*By Daniel Lima
I never met You, Sidney. Although we are two plastic artists from the same generation, from the same city, we have not met while you were alive. This mismatch is even rarer if we consider that we are two black artists, an exception in the world of contemporary art – even more so in the early 2000s, when we started our careers.
In my first exhibitions, my path forked to a distance away from the art galleries. I was part of this generation that opted for an encounter with the city, with the contradictions of urban space. A battleground for poetic creations in a clash of scale, languages and social-political contexts.
While you were developing these powerful works that are part of the exhibition Viver até o fim o que me cabe! – Sidney Amaral: aproximação, curated by Claudinei Roberto da Silva, I was also dealing with poetic works with different plastic and conceptual solutions. But the crossings are the same, Sidney…
I realized these transversalities in my encounter with your work when I was conducting the exhibition Agora Somos Todxs Negrxs?, at Galpão Videobrasil in 2018. With the help of Claudinei Roberto – who had been a colleague at USP and who can certainly agree to be black in these spaces of exception – I was able to find your works in their natural habitat: the studio where golden snakes with fork teeth lay down; headless barbies in solid bronze; eating trap spoons. The drawings and paintings of a virtuosity of technique meet this double of identity: the contradiction of blackness.
Being part of a huge minority in contemporary art and a majority in the population gives us this certainty of the importance of inscribing this so invisible Afro-Brazilian perspective. At the same time, the identity trap that we have to transcend is certain. A double challenge to bring the unique context that forged us, but also to cross the limits of what is considered as a denunciation of social ills in our world. A contradiction to be elaborated in two senses: in relation to the identity trap and another, connected to identity, in the articulation of social denunciation and the announcement of other future perspectives.
The traps are similar insofar as they pose the problem of how to escape from the frames created for a poetic political making. In other words, Sidney, we were faced with the challenge of speaking from the place of black individuals – and in this operation of looking at oneself it is almost impossible to ignore the violence that goes through us – but, at the same time, to undress black identity because they were created to bind us and hinder potentials of life. As Achille Mbembe puts it in Critique of Black Reason:
Does the Black Man not insist, still, on seeing himself through and within difference? Is he not convinced that he is inhabited by a double, a foreign entity that prevents him from knowing himself? Does he not live in a world shaped by loss and separation, cultivating a dream of returning to an identity founded on pure essentialism and therefore, often, on alterity?
This double in your work, Sidney, comes up in attack on himself. Asserting oneself black in image, plenitude, struggle, dignity, in a reverse sense to the historical animalization of blacks in the colonized world. Simultaneously struck by the certainty that something bury us in a rhetoric of death:
(…) the fear felt by the millions trapped in the ruts of racial domination, the anguish at seeing their bodies and minds controlled from the outside, at being transformed into spectators watching something that was, but also was not, their true existence (Mbembe)
Sidney, when I went to Africa, I could understand that “black” was created here in the Americas to define, dominate and diminish us. A term that, as I put it in the provocative question title of our exhibition Agora somos todxs negrxs?, was created to “signify exclusion, brutishment and degradation, that is, a limit that is always conjured and abhorred”, writes Mbembe. But which, due to the need for survival, was redefined by a path of struggle in the same history of violence and resistance. Being black has come to mean that we are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. And since then, this black being “has become the symbol of a conscious desire for life, a thriving, floating and plastic force, fully engaged in the act of creation and even in the act of living in several times and several stories simultaneously”.
I believe that this double that we reenact together with so many others in this generation redefines meanings of consolidated images and consolidating stereotypes. The black boy in the mask T-shirt; the soldier angel; the woman who smiles with a wreath of flowers… Ways of replacing images in the world – and, in this way, we replace ourselves.
These movements are aware of the limitation in “simply setting up new symbols of identity, new ‘positive images’ that fuel an unreflective ‘identity politics‘’’, as Homi Bhabha writes in The Location of Culture. By wearing out and provoking this double identity, we build a labyrinth that leads, after all, to the multiplex identity: not fluid, amorphous or slippery, but solid on many sides defined by negation, by what we are not.
Thus, the themes, whether slavery in Gargalheira ou quem falará por nós?, whether the colonial Catholic religion in Demiurgo or O Pão Nosso, but also recent history in Diálogos/ Encontro return as this “disjunctive present”, a present broken into conflicting, contradictory interpretations. This shift bothers many because it deconstructs worlds of stable beliefs. Only racial displacement, the black figure in the canonical context of art, displaces the world around them.
These myth images, memory images, time images that invade and colonize subjectivities, Sidney, are being reinscribed by us not as heroic symbols of a politics of identity. They are reinscribed in “the very textuality of the present that determines both the identification with, and the interrogation of, modernity: what is the ‘we’ that defines the prerogative of my present?”, points out Bhabha.
It is true that this “we” of the Brazilian nation never included us. And at this stage of capitalism, many are beginning to realize that it doesn’t include them anymore either. The current stage of exploration, whether material or cognitive, places a vast majority side by side in a fractal of segregation. “Shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks”, affirmed the Haitian Constitution of 1805, the result of the only black revolt to take definitive power and the first American nation to abolish slavery. “Now we are all blacks!”
We agree, between fits and starts, between battles and wars, between deconstructions and decolonizations, that we will not succumb to the kidnapping of the future. We re-enact the past with the delusions of the present. I see in your work, Sidney, a force nothing close to the surreal oneiric, but bordering on delirium: a power of fascination and hallucination.
Sidney, I had a shot of the vaccine that immunizes against the virus that causes Covid-19 the day I went to visit your exhibition Viver até o fim o que me cabe! In the morning, I had prepared my documents. The doctor who greeted me after the short wait in line was sitting in the disabled drive-thru. Some people passed by asking which vaccine was being applied and what day the Pfizer vaccine would arrive. The doctor’s green eyes examined the PUC diploma filled with gold writing. Then she filled out a form and asked me about my self-determination: black. I remember that I manage to escape the statistic that places the black population among the least vaccinated in the country. Brazil vaccinates twice as many white people as black people (data from Agência Pública). I escaped because I am in the ranks of those who have a degree in Clinical Psychology. This is a type of measure that underground opens the way for a white portion – which does not necessarily have a greater risk – to get vaccinated first. “Accepting only the diploma is a measure made for whites to get vaccinated”, the doctor agrees. And I see myself here. Yes, we were always the exception, Sidney.
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