Dalton Paula’s God Bless You

His walking is slow: a black man wearing no shirt appears in the corner of the screen. A brick wall covered in graffiti serves as backdrop to his black body. His movements are slow because he is blindfolded and walks over an icy sidewalk; struggling, he pushes a blue cart. In New York, residents use these carts to make shopping easier. Homeless people use basket carts to store their belongings and transport all kinds of objects, especially older people who find it difficult to walk. In the video, he hesitates, limps: the man holds a white paper cup, the kind you find in every cafe in New York. The cold daylight and the ice on the sidewalk suggest that the scene takes place in a somewhat hostile weather: what you see is a street in Brooklyn, days after a snowstorm. As the man pushes the cart, the wheels get stuck in the remainders of the storm: gray layers of ice, almost glued to the concrete sidewalk. Temporary blindness and the man’s naked chest suggest vulnerability: you can imagine the chilling breeze striking his skin.
When a black body appears in the field of representation it is already marked by stereotypes, by whiteness as a norm. In both the United States, where the video-performance was created, and in Brazil, the artist’s home country, the black body is plagued by a long history of exploitation and abuse: historical images of slavery and poverty are still pervasive in the imaginary of societies such as these two that participated in the colonial system and in the enslavement of African populations. Thus, a black body is “topic” to a series of interpretations and questions. In Dalton Paula’s God Bless You (2018), questions such as these can arise: “Where is he going?”, “Why is he blindfolded?”, “What does he carry in the cart?” From the video, you only have the answer to the last question: you can see that inside the cart the man carries bricks that, together, look like a chimney––a static object which, through the artist’s action, becomes a travelling one. As he walks, he pours little incense pebbles out of the paper cup and into the chimney, producing smoke and, unexpectedly, fire.
During his seven-week stay at the AnnexB residency in Brooklyn, artist Dalton Paula lived as a true New Yorker. God Bless You is a video-performance created by the artist; he used it as an exercise to understand the experiences he had during his first contact with New York City. Throughout his practice in painting, installation and video-performance, Paula has been interested in the invisibility of the black population, both in the Brazilian field of representation and in art. For him, art is a space for healing, through which the violent exclusion of black bodies must be treated. In his performances, a figure that he calls “the silenced body” emerges. It is a black man, whose image has been forgotten or erased by Brazilian art history.
Paula works with symbolisms of the Brazilian popular imagination, many of whom have gone through a process of whitening of their African roots. Here, when I speak of “African roots” I do not mean to demarcate a rigid idea of “roots” since, as thinkers such as Paul Gilroy have said, culture is always in flux; cultural symbols and their meanings are also permanently going through transformations and negotiations. However, the symbols that Paula uses are part of cultural practices, often religious, brought to Brazil by countless African populations and that over the centuries have been intermingled with elements of other cultural and religious practices. In this process of cultural (and also racial) miscegenation, diverse African healing traditions have entered into Brazilian popular understanding as “superstitions,” becoming part of a homogenized ––and somewhat whitewashed––idea of spirituality. If, on the one hand, this process is “positive,” given that it still refers to the various African cultures that came to Brazil, African references are often represented through exoticisms and essentialisms, when they are not marketed or eradicated by whiteness as a social construction.
Miscegenation, which is so precious to Brazilians, has also contributed to an idea of nation that promotes the “myth of racial democracy,” that is, the idea that, in Brazil, racial equality has already been achieved. There is nothing wrong in desiring racial democracy as a possible and achievable future. However, for decades, national and popular discourses have not acknowledged the many social obstacles to this ideal’s completion, and this illusion has obscured certain disparities: for example, still today, in 2018, the number of black artists represented by Brazilian galleries can be counted on your fingers.
Modern art in Brazil has always used the black body––and especially the body of the black woman and the mestiça––as a basis for its aesthetics and theories, among them, the famous notion of Anthropophagy. At the same time that these bodies became hypervisible, the control of these visual representations remained in the hands of the modern art elites, creating separations and silencing the voices of black artists and producers, not to speak of artists from other ethnic groups, such as the indigenous.
To understand Brazilian art as a place of exclusion is, for Paula, a way to open spaces of speech and negotiation through new images and narratives, shining a new light at processes of silencing. To watch God Bless You is to glimpse into a window where two universes coexist. The cart, the coffee cup, the fire, the smoke, and the contrast of these elements with the ice are signs, to a certain extent, specific to New York life; on the other hand, the gestures and movements that the artist makes in his short walk through the ice juxtapose the Brazilian and the US universe.
The artist’s walking hesitation becomes a citation to the way vulnerable homeless people walk, especially those who are old or fighting illness. In that sense, the black body in God Bless You makes visible an image of Afro diasporic vulnerability, since both in Brazil and in the US, it is the minoritarian, non-white, body that must deal with marginality. The use of the incense pebbles to produce smoke and fire, according to the artist, comes from the Afro-Brazilian realm of healing, which then dialogues with the universe of the Afro-American population. On this healing, Paula has said:
Since I arrived in New York, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of protection, especially protection from the cold weather. Putting the bricks inside the cart was a metaphor for a shelter, the idea of taking your home with you wherever you go, as do so many homeless people I’ve seen in NY, but then there’s also the aspect of life in the underground that caught my attention very much, the subway and smoke coming from it. The coffee cup is both a symbol of begging, but also of this very fast-paced life, where everything is “to-go.” Then, I used the incense as a symbolic cure of this space. Thinking about spaces of recuperation, of protection against death and having as background the brick wall as a separation between public and private. (Interview with the artist, March 2018)
It is no coincidence that the “silenced body” in God Bless You seeks healing through the beggar’s body, a vulnerable figure that pursues protection, but that is also ready to overcome obstacles: in this case, the barriers are both the ice and the brick wall, which can mean the exclusion and marginalization brought by the gentrification of areas in Brooklyn, where residents have been practically forced to move due to the aggressive action of the real estate market.
According to the artist, in Afro-Brazilian religions, the fire and smoke of incense bring spiritual cleansing and purification. These are gestures that create a space of shelter in the midst of everyday or extreme difficulties, such as not having a roof to sleep under, especially during the harsh winter. The delicacy of this black body’s actions combats stereotyped representations––especially of marginalization and violence––that dominate the visual field, for example, when Brazilian favelas or African-American neighborhoods are portrayed. Instead of feeding these stereotypes, the black performative body in God Bless You is the body of the elderly wise man or of the homeless man who wanders through the streets of big cities almost unnoticed, unseen, not allowed to speak.
There is strength and wisdom in the vulnerability of this body that is ready to transcend obstacles, be it the cold, or poverty. These are the qualities that create a bond between the black lives around the world that are constantly under attack. God Bless You adds to the field of African Diaspora visibility: it becomes an image of healing, but it also seeks to connect with the diverse vulnerabilities across the Atlantic.
Dalton Paula’s taciturn work feels like a silent cry against racism and xenophobia that have fueled the waves of political extremism in this world. To demolish these seemingly impenetrable walls we need a lot of fire, but perhaps we also need to feel more vulnerable: to see each other and to listen to them, calmly and carefully. While in Brazil, extremist religious groups have preached hatred towards Afro practices and religions, Paula’s work counsels us radical compassion. His silent wanderer offers us welcome and shelter, but also invites us to participate in a special kind of cure: the courageous and fierce practice of difference.
Tatiane Schilaro (curadora e crítica de arte)