Urban Image and Otherness
Urban Image and Otherness: an investigation through practice of installation art (2004).
By the end of 1989, I had already spent five years working with The Tranquil Object: Situations series and two years researching the Afro-Brazilian models of resistance. One day, while discussing my work with Ricardo Basbaum, an artist, writer and curator from Rio, I suddenly realised, in the middle of our conversation, that this model of conflict-with-non-exclusion-of-the-other, which I recognize runs deeply, as a foundational trace, inside the Brazilian culture, was also the cultural model informing the The Tranquil Object: Situation series, taken as a proposition on conflict.
That early evening conversation in 1989 was an illuminating moment. I had been researching a subject, the Afro-Brazilian models of resistance to oppression, and that was expanding my understanding of the world around me. Simultaneously, I was doing my artwork. But I was carrying out the two activities as if they were unrelated and could be performed in separation from each other. I was surprised to recognize the common ground they shared inside my perceptual field.
Using the concepts I am developing now to evaluate this situation from the past, I would say that the artwork I was doing and the UFRJ research, were both dealing with the same mark of intensity – experiences of conflict, but the system of relevance of the UFRJ research was modulating its proposition on conflict by using a very subtle inflection – it was not only a question of negotiating, but also a question of non-exclusion.
I returned to the UFRJ research essay. In that essay, I proposed a visualisation of the model of ‘conflict-with-no-exclusion-of the other’, that was based on a study of the social gatherings happening at the house of Tia Ciata. This study, which was done by Roberto Moura (1983) and collaborators, reviewed with care the life-experience subtleties21 encoded in this iconic example of cultural agency between the black community and the wider society in Brazil.
‘Repersonalization’ (Roberto Moura, in: Tia Ciata e a Pequena Africa no Rio de Janeiro . Rio de Janeiro: Funarte. 1983, p.14) was a survival strategy for the enslaved subject of the Black Diaspora in Brazil. Living in between two distinct communities – master and slaves, black and white, this subject is forced to adapt and learn the games and functions that, in the new culture, will provide alternatives of subsistence and reorganization despite a life as slave.
A priestess for the Afro-Brazilian cult of Camdoblé-Nagô, Tia Ciata lived in Rio de Janeiro, from 1876 to 1924. She was a central figure in the newly liberated black community, which was making the passage from a condition of slavery into the hardness of becoming, as a class, the economically dispossessed.
For more than two decades, and happening alongside the main dates of the religious calendar, Tia Ciata’s open-house would be a celebratory gathering, sometimes lasting for days, with guests going out to work and coming back in the evening (Moura, 1983 p.66).
When analysing the plan for Tia Ciata’s house at Visconde de Itaúna St, the last of the two addresses she had in her adult life, I understood the model of ‘conflict-with-no-exclusion-of the other’ could be retraced as a collective performance, read directly from the space, just by following the positioning of the various activities on offer to the guests.
As illustrated and commented by Moura (1983), the plan of the house shows a long rectangular single floor, at street level, with the entrance opening directly to the front room. Extending from this front room, to the right, is a large corridor. This corridor, passing three bedrooms and a small lounge area, finishes at the right side of the dining room, beyond which there is the kitchen and a storage space, each located by the right and left side of a large backdoor. This backdoor opens to a small yard.
Even though it is not illustrated in the book, regardless of being commented by Moura, this yard led to a large shed that, on the appropriate day, was used for the Afro-Brazilian rituals, presided by Tia Ciata.
For the duration of the Tia Ciata’s open-house gatherings, the shed would be locked, as a zone of secrecy, inaccessible to the guests. In the yard there would be some drums playing and a group dancing a kind of dance – the jongo, which is sacred for the initiated, but is just a playful game for the non-initiated. In the kitchen, the food that was usually prepared as an offering to the Afro-Brazilian gods, but which is not taken as sacred outside of the rituals, would be served to the guests. In the front room, the musicians brought up in the community, but already with a professional career, would be giving a jam-session, putting together African rhythms and European melodies – and that was samba in the making. Those sessions, due to the musicians rising fame in the city’s nightlife, would attract music lovers, coming from all classes and races.
In the functioning of this social gathering, it is easy to see at play the cultural strategy described before as ‘a life-affirming effort of translation and re-personalisation’.
As a model or template for cultural strategy this is a sophisticated behavioural design. Its strength comes from being able to accommodate secrecy and open exchange, and to propose them as complementary behaviours, inducing transformations, inside a continuous perceptual field that has different systems of address.
The model achieves this accommodation of differences inside a shared space, by treating its field of action as a conflicted proximity, which exists between classes and cultures, and nevertheless, can be choreographed into a pattern of interaction by layered accessibility.
In the case of Tia Ciata’s house, this model I am naming as ‘proximity by layered accessibility’ was made visible by the use of two devices, culturally covering a spectrum going from dense to more permeable:
- the nucleus of secrecy, which was marked in the space by the existence of the shed in the backyard with the Afro-Brazilian ritual objects locked away. As an off-limits presence in the events of the day, it was culturally dense to the level of opacity, and would be imprinted in the imagination of the non-initiated guests as an index of the radical alterity of their host;
When talking about The Object Tranquil: Situations series, from the point of view of a ‘proximity by layered accessibility’, it becomes clear that this work is addressing notions of conflict from inside a positioning concerned with issues of otherness.
Also, this description of the strategies in use at the house of Tia Ciata, for orchestrating this model of ‘proximity by layered accessibility’, can easily be taken as the template of how, for me, the notions of otherness and urban image began to inform each other and started constituting themselves into raw material for my work.
We just need to follow the line of actions crossing the scene. This line starts around a nucleus of secrecy that is an index of the radical alterity of the other – the closed shed. Then it passes through diverse instances of negotiation of differences, which are happening smoothly around the practices of everyday life – sharing a meal or dancing together. Finally, the line arrives at an open-ended game – the music improvisation that is a game of re-invention, made possible by the co-presence of willing partners, which were brought in a state of togetherness by a common belonging-in-difference to a city’s life,
This urban camaraderie was the previous condition morphing Tia Ciata’s front room into a hybrid space. By mixing the public ethos of a square in the neighbourhood or a corner in the park, with the private cosiness of a friend’s house, Tia Ciata’s front room was able to offer a well-tuned atmosphere to be used as a facilitator for encounters of difference, or encounters of otherness.
Maria Moreira is an artist and author working in London and Rio de Janeiro.