Afro-diasporic Memories

Diego Araúja: For a time of the expanding body

A major figure in Bahian theater who has also gained prominence in the visual arts, Diego Araúja expresses other concepts of temporality and ways of conceiving a new language among Afro-diasporic countries through performance.

The unconventional format maintains similarities with immersive theater, heavily influenced by the digital world where the spectator is free to move through different spaces where simultaneous situations overlap. The actors/performers moved between the three environments constructed from a plywood structure, wooden beams and a plastic canvas, on which images with archival documents were projected. The live musical performance also had a huge impact, activating multisensorial forms of perception and requiring another kind of attention from the audience. If people wanted to see everything that was happening in each space, they had to watch the show at least three times.

It was QUASEILHAS that earned Diego a place in the visual arts, which in recent decades has been more welcoming to hybrid productions in the performing arts that are met with more resistance in the traditional black box format of the theater. And it was the British Isaac Julien who helped to open the door of this area to the artist, who watched his performance in Salvador and invited him to create a choreographic performance for the video installation A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), about the architect Lina Bo Bardi.

Since then, invitations to exhibit his work outside of Brazil have been frequent. The most recent is his participation at the Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, where he is presenting the installation Um Congresso do Sal (A Congress of Salt, 2022). In 2020, a little before the beginning of the pandemic, he also did a residency at SAVVY Contemporary, in Berlin, Germany, together with the artist Laís Machado, his partner with whom he also collaborates on the platform ÀRÀKÁ. “I still think the visual arts are lacking a better understanding of the specifics of the work artists of the body do, which comes from relationships and exchanges,” Araúja comments. “But I see a good opening.”

His interest in writing and language is another characteristic of his trajectory. This was also a major distinctive trait of QUASEILHAS, sung entirely in oríkì’s – oral literature of Yorùbá origin, translated from Diego’s text written in Portuguese. It was after that experience that he started developing the Laboratório Internacional de Crioulo (International Creole Laboratory) project, in partnership with Laís Machado. Inspired by other performance art projects in which a language is developed as a group based on corporeal experiments, his idea was to have a series of encounters with people from Afro-diasporic countries to create a language that was “not born out of trauma,” a result of colonial violence. The body is the primary tool in creating this new language, which would originate from performative actions. “There would be a time for performative research that could later be used in artistic productions, with the intention of replacing trauma with poetics,” he explains.

That was what Diego and Laís thought they were starting to do with the connections that came out of their residency at SAVVY, in February 2020, where they presented the talk Corpos que se expandem (Bodies that Expand). But with Covid-19, the world radically changed a month later, when the idea of corporeal expansion stopped making sense for a while. “There was constraint at a time when we were establishing a very strong connection with other places and people,” the artist recalls.

On the one hand, it was during that period of disconnection that Diego ended up finding ways to explore his own language in digital space. That is the case with Game Ensaio (Trial Game, 2020), made for the digital exhibition Os dias antes da quebra (The Days Before the Crash), curated by Diane Lima for the program Pivô Satélite. In the format of an online game and with the aesthetics of an escape room – those “escape rooms” used in the gaming world to share tracks from certain games–, the work leads us through a labyrinthic path, where we do not see the options to enter or exit. We choose a certain topic, and only afterward do we find out what it is about and in what format—whether in audio, visual or written texts. The narrative follows a written essay form, combining theoretical references with stories recited from memory.

For those who have not seen other works by the artist in person, as is my case, Trial Game is a great point of departure to visualize the thinking that informs his work in a rawer format, at least in relation to the way those ideas took shape afterward, mixed with other media. And the idea of being in an “escape room” is a great metaphor for the equally labyrinthine pandemic context which we are still experiencing, seeking new languages as escape routes to continue moving forward.

Diego Araúja works in the field of expanded, multidisciplinary art as a director, playwright, screenwriter and visual artist.

Nathalia Lavigne is a researcher, journalist, and curator.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh