Revista ZUM 25

White etnography

Paulo Nazareth & Janaina Barros Silva Viana Publicado em: 26 de October de 2023

The ambiguity of the circle

In the beginning, there was Chaos; there was Everything and there was Nothingness as well. In Egyptian mythology, at the beginning of time, the Kemetic god of creation, Atum-Ra, the female and male cosmic origin, created the Universe in the form of an egg. The term “Egypt” means “land below the Aegean”, according to the Hellenistic peoples who conquered those lands. The first Egyptian civilization called itself the “Kemet”: “the land of the black men” or “black earth”. However, this is a story of epistemycide. The fable of Europe as the universal center of the history of knowledge, originating from the Greco-Roman civilization, arose during German Romanticism at the end of the 18th century.

For Iorubá-speaking peoples, Oloduma- rê, the Omnipotent being, created the Universe through the interweaving of seven snakes, forming the gourd of existence. Heaven. Earth. The waters. The World and the cycle of Life were born. Humanity is generated through the primordial act of shaping the moldable materiality of clay.

As with irún Oxumaré, the great snake that embrace the Earth, devouring its own tail in an uninterrupted process of transformation of existence, the acts that lead the investigation by Paulo Nazareth translate into a counter-ethnography.

Nêgo Bispo, a poet and activist from the Quilombo do Saco-Curtume in the state of Piauí, addresses the notion of countercolonization as a movement of resistance to the systemic violence of European colonization suffered by African and pindorâmicos peoples [a term originating with the Tupi-Guarani peoples which refers to the lands contiguous with colonial “Brazil”], who did not permit themselves to be dominated in Brazil. In his series Etnografia branca [white ethnography] (2016-19), Nazareth appropriates the ethnographic collections of different institutions which, by means of photographs, classify “inferior” people in their social and cultural dynamics – a colonial approach to inventory the Other using specific technologies. The white circles on the photos made with efum (an African chalk compound), refer to the figure of the helmeted guinea-fowl and drive away the death represented by the documentary ethnographic production which works as a logical clash between memory and forgetfulness.

An old man, born in the indigenous territory of Borun Nak in Governador Valadares, in the state of Minas Gerais, Nazareth revisits, in his first works, the violent history of colonial occupation of the Vale do Rio Doce region, the original lands of the Borun peoples.

“All this is my place of birth at different times, I like to think that a part of me was born with my mãe [mother] in the early 1944s and another part with the mãe of my mãe in the early 1910s.”

During this period, there was a coup d’état – the Revolution of 1930, with the involvement of political leaders from the states of Minas Gerais, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Sul. The Vargas Era lasted for fifteen years. After the decree of a new Constitution in 1937, state Governors were removed from office and replaced by Federal interveners. One of these interveners was the lawyer Benedito Valadares Ribeiro (1937-45). As political alliances were formed, Juscelino Kubitschek (JK), a doctor, was appointed Mayor of Belo Horizonte (1940-45). During his time in office, he invited the Rio-born architect Oscar Niemeyer to design the Pampulha architectural complex, a project intended to modernize the city and which was inaugurated in 1943. When JK became President in 1956, he invited Niemeyer to continue his modernist project with the design and construction of a number of buildings in the new capital Brasília, inaugurated in 1960.

Ana, Nazareth’s mother, moved from Borun Nak with her family in the 1980s to work in a residence in the rich neighborhood of Mangabeiras in the central-south region of Belo Horizonte, near the old palace where the state Governors lived.

“In the porão [basement] of the mansion, the staff rooms were situated below the house, right in the basement, one floor below the kennels, from the bedroom windows we saw the legs of the cães [dogs] and smelled their feces and urine.”

After a month, the family moved to the rural area of a town called Curvelo and then to Vila Cafezal, in the Aglomerado da Serra, in Belo Horizonte. They finally moved to the Conjunto Palmital in Santa Luzia, a public housing project built by the Metropolitan Housing Company of Minas Gerais on the land of a former slave-worked farm. They lived in a small semi-detached house in Sector 7, nicknamed the Devil’s Cauldron, “the remotest part of the housing estate and next to one of the old farmhouses”.

This historical context and personal story are reflected in the pamphlets Qué ficar bunito [I/you want to look good] (2005) and Important Public Notice (2006). Starting with his artist’s residency at the Pampulha Art Museum – housed in an old cassino designed by Oscar Niemeyer – in 2004/2005, Nazareth investigates the relationship between modernism and architecture in Belo Horizonte city, as well as the impact of the modernist discourse on his own “prosperous future”.

His exhibition at the museum in 2006/ 2007 establishes new conceptual relationships with the “white circle” of modernity: the white circle of artists, curators, critics, architects; the canonical white circle of the history of art and its universalism; of the narratives that became the official ones; of Concretism – Geometrism in art. In contrast to all this, the white spot appears on the black body of the helmeted guineafowl): The white circle as the primordial etú of Obatalá (King Dressed in White), to drive away death (ikù).

The helmeted guineafowl

“the people of the place were desperate with so many dead to bury for Death did not care if it took man, woman, young, old, sick or healthy then Oxala intervened in response to the prayers of those who remained alive,. sprinkled the black guineafowl with maniva flour sprinkled the black guineafowl with lime and plaster… sprinkled the black guineafowl with efum …. released the black guineafowl in the market sprinkled with efum  and Death, frightened by the cascading call of the black guineafowl sprinkled with efum – something that it had never seen – went away from there”

The transcribed text belongs to project let helmeted guineafowl invade the grounds of the crime museum [anthropology of the black/ anthropology of banditry] city of Salvador/ BA, 2014. The pamphlet presented the appearance of the helmeted guineafowl when Obatalá (King Dressed in White), or Oxalá (Great Orixá), who created every form of human life, blew efum powder (white plant “blood” extracted from chalk and used in rituals) over a black chicken. This gesture drove Death away and reestablished balance in the world. The helmeted guineafowl is thus associated with the initiation and encompasses the opposition between life and death, the beginning and the end, white and black.

In the exhibition Sobre o deslocamento de coisas e gente [on the displacement of things and people] (2008) at the Palace of the Arts in Belo Horizonte, Nazareth reflects on the migration processes in Borun Nak, which started during the rebuilding of the Vitória to Minas railroad in 1942, and again in the 1970s. On the day it opened, the artist smuggled three etùs into the exhibition space. The helmeted guineafowl (considered a “subject of art” by Nazareth) is timid in nature and has a distinctive call of cascading sounds: when one calls, the others join in, calling and walking in restless circles around the gallery.

They were first brought to Brazil from Africa on slave ships to disguise the human cargo, as a strategy to circumvent the law after the slave trade was banned in 1831. (The town of Porto de Galinhas [literally: the chickens’ harbor] in Pernambuco was also named because it was an important entry point for the illegal slave trade.) In his video Galinha da Angola [helmeted guineafowl) (2017), Nazareth walks through the commercial district of Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, using a headdress made of etù feathers. Johannesburg was considered non-white territory during the period of apartheid, from 1948 to 1994.

Its multicultural society is formed by the coexistence of different ethnic groups, such as Zulu, Soto, Tsuana, Xhosa, Tsonga, Suázi, Venda and Ndebele. South Africa has eleven official languages. The policies which made black bodies invisible in that country resemble the Brazilian context, although here segregation had happened in an unofficial way. But such policies were also systematized in a political and educational project in Brazil that still reproduces asymmetries.

In the performance, Nazareth walks toward the future in tune with other black bodies, a reference to a non-mythological and complex Africa. The figure of the helmeted guineafowl acquires an even more intricate symbolism with the feathered headdress, a powerful symbol of the indigenous peoples, placed on the tight curls of an afro head. Galinha da Angola consists of a cross-over of entangled times, in a fusion of stories full of the systemic violence between the two continents: the metaphor of the son of the diaspora who constantly seeks to tear the tight knots of colonialism apart in his reunion with ancestral Mother Africa.

White etnography

In the early 2000s, Nazareth was already painting white circles with efum powder and latex paint on promotional posters of sporting and musical events, pagode [a type of samba], funk and rap groups, pasted on the walls of the towns on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte. He widens his research using the magazine Raça Brasil as a source, as well as other US, Canadian and European publications. From then on, the white circle, which he made of chalk mixed with correction fluid based on titanium oxide and soluble in water, would scare away the different instances of death: colonialism, the myth of meritocracy and racial democracy, neoliberal capitalism.

Nazareth acquired his first camera in 1994. It was a defective camera, which used to overexpose the films to excessive light. The way which light worked with the images created interferences and a kind of erasure of the dimensions of time and space in the image. This interference in the witnessing of the real would influence the series Etnografia branca.

The historic milestone of scientific anthropology happened in the mid-19th century, and its theoretical basis was evolutionism. Photography, which also appeared at this time, supported studies related to evolution: cataloging and fabulation of the cultural Other based on its material and immaterial production. Anthropometry, as a pseudoscience, would confirm the inferior nature of these bodies, substantiating racial theories. It was believed that different peoples went through the same stages of development, from savagery to barbarism and then to civilization. In this belief, not all peoples had similar evolution rhythms. The criteria for a people to be considered “backward” or “uncivilized” were based on a theoretical field, founded on a Western perspective.

The ethnographer was the one who was led by the concept of otherness, the one who would inventory the cultural forms of a particular ethnic group in relation to another group in a specific region. In terms of methodology, this vertical and general analysis implies categorizing non-White civilizations by their biological and linguistic characteristics, their work techniques and their social, economic and political organization in order to maintain power.

The ethnographic collections reaffirmed the extractive power dynamics in colonial Africa between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. The photographic records of rural work were used as a generic reading of the cultural organization of a particular ethnographic group, with the intention of Westernizing the cultural, social, political and economic practices The studio photographs, on the other hand, were a way of controlling the narratives – for example, sporting and commercial hunting justified itself by supplying skins, feathers and ivory to Western and part of Eastern industrial markets (European and North-American scientific institutions were also involved in the market for wild animals hunting). These collections are essential for the production of History, as they would represent a truth without the intervention of human agency by their documental and descriptive aspect. And this ideology transcends anthropology, supporting disciplines related to museology, archivology and history.

The series Etnografia branca presents a colonial mapping of these records, marked by the science-based discourse that provides the theoretical underpinnings which maintain Eurocentric power. The artist accesses various public collections and captures with his digital camera “documentary evidence” of white ethnography. Then he applies efum powder onto the photographs. White represents the light captured by the camera, but at the same time it means the narrative approach of so-called official stories.

By appropriating these records, Nazareth aims to reconnect himself with the light that was previously emitted by the “inferior” bodies. They are images that disappear, in a clash between the events that one wishes to eternalize and what is not considered important to keep about the creative, philosophical and technological powers of the Other.

For Nazareth, the camera imprisons the souls (eégún) that roam the world. His counterethnography consists of capturing the light that was emitted by these eégún at one time, restoring to them other narrative powers. He resumes the primordial gesture of creation by tracing white circles with African chalk on the photograph printed on cotton paper, completing with the fixative used for charcoal drawings. These circles give body to the images, creating a relationship between the planes and a dynamic of movement.

At the same time, the circles present themselves as veils, crisscrossing the past and the present: the materiality of cotton in printed photographs evokes the history of the cotton economy in the Northeast of Brazil and the introduction of the textile industry using enslaved labor between the 18th and 19th centuries. The question of memory permeates the strategies Nazareth uses to record these ethnographic materials.

“— what I use is a simple digital camera with an improvised filter made from the bottom or other parts of a bottle, as well as other pieces of glass and translucent materials. – When necessary, I sometimes borrow some cellphones to take specific photographs. – however, obviously the images inserted into the art exhibition circuit end up returning to the internet and digital net, but this time with a cover/layer of efun.”

In giving substance to extensive digital collections, Etnografia branca also raises the question of preserving memory in a digital culture, of the temporality of images in social media platforms as Orkut (2004-14), Facebook (2004), Flickr (2004), Tumblr (2007) and Instagram (2010), haunted by the constant threat of withering. For Nazareth, the traces of these ephemeral images are like ghosts:

“Sometimes what we have is just that light. My mother does not like this word in some places. But let it appear here. These images become ghosts because they cease to exist, at least for the families […]. Therefore this desire to print.”

The film Statues Also Die (1953), by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Ghislain Cloquet, addresses the processes of musealization and coloniality using the traditional African art collections of the British Museum in the United Kingdom, of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (former Belgian Congo Museum) in Belgium, and of the Museum of Mankind in France. One of the mechanisms of coloniality is death, as French actor and director Jean Négroni states in voiceover: “This botany of death is what we call culture. […] An object is dead when the living gaze upon it has disappeared. And when we disappear, our objects will go where we send the objects of the black peoples, to the museum.”

At the same time, Nazareth understands the notion of death as a cyclical and transformation movement that refers to the irúnmolè Oxumaré, the great serpent which, by swallowing its own tail, regains the beginning of the creation of All. The artist updates the primordial gesture of Obatalá by driving ikú away, intertwining different temporalities in a constant act of creation, which aspires to immortality as a promise of a more auspicious future. ///

Images: © Paulo Nazareth. Courtesy of PNAC/ ltda, Galeria Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, New York, and Stevenson Gallery, Amsterdam, Cape Town, Johannesburg.

Paulo Nazareth (Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais, 1977) is a visual artist. He participated in the 34th São Paulo Biennial. His most recente exhibition in Brazil is Vuadora (2022), at Pivô Arte e Pesquisa, in São Paulo. He has published Paulo Nazareth: arte contemporânea LTDA (Cobogó, 2012), among others.Janaina Barros da Silva Viana (São Paulo, 1979) is a visual artist, researcher and art critic. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the School of Fine Arts, in the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

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