In Conversation with Tiago Sant'Ana

“The Naturalization of Whiteness as a Life Parameter”

Brazilian artist and researcher uses items such as sugar in his performance pieces and installations to discuss the naturalization and erasure of a colonial past in everyday life.

C&AL: In your last exhibition, Baixa dos Sapateiros, you also incorporate sculptures made from shoes and books, using gold leaf. What was it like to engage in this other process of representation, beyond performance?

TS: Baixa dos sapateiros (in English, literally “Shoemaker’s Hollow”, and the name of an area of Salvador, Bahia) was an exhibition that dealt with the way shoes were a precarious symbol of a freedom proclaimed to the black population, but which never quite reached us. And it never reached us, because the very idea of citizenship is an exclusionary concept, which does not fit with non-Eurocentric ways of living. I wanted to expand my world of experimentation, to observe how this often exhausting pursuit of citizenship affects us in so many ways. It was the first time I made non-ephemeral sculptures. In one of the works, for example, I made plaster replicas of stalks of sugarcane, which was rooted in my desire to fossilize this organic material, something always present in my already purified work, in the form of granulated sugar. Turning these stalks into fossils was a desire to think about how the asymmetrical relationships caused by the systems of sugarcane farming remain. It’s a way of calling attention to the preservation of something that perishes over time as a foodstuff, but remains as a wound.

C&AL: The Sugar Shoes series combines two inquiries: the first one on sugarcane and the latest one on the symbolism of shoes in the colonial period. How did this encounter between your two investigations take place in your work?

TS: This series opened the exhibition Baixa dos sapateiros. It was as if you exited my other exposition, Casa de purgar (“Purification House”), continuing to grasp my view on the history of sugar, but going a little further, realizing what this system resulted in for black people. In Casa de purgar, I was investigating black labor and holdovers from farming systems. I visited ruins of old sugar mills in Recôncavo da Bahia, the region where I was born. And at these building ruins, I carried out a series of interventions that reference relationships of labor, such as ironing clothes and sifting. Sugar appeared in abundance, diametrically opposed to its significance as “white gold” in the colonial period. So I wanted to make these shoes of sugar as a double bind. First, to give attention to the shoe itself as an object, but one made of a material that was the driving force of whiteness in exploiting black people, and then, to symbolize the fragility of this freedom. Because the sugar shoes, in the photographs, are about to be dissolved by sea water.

C&AL: There is another aspect that draws your attention to these images: the sea as the point of connection with navigation routes – a theme that refers to the exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which you also participated in. How important was this show for your work, as far as connecting with the history of slavery in other countries?

TS: Afro-Atlantic Histories was a historical exhibition and I was very pleased to be able to be a part of it and collaborate on this moment of inflection for the black community that is united and, at the same time, separated by this geographic, but also imaginary territory that is the Atlantic. I submitted a piece called Apagamento #1 (“Erasure #1”), a video a little over a minute long that shows the word “Cabula” written on my head. Gradually, as my hair grows, the word disappears. I photographed myself day after day, in my own bedroom, adopting three positions that reference police mugshots. The work is based on the slaughter of 12 black youths, executed by the police in Salvador in 2015 in the Cabula district, a crime never solved by judiciary, because those lives aren’t even considered lives to the Brazilian judicial system. Cabula was also a former quilombo settlement in Salvador, a place of resistance, insurgency, difficult to access and, therefore, a propitious place to serve as a fortress and also as a sacred place, because of its lush and dense wilderness at that time. Even today, the neighborhood is home to large Afro-religious communities that have resisted processes of extermination and erasure.

C&AL: How do you see your work within the different understandings of Afro-Brazilian art?

TS: This is a concept that is still in transformation and tension. First, we need to think about what we mean when we say “Afro-Brazilian art”. The theme of the work? The origin of the person who made it? Both? Exhibitions that bring together black Brazilian artwork are exploding across the country, I believe because there is a necessary effervescence about this discussion, and also for the very conquest of other spaces by the black community following affirmative action policies. Much more needs to be said about updating institutions’ collections. It’s not a “favor” to put more black people into the arts, it is a huge debt. In my understanding, the issue of blackness within art is not a theme. It’s a political position and a narrative dispute, it’s countering statistics and stereotypes, including stereotypes about works produced by black artists, who occasionally end up under the problematic guise of “naif.” My body of work, for example, despite my image as black man, which is generally seen in a very brutish way, is very delicate. It talks about violence, but does not try to reproduce images of violence. Because we are already constantly subjected to violence. Moreover, my performance pieces have a meditative push that attempts precisely to purge those painful memories and stories, but never forget them. In this context, I identify very closely with a group of artists who are trying to rewrite this history of Brazil, and of art from other life experiences erased by the official white, Euro-centric, colonial version.

Nathalia Lavigne is a journalist, researcher and curator. She holds a Master’s in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies from Birkbeck, University of London and is a PhD student at the College of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP). She is currently a visiting scholar at The New School in New York. At USP she is a member of the Aesthetics of Memory in the 21st Century research group, and is working on a project on digital collecting and the circulation of pictures of works of art on Instagram.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.