Conversation with Juliana dos Santos

“Ancestral Knowledge That Comes From the Feet”

The Brazilian visual artist talks about her theories with regard to samba, the black body and science. And she also explains the concept of “sambiência”. Fabiana Lopes spoke with Juliana dos Santos for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

C&AL: What led you to make this recording? What attracted you about this “event” of this black man dancing in the street?

JS: What attracted me was the connection to my history. Seu Djalma is like one of the customers at my grandmother’s bar. I was born and raised in a São Paulo neighborhood (Parque Peruche), where samba has a very strong presence. I was born dancing samba in my mother’s womb. I love to dance samba, I always have. To dance samba is knowledge inherited from my father. Those black bodies in movement interest me. Samba is a counter normative activity. I think that today people don’t dance much samba. But that man over there, dancing with no sign of stopping, is a revolutionary event. Seu Djalma is committed to being alive, present, in relation, flirting on the sidewalk turned stage where he dances samba for all to see, he is dancing samba for life. He is cheeky, he doesn’t give a damn. With his small steps, he’s already toured the world without leaving where he is. People should samba more to celebrate life. That is what the Sisterhood proposes, as do the people who live there.

C&AL: You often use the expression “in a samba state of mind”…

JS: Yes, I’ve thought a lot about that. For me, a “samba state of mind” is a state of being, existing and acting in the world. There’s happy samba, sad samba, solo samba and group samba. So-and-so is tearing it up, showing off his moves. It’s the footwork! It’s the small steps! The black population in Brazil created a lot of samba, there’s samba all over Brazil. See if it isn’t a state of being, an elaboration of knowledge! People start with the basic step then do it all. There’s Samba de Roda (in a circle) in the Recôncavo [Bahian], Samba de Pareia (in pairs) in Laranjeiras, Sergipe; in Pernambuco there’s Samba de Coco, Cavalo Marinho de Maracatu. In Maranhão there’s Tambor de Criola, which isn’t called samba but the footwork and the hip wiggle are there. In Espírito Santo there are the Guardas de Congo Capixaba. Tell me if samba doesn’t come from there too? In Rio de Janeiro everything is samba. São Paulo too has lots of samba, Samba de Bumbo Pirapora, Pagode. My father’s generation even managed to put samba together with rock (laughter).

Sambiência (Sambaconsciousness), Juliana dos Santos, 2018.

C&AL: How would you describe your artistic research up to this point?

JS: I describe it as having a constant rhythm. I have many projects and I’m constantly thinking. I’ve done a lot of research on negritude, racism, decolonization, but also on spaciality, corporeality, occupation of space and dislocations of imaginaries. Some of my pieces are autobiographical, as a process of trying to understand where I come from and where I’m going. I started with drawing, from there I did theatre, then I danced professionally for two years. After that, my interest turned to music, to Afoxé. I’m very interested in music. My range of interests is a very vast universe. Sometimes I lose myself, but the process makes sense, I don’t like the fragmentation of disciplines. At university, I did so much theatre and dance, but I studied the Visual Arts. I like “hands-on” stuff, technical research, material experiments. This doesn’t show up in my work yet, but I really like painting, drawing and analog photography. But sambiência is something that is much more a part of life and much less of artistic work.

C&AL: Do you see any relationship between the recording we’re talking about, this material, and the work you’ve done up to now?

JS: No, not directly, but I know there is a relationship. That material has to do with some installation and intervention projects I haven’t yet completed. The work most emphasized from my production is the video performance What is the comb? In that, I bring to the discussion the body of two black women experiencing a process that goes through violence, memory, affectivity and resistance. That piece is sadness, it’s pain, but I want to work with happiness as well. So from that came Seu Djalma, a black body, an old man dancing samba endlessly, festively, in a fervor, in flip flops. What could those feet tell us about that journey? It’s enough to see how they are so cadenced and light. Seu Djalma dancing samba is the antithesis to What is the comb? He proposes other possibilities for the representation of black bodies: he was paines, he is pained, but he’s got fervor, flux, happiness, he’s got sambiência. This material reminds me of a line by Alice Walker that greatly impacted my life: “Hard times require furious dancing.”

C&AL: Talk to me a little bit about this “close-up” on feet, about this short video which focuses only on Seu Djalma’s feet.

JS: The focus on the feet came from my need to try to capture the most basic element of samba: the feet. I’m interested in how they work themselves out in space starting from a modular movement that repeats forming a “continuum”. He leaves the frame then comes back. At the same time, I see the feet as a metaphor for the journey of life. During my trip to Havana, last year, I consulted the Ifá through a babalorixá (macumba priest). He told me that, for Ifá, there are three heads: the head-head, the head-stomach and the head-feet. And they symbolize the mind, desire, the path. For him, life must be the balance between those three heads. That made so much sense to me!

So often the head-foot is not part of decisions. In my house, feet were always the center of attention. My grandmother used to say: “black got to walk with clean shoes, they’re not going to go out barefoot.” My choice of this clip, this material, comes from all of this, I think. It’s as if it were the feet that determined destiny. There, they’re the ones in charge. Those in charge of dancing samba are the feet. If you think about it a lot, you can’t do the steps. You need to feel the rhythm, sense their beat and let the feet free. So those videos have that: Seu Djalma’s feet, they’re the narrative.

Juliana dos Santos is a visual artist with works in the languages of video, performance, photography and multimedia. She holds a Masters in Art Education and Cultural Mediation from the Arts Institute at Unesp (São Paulo) and researches in the fields of Art Education and Afro-Brazilian Culture.

Fabiana Lopes is a New York and São Paulo-based Independent Curator and a Ph.D. Candidate in Performance Studies at New York University, where she is a Corrigan Doctoral Fellow. Lopes is interested in the artistic production from Latin America and is currently researching the production of artists of African descent in Brazil.

Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh.