The artist, teacher and curator Ayrson Heráclito. Photo: Arge Lola

Ao developing a poetics linked to elements of African and Afro-Brazilian culture – passing through the mythological universe of Candomblé and raising debates about slavery and racism -, the visual artist Ayrson Heráclito watched, over decades, his work being framed basically as exotic and primitive. According to the artist himself, born in Macaúbas (BA) and active since the mid-1980s, “my work was seen, through a filter of the hegemonically masculine, patriarchal, white and colonial tradition, as an overly regionalist and folkloric production, far from of the contemporary idea”.

Over time, especially in recent years, themes linked to African and Afro-diasporic traditions, as well as the debate on structural racism, have come to occupy a growing space in the world of arts, guiding - albeit incipiently - the programming of galleries, museums and cultural institutions. “And so the Brazilian art system opened up space for me to become contemporary”, says Heráclito. “Because before, everything that was produced by blacks and Indians was only observed by anthropologists. And I have always claimed that black art should be recognized as a production of the symbolic like all others, and not seen with this ethnographic gaze that studies the 'other' through a Western vision.”

Within the panorama described by the artist, one of the few institutions in the country that, in the 1980s and 1990s, turned to this so-called “exotic” production, recognizing it as contemporary art, was Associação Cultural Videobrasil. “No other Brazilian institution, at least that I had contact with, produced such a debate in this regard. It was also what made possible most of the cultural connections that I established with Africa”, says Heráclito.

Website layout with exposure. Credit: Nina Farkas

It is precisely on the association's new platform, the Videobrasil Online, that Ayrson Heráclito has just opened his first virtual exhibition. With ten audiovisual works produced by the artist between 2004 and 2018 and an unprecedented presentation video, jolts curated by Solange Farkas, founder and director of the institution, and is the second show presented on the platform (read here about Abdoulaye Konaté – Colors and Compositions). “Ayrson has an extraordinary trajectory in the arts scene, with a very particular contribution to decolonial practices”, says Farkas. "jolts punctuates the path of an artist who mobilizes the transforming sense of African-based rites in resistance to colonial heritage.”

For Heráclito, the virtual exhibition is a new and challenging experience, “since they are works designed to be exhibited in a physical space, sometimes with several screens, and which are now presented in the online universe”. “So we're trying, virtually, to also create screen games, bringing the installation idea into the site,” he explains. He also highlights that very little seen works, sometimes only exhibited outside Brazil, are now available on Videobrasil Online.   

Colonial memory in the present 

One of the works originally created in two channels is precisely what gives the show its name, the installation jolts, produced by Heraclito in 2015 from an artistic residency granted by Videobrasil in partnership with the Raw Material Company, in Dakar (Senegal). First filmed at Casa dos Escravos on the island of Goré, Senegal, and later at Casa da Torre, the headquarters of a large estate in Bahia, the work records rituals of cleansing and spiritual healing – the shaking – performed by the artist in two locations linked to the slave trade. In a kind of performance of cleaning architectural spaces, seeking to ward off spirits that continue to torment the present, Heráclito brings out the need to look at the colonial past that shaped societies on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Image of the audiovisual installation “Sacudimentos”, from 2015. Photo: Publicity

“In my work, shaking is also a tactic of returning to the past in order to shake up history, promoting a 'movement' of our traumas. It is a way of generating visibility for issues that have traditionally been hidden, such as the process of dehumanization of the enslaved African population”, explains the artist. “The idea is that this past heals, in a way, and that the logic of this past does not repeat itself. I always say that my shaking tactic is to scare away this monster, this ghost that haunts us to this day, which is the slave master's ghost”, he concludes.

The idea of ​​facing ills “without making you sick, but, on the contrary, so that you can heal” – inspired by the thought of the German artist Joseph Beuys – is also related to the perception that the myth of racial democracy in Brazil has always been a discourse used by the elites against the black population. In a context of intensification of anti-racist struggles in several countries, concomitant with the growth of the extreme right around the world, Heráclito emphasizes that a war that has always existed is only more wide open. “What we live today is a world of wars and tensions. And there is no longer the idea that Brazil is mestizo and peaceful. Brazil is in struggle, at war, as it has always been, and those people and institutions that defended this type of appeasement are having to adjust or are completely losing their meaning, being put on the sidelines.”

In times of accelerated destruction of forests and ecosystems, in which debates about the Anthropocene are gaining ground, Heráclito also reinforces that a look at cultures of African origin provide other ways of relating to nature. By working, in videos and performances, from organic materials and foods such as palm oil, sugar and meat, the artist presents one of the pillars of the cultures of Yoruba, Bantu and Fon origin: “The world is like a body, a be alive. And in my work, all the use of organic materials, which are associated with the practices of feeding the divinities and nature, has to do with the fact that nature is what gives us food, it is this greater subject that guides us, guides, gives us life. And it is the elements of nature that make us powerful, for example, to transmute this idea of ​​scar, of pain, of this colonial past that reduced all this knowledge to the idea of ​​sorcery and macumba”.

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