking, there is an inverse relation between the density of contents dealt with by the artwork and the simplicity of the expressive resources that are used. If, on the one hand, in technical and visual terms, the artist’s construction can be summed up into relatively few elements, on the other hand, from the late 1990s to his latest works, his production has been gradually stripped down from the factual to the conceptual, going from more emotional and literal work, that hits us in a more direct manner, to more sophisticated images, whose subtlety and perceptual timing require slower introspection and apprehension.

The videos Barrueco (2004), Transmutação da carne (2005), Sangue, sêmen e saliva (2006), and As mãos do epô (2007) can be understood as a “tetralogy of slavery.” The four works are linked together by the same theme, also tackled by the artist using other media, however the works differ from each other in some aspects of language and poetic-narrative elements.

The history of the black man, as that of the Indian, is an aspect of Brazilianness whose historiographical references, when compared to the history of the white man, barely surpass an anecdotal character. More than making differences known and valued, the discursive ambiguity of cultural equality has been leading to a phenomenon of “smoothing out” of diversities. Pasteurization of characteristics, folklorization of qualities, and the commerce of trends succeed each other in a frantic consumption of fake innovation, immediate and ephemeral. Despite some significant advances in the cultural policies of the last decade, market pragmatism has sought to level off different cultural components, by using the same parameters to deal with issues that are different in essence. Within this context, exceptional are the cases in which references to black culture extend beyond the exotic and factual.

It is precisely against that that Ayrson Heráclito constitutes his radical proposal, in the original sense of getting to the heart of the question. Our scarce references about slavery are displaced out of the superficiality of everyday life, and into an acutely reflexive conscience. The majority of his work approaches, in one way or the other, the important issue of knowledge formation regarding the black man: the need for a specific set of conceptual and theoretical tools. The notions of time and space, matter and spirit, real and imaginary, as well as the forms of perception and knowledge of the world in black culture are different from (sometimes opposite to) those of our Eastern, Christian conceptual spectrum. We have virtually no knowledge of the logic of black languages, from which part of our daily vocabulary derives, most of all in the state of Bahia, and we are thus depriving ourselves of an important part of the logic of our contemporary culture. We must acknowledge that we seek to understand our reality in a partial, limited, and one-sided manner, with regard to our cultural roots. Furthermore, the politically correct discourse, the situation of being “neither here nor there,” and the unconditional submission to market laws comprise the tripod that characterizes the territory of contemporary sameness.

It is this “non-place” that the art of Ayrson Heráclito rescues us from, by means of a visual poetics that turns the boundary separating ethics from aesthetics into its subject matter for research and debate. To that extent, the work Transmutação da carne is arguably the most explicit. The work presents a performance that was featured at the ICBA in 2000, and then featured again as a video installation in Koblenz, Germany, in 2005. In the action, shown in three écrans, four performers from Bahia, all wearing clothes made of carne-de-sol and charque [both types of sun-dried salted beef], are branded with fire, which is how enslaved black men were identified in Brazil up until the 19th century. The video features a language that oscillates between documentary film and performance recording, showing the performers’ entire action with a voiceover reading a report by the commissioner of the Holy Office to the Reverend Mister Antônio Gonzalez Fraga about “the heresies committed by slave master García de Ávila Pereira de Aragão.” Said heresies detail some of the horrors practiced against the Blacks by the master, as the performers walk on burning coal, recreate the skin marking practice with hot iron, or roast a body wrapped in carne-seca [jerked beef]. The silent action reproduces a small, but eloquent “human cattle” which, in addition to exacerbating the historical memory of these cruel procedures, alludes to current forms of slavery in which other bodies, materialized by the meat clothing, are also negotiated and/or humiliated, from prostitution to sales of human organs.

In Barrueco, a work coauthored by Danillo Barata and based on poem Divisor, by Mira Albuquerque, images convey the history of slavery from the vantage point of the slave ship. The object of artistic investigation is displaced from the skin’s surface to the space of the ship’s hold; the recreation of the pain of the bodies is combined with the psychological torture of the uncertainty of fate. With a poetic language made of simple resources (image superimposition, slow motion, static focus), using a limited repertoire of elements, the narrative timing is marked by the word more than it is by the action, with sober images stemming from the poem as we read it, and the song Black Is the Color, as sung by Nina Simone. A giant stingray (the condor of the Atlantic, which had become a moqueca—typical dish from Bahia—in a performance by the artist) simbolizes the “oceanic black solitude.” A paper boat, metaphor for the frailty of the trip, crosses the sea of dendê pushed by a divine hand. The reflection of performer José Domingos Coni is an antithesis to the myth of Narcissus over the palm-oil sea from which yellow pearls emerge. From the path of suffering, the only thing that can be rescued is the preciousness of survival.

In Sangue, sêmen e saliva, the artist develops the visual theme of the boiling dendê as a metaphor for the black vital fluids boiling after years of submission to the white man. The palm oil that used to be sea, the Atlantic territory of suffering, now represents pulsating life. The same fire that used to heat up the iron to brand the skin now boils the oil that is at times a symbol of resistance and, at others, the ejaculation that ensures the perpetuation of the species. That which, in principle, might allude to a restrained eroticism, on the contrary, seems to symbolize an effort to survive by the black nation. Featuring a structure similar to that of the video installation Transmutação da carne, the work was conceived in order to be shown in three écrans and was also presented in Germany. As in Barrueco, the poetics stirs a permanent collision between the sensorial pleasure of images and the pain caused by the awareness of a past of slavery. It is a double process of forming our artistic sensibility and informing our historical-critical sense; more specifically, it is an inseparable relation between the cultural multiplicity of Bahia and the construction of a conscience of its origins.

In his most recent work, As mãos do epô, the artist evokes the religiosity of African slaves. Based on elements that had already been introduced in previous works, the video introduces the Orishas [gods] by means of hand gestures over the epô [palm oil], a soft support that houses the different actions of the gods, to the sound of the atabaque hand drums. The mythology of the Orishas, a true army of protection against the adversities of the African Diaspora, is a metaphysical explanation for the resistance and survival of black men. The blandness of the palm oil confronts the harshness of the trip across the Atlantic and of survival in the cane fields; the softness of divine gestures neutralizes the wounds of the chains and whips of the masters; out of the palm oil’s intense color emerges the light that illuminates the holds of slave ships and senzalas [slave houses].

Differently from the embodiment of a saint in a religious ritual, the images materialize, by means of gestures of the hands, the characteristics of ten divinities and of Time (which “swings the pendulum of life and writes down the destinies”). Even though the technical and poetic resources are basically the same ones already used in other works, the structuring of narrative timing and the discourse of image make an important quantum leap. To those unfamiliar with the ritual and conceptual repertoire from African-Bahia, As mãos do epô may seem repetitive, as the delicate choreography of the hands in the amorphous scenario of palm oil may go unnoticed. Therefore, I recommend that the video be watched more than once, observing the dialogue between the subtlety of images, the slow action of the hands (always different from one Orisha to the other), and the alternation of word and acting.

It is possible that, for many, that which is perceived as “hermeticism” in the works of Ayrson Heráclito is a reflection of our inability to apprehend or understand the universe to which he refers, precisely due to the lack of a philosophical, ethical, and metaphysical corpus different from the one we are accustomed to. It is, perhaps, this exercise in aesthetic construction and ethical questioning that pushes us in the direction of the painful and paradoxical revelation between what we know that we do not know, and what we wish we had never known.

Holder of a degree in architecture, the Uruguayan Alejandra Hernández Muñoz has lived in Salvador since 1992. The holder of a master’s degree in urban design and pursuing a doctorate in urbanism from the Postgraduate Programme in Architecture and Urban Planning at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), she has taught art history at the School of Fine Arts (EBA) in the university since 2002. She has published several works in the areas of art history, art critic, and architecture. As a curator, she was responsible for the exhibitions Pasqualino Romano Magnavita - 1946-2006: 60 anos de desenho de cidades (Cañizares gallery, EBA/UFBA, April 2006); Visões do labirinto (Casarão at EBA/UFBA, November 2007); and, recently, the exhibition EBA 130 anos - núcleo EBA em processos (ICBA gallery, March 2008), all held in the capital of the state of Bahia, Salvador.

Interview Denise Mota, 08/2008

Your creations cover the history of art and touch Brazilian historic contingencies. Which of the two histories inspires you the most?

I have always faced the study of art as a transdisciplinary phenomenon, where all knowledge regarding human experience is considered, including anthropology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, history, etc. I relate to themes and research objects through broad immersion; I am moved by curiosity, by the pleasure of investigation and invention. I understand that art works as a translator of mental structures and, therefore, allows the artist to cover specific permanences of the Western imaginary, whose use of historic sources is seen in a perspective of extracting archetypical coincidences and representations. When I talk about the economic decadence of colonial Bahia, I am not interested in rebuilding a historic moment, but in finding, in the past, possible readings for the contemporary days. Like, for example, in the social area. The way I face civil issues only makes any sense within a dialogue with the “origins” of these issues: racism, poverty, economic bankruptcy, etc. I seek senses, meanings, exercising “free thinking,” and creativity. That is, the possibility of lending new meaning to references through several different readings. A large part of my artistic production is an outlook into the history of my “village,” bringing to mind Homo Bhabha without the “nostalgia of life,” as I have a need to relate to the world that I live in, and which provides me with meaning. This world is not small, like a yard, it is large, broad, complex, and often obscure. History not only inspires me, but also accompanies my life and my production, and informs my gaze and my artistic comments.

The culture of Bahia is crossed by endless influences, also related to the idea of Brazilianness. In the memorial of your master’s research, you say that you seek to flee from a “folkloric” reading of local reality. How does this way affect your creative process? 

As an artist and researcher, I have dared to build a personal synthesis of the several cultures and styles present in the artistic activity of Bahia up to the present date. In this experiment, I have managed to find the moment of my insertion into regional artistry, while also making clear what my aesthetic engagements with the African-Bahian culture were. That is where a less folkloric reading of the local reality comes from, one that is present in works by artists from several generations, who broke away from the official emblematics of being Bahian. This artistic posture, skirting what ideologically turned up and was traditionally recognized by local cultural institutions as “the art of Bahia,” raises the curtain on new readings of the popular universe that showed themselves important for the creation of my aesthetics.

You have been working very much with elements such as meat, sugar, and dendê [palm oil]. Why?

Because they are living materials, organic, they are in constant transformation, and may disclose, in a more direct manner, my “thought-up imagination.” Added to that is all the symbolic meaning of religion, in history and in the everyday life of the people from Bahia. Sugar was the element I used to speak about the crisis of the ancient Portuguese colonial system, a moment in which, to me, the “internal secrets” of Brazilian cultural identity started unveiling. Charque [jerked beef] has varied meanings: it is the main ingredient that guarantees the mystic force of the feijoada of Ogum, a black god, as well as being resistant food, like the flesh on the bodies of our slaves who were branded. Charque speaks of the pain of Northeastern poverty and of hunger. Dendê is the blood, the golden sperm of Eshu, it is the Atlantic, the black uterus that breeds the racial category. It is the sea over which my condors of Atlantic freedom fly.

Dendê is the most recurrent material in your work, like paint, a symbol, body wrapping. Closely connected to the history of blacks in Brazil, does dendê, symbolically, represent the axis of your ethical and aesthetic interests?

As it is such a rich and complex material, in all its physical and symbolic dimensions, it has required special attention. It is a hot material, with a strong and uncontrollable aroma, which impregnates the streets, houses, and temples of Bahia. Dendê is the “vegetable blood” offered to divine beings in a large part of their rituals. I have been trying, with dendê, to denounce the most complex cultural issues of Bahia. I am also fascinated by its color, and I think about Oiticica, Klein, and Rothko, in the revelation of the spiritual sense of color. Dendê is an axis to my ethical and aesthetic concerns, yes. It is the vital liquid, the semen, the blood, and the saliva of the cultural body of Bahia.

You also teach several subjects, among them drawing. How does this experience affect your artistic production?

University is a very appropriate territory for my production, as it brings together, unites many different kinds of knowledge. Apart from that, I am Beuysian, I believe in the teaching power of art as a changing element, and throughout all moments of my artistic trajectory, teaching has followed me. The classroom is a very powerful tool for dialogue, for teaching; research and extension are fundamental for my deeper aesthetic investigation of the plurality of the cultural matrixes of Bahia.

At age eleven, you stated that you were a Communist militant. Is your art a means of militancy?

First Marx then Beuys, so you cannot expect anything else. Is there art without politics? Is there creation without a village, without a yard? This reminds me of the “Lecture on Commitment” by Cage, when he asks: “Is it true that when a murder takes place, each one of us is the murderer? Therefore, shouldn’t we be a little more generous with each other?” I am a member of the utopian crowd who understands art in a broad way—defining art as any kind of being and doing; designating the whole of the social fabric, including politics, as a social sculpture. Artistic action establishes close relations with politics. Even if it does not lead to radical change, it may represent a strategy against the pities of this world.

What is your evaluation of the panorama of visual arts of Bahia today and of the insertion of your work into this scene?

I do not feel comfortable to make that analysis, but, as an active member of the artistic community of Bahia since the 1980s, I can make some comments about the cultural policy sponsored by the state of Bahia in the 1990s, with regard to contemporary art, where I am. First of all, the nonrecognition of this kind of manifestation was observed in political managers. Interventions that follow different creative routes from those traditionally accepted as works of art were systematically neglected by official cultural institutions. With this posture, several talents in this field of art were condemned to ostracism and invisibility, and this was indirectly responsible for the professional disenchantment of several artists. We are currently living a good political cultural moment throughout the state. Finer tuning between the state and the federal government. New ideas, new managers, and that all is spawning great artistic talent that spent a long time in latency. Our self-esteem is rising, and new names stand out on the national and international scene. We have much to do, mainly trying to guarantee sustainability without falling into the greater art market. I think: as we do not have, in visual arts, a strong market as is the case with music, we have greater space left for creativity. My production has always had space, I have a select group of followers who accompany my creation. This is very gratifying, as I think I can open many paths around here with contemporary art. I am little by little entering the market and selling my dendê and my jerked beef. Salvador is also a good showcase to the world. I have been negotiating with international collectors and museums, and have also received invitations to participate in important exhibitions outside the state.

On what are you working now and when and where will it be seen?

I am currently working on three projects, all involving performance and video. The first is part of the series Regresso à pintura baiana, and it is called A chuva de epô, a video installation with three channels that represents dendê rain on a landscape in the city of Salvador, homage to Yves Klein, Oiticica, and Oya. The second project is called Bori, and it is a performance in which we are going to offer food to the heads of several black gods. A work straddling the line between the sacred and the aesthetic. It requires great elaboration in the preparation of several offers to the gods. The third work is a death mass that I plan to promote for Márcia X, with the assistance of members of the afoxé group Filhos de Gandhi. I should present this work here in Salvador, between 2008 and 2009, at a gallery and in museums. I am in the preproduction stages and am also raising funds for the more complex work.

Comment biography Denise Mota, 08/2008

Born in the emblematic year of 1968, when the world reached boiling point with the defense of new values and habits, Ayrson Heráclito would later put to boil, in new pots, concepts, traditions, and beliefs of Brazilian culture. Immersed in a reality made up of intellectual references from childhood—his mother used to recite poems by Castro Alves—, the artist incorporated fusion, a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world, and a taste for looking at facts from independent vantage points from an early age. Mixing things up was the rule, rather than the exception. Since always, he drank the sap of African Brazil that features in his works—his father, a black man, was a sergeant with the Military Police. His mother, a supporter of the abolitionist cause, white, was a history teacher.

The taste for analyzing the past was acquired at home under the influence of his mother, as described by Heráclito: “It was through her voice and the fantastic images in her books that I realized I was an artist. That left a deep mark, not only in me but also in two of my six brothers and sisters, who are historians.”

In the 1970s, the family moved to the city of Vitória da Conquista, where the boy—an avid reader of books about the oeuvre of great names in the history of art—would delve deeper into the universe of knowledge. “In high school, I had a very special history teacher, the daughter of [playwright] Nelson Rodrigues, who provided me with the foundation for critical thinking and a social conscience, and a seductive arts teacher who, in addition to encouraging the practices of drawing and painting, informed me, by means of Seurat’s work, that there is also a fine line between art and reflection,” he says.

As an amalgam of all these influences, tracing back origins, seeking unexpected connections, and coming up with new interpretations for the country’s official events were tasks to which the artist from Bahia dedicated himself in his academical “baptism of fire,” a project that ensured him the title of master in visual arts from the Federal University of Bahia, in 1998. Heráclito proposed to decode the oeuvre of Gregório de Mattos using installations in Segredos no Boca do Inferno: arte, história e cultura baiana.

One decade earlier, the professor with the Federal University of the Recôncavo da Bahia, who also holds a license in artistic education, had attracted the exhibition circuit’s attention for the first time, as he won both the specialized and popular jury prizes with the works he submitted to the 1st Metanor/Copenor Bahia Visual Arts Salon, in 1986. The works were pictorial translations of his reflections on poverty, the social meaning of Christianity, and knowledge as power.

Performance became part of Heráclito’s career as he entered college, also in the 1980s. The artist, who at age eleven would already introduce himself as a “communist militant,” now had new media, languages, and philosophical tools to make his art into “any kind of being,” as he states in the interview published in this Dossier.

Among his performance work, Transmutação da carne, presented in the year 2000 at the ICBA in Salvador, presents accounts of acts of torture committed by farm owners against their slaves, as men wearing pieces of flesh brand and are branded by fire. The “holocaust of slavery,” as the author defines it, also sets the tone in Barrueco, a video shot in 2004 that was selected for the 15th Videobrasil, held in 2005. In the Festival’s following edition, in 2007, the artist would be awarded for his As mãos do epô.

Heráclito brings to the table dendê [palm oil], life in Colonial Brazil, jerked beef, sugar, fish; sperm and blood, body, pain, rapture, apartheid, and dreams of freedom. As a professor, he also walks away from safe, much-trodden territories to champion the teaching of art as a catalyst against juvenile violence. At the institutions he taught in, his “art-activity” classes have replaced the “artistic education” common to most school curricula.

Currently, the artist is working on three creations that he should execute between this year and the next, all involving performance and video: he is going to make dendê rain over the city of Salvador in A chuva de epô; recreate one of the most important rituals in the Candomblé religion, in Bori; and organize a mass featuring members of afoxé group Filhos de Gandhi.

Bibliographical references

An electronic portfolio of sorts, the site features some of Ayrson Heráclito’s works, along with photographs, short texts, and a brief résumé. 

Universidade do Recôncavo

A professor at the Center of Arts, Humanities, and Letters of the Federal University of the Recôncavo da Bahia, Heráclito expands and complements his artistic investigations teaching at the organization, established in 2005.