WITH SUGAR AND WHITOUT AFFECTION
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
In Brazil, shoes were always a way of distinguishing the enslaved ones from free people. The impediment never consisted of any written law, but persisted through the uncontested force of custom. In fact, shoes were forbidden to the captives whom, no matter how dressed, whether they were domestic, mining or urban slaves, were always represented with their feet on the ground, on the cement of the cities, close to the dirt.
The weight of the 'lack' was such that soon after the 13th of May, 1888, date of Brazil's formal abolition of slavery, witnesses said that many rushed to the shops to buy the desired objects. however, as their feet were accustomed to the day to day harsh routines, the fury from the heavy work , in no time did the blisters and calluses grow. And so, many freedmen and freedwomen were seen, happy and proud, carrying over their shoulders shoes tied to one another by their shoelaces, as if they were trophies of freedom. And so they were…
Strong symbols, the shoes also became synonymous with freedom. Even before the abolition of slavery, to those who found loopholes in the system's small breaches, being photographed fully clothed and wearing shoes, was a sign of wealth, but also of autonomy and emancipation. Not only the emancipation 'won' over the cold letter of the law. Above all, the one conquered through sweat, achieved by strength, rebellion, by education and the healthy stubbornness of not giving up.
Immediately following the promulgation of the 'Lei Aurea', a conservative measure that represented a clear commitment - for it announced freedom without contemplating any project of social inclusion for these populations that had always known inequality - a popular proverb began circulating around the streets of the great Brazilian cities. It stated that " freedom could be black; equality was already white" . Hence it became clear, right after the promulgation, that nothing fundamental had changed. Or rather, knowing that there were no more enslaved men or women in the country was undoubtedly a great achievement. However, with the fashion of racial determinism theories which established that between blacks and whites existed essential and abysmal differences, and that miscegenation was synonymous with degeneration - it became clear that although the post emancipation period had a starting date, it did not have one to end.
Not coincidentally, up to the present day, there is a structural racism between us, which is not only an inheritance of the past; it remains present and being recreated in the present. Differences in the areas of education, transportation, health and even leisure, stand out in official census data, showing how, up to the present day, race is a perverse "plus" in Brazil. Even greater differences are found in birth and death records. We are killing a generation of black youth living in our peripheries, and there is no sign of a more effective policy on the part of the government in order to remedy this true national genocide.
Baixa dos Sapateiros is not an ordinary place. It is an unique place in Salvador, since it was precisely developed by the shoe trade that grew from the eager desire of the newly freed people to buy shoes. The area did not, however, stagnate in the past; nowadays it is still known for its great commercial and popular flow.
Tiago Sant'Ana, for his part, intentionally blurs temporalities, transforming symbolism into metaphor; the potential suffering that in turn becomes Poetry and Art. The theme is certainly not new to the Artist's work; the approach is.
In "apagamento # 1" (2017), he presented a video where he mixed touches of Candomble with references to a slaughter that took place in 2015, in the neighborhood that bears the name of Cabula. In that same place, once existed a Quilombo, dangerously close to Salvador, which used to scare the elites of the capital every time the beating of the drums was heard. In this work, the Artist shows his own face turning to the sound of Cabula. The word 'Cabula' appears cut out in Tiago's haircut. However, as time is the lord of destiny, the word disappears , as the growth of his hair strands leads to the dissipation of the cut out letters. The result is the erasure of the marks themselves, with the growing volume of the Artist's hair, but also, of the fading of the memory of the slaughter. Art, here, assumes the function of remembrance; of not forgetting.
In the exhibition "Casa de Purgar", which was shown this year at the Bahia Art Museum in Salvador and at the Imperial Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Tiago worked with the sugar mills and with the sweet and sour taste of the end product. Sweet, since this true mania changed, during the XVIII century, eating habits and world trade. Sour, because of the acridity of slavery, which made Brazil a central place in the Afro - Atlantic stories that began in the XVI century. In this case, sugar invades everything, and survives the once grandiose sugar mills of the Reconcavo which, nowadays, only keep time eroded structures. Between the black of the enslaved and the white of the agricultural product arises a strange symphony, which mixes power, hierarchy and decadence. The white of the sugar no longer reminds us of purity, but rather the violence of a system that allowed for the possession of one person by another.
As can be seen, from these few examples, it is with rare coherence that the artist unfolds themes, and takes from them new consequences and possibilities. In the case of this exhibition, again with rare sensitivity, Tiago explores the "shoes" as symptoms; great detonators of contradictions which try to hide rooted forms of hierarchy that, from having become so naturalized, seem invisible. But they are not, and the artist precisely explores this space of "the unsaid", from the hidden, from different approaches and supports - photos, videos and objects.
In the first photographic series, entitled "Sugar Shoes", the Artist portrays himself in the premises of the old Freguesia Sugar mill, in Candeia, in front of the Mare island, located in the Bay of Todos os santos. Sugar generally melts in water; dissolves and sweetens the liquids. In this case, however, crystal sugar shoes, not coincidentally resembling Cinderella's crystal shoes (whom is also freed from servitude because of them), are protected in the hands of Tiago, who once more wears white. The white of the sugar and his Candomble robes seem to be purified in this moment. In this case, they are not meant to be worn, but to remain crystallized as sugar, under the Artist's firm and neutral gaze. The product that generated slavery is now retained in time, petrified.
In the second series, "Refino #5 (feet)". one sees bare feet taken from 19th century colonial engravings. Details from watercolors by European travelers, who described Brazil in an idealized way, without violence, but with a lot of hierarchy, are now enhanced. If in the illustrations the bare feet appear as unimportant details, here they deserve a place of prominence. Elongated feet, with separated fingers, beaten, always black, appear on the dirt of the streets, the grounds of large houses, or on the sisal that covered the floors of the slaves quarters. Again,noisy dialogues between feet and the sugar that this time around crystallizes around the print's details, almost framing them. A sweet frame for a bitter image.
"Lisboeta” is the title of the 3rd series comprising this exhibition, made up from the dialogue between the photos and the typed text. The works disconcert the viewer by creating a visual contradiction between what one sees and what one reads.. A space in 'between'. In one a shoehorn can be seen, placed or thrown, on a floor of treated wood, the Artist writes: "I remained standing motionless in this space for 1888 seconds wearing shoes 4 numbers smaller than my usual size". 1888 is not a date to be celebrated but a year to criticize and reflect upon. Unavoidable that this was the last country to abolish slavery and that almost half of the 12 million slaves that left Africa in a compulsory manner entered the Brazilian territory. Imagine the painful effort of constricting one's feet to fit into a shoe that is much smaller. Again, the bewilderment of words destroys the eugenic shoehorn made to ease and avoid pain; not the other way round.
A 2nd picture presents an almost cliche, well known scene, by showing a solitary ship on the horizon, calmly sailing in serene waters, at sunset. The image is idyllic, but also naive, such is the degree of familiarity it introduces. Going in the opposite direction, Tiago works on the gap between the imagery seen and the meaning of the text typed by the Artist: "On a sailboat, where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean, at 9,40 p.m. of a Lusitanian Summer. I began to read aloud the name of the Portuguese slave ships until darkness would no longer allow the eyes to read the words. 1. Kind Maid; 2. Good Intention; 3. Boys Toys; 4. Charity; 5. happy Destiny; 6. Happy Days for Poor Children; 7. Gracious Revenge; 8. Regenerative". It has always been a terrible thing for me to write down the names of the slave ships.
Finally, a last photo shows, like a postcard, the Marquis of Pombal square. In this case, the image resembles the touristic advertisements of Portugal. Proudly displaying the scenic view of the place that pays homage to the Prime Minister of King Joseph I, who rebuilt the capital of the Lusitanians after the terrible earthquake of 1755, kept the slave trade thriving and tried to colonize the Indians. Again, the text does not glorify; on the contrary, it underlines the policy of destruction undertaken by the Metropole. " on a Monday, at 1 pm , in front of the Marquis of Pombal monument in Lisbon, I pronounced the words 'Munda' (steal), 'Yuka' (to kill), 'Resarai' (forget) in the Nheengatu language banned in 1750 in Brazil, making it mandatory to use Portuguese as the sole language". The natives of the colonies were seen as 'without' peoples, and therefore, they should also lose their language and thus, their past.
'Aguardente', after which another section of the exhibition is titled, is a liquor produced in parallel to sugar by using the remains of the sugar cane. This was a secondary economy that became an escape of some sort from the pain of everyday life, 'Burning water', water that a bird does not drink, Aguardente entered Brazilian habits since it was not, like sugar, an exportation product. Although Aguardente is present in Tiago Sant'Ana's exhibition, what draws attention is the way in which it is contained. Translucent glass bottles etched with phrases that let one glimpse comments such as: " Recovering at every step"; "With memories shipwrecked in the Atlantic"; "My body distills sugar and nostalgia". The Art object turns into its metonymy, that of a bottle floating on the sea, the last remnant of a shipwreck, or carrying a message from a desperate sender crying for help. Usually, these messages were found wrapped in a bottle that floated on the sea, In the case of Tiago's work, the message is etched on the glass, thus becoming an intrinsic part of the object itself. But the sugar distills nostalgia (not affection) while memories are lost when crossing this immense Atlantic; a one way crossing, with no return.
There is also a video, completing the exhibition. recorded at the Art Museum of Bahia, which provides both an ambiance and a representation of a plantation manor house from the sugar cane era: it shows the same bare footed shirtless black bodies, with shoes hanging from their shoulders by the tied shoelaces. This practice refers not only to the past, to the beginning of the period known as post emancipation, when the republic promised inclusion but delivered social exclusion, but also pertaining to the present reality. A single detail makes all the difference; the shoes hanging over backs or from door sills are all of recent models, as our own experience of the post emancipation is also a recent one.
Art does not imitate reality; it produces it reflexively. Therefore, the Artworks that make up this exhibition need not to be restricted to its context. More than that, they almost produce their own context. They do create a sense of 'inconclusion', a noise that prevents mere contemplation and imposes, with its beauty, a great silence. And when silence happens it means that contradiction exists.
The Art of Tiago Sant'Ana generates politics through aesthetics, with the strength of the forms, the liberating power of the unsubmissive negro, with the white sugar for export and the slave labor force that sailed across, as Alberto da Costa e Silva calls it: "This river called Atlantic". This is a black and white portrait. Of black on white.