fbpx

11.11.2019

«Amarelo-Ouro»

After situating Brazilian extractivism as the continuum of an intercontinental colonial order, the artist and curator Cláudio Bueno points to the imaginative power of contemporary artistic practices from the South that face the fallacies perpetuated by global technological infrastructures.

In July 2019, the Guarulhos International Airport, located in São Paulo, Brazil, witnessed a historic robbery. Nearly 1,600 pounds of gold bars destined for the US and Canada were stolen. You can watch the heist happen in two minutes and 30 seconds of filmed footage captured by security cameras that was released on television and online. The cargo belonged, in part, to a Canadian mining company that currently operates the Morro do Ouro mine in Paracatu, located in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

That same month, a group of illegal miners (garimpeiros in Portuguese) invaded the indigenous Waiãpi territory in Amapá and murdered the Waiãpa leader, Emyra. Meanwhile, the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsanaro, made a declaration reinforcing the importance of mining gold on indigenous lands and casting doubt on the Waiãpa leader’s assassination. His government is as violent as that which held power during Brazil’s civil-military dictatorship (1964–1985), which, all in the name of development, exterminated approximately 8,000 indigenous people while killing, jailing, and torturing many other non-indigenous people. The current Brazilian government (to an even greater extent than that which preceded it) prioritizes and institutionalizes the colonial order: a project of death and violation of fundamental rights in line with the economic neoliberalism promoted by such countries as the United States.

Historically, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the exploitation,depletion, and theft of Brazil’s mineral reserves (as well as those on the African continent and throughout South America in general) enriched imperialist European nations like Portugal, Spain, and England. To carry out this work, enslaved people from the African colonies were brought to Brazil and forced to learn the techniques used to extract gold along the coastline known as the Costa da Mina. These people were primarily brought from Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo. Although slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, the colonial order continued to support an economic system based on the exploitation and precarity of racialized, non-white bodies. Today, faced with a possible recession, countries like Canada, India, Switzerland, and the United States, among others, are increasing their gold reserves with gold mined primarily in Brazil.

The indigenous Guarani professor and leader Cristine Takuá refers to this extractivist process—a process that harms all living beings, including “human beings” as well as land, rivers, and forests—as the “rape of the land.” This rape is clearly visible in the excavation sites and dams built for mining, but also in the massive infrastructure used to generate energy in Latin America, such as the hydroelectric dams (which produce changes in the natural flows of rivers), petroleum exploration and its resulting leaks, and the many other abrupt interventions that disrupt different life forms.

The mineral diversity of Brazil is often associated with the color yellow in the Brazilian flag. For some, the yellow rhombus represents the feminine figure, Mother Earth, Pachamama, Gaia—generative and warm power. But to Brazilian practitioners of African religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda, yellow is the color of Oxum, the queen of fresh water, steward of rivers and waterfalls.

Faced with the evident catastrophic decadence of “civilizing” colonial ideals and the resulting extractivism and physical and cultural elimination of everything that does not advance those ideals —ideals which today have taken on the mantel of developmentalism—it is urgent that we fight for the imaginaries, symbols, images, and meanings that we wish to institute.

We must expand our field of imagination and meaning into other realms that are not solely based on the limited colonial imagination, but that also consider the plurality of bodies, cultures, knowledges, spiritualities, rituals, economies, and life forms that white men of European descent have continually attempted to deny. It is precisely these cultures which have been historically subjugated to colonial thought that point to, conceive of, and evoke the images, technologies, symbolisms, visualizations, and alternative existences that make possible and sustainable the continuation of life—not just human life, but the life of all beings on Earth.

Abdias Nascimento (1914–2011) is an example of such an expanding force. An important Brazilian intellectual, playwright, politician, artist, and activist, he created the Theater of the Condemned (1941-1944), the Black Experimental Theater (1944-1966), and the Museum of Black Art (1950-1968), among other projects. Abdias dedicated his life and work to restoring human dignity to black Brazilians. With this goal in mind, he rebuilt social bonds and recovered the epistemological knowledge, traditions, and forms of social and political organization of the black communities that were forced from their land in the era of slavery. But the existence of these people is not the sum of these episodes of forced removal, which occurred over the course of the last 500 years; we must take into consideration the extended historical and cultural timeline of these peoples, who lived freely with their own sovereignty for many centuries and who have produced many forms of knowledge since antiquity.[1]

According to the Institute for Afro-Brazilian Research and Studies’ (IPEAFRO in Portuguese) website, Nascimento revived the Sankofa,[2] one of the symbols of the adinkra, a writing system made up of ideograms that express proverbs and ideas, which originated with the Akan/Acã people in West Africa, who today live primarily in Ghana. The symbol of Sankofa, which shows a bird with its head turned towards its tail, can be translated as: “to return and learn from the past in order to redefine the present and construct the future,” or, when it is associated with the original word, it can be simply translated as “to return and obtain.” This epistemological ethic of the black population reclaiming its heritage points to the impact of the diaspora and dispersion of black peoples throughout the world. Diverse writing systems, not just adinkra, perforate African history across the continent.

This practice of recognizing and recovering a culture that has been so fragmented in places like Brazil is key to Abdias Nascimento’s work, present not only in his writing, but throughout his entire oeuvre. For example, the author had the following to say about the cult of the orixás[3] in his book O genocídio do negro brasileiro [The Genocide of the Black Brazilian] (1978):

“The Orixás are the foundation of my painting. For me, the image and the meaning they represent goes beyond mere visual-aesthetic perception: They are the basis of a process of a struggle for freedom fed by their love and their communion and commitment.”

In his painting Okê Oxóssi (1970)—the image featured at the beginning of this article—the artist proposes another reading of the Brazilian flag, and thus paves the way for other visions and possibilities for imagining national symbols. The São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP in Portuguese), which has the piece in its collection, explains the work with this description:

“Nascimento reinvents national symbols and flips the Brazilian flag vertically, substituting the positivist phrase “Order and Progress” with the word “Oké!”, a tribute to Oxóssi, the orixá of hunting and abundance, who is also represented by his most well-known attributes: the bow and arrow.”

In Nascimento’s reinterpretation of the flag, Brazil’s natural diversity is no longer understood as a disposable and unlimited resource that exists only to be consumed in the service of a project of development and discipline; rather, it is to be hailed, preserved, and worshipped, like the orixás. In this way, Nascimento amplifies and exposes the symbols and imaginaries preserved in Brazil’s cultural diversity without limiting himself to colonial knowledge.

Faced with the impossibility of forgetting and completely liberating ourselves from the national symbols that were created and emphasized for centuries by the colonial project, artists like Abdias Nascimento show us possible methods for reshaping meaning and our ways of seeing, acting, and thinking collectively in the face of life and the world, particularly through national symbols. He offers us images, drawings, risks, myths, and signs that do not come together in a system of simple visual representation of natural elements; rather, they stimulate and evoke mysteries, movements, and aptitudes that are immaterial and invisible. As the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor has said, dematerialized artistic production is not a virtue ruled by European and United States conceptual art from the sixties and seventies, for the “African art” that Abdias is connected to has always been multidimensional.

Old routes, new colonialisms

This multidimensional character has often been reduced and flattened by new patterns and regimes based on the global technological infrastructure that dictate the circulation of signs and information. The power of this infrastructure, programmed in the West, often ignores situational narratives and knowledges in favor of international standards, processing, transactions, narratives, and protocols. This preference for standardization erases a diverse ecology of differences that are social, economic, technical, symbolic, spiritual, cultural, sexual, political, geographic, environmental, etc., as we will see farther on.

In her work Deep Down Tidal (2017), the artist and curandera Tabita Rezaire (who works in Cayenne, French Guinea) presents an audiovisual narrative that reflects on the Internet and its physicality, which takes the form of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables at the bottom of the oceans that are part of global telecommunications and transaction infrastructures. Our lives, our wireless calls, which we imagine to be in “the cloud,” are in fact attached to physical cables which lie among the ocean’s waves. With its sunken cities, drowned sailors, and secret histories, the ocean has also become the terrain for a complex network of stories and communication. In this context, telecommunications networks, largely controlled by Western hegemonies through a small number of companies, such as the US-based company SubCom and the French Alcatel-Lucent, expand along the old colonial and genocidal routes, making these cables the hardware of a new electronic, digital imperialism.

“The postcolonial does not exist!”

In Brazil, these submarine cables are located in the state of Ceará, in an area of the city of Fortaleza known as Praia do Futuro [Beach of the Future], so-named because a real estate agency sought to create a new neighborhood there. Since the 1970s, the beach was considered promising land for urban expansion and its development was pushed for as part of an elitist project of progress that eventually unleashed a wave of property speculation in the region. With the arrival of businesses aimed towards satisfying the demands of swimmers, the area became significantly more popular. Today, it is an area plagued by grave social inequality.

In 2018, Praia do Futuro became a technological center connecting Brazil to the world through 12 cables,[4] of which the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS)—a submarine information transmission cable that spans more than 3,700 miles between the Angolan city of Sangano and the capital of Ceará—is the most recent. Rather than constitute an achievement of technological prosperity, calling attention to such examples of the physical infrastructure of the Internet reveals the falsity of the claims touted by telecommunications companies regarding the abolition of borders. Indeed, digital technologies of control have only reiterated and amplified ongoing social tensions, in addition to reactivating old colonial routes on the Brazilian coast.

Praia do Futuro’s constant transformations have made it a zone of reflection for various artists. Contrary to the work of proposals that fully adhere to hegemonic Western knowledge and the circulation of universal signs and knowledge through digital networks, among these artists there is a desire to highlight situated narratives that consider the nuances, differences, and implications of these technological infrastructures for the neighborhoods and contexts where they are installed.

Such is the case of Pontos de Contato [Points of Contact] (2018), produced by O grupo inteiro [The Entire Group] for the online platform aarea.co. In this work, the group constructs an audiovisual narrative generated online in real time, composed of a confluence of data, video, and text. Through it, we see maps and superimposed satellite photography, airplane movements and routes, atmospheric conditions, the real-time online transmission of news on local radio, videos taken from local news programs, maps of submarine cables, Internet search lists, and many other bodies of information that situate this narrative in the context of Praia do Futuro. Due to its geographic location, the city of Fortaleza has become a central point of entry and exit from Brazil, whether for new routes for tourism, technology, or even drug trafficking.

Producing these narratives and reflections based on local specificities allows us to more clearly observe the implications and transformations produced by these technologies and their infrastructures, which operate differently in different parts of the world. For example, we could mention the technological trash we produce and dispose of on the coast of West Africa, particularly in Agbogbloshie (Ghana); or the water needed to cool the server farms that store the so-called “cloud,” a system that stores and moves our information and whose farms are often located in places that lack drinking water; or the wars and labor situation in countries like Congo, whose economy is strongly oriented towards mining the materials that supply the electronics industry; or the exploitation and expropriation of land and labor for multinational companies in countries like Brazil, all these among the many other aspects, agents, and locations ripe for exploration, which we have learned to deny or ignore in light of more global and less specific reflections regarding planetary information.

In his works All That Is Solid (2014) and Lettres du Voyant (2013), the artist Louis Henderson, who lives between France and the United Kingdom, undoes some of these abstractions and negations, explaining new faces of colonialism that are now based on data mining and electronic and digital equipment stored along the coast of West Africa.

In All That Is Solid, Henderson shows us the effects of the “technological advances” in the westernized world, advances which generate huge piles of obsolete computers that many of us who live in large urban centers have lost sight of. This so-called electronic waste is mainly sent to the coast of West Africa where it is accepted by scrap shops like those in Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana. When it arrives there, the waste is taken up by men who break and burn the plastic cadavers to extract the metal and precious metal elements contained inside the computers, such as gold, silver, tin, and palladium. These metallic parts are then sold or melted and turned into new objects to be sold. It is a strange recycling system, a sort of inverse neocolonial mining in which Africans seek mineral resources in the waste generated in large urban capitals. By illustrating these processes, the video highlights the importance of dispelling the capitalist myth of the immateriality of new technologies to reveal the mineral weight that serves as the physical basis of “the cloud.”

In the fictional documentary Lettres du Voyant, Henderson tells us about spiritualism and technology in contemporary Ghana. This work considers a mysterious practice called Sakawa, which is based on internet scams mixed with voodoo magic, and through which its practitioners promise to recover all that has been stolen from them throughout history. Portraying the stories of coup plotters since Ghana’s independence, the film introduces Sakawa as a form of anticolonial resistance.

In Louis Henderson’s films, he constantly searches through narrative and images to find forms of labor that question the current global condition defined by racist capitalism and the historic companies that are still involved in the colonial project begun by Europeans 500 years ago. However, as a white, male, European artist, he traces a fine line between critiquing an ongoing colonial project (often alongside local actors who drive the narratives) and risking the possibility of reinforcing the precarity of these lives through the images shown.

The works presented here in relation to the story of gold theft at the start of this article lead us to think about the material and symbolic expropriation of Brazil as an extension of the situation that different African countries face. By establishing dialogues with the practices of such artists as Abdias Nascimento, I hope to deny an immediate adherence to international artistic tendencies, and, by establishing a dialogue with artists like Tabita Rezaire, O grupo inteiro, and Louis Henderson, to oppose the generalization of knowledge offered by global technological infrastructures, assuming an ethical commitment to situate diverse, complex, and non-hegemonic problems, ways of thinking, cultures, bodies, knowledges, spiritualities, and forms. With these reflections, I align myself with the thought of the Brazilian author and artist Jota Mombaça, who tells us that “The postcolonial does not exist!”:

“I am interested in intensifying the postcolonial interrogation towards an ethics positioned in opposition to the fictions of power and the ongoing renovation of coloniality in ordinary, day-to-day experience. I do this from my position in the heat of the northeast of Brazil, a position of impoverished raciality, which marks at the level of the skin the trajectory of whitening as an ontological, economic, biopolitical, and colorist policy of extermination that aims to eradicate the lives of black and indigenous people from the Brazilian social body, and I do this as an act of civil, sexual, and gender disobedience. With this body, I articulate the gesture of rejection entailed by this text: a rejection of temporal linearity in a modern colonial key, a rejection of appeasing intellectual practices, and a rejection of extractivist ethics. Therefore, I reject the postcolonial fiction.”[5]

Notes

  1. “Linha do tempo: O Tempo Dos Povos Africanos” produced by Elisa Larkin Nascimento/IPEAFROSECAD/MEC-UNESCO. Available at [Accessed August 13, 2019].


  2. Bird pictogram that turns its head to tail to fetch an egg.

     
    A geometric gold-weight with an abstract motif of a sankofa bird, 17th–20th century. Image: trustees the British Museum (2019) – licensed by Creative Commons.

  3. Translator’s note: The orixás are the deities of the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition of Candomblé.

     Una pesa de oro geométrica con un motivo abstracto de un pájaro sankofa, s. 17-20. Imagen: fideicomiso por el British Museum (2019) – Licencia por Creative Commons.

  4. For more information, visit

  5. Jota Mombaça, Não existe o pós-colonial! in Digital magazine of the Goethe Institut: [Accesed on September 5, 2019].

filter by

Category

Geographic Zone

date