Ayrson Heráclito, photographs from the 'Bori' series (2008-2011).

*By Mariana Tessitore

A Candomblé practitioner for over twenty years, Ayrson Heráclito believes in art as a form of healing. For the Bahian artist, it is necessary to “exorcise the ghosts of colonial society” that still haunt the country. In his performances, life, art and religion are mixed in the same cauldron, where foods from the Bahian culture such as sugar, jerked beef and palm oil also enter.

Heráclito is one of the five Brazilian artists who participated in the 57th Venice Biennale, in 2017, one of the most important exhibitions in the world, scheduled to open in May. In an interview with ARTE!Brasileiros During the period that took place at the Bienal, the Bahian talks about the work he will present at the Bienal, the relationship between art and the sacred, the myth of racial democracy and his coexistence with Marina Abramovic, among other topics.

ARTE!Brasileiros: Could you talk about the work you will present at the Venice Biennale?

Ayrson Heraclitus: The work is called jolts*, is a work that I did a part in Bahia and another in Senegal. In 2015, I performed two rituals, one at Casa da Torre, headquarters of a large estate in Bahia, and another at Casa dos Escravos on the island of Goré, Senegal. The shaking is a kind of exorcism that I do in these two great architectural monuments, located on both sides of the Atlantic linked to the slave trade and colonization itself. I wanted to physically and poetically return to this colonial past and the history of slavery itself to reflect on the social conditions of our present.

This shaking ritual is performed in the Bahian Recôncavo quite often by people linked to religions of African origins. It is an important practice to clean the space and drive away, above all, the spirits and the dead, the eguns from domestic environments. So when you move into a new house, you call someone to do a shake-up and take out those bad spirits that tend to linger among the living, bringing misfortune.

When doing these rituals, I asked myself what were these dead energies that I needed to get out of these houses. In my view, this death that surrounds both places was caused by the very history of colonization, which has very current consequences both in Brazil and in Africa. I wanted to shake up this story, exorcise this ghost of the colonizer. The result of these actions, recorded on video, will be what I will present at the Bienal.

Ayrson Heráclito, series 'Shacudimentos'. Performance 'O Sacudimento da Maison des Esclaves' (2015).

What are your expectations for the Bienal? Does your work dialogue with other works that will be in the show?

First I was quite happy. It is not every day that an Afro-Brazilian artist, and above all a Northeastern artist, participates in an exhibition such as the Venice Biennale. My work will be alongside those of other artists who have practices similar to mine. It is what the curator is calling the pavilion of magicians and shamans, artists who work with activism. Because what I do, for me, is politics, a politics from another perspective, a much more mystical activism. I believe in the energy of rituals, in the transforming power they have in the world.

At a time of so many cultural clashes and with the election of Trump, what is the importance of an exhibition whose theme is coexistence?

The theme of the Bienal draws attention to this moment of crisis that we are experiencing, the whole world is undergoing profound transformations. I don't have full knowledge of the project, but the curator has always said that it is a positive biennial. Because it's no use just criticizing without pointing out possibilities for overcoming. The pavilion where my work will be located is also a response to European hegemonic culture, showing the complexity of the world. There is not just Europe. And each region has different ways of dealing with problems.

What is the relationship between the sacred and your work? How art and religion come together in your production?

The boundary between art and religion in my work is very tenuous. I have been a Candomblé practitioner for over 27 years. And this religious path was parallel to my artistic trajectory. I consider myself a kind of translator of this universe of the sacred. Translator in the sense of someone who brings people closer to another universe, making it public for the uninitiated. I've been getting a lot of inspiration from artists who have this relationship with the sacred, like, for example, Mestre Didi here in Bahia, who is an artist and religious priest.

You often say that art can heal historical wounds. Could you talk a little about that?

History has always been very present in my artistic research, especially the process of slavery. I became something of an exorcist artist. My job is to shake up history, exorcise the ghosts. I don't have a linear conception of time, so I really believe that these energies that are in the past contaminate society and cross time, entering the social fabric. However, the slaves also left us the cure, the solution that is in the religious rituals, the power of the leaves, the communication with the elements of nature. From all this knowledge, I try to help people, give support, clean and organize energy. All my works have this, a confrontation with the pain of slavery, the colonial pain. And at the same time an overcoming of this pain through some kind of performance, ritual, experience.

In Brazil, do we still speak little about the history of slavery?

For sure. If Brazil really faced this issue, everyone would understand very well what reparation through affirmative quota policies is. Until today, a good part of Brazilian society believes that everyone has the same level of access to things. Brazil is still dominated by the myth of racial democracy, the idea that there is no hard game of inequality and a genocide of black youth by the police. We can't forget about this wound of slavery, keeping it open so it doesn't come back. Brazil needs to live with its holocaust, study it so that we don't repeat the terrible things that happened. Especially the youth need to learn how perverse it was and how violent our history is.

Materials are very important in your work. Elements such as meat, sugar, semen and especially palm oil appear a lot in his works. Why?

I chose these organic materials because they are widely used within this religious philosophy that is Candomblé. Sugar was the subject I used to talk about the crisis of the old Portuguese colonial system, a key moment in our history. The beef jerky is the primary ingredient that is served for Ogum, an orisha of war. But it is also a tough food, just like the flesh of the bodies of our branded slaves. As for palm oil, I relate it to fertility, the sperm that generates new bodies. These three organic materials are essential in my artistic grammar.

Speaking of meat as material, could you comment on your performance? Transmutation of Flesh, which today is one of the best known.

Transmutation of Flesh was a work that appeared in 2000. The work was inspired by a document that describes the tortures that a plantation owner subjected his slaves. Reading this document shocked me greatly. From there I conceived the work in which the performers dressed the beef jerky and suffered some of the tortures described in the document. One of them was the process of branding the body with iron. This work became quite popular because, in 2015, Marina Abramovic asked me to re-introduce him in his exhibition common land, at Sesc Pompeia. The performance speaks of beef jerky as a metaphor for this slave body that suffered a lot of violence, but resisted.

And how was your relationship with Marina Abramovic?

It was amazing. Look, I already have a lot of experience with Candomblé rituals. But doing her workshop was really important to me. We spent almost a week without eating, without talking, without reading or using a cell phone. Always surrounded by a space of nature and doing long-term exercises. And I really managed to get into these other levels that I had never accessed, especially in the religious sphere. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. She really influenced my method as performer.

Among so many works, which ones do you identify with the most?

This work that I will present at the Bienal, “Os Sacudimentos”, is one of the most important of my life. I don't know if in the future I'll be able to do another one as relevant. It was a very difficult job, not only for logistical reasons, to obtain authorization for the spaces to carry out these cleanings, but also on a spiritual level, to face these eguns. There are other works that are also very important such as the performance Fight, in which I give sacred food to people's heads. but the work the jolts it is very important because it brings together these two Atlantic shores, which is something essential for me.

Are you producing any work now?

Many, thank God. But there is one in particular called History of the Future. It is a series of films and photographs about my experiences in Africa. The name of the work is a reference to a text by Father Antônio Viera, which I use to think about Africa's relationship with the future. It's a series that I intend to show soon.


*Mariana Tessitore is a journalist and historian, works at IMS

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