Dalton Paula and the black rebellion

The works produced by Dalton Paula in the past six years have raised questions within the history of black slavery, which unravelled with the trafficking of African peoples to the American continent in the wake of its discovery. Slave labour, which thrived in Brazil from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, supported the development of the country’s economic cycles from the early years of colonization until virtually the onset of the Republic. Slaves were employed in extracting pau-brasil (Brazil wood), in planting crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, cotton, and coffee, in mining for gold and precious stones, as well as in domestic activities and urban services. For over three centuries a massive African contingent lived in Brazil under appalling conditions and extreme violence, and it was only with the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) that slavery formally ended. However, the abolition did not solve the problems facing the black population, given that it was followed by the complete absence of public policies which would grant rights to former slaves and integrate them into society; hence ensued a serious and unfair process of social exclusion and racial persecution, grounded in a rigid class hierarchy as well as in deep-rooted prejudices within Brazil’s slave society, which considered Africans and their descendants as inferior people – a backward mentality which stills resonates in certain elitist segments of Brazilian contemporary society.
Not even the widely acknowledged role of black people in the formation of the rich Brazilian culture or their contribution to the country’s unique artistic production, from colonial times to the present, or even the theory of miscegenation and pacification of racial disputes proposed by human science scholars – responsible for elucidating Brazilian identity in the twentieth century – managed to undo differences and put an end to racial conflicts embedded in the nation’s core. Black people still live in segregation, marginalized and without access to the benefits of citizenship, enduring continuous violence from the State and from society.
As an artist who embraces his blackness, Dalton Paula clear-headedly addresses the problems caused by slavery, taking into account past and present, broadening his investigative scope, bringing new dimension to architecture in relation to the body, going over places and characters, and becoming contaminated with narratives extracted from the undergrounds of history, that of his country or of elsewhere. When making art, he employs various image sources as well as research and application procedures; he uses different visual categories and establishes, through a given work’s plasticity and concept, a negative critique of official discourses, hence unstructuring representations and tensing the exchanges and appropriations which take place between black and white people, slaves and masters, dominated and dominators.
The exhibition Rebelião Negra (Black Rebellion) brings together eight works produced in different periods and media – painting, object, performance art using photography and video –, with the aim of offering renderings of the diversity of artistic languages and procedures, on the one hand, and of the artist’s deeply political and questioning poetics, on the other; a poetics committed to his life, to the review of historiography, to potentiating the socially excluded, to healing the traumas of slavery. The exhibition seeks to show how Dalton Paula carries out a powerful work which dilates the political, ethical, and social tradition of Brazilian art by addressing hard-hitting issues that need to be examined in the present, both here and elsewhere.
By scavenging through collective memory and searching for sources from the past, the painting “A Rede” (The Net, 2016) updates the representation depicted by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848) in the second volume of his Viagem Pitoresca e Histórica ao Interior do Brasil (A Picturesque and Historical Voyage to Brazil, 1834-1839). Debret’s book offers an account of slaves’ daily life, work, and punishments, and highlights the crucial role played by black people in the social and cultural formation of nineteenth-century Brazilian society. Dalton Paula removes a few characters from Debret’s original representation: the master being conducted inside a net; the two child slaves; the dog accompanying the group. He retains only the image of two slaves holding a piece of wood from which hangs an empty net, but their directions are now inverted: one heads to the right and the other to the left, in a situation which impedes movement, hinders the exercise of the role at hand, provides relief from labour, and freezes the scene. Dalton Paula also abandons the landscape and represents the figures in an indoor setting, a living room, where there is a shelf on the wall with three garrafadas containing herbs and cachaça – materials used by the artist in several other works.The work “Retrata Divina” (Portraying Divina, 2015), which addresses various knowledge media, is a set of nine paintings produced on encyclopedia covers. These paintings are based on photographs the artist received from an anonymous white female colleague. Trivial images of romantic scenes and professional and leisure experiences are given new life by a series of resources used by Dalton Paula: removal of the photos’ original backgrounds; selection of specific elements which undo the original narratives; blackening of the character; sequencing of non-linear scenes; merging of expressionism and popular painting. Irony comes through when the artist changes the character’s skin colour and places a black woman where she has never been before, i.e. on the cover of encyclopedias produced by mass-market publishers, responsible for disseminating broad yet superficial knowledge to median segments of Brazilian society. The image of the black woman, excluded both by racism and by sexism, hence triumphs over a symbol of the knowledge accumulated over centuries of eurocentric, white, male theory.The use of his own body is also a constant feature of Dalton Paula’s work. His black body, alien to the aesthetic standards of consumer society, generally depicted with a bare chest and eyes blindfolded or closed, is a recurrent image in his raw performance proposals as well as in his photo and video performance artworks. The latter are actions that take place away from public scrutiny, watched only by firmly positioned photo and video camera lenses; they are artworks which cannot be viewed separately from the performance, true hybrids shifting between the means of recording and formalizing post-performance.

The work “Máscara” (Mask, 2015) is an object that refers to the artist’s body, having been created for his latest photo performance but never actually exhibited to the public. It was intended to cover both head and face, emulating an orixá headdress. It is a simple yet highly symbolic object, consisting of hundreds of small glass medicine bottles containing a mixture of cachaça, leaves, roots, twigs, and seeds of erva-da-guiné (Petiveria alliacea), or guinea hen weed, woven together by leatherworking thread. These are tiny garrafadas, potions capable of healing or killing, a heritage preserved by the resistance and wisdom of black herbalists.

Guinea hen weed has become popularly known in Brazil as amansa senhor, a plant used to “tame the master”. It was used by slaves acting as priests, who manipulated and distributed potions of poisonous herbs as silent weapons against masters, overseers, and enemies. Poisoning against torture. The plant’s root powder was part of a set of ingredients widely used by those who acted against their oppressors, and its effects were aggressive, powerful, and lethal: lethargy, overexcitement, insomnia, hallucinations, seizures, laryngeal paralysis, and death*.

In the rebellion envisaged by Dalton Paula’s work, guinea hen weed springs forth at various instances and indicates multiple interpretations: a symbol of resistance to oppression and dominance; a means of defence and attack; a cure to slavery’s historical wounds; an orixá leaf and a sacred element of protection.

In the video performance Unguento (Salve, 2015), carried out outside the old slave market in Lençóis – a city located in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia state, and founded during the gold cycle –, Dalton Paula undergoes the ritual of making a strange garrafada by mixing cachaça with glass shards from another cachaça bottle macerated with guinea hen weed. The earliest record of this extremely popular drink dates back to the sixteenth century, and the artist’s rendering of it evokes both the sugar cane cycle, upheld by black labour, and the social prejudice which links cachaça to lower social classes, to black and indigenous people, pariahs, and drunkards abandoned to their fate. The Portuguese word unguento refers to salves used since ancient times to treat several infirmities. The garrafada possesses the same healing purpose, being largely used by the population in mixtures of cachaça and a wide array of herbs, roots, leaves, peels, sap, and animals. However, in the twofold process of healing and defence, the artist ends up producing a garrafada that is capable of killing by internal haemorrhage, hence bringing up to date the image of the foregone priest who treated or poisoned according to his need to tame or kill his master.

Guinea hen weed also features in Dalton Paula’s video performance Implantar Anamu (Implanting Anamu, 2016), carried out during his stay in Habana Vieja, Cuba; the performance took place before the wall of La Cabaña, a grand eighteenth-century fort designed by the Spanish and built by slave labour, imposing itself as a symbol of the architecture of power and punitive control. The fort, which formerly served as a military base and a torture prison, today houses a museum – yet another institution of power which continually applies selection and exclusion criteria not only regarding aesthetic language but also political, social, gender- and race-based aspects. Implantar Anamu is a work that expands Dalton Paula’s experimentations with guinea hen weed and with procedures for grinding objects. Having plunged into the repetition of an obsessive and blind gesture, Dalton Paula drives his body to exhaustion by dilating the time taken to macerate a few ceramic pots in the metal mortar until they are turned to dust, hence expressing a desire to give back to the earth that which had once belonged to it and which human culture had extracted. The work’s long duration evokes the sluggish rhythm of life inside a prison, where days do not go by – they drag by. Dalton Paula performs a ritual to grind what had once been molded and to plant within the ruins of destruction the antidote against oppression and subjugation; to plant guinea hen weed in the mixture of powder, ceramic shards, and fertile earth from the island, a plant known in Cuba as anamu. This plant binds together the narratives of enslaved black people both in Brazil and in Cuba, and through it the artist questions powers and repositions the place of speech and the volume of black voices in relation to past, present, and future.

Devoid of categories and assembling performance, video, and photography, the work Coronel Castelo Negro B (Colonel Castelo Negro [‘black’] B, 2013) also confronts the fusion of military and political powers. The title parodies the name of general Humberto Castelo Branco [‘white’] (1897-1967), the leading army officer involved in the coup of March 1964 and the first president of the military dictatorship, responsible for initiating a dark period marked by the suspension of political rights, repression against left-wing movements, persecution of opponents, and censorship on the right to freedom of intellectual and artistic expression. Dalton Paula creates a self-portrait in which he merges references to the army and military police; he seizes a colonel’s rank insignia, three yellow stars, and sews it onto his bare shoulder. The scene is set on a green landscape where the archaic and active rural coronelismo, or colonels’ rule, is in command, managing the latifundia and agribusiness with oligarchic political force and giving rise to countless conflicts for land ownership and use. Dalton Paula seizes this location and in his rebellion turns history around, assaults power ranks, and leads them to the memory of the shoulders of one with no possessions.

Nilo Peçanha (1867-1924) had a poor background and because of his skin colour was pejoratively called a mulatto by his opponents, despite denying any African descent; against all obstacles facing the social mobility of people from his social class, he became a major political figure and eventually president of Brazil in the early 1900s. This was an admirable feat in a society which had officially ended slavery only twenty-one years before. Peçanha’s name is the title of a video performance in which Dalton Paula, facing the Ministries Esplanade in Brasília, displays the Republic’s coat of arms – the utmost symbol of state power – sewn onto his back, thus introducing the question of how a black man is able to take hold of government instruments.

The video O batedor de bolsa (The pickpocket, 2011) highlights the violence inherent to social exclusion and to society’s racial prejudices, all of which have helped to shape a warped image of criminals and delinquents; marginality has thus become associated with black and poor people, i.e. those who often live without basic possessions but who nevertheless would not resort to stealing. Racism, now a criminal offence, is deep-rooted in Brazilians’ behaviour. Dalton Paula’s work records the performance carried out in the public space of a street in the city’s outskirts, having as background a stained white wall which contrasts with the blackness of the artist’s skin and bag. His action is economic and swift: while holding a truncheon (an object which becomes a weapon at the hands of police officers), he attempts to strike a woman’s bag hanging above his head. He strikes the air blindly until he becomes tired. The bag evokes other meanings, e.g. the stock market where global capital flows and which stands above the majority of the segregated population, or an object which stores the twisted moral and ethical values of urban middle classes. Hence Dalton Paula relives the prejudice he suffered as a child and denounces racial violence while purging the unfair association, generally made by white women, between the image of a poor black boy and that of the street thief who commits petty crimes, known in Brazil as pivete, trombadinha> or O batedor de carteira/O batedor de bolsa

* Reis, João José. Domingos Sodré: um sacerdote africano. Escravidão, liberdade e candomblé na Bahia do século XIX. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008. p. 152.

Divino Sobral

Goiânia, August 2016