Dalton Paula and the art of subduing masters
“Without slavery, what would be of America’s export trade! Slaves are indispensable for the work in the mines, to extract this precious and much desired metal, these diamonds have been been of great recourse to the state; this lucrative and above all interesting plantation, the main treasure of Brazil, and of America in general, from which Europe itself can no longer do without.”*
In the last five years or thereabouts the young artist Dalton Paula has been traversing the field of Brazilian tradition that problematizes art’s relationship to the complex ethical, social and political issues that pervade the country’s historical formation. He has principally been working with the revision of narratives about slavery and their tragic consequences, causer of social exclusion, of marginalization and of the inequitable appropriation of the workforce of black peoples in contemporary society. Without resentment of denunciation, but with critical intelligence, political refinement and based on historical grounds, he has been employing irony and mordant humour interspersed with mockery and derision, to address issues that are somehow entrenched in his own subjective, personal history, as a young black man who is conscious of his being in the world.
Dalton Paula has been transiting across painting, object-making, installation, performance, photography and video, without establishing a hierarchical order among the various mediums, and without any loss to his expressive poetic potential, seeing as the choice of each support base results from the poetic idea that the artist endeavours to make real. In this open-ended panorama, there are seams that bind the parts together, rendering them into a cohesive set, structured by actions that repeat or alternate themselves, which project themselves or reverberate, which make themselves explicit or enshroud themselves, at every fragment. These actions are marked by the critical interpretation of historical or everyday events, by the impregnation of a religious, mystical aspect which arises from Afro-Brazilian cults, by the use of his own body and of images of the bodies of others, by the clash of alterities that lie between the autobiographical and the appropriated other, by the shock between the weak and the strong, between master and slave, by the undoing of the demarcation of functions and also of the territories of entitlements and rights, actions which were all constituted by means of violence into the Brazilian social fabric.
Amansa-senhor, title of Dalton Paula’s present exhibition at Galeria Sé, was taken from an expression which designated the artifices of sorcery employed by the slaves that were priests – officiants of Candomblé origin – to tame or subdue the aggressive character of their masters during the slavery era. Potions were administered in very low doses, bridling them slowly and steadily by poisoning. Amansa senhor is also is also the popular name given to the erva-da-Guiné (Petiveria Alliaceae, or Guinea Hen Weed), a perennial herb that was part of the herbarium of black peoples of Brazil and which has dangerous pharmacological properties; among the effects of the powder extracted from its roots are: “overstimulation, insomnia, hallucination, apathy, idiocy, cerebral softening, tetaniform convulsions, paralysis of the larynx followed by death, within a period of approximately one year, depending on the ingested doses**.” These are the effects of the erva-da- Guiné used by the slaves in the act of resistance, subversion and revolt against their masters’ dominance.
The defensive properties of the erva-da-Guiné are popular among the people and have become an essential ingredient in numerous rituals of Afro-Brazilian religions, wherein it is attributed to distinct entities or saints, or as a customary ingredient in myriad recipes for traditional phytotherapic bottled ‘medicine’ popularly known as garrafadas, or in baths for healing maladies and infirmities and for spiritual cleansing. Planted in backyards and in the yards known as terreiros where a number of rituals of Candomblé and of Umbanda are held, it is also commonly found, by means of syncretism, in gardens or vases of superstitious Christian followers, exalted by the belief in its power to disperse evil energies.
As Dalton Paula inserts the erva-da-Guiné and other medicinal plants into some of his works, he evokes both a healing process for the treatment of the historical wounds inflicted by slavery in the social body, and the process of rebellion by poisoning, which seeks to destroy the white orthodox way of thinking and alter the origin of the speech on the position of black people in Brazilian society and culture. Born in Brasília,in the Federal District, and currently based in Goiânia, capital of the state of Goiás, both modern cities that were built many years after the abolition of slavery, where manifestations of the Afro-Brazilian culture are not as commonly or openly revealed, Dalton Paula, in his search to deepen his knowledge on this theme, continuously searches for cultural references in the capital city of Salvador and in other cities of the state of Bahia, places where the cultural expressions of African matrix converge in great concentrations.
In the period when he was in residence at the Muros: territórios compartilhados (Walls: shared territories), in direct contact with the surrounding environment of the Mercado São Joaquim (São Joaquim Market), in Salvador, absorbing the ways of life, the stories and the beliefs of the local tradesmen and of the regulars, Dalton Paula produced the photograph entitled Tabuleiro (Stall, 2013), a work where he makes use of the notion of a performance that is guided by the making of a photograph which, in turn, is conceived in minute detail by the artist, and therefore does carry the status of an image of second order. In general, these are performances that have been permeated with the concept of the site-specific, and are linked to particular aspects of these places that have captured the interest of the artist. Initially these places did not have a distinct identity, and were almost always undetermined locations on the fringes of larger cities, but which gradually gained new specificities: agribusiness fields and even a fragment of the landscape of the federal city. In Tabuleiro, the constitutive place of the work is identified in the photograph by an address plate that is affixed to the wall, informing that this is the hospital slope. The wall of the Hospital Santa Izabel (Santa Izabel Hospital) has been chosen as the constitutive place of the work. The name of the hospital evokes the figure of Princess Isabel and the Lei Áurea (or Golden Law) which abolished slavery in the Brazilian territory, ending a cycle of exploration only to engender a cycle of exclusion in its place; the chalk-white colour of the wall alludes to the pristine whiteness of medical uniforms and to the asepsis of traditional medicine. But the presence of a pichação (street writing or tagging done in a distinctive, cryptic style, mainly on walls and vacant buildings) on the wall’s unsoiled surface registers a gesture of revolt and of dissatisfaction from a voice that remains unheard, deadened in the ghetto, and which thus discharges seemingly unintelligible utterances into the public space.
In Tabuleiro, Dalton Paula makes use of his own body in a ritualistic situation, as is frequent in many of his photographic works or in videos that are supported by performative actions. The artist confronts the public space bare-chested (in the same way as slaves were tied to a trunk or post to be scourged in an act of exemplary punishment) and with his head shaved; he positions himself facing the wall, standing behind the stall, which has been precariously build with beer crates and covered with plastic bags that have been sewn together, and smothered with an enormous quantity and variety of medicinal herbs. This way, in the photograph the artist appears as though he were dressed in a peculiar baiana costume, an image which results from the way that the form of the stall is pieced together to his body. In placing himself between the orthodox treatments of traditional medicine, of white matrix, and elements of popular medicine, of African and indigenous matrices, the artist also places himself between magic and science. There is in his gesture the simplicity of a street-seller, an occupation that has been carried out by black people for centuries, and even more considerably after the abolition, and which is still carried out in the form of the camelô.
Unguento exacerbates the processes of irony contained in the operation of bridling the masters performed by Dalton Paula. As in the previous work, the video has a documentary character, having been was carried out using a performance work as its basis. In this case the work is an intervention in the city of Lençois, in up-country Bahia, and was produced during the Mostra OSSO Latino-americana de Performances Urbanas (Latin American Urban Performances).
In this work the artist can once again be seen bare-chested, walking along the streets and holding an empty bottle, a bottle of cachaça 51 (a popular brand of the typical distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice), and another brown-coloured bottle of cachaça (a metaphor for black skin), a mortar and a small branch of erva-de-Guiné. He sits on the pavement of a street – the green walls and doors of the building where the old slave market of the city used to function peering over him in the background – and displays before him a collection of objects. He then begins a ritual of actions which, in the end, produce a dangerous substance. After blindfolding himself – an act that implies the loss of contact with the visible in order to create an opening to that which is invisible, in a mystic trance for coming into contact with archetypes, entities and ghosts – he spills brown cachaça around him and starts to grind the herb until it is crushed. Next he vigorously shakes the same bottle of cachaça and then smashes it on the ground in front of him; he gathers up the shards and places them in the mortar to be crushed with the herb. When the mixture is sufficiently ground up, he introduces it into the empty bottle, and finalizes the garrafada by adding the cachaça 51 that was left, which during the action was opened and served and then stolen by a drunk who had been wondering down the street and casually joined the scene.
Among all the works by Dalton Paula that were carried out in the public space, Unguento is that which is most subjected to the intervention of elements that travel across the street, such as people, animals, vehicles, sounds, speech, random noises. But the spontaneous intervention of the drunk potentializes the artist’s action even further, as, in a plastic sense, it adds a chromatic contrast of intense energy to the image of the video, and in a poetic conceptual sense, dilates the meaning of the cachaça as a symbol or as matter, at the same time as it reveals its action on individual and social bodies. The use of the cachaça takes us back to the sugarcane cycle, sustained by the slave labour in the country. The distilled spirit has been known in Brazil since the 16th century, and over time has almost always been object of social prejudice, thought of as a drink of the lower classes of society, consumed by the poor, by blacks, by accultured indigenous peoples and by outcasts. Diminished, the spirit was referred to as the drink of the rabble, as food for addiction and for the degradation of the pariah, of the individual who is excluded from the rights of citizenship, abandoned to his own fate or misfortune, such as the drunkard who walked into the performance, lured by the bottle of 51.
The title of the action, Unguento, is derived from the pastes employed by popular medicine since antiquity for the treatment of different ailments. In actual fact, during his performance Dalton Paula creates a garrafada. Alternatives adopted to circumvent the lack of access to the means of traditional medicine, the garrafadas are widely used by hinterland and rural populations and by the low-income urban layer. Their prescriptions are ancient and are based on phytotherapic knowledge inherited from the blacks and from the indigenous peoples, and are generally made from the mixture of herbs that have been preserved in cachaça. However, instead of producing a medication that can alleviate and heal, the artist creates a garrafada to produce suffering, internal hemorrhage and death, and therefore actualizes the ancestral figure of the Candomblé priest, who manipulated the plants to create medications/poisons, according to the need to subdue the master, or to take revenge on him.
The cachaça, the erva-da-Guiné and the garrafada are elements that are also present in the installation Paratudo, a work that is homonymous to the brand of alcoholic beverage produced with a mixture of bitter roots and whose label depicts the stylized drawing of a North American indian. The work, carried out during the Imersão em (território) Olhos D’Água ( Immersion in (territory) Eyes of Water) residency, in the interior of the state of Goiás, resembles a trap: it is constructed by a rope that hangs from the ceiling in a hangman’s knot, from where hangs a sauce made from a bottle of Paratudo and thirteen garrafadas of cachaça with distinct parts of the erva-de-Guiné, which confers different tonalities to the drinks; each bottle is enveloped by a seine fishing net, made from thread for sewing leather, and in this way they are assembled and attached to the noose, like a collective body. The chain of latent punishments in Paratudo (suspension, closure, finalization, extirpation) reminds us that among the actions of violence employed in the colonial and imperial periods, in addition to the tortures inflicted on the slaves, there was the death penalty imposed on the most renegade insurgents and on the most violent criminals, and that the method adopted for the public execution of those who had been condemned was death by hanging, in a spectacle of cruelty sponsored by the authorities, as was the case of Tiradentes . Although the death penalty was abolished in Brazil during the Second Empire, the image of the noose still hangs over the collective imagination on the subject of terror which haunts the present.
The last works presented by Dalton Paula are two groups of paintings which have been executed on the covers of dozens of editions of the old collections of the Barsa and Science and Future encyclopaedias. Born in the 18th century from the compilation of the philosophical knowledge of the French illuminists, during the 20th century the notion of the encyclopaedia was rendered banal by the cultural industry, which started to produce collections of books abounding with juxtapositions of entries that were as varied as they were superficial, and which were avidly consumed by the middle classes. The artist intervenes on the materiality and on the history of this support base by superimposing another narrative onto it. Set side by side to each other, positioned vertically or horizontally, forming great sequences, the books in their objectual condition are not subject to alterations, although their function has been suspended. The vision of the book spine, a band of the red from the cover revealed within the surface of the painting, the bulkiness of the closed pages refuting the traditional bidimensionality which characterizes the medium, the memories impregnated in the body of the publication, are all aspects pondered by the artist in exploring their plastic potentialities.
The first set, entitled Retrata Maria (2015), is like a biography formed by a series of forty-five paintings inspired by photographs that were supplied by a military friend, and represent scenes of everyday life, of the workspace, of travels and of amorous intimacies. The second group, Retrata Rosana (2015), is based on photographs of performances carried out by female artists and by a transvestite, who is a character/work created by an artist of the male sex; in a certain sense it directs the reading of the performance towards a historical field where it functioned as opposition and resistance to the laws of the masters of the art market, who classified it as a subversive category, devoid of commercial interest.
The scenes painted by Dalton in the first set arise from the appropriation of documents of someone else’s life, of images charged with the banality of daily life and with the affectivity of these records, shaped by a domestic language and barren of any concerns for an aesthetic order. In a reflection on alterity, the artist introduces the other into his work, and renders a random image of a moment in the life of a common person into a motif for the cover of the encyclopaedia. As he transfers the photographic image to the painting he selects a number of elements from the original image and removes others, and reinterprets the way situations are framed and how the lighting and the backdrop are approached. Contrary to most works made by artists who make paintings from photographs, Dalton’s work does not retain remnants of the original photograph, as the image is transformed by a gesture that is powerful albeit directed, and which pays tribute to the expressionist tradition. Plentiful transformations unfold: to begin with, the artist transforms the skin colour of all people who have supplied him with their photographs, from white they are represented as black. The physiognomical characteristics dissolve themselves into a formal model; the eyes and the noses are painted gold, a colour which emanates a sacred energy which resignifies the senses of vision, of smell and of hearing – when two golden mouths converge in a kiss. The way he approaches the background of his paintings, always in shades of blue, green and and grey, is reminiscent of the aesthetic of traditional painted portraits which were based on retouched photographs, so commonly found in the Brazilian Northeast and in houses found in the suburbs of the country; the sequences and correlations of the paintings establish connections and create a new visual situation from where new and unsettling narratives unfold.
Finally, in concluding the reflection on the works of Dalton Paula display exhibited in this show, I draw attention to the need to understand that, as he addresses traumas of the past, he has found the means to address the problems of the present, and I invite the reader to be inquisitive and to ask: who are the masters of the present? What do they do? Where are they? Why do they need to be subdued? What are the methods of bridling? Who are the tamers? What does art have to do with taming?
[i] *Memoria sobre o commercio dos escravos: em que se pretende mostrar que este trafico he, para eles, antes hum bem do que hum mal. Rio de Janeiro: Typ. Imp. E Const. De J. Villeneuve e Comp., 1838.p. 7. In: Brasiliana Digital USP – Biblioteca Ex Libris José Mindlin.
[i] Candomblé is an African-Brazilian religion, born of a people who were taken from their homes in Africa and transplanted to Brazil during the slave trade. The religion is a mixture of traditional Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs which originated from different regions in Africa, and it has also incorporated some aspects of the Catholic faith over time. The name itself means ‘dance in honour of the gods’, and music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies.
[i]  **João José Reis. Domingos Sodré, um sacerdote africano: escravidão, liberdade e candomblé na Bahia do século XIX.  São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2008, p152.
[i]The bahianas, who also hold the title of mães-de-santo (or mothers-of-the-saint), are pioneers of Candomblé. Having arrived in Brazil at the end of the 18th century as part of the slave trade, they embody the role of religious and political leadership and of therapeutic power.
[i]The word is borrowed from the French camelot, meaning “merchant of low-quality goods,” and which have fixed “storefronts” on a particular sidewalk.
[i]  Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, also known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller) was the leader of the first organized movement against Portuguese rule in Brazil in 1789. Known as the Inconfidencia Mineira , insurgents advocated complete independence from Portugal. An attempt by Portuguese officials to collect back taxes (not too different from the collection of tea taxes in the 13 American colonies) touched off the call for the rebellion. The crown quickly and easily crushed the uprising, jailing the conspirators and brutally executing Tiradentes two years later. He was publicly hanged in Rio de Janeiro on April 21, 1792. To frighten the population into complete submission Portuguese authorities ordered his body to be cut into pieces and to be prominently displayed along posts in city boulevards. The martyrdom of Tiradentes has rendered him into a national hero. Divino Sobral Goiânia, August de 2016.