C&AL: In your artistic practice, the black body and its relations to place, space, borders, translocations, displacement, diaspora, etc. are used as a basis for reframing, decoding, and re-enacting such diverse issues as black identity, the embodiment of blackness, decolonization, and self-healing. Could you talk more about it?
BA: These questions cut across contemporary postcolonial art throughout the Afro-African Diaspora, and certainly my literary, visual, musical, and performative works are underpinned by philosophies that evoke the destruction of the colonial mirror and present themselves also as an invitation to rethink humanity, as a manifestation of total insurgency to this historical heritage. Without this invitation, I believe that we will remain in a state of war that does not produce evolution. In my thinking, one of the possibilities for this transformation to occur in a truly intercontinental context is for the diasporas to connect. I am writing a book of poetic essays about this dream where we, who are the majority in the world, get to know each other and dialogue about strategies for evolution in a parallel or intersectional flow within this hegemonic political structure that does not listen to us.
C&AL: What have you learned about these issues through your experiences living in such different places as Brazil, Morocco, and now Finland, in terms of location and displacements in your practice and performance research?
BA: I have traveled to nearly every corner of Brazil, and for about nine years I have been traveling the world, and each time I return to Brazil I have become more aware of the cultural points that emerge from our Afro-Indigenous heritage. This is why I have dedicated myself, even more, to experiencing them over the years. I have been to four continents, to cities and places where I could experience the peculiarities of the local culture. Staying for about three months on each of those trips has certainly prepared me for this immersion program, which I am currently in. The most powerful learning experience is through the observation of hegemonic embodiments. The social corporeality of each place. The body is the beginning and the end of everything that happens in a culture.
C&AL: Right now, you are in an artist residency which aims to extend your research into your long-term interest in a discipline known as Afro Butoh. There has been some theoretical research about the lack of acknowledgment of the impact of Afro-diasporic cultures on the birth of Butoh. What is your personal method for engaging with Afro Butoh?
BA: My research is a result of 26 years of immersion in the traditions of Capoeira, Umbanda, and Candomblé as a disciple. This experience was a personal choice after observing the hegemony of a single Eurocentric perspective in the arts throughout the contemporary context. The discourse and actions of decolonization are recent and far from establishing equity in the human imagination. Massive online images have a colonial axis. Another philosophy is needed to trigger another aesthetic experience. My relationship with cultural crossings began when I studied Zen painting and Zen literature, and learned about the integration of non-European art and performance culture, not only with Buddhism but also with its more primitive root, Shinto culture, and Indian culture. I decided to delve into Afro-Brazilian traditions in order to reveal their potential through the philosophy of my art.
Afro Butoh, from my perspective, is an experimental tool for Afro motifs, invisible and used with shallow endowments, in the philosophical sphere that they bring to human reflection. The Afro Butoh that I develop involves the practices of healing through the voice, in the Umbanda tradition, techniques of the Afro-Orixás, Capoeira Angola. As a contemporary artist, this dynamic gives me paths into poetry, dance, film, singing, and performance theater. I am working on a book of essays in which I will describe more in-depth the paths that these possibilities can offer.
C&AL: Could you elaborate on your personal struggle in Brazil and the complicated circumstances that obliged you to leave your country?
BA: Brazil is a complex country. To better convey my struggle, I need to describe my reality as an Afro-Brazilian. I am the seventh child in a family of ten. We live in the suburbs in a region with no institutional options for access to art. In this environment, my destiny would be to be a factory worker in an Italian automobile industry that steals my city’s resources and underpays its workers with the full consent of the government. Art became my only affirmation of human identity when I started sculpting and painting theatrical murals at the age of 13. I added poetry, dance, performance and singing, and decided to make a living from my creations. When I sold my canvases at an exhibition at the age of 16, I began to believe that this was a real possibility. But I began to sense reserve in my attempts to enter into dialogue with cultural spaces. They would not open if I was not with an older white artist. But living as an artist in a country generated by the European colonization process, with exclusion policies and a high rate of violence, has a high price for a person stigmatized by Brazilian racism.
In order to live what I believe, I had to become a multifaceted artist, so I was able to survive on my art in Brazil, but doing my own research was limited. When I was able to make my first international trip, I started investing in those possibilities and found that even with all the racism in Europe, I had more opportunities there to share and dialogue about my art than I had in Brazil. When I reflected upon that process of international dialogues during those seven years of travelling, it led me to question certain things when I would return to Brazil. Then, I began to receive death threats for my work, which increased to an unbearable point with the rise of the extreme right in Brazil. I was trying not to leave the country because I really love Brazil. But I was really engaged in exposing police brutality, the constant murdering of black people, and I started receiving terrible death threats. At a certain point, I understood that I needed to leave, or I would die. So, just as James Baldwin fled to Paris to survive, I left Brazil not to die. On December 11, 2018, I had to go into exile in order to not be killed and keep my family out of danger.
Ramiro Camelo is a curator currently in-residence at Myymälä2, Helsinki.