by Pilar Tompkins Rivas
Paulo Nazareth’s work is part of A Decolonial Atlas: Strategies in Contemporary Art of the Americas on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum April 22 – July 22, 2017.
Paulo Nazareth, Untitled work from Noticias de America series, 2012, photograph
A close read of Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth’s (b. 1977, Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais, Brazil) work and the ways in which he navigates historical, racial and social constructs provide a platform to consider intersections of identity formation within the context of the African diaspora in the Americas. Nazareth’s works traverse diverse media, including performance-based actions, video, photography, drawing, and assembling archives of items he collects from material culture, to address the complex layering of his African and indigenous heritages, and to grapple with the constructs of colonialism in Brazil. The major performance works the artist conducted — endurance pieces of epic proportions such as walking from Brazil to the United States and walking throughout the African continent tracing back to points of departure to the Americas during the slave trade – may be considered in relation to Black Diaspora theories in the Americas, to transcultural hybridities between African and indigenous peoples in the Americas, and to global legacies of genocide, slavery and colonialism. Rather than referencing particular historical events, the artist’s work leads the viewer to consider the African diaspora in the Americas and its meeting points with indigenous groups, both past and present, by presenting deceptively simple gestures that transcend the specificity of time and place.
Central to Nazareth’s practice is his own multifaceted identity, encompassing African, indigenous and European ancestry. In Árvore do Esquecimento [L’Arbre D’Oublier] (2013), filmed in Ouidah, Benin where one of the largest ports of the African slave trade was sited, the artist walks backward around the “Tree of Forgetting” over 400 times in a poetic gesture to unwind the histories undergirding the Black Atlantic. In the Notícias de América series (2011), a diverse array of works produced on his walk from South to North America, Nazareth reflects on the mixed cultural memory and hybrid identities between African-descent and indigenous groups across the hemisphere. Lastly, in the series Sin Cabezas y Pies (2011 – ongoing), Nazareth interacts with diverse sites in the natural landscape by burying his head, under piles of rocks, shrubs or even human skulls, to create anonymity and to form a link to legacies of erasure through slavery and colonialism across the Americas and beyond.
The subject matter within Nazreth’s work connects to larger themes within Africana Studies and the African diaspora, and is simultaneously tied to questions of indigeneity in the Americas. As a formation of Afro-Latino culture, history and identity, his practice speaks to constructs rooted in issues of race and place, conditioned by both conquest and bondage. This text aims to elaborate on Nazareth’s works and situate them conceptually within theoretical Africana and Latino frameworks, namely applying W.E.B. DuBois’s theories to Nazareth’s work, and that of scholars who have followed DuBois in his line of thinking about dual, multiple, hybrid, fluid, or layered stated of being. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness becomes dimensionally expanded in relationship it to someone like Nazareth, who embodies two groups of the “othered” living within mainstream society – indigenous and African-descent people in the Americas. These are populations that he is at once a part of and simultaneously displaced from through his hybridity.
Here both Nazareth’s artwork and persona exemplify the challenging constructs of Brazilian national identity, signaling the connection to miscegenation and identity formation historically intertwined through what Paul Gilroy has described as the Black Atlantic, and what Gloria Anzaldua has discussed through geographical, spiritual and psychological examples of mestizaje. In this way, we may posit that Afro-Latino culture in the hemisphere is an inextricable intertwining of Pan-African and Pan-American ontologies. These references provide a lens by which we may read Nazareth’s artistic impulses:
“…he wants to visit Africa and the Americas first, as this is where his roots lie. Eventually he will go to Europe, but only via Africa, as his route is the opposite of the routes colonialism took. And why on foot? Well it is the mode of transportation of his people, the indigenous Krenak. He allows himself to always use aides, like a walking stick, or a car, like today. He flexes his feet: ‘as a child I couldn’t walk proper, so I practiced and practiced; now all is well.’”[i]
The Act of Forgetting and the Act of Remembrance Across the Black Diaspora
Paulo Nazareth, Árvore do Esquecimento [L’Arbre D’Oublier], 2013, video
Leaving the center of Ouidah, Benin, landmarks are still in place along the slave route Africans took as they marched to the beach to embark for the Americas. Among the stops, which included the auction site in front of the house of Francisco Félix de Sousa, the Brazilian slave trader central to the exportation of Africans to Brazil in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, is L’Arbre D’Oublier, the tree of forgetting. The name is drawn from a ritual in which men and women were marched around the tree before boarding slave ships as a symbolic act to forget the homeland they were about to depart.[ii]
In the video Árvore do Esquecimento [L’Arbre D’Oublier] by Nazareth, we see the artist unwinding cyclical time as he walks backward around the tree over four hundred times, ritualistically commemorating four centuries of slavery in Brazil. Silently and calmly, Nazareth circumambulates the tree in reverse, a durational act that pays homage to those that were forced to encircle the tree during the period of slave trafficking. While the video last nearly thirty minutes, there is no specified beginning or end to the work, as the artist merely emerges from behind the tree as the video begins, and the video ends by fading to black on the artist continuing to make this loop.
Without beginning and without end, this loop speaks not only to the transatlantic slave trade, during which Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country in the world, but also to the existing system of enslaving indigenous peoples that the African slave trade built upon in the region. Roughly 4.9 million Africans were brought as slaves to Brazil between 1501 and 1866, while countless millions of indigenous people were captured and enslaved during westward expeditions, known as bandeiras, to the interior of the country from Brazil’s coast that were fostered by the mission system of the Portuguese Jesuits in the colonial period.[iii]
Notably, Nazareth hails from Minas Gerais, the province that had more slaves than any other region in Brazil according to its first national census in 1872, as laborers were needed to mine the extensive gold, diamond and precious stone reserves.[iv] While slavery was only abolished in Brazil in 1888, the last country in the Americas to do so, the importance of Nazreth’s walk around the tree is one that speaks to systems of oppression on a global scale, and to the repercussions and translations of the system of slavery into new forms such as domestic servitude, incarceration, and disenfranchisement through poverty and high unemployment in the Americas.[v]
In a related video, Ipê Amarelo, Nazareth performs another poetic circulation of a tree, this time in Brazil around an ipê amarelo, or golden trumpet tree, whose bright yellow blossoms are the national flower of Brazil. Staged around a tree on a traffic island in the middle of a bustling street in an urban metropolis, possibly a busy thoroughfare in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, Nazareth again walks backwards silently in a continuous loop. Taken together with Árvore do Esquecimento [L’Arbre D’Oublier], the artist draws a direct point of contact back to a symbol of Brazil’s nationhood by connecting the two trees across the Atlantic. While each tree is a symbol of its respective place, Nazareth clearly connects national histories between the two sites, and through his physical gestures, makes a case for the rewinding of the entangled, transatlantic past that ties a person such as himself to both West Africa and Brazil. Each video is its own act of remembrance, recalling the points of departure and the points of arrival during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Within works such as these, Nazareth situates conditions of contemporary Afro-Latin American modernity beyond the geographical and national borders of his native Brazil, to place its constructs in direct dialog with historic connections to the African continent. Gilroy’s theorization of the formation of transnational cultural history across the black Atlantic aptly conveys issues of race, culture and nationality at play in Nazareth’s work, and how these aspects of cultural formation are continuously evolving over time. Gilroy states, “The history of the black Atlantic yields a course of lessons as to the instability and mutability of identities which are always unfinished, always being made.”[vi] Without beginnings and without ends, the unbroken circles Nazareth creates in his videos exemplify on-going, looping, unending courses of exchange for transatlantic, diasporic African culture.
News From the Americas: Transcultural Hybridities between African and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas
“Being mixed-race and travelling through the Americas, my skin changes every day. At home the labels are not so well defined…I cannot open my mouth because then my skin color changes, there are days when I am an Arab, Pakistani, indigenous and other adjectives which may change according to other people’s gazes and the words to come out of my mouth at any rate, sometimes in the United States of America, when I go into white people’s shops, everyone is afraid, including me.”[vii]
Paulo Nazareth, Untitled works from Noticias de America series, 2012, photographs
In March 2011, Nazareth set out to reach the United States from Brazil by foot and by bus, arriving in October of that year. He passed through fifteen countries, and traversed several thousand miles on his journey, from villages to cities.[viii] Along the way, he developed a kind of living archive of his experience, a project collectively titled Notícias de América, or News From the Americas, chronicling his thoughts and activities in blog posts and social media, documenting his performances, drawing extensively, and creating a series of photographs and video portraits. Within this complex body of work, there are overlapping themes at play – Nazareth’s impulse to seek out, connect with, and compare his own physical appearance and culture with other indigenous groups in the Americas; the artist’s desire to simultaneously convey the diversity of indigenous people, while expressing their commonalities and his own solidarity with their experiences; as well as the artist’s interest in understanding how he personally is reconfigured through shifting racial imaginaries across the hemisphere.
Paulo Nazareth, Untitled from Noticias de America series, 2012, photograph
Nazareth is not only of African descent, but also Krenak, the native people of the state of Minas Gerais, and his maternal grandmother grew up in the tribe.[ix] His own transcultural hybridity, which also includes being a descendant of Italian immigrants, is a reflection of the complex historically intertwined populations in Brazil. Through the focus of Notícias de América on his indigenous background, the artist traces how he aligns or diverges from other native peoples across the hemisphere. Structured as a type of open-ended field research, works from this series such as Indigenous Face (2011) emulate the form of an anthropological survey through which the artist seeks to situate his own being. The piece consists of the artist’s instructions to himself, followed by an on-going group of photographs creating an archive of images that adhere to his methodology: “Project: INDIGENOUS FACE —- identify city-dwelling indigenous persons from the extreme south to the extreme north of the Americas. Stand beside a city-dwelling indigenous person and compare one mixed origin face with another…”[x]
Other photographs from this series speak to the artist’s own solidarity with indigenous concerns in local environments. In one image from the series, Nazareth holds a sign stating, “We have right [sic] at this landscape,” as he stands below a highway sign welcoming travelers to the U.S. state of Arizona. As an indigenous person, Nazareth stakes claim to the land on behalf of displaced Native Americans, irrespective of modern national borders that separate him from tribes such the Hopi, Navajo, Mojave, or Ute people. In yet another image, he stands before a wall with a closed door spray painted with the words “cerrado no hay paso,” or “closed, no passing.” Draped around his neck is his own hand-painted sign that reads, “llevo recados a los E.U.A.,” or “I carry messages to the U.S.” While the artist’s location is unknown, the closed door and the wall double as a symbol of closed borders, Nazareth’s sign offering an opportunity for migrants to communicate with loved ones on the other side of the U.S. border separating anyone from Latin America with friends and family in el norte.
Throughout the series, the artist finds poetic, experiential connections that bridge his sense of self across the Americas. He writes, “…here in the Mexican desert I just transformed corn masa for tamales into corn flour, white as if it were our manioc flour, and now it is Mexican chiles as if they were Bahian…and if I weren’t vegetarian I would prepare a good piece of carne seca…while looking at this journey I feel a little bit like a setanejo [person from the backcountry], remembering the heat from my land from since before I was born.”[xi] Within this statement, Nazareth seemingly finds cultural markers, in this case both food and landscape, that tie Afro-Brazilian traditions with Indigenous Mexican traditions.
While functioning as a type of study and visual record of his journey, Notícias de América also reflects on the artist’s own shifting identity as he moves through different countries in the hemisphere. Herein, his work reflects how racialized perceptions shift in differing contexts. Brazilian art historian Kiki Mazzucchelli states, “He moves through different communities like a chameleon; he tells how in Guatemala he is already accepted as a member of an indigenous family, or in certain places in the United States he is seen as black. His identity is transformed according to the local context, the social relations in place and the subgroups with whom he coexists.”[xii] In this way, we learn from the artist’s work that his blackness, indigeneity, or whiteness are merely subjective interpretations based upon prevailing local notions of race and class.
Concepts that have come to help define dual states of being, and plural ontological forms, find new terrains of applicability in Nazareth’s work. For example, W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness moves beyond an African-descent and European-descent dynamic to encompass a non-binary, African, European and Indigenous mix. Notably, Nazareth finds that his positionality within that triad shifts depending upon the country he operates in and its own national relationship to race. Similarly, Gloria Anzaldua’s notion of hybridity in the formation of consciousness in the Americas extends from the US-Mexico borderlands to the Pan-African, Lusosphere of South America. The state of nepantla is not only a liminal space between indigenous ancestry and the modern American condition, but also a state that can encompass the border crossing, displacement, and in-between-ness of Afro-Latin Americans. Nazareth underscores these ideas and pushes at their edges to expand them within his work, both in the Notícias de América series, as well as his subsequent Cadernos de Africa/Notebooks from Africa (2013-ongoing) project created during and after the artist’s walks along old slave routes from Johannesburg to Lyon, in a similar exploration of self-reflection through inquiry into identity on the African continent.
Sin Cabezas y Pies: Contending with Legacies of Genocide, Slavery and Colonialism
Paulo Nazareth, Antropologia do Negro II/ Black Anthropology II, 2014, video
Paulo Nazareth, from the series Sin Cabezas y Pies, 2011 – ongoing, photographs
Whereas in Notícias de América Nazareth uses the characteristics of his own face as a vehicle for the series, in Sin Cabezas y Pies (2011 – ongoing), Nazareth renders himself anonymous to gesture to legacies of erasure through slavery and colonialism across the Americas and beyond, through images where he poses with his head buried in different environs.
In the video Antropologia do Negro II/ Black Anthropology II (2014), part of the Sin Cabezas y Pies series, the artist covers his own head with human remains housed in the Museu do Crime, Instituto de Medicina Legal in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. The skulls were those of patients at the notorious psychiatric hospital in the city of Barabacena, where thousands of society’s unwanted, largely African-descent and indigenous Brazilians, perished in the first part of the twentieth century including the artist’s Krenak grandmother. Within this work, the artist lays on his back on the floor and carefully places skull upon skull over his own face, until he presumably cannot either bear the weight or cannot breathe, and then disassembles them. While the performance piece directly engages a dark chapter of Brazil’s history, the piece connects more broadly to histories of genocide in the Americas.
In an effort to re-inscribe limited historical accounts of sites of erasure such as the Barabacena hospital, and how this connects to broader national problematics of identity formation due to issues of race and colonialism, the artist has written, “When Cristobal Colon, Spanish navigator, reached the Americas he thought that this country was India, because he called it ‘Las Indias’ (the Indians). According to the anthropologists the American Native population are direct descendants of the Asiatic population. The “AIMORE” of which the “KRENAKS” form a part, were a population that resisted foreign invasion, were considered the enemy number one of the State and because of that they needed to be destroyed. My grandmother (my mum’s mum) Nazareth Cassiano de Jesus, a native Krenak, was considered crazy because of her behavior in society, and like lots of women in the same region was committed to a mental hospital. Since then there has been no news of her. My mother still cries. The black population of the Americas don’t know exactly what part of Africa they come from. My parents forgot who the completely black man of the family was. When I was in South Africa, a black man called me ‘brother.’ But my skin was not as black as his. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the Brazilian country received a big quantity of Italian and other European immigrants. So it may be that my great grandmother (of my dad’s side) came to Brazil from Italy…my parents remember this. There are Indians who are black as Africans. Governador Valadares, my town of origin in Krenak Antique Land, sent many clandestine immigrants to the United States of America. The first time I left Brazil was to stay in India. The train of the Vale do Rio Doce Company transports iron ore to diverse part [sic] of the world through Krenaks town but don’t pay toll [sic]. I believe that something made with ore of this land is in India. When I walk through Delhi streets no one calls me Indian (indigen). How [sic] India will continue being India if I’m not gonna be what I am?”
The aforementioned text derives from an early work by the artist entitled Important Pubic Notice – PANFLETO (Giveaway) (2006), a type of broadsheet informative article which appears in English, Portuguese and Hindi, accompanied by three images of Afro-Brazilians. The artist appears in the center, flanked by two other images of Afro-Brazilians — one from the nineteenth-century in the style of a socio-historic image of a slave, and one from the twenty-first century in the style of a generalized Google-searched image. In the center is Narazeth, in a bust-framed portrait with a large Afro, yet with his eyes covered by a scarf to anonymize his presence. The description under his image is also a generic allusion to his birthdate, birth location, and his constitution as an Afro-Brazilian. Nazreth’s practice, in this way, seeks to generalize his own being and experiences in correlation with broader histories illustrative of slavery and colonialism, and though his own image, and pointedly through its specified generalization, the artist attempts to pin the anonymity of generations of repression, slavery and genocide on his very person.
Nahum Dimitri Chandler suggests that study of the African diaspora is built upon the problematic of navigating a complex terrain of identity forms, and states, “That problematic is, in a word, the double articulation since the 16th century of the history of slavery and its aftermath in the Americas and the Caribbean and the emergence of a global practice of racial distinction. As much or more than any other historical configuration of the modern era, this problematic posed for Africans, especially of the Diaspora, a question about the grounds of identity; not just their own identity, but identity in general.”[xiii] Nazareth’s work directly confronts such tensions, and in the context of Brazil, the very miscegenation that makes the country so unique also creates sedimented layers that complicate discourse on transcultural hybridities and intersectionalities between African and indigenous peoples. Much scholarly work remains to be done relative to Afro-indigenous Brazilian contemporary art, indicating the challenges that often obscure such mixed cultural identities, which are generally usurped under the umbrella of a generalized national identity.
Nazareth’s series Sin Cabezas y Pies, undertaken at unidentified sites across the Americas and in Africa, do not offer conclusions but instead beg unanswered questions. By burying his own head under elements encountered in the landscape, from piles of wood, to bricks, to shrubs, to mounds of cabbages in an open field, Nazareth punctuates diverse sites with his presence, disrupting the read of a specific place by reinserting the historical narrative that he carries within his own body. In this way, the artist broadens the confines of the archive relative to the identities that he embodies and in relationship to place, and questions who gets to record the history of a land and its people and under what conditions.
Taken collectively, Paulo Nazareth’s work provides a lens to consider historical, racial and social constructs within the African diaspora in the Americas. Through his own personal inquiry translated through diverse works of art, the artist’s practice reflects contemporary inquiry into intersectionalities of identity formation between African and indigenous peoples in the Americas, Black Diaspora theories in the Americas, and legacies of genocide, slavery and colonialism.
[ii] Law, Robin. Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port’, 1727-1892, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio.
[v] The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay speak to the contemporary translation of the system of slavery to the system of mass incarceration in the United States. In Brazil, domestic servitude is also a prevalent system that continues colonial labor structures. The minimum wage for domestic servants in Brazil in 2017 is roughly $300 a month.
[vi] Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic, Harvard University Press, 1995, xi
[vii] Facebook post from the artist cited in his artist profile by Machteld Leij on Africana.org, Arena for Contemporary African, African and Caribbean Art ((http://africanah.org/paulo-nazareth/). Uploaded May 10, 2015.
[ix] Paulo Nazareth, Arte Contemporânea, LTDA. Edited by Isabel Diegues and Ricardo Sardenberg. Livros Cobogó Ltda., Rio de Janeiro, 2012, p. 17
[x] Ibid, p. 18
[xi] Ibid, p. 98. Translation by Pilar Tompkins Rivas.
[xii] Ibid, p. 20
[xiii] Chandler, Nahum Dimitri. The Economy of Desedimentation: W.E.B. DuBois and the Discourses of the Negro, Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 78-93.