Aline Xavier writes about how to process feelings of uncertainty and fear in Brazil.  

Ambush (2014) is “a video installation showing a dramatic pastoral landscape bathed in a tragic Picasso-blue in which a herd of [cattle] gaze at the camera lens. The animals are caught in an ominous loop of retreat and return in the work: running away like a murmuration every time a threat is perceived, and creeping back to continue the stand off only moments later. The video deals with a heady mix of fear and curiosity towards the unknown—the feeling of standing on an edge, or a boundary. It is a metaphor for a fight or fly encounter in which power becomes an invisible line that at once attracts and repels: a populated boundary that is suspended but never still, much like the definition of the ‘geopolitical Global South’ itself.” – Stephanie Bailey, Ocula Magazine.

These words describe my artwork from 2014, made on one of my journeys to the rural areas of the province where I was born, Minas Gerais, Brazil. I’ve brought it alongside a selection of other artworks inside my suitcase to Johannesburg. The exhibition speaks back to feelings of uncertainty and fear of the current times. My understanding is that the world is at war and the tension, yet invisible, is palpable.

Installation view of AMBUSH. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

In recent years, the construction of a new non-racial, non-sexist, multi-religious, culturally dynamic world has advanced. In response, those who refuse this democratic project, aiming to protect pre-established social-economic privileges and conservative values, enacted in the backstage of political, legal and communication spheres by the “invisible hand” of market. Alt-right governments are rising back to power in many countries of the world, including Brazil. The country projects an international image of progress, economic growth and freedom, however its lived reality remounts to conflicts of its recent history of conquest and domination. “Brazil: a country of the future, with an immense past ahead of itself”, as writer Milôr Fernandes wrote opposing the military dictatorship in the ’60s.

Understanding our past is fundamental to face the tensions and conflicts in current times. However, in Brazil, the same fire that is now burning down the Amazon, turned the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro to ashes, with the loss of national treasures, artifacts, research documents and other “incommensurable losses”. ‘Incommensurable losses’ is a term being used so frequently in the country, especially to describe the social and environmental devastation caused by horrific mining disasters. The crimes of destruction and erasure remain unsolved.

Cultural domination by the state goes as far as dismantling the presence of arts and culture – recent cuts on public funds, demoralization and even censorship are realities for artists and other participants of the sector.

On the day of the last elections, Pedro Veneroso (Belo Horizonte, 1987) decided to hack his wall clock, its arms rotate counterclockwise, reversing time. Polarity (2018) refers to the intervention of reversing the polarity of the magnet that regulates the rotation of the clock; moreover it represents the repercussions of the state of polarization of Brazilian society in the current political conjuncture. The suspension of everyday actions, the sense loss not only in time but also in space is also represented by Nydia Negromonte (Lima, Peru, 1965) series Compass (2014), a sculpture of a chayote squash nailed with a knife and cast in bronze, also represents the suspension of everyday actions, the sense of loss not only in time but also in space.

Installation view of AMBUSH. Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

More directly confrontational works address issues of nationalism Erreerre (Santos, 1987) uses the colours of the Brazilian national flag – green and yellow, symbolising its forests and gold – in a series of monotypes titled A dog does not distinguish the enemy as if it were police (2019) depicts the arrest of youth by the police force, addressing institutionalised genocide. In the dyptchic of paintings To connect to the land (2016-2019), Erreerre presents a self -inflicted “purge”, releasing his inner turmoils. Established in 2019 the internet-based collective Saquinho de Lixo (translated to Little Trash Bag), publishes daily memes in their instagram page, making political and societal critique through their open attacks on the widespread conservatism that has gripped the country. In the video Memelito (2019) internet and television archival footage are remixed with soundtrack, voicenotes and letterings. The video concludes with the statement “our crisis is also aesthetic”, embedded in an image that went viral: the frightening portrait of a middle-aged aristocratic woman on a pro-right demonstration with a buttefly painted over her face in the colors of the national flag. As Talavistas (Belo Horizonte, 2017-) also produce as a collective. Composed of three transgender artists who met during the student riots in Brazil two years ago, when they first left their evangelical family homes to participate in the occupation of public schools. In Pietá (2019), they photographed their re-enactment of Michelangelo’s sculpture – Mother Mary holding the body of Jesus after his Crucifixion, discussing identity, gender politics and representations of the black body.

Installation view of AMBUSH. Image: Aline Xavier

Carolina Botura (1982, Botucatu) and Júlia Panadés (1978, Belo Horizonte) have the common interest in the symbolic unfoldings of the feminine – motherhood, erotism, nature. In Feminine Flags (2018-), Panadés shows a flock of vagina shaped fabric objects, hand sowed and dyed in natural pigment. In Lu (2019), Botura named her series as the Chinese word “Lu after the Tao Te King by Lao-Tsu. The artist makes drop-by-drop, dot-by-dot meditative paintings, relating to the ancestral perspective of art as cure.

Rodrigo Borges (1974, Governador Valadares) also relates to ancestral knowledge or lessons to be learned from nature. He has started to work with colorful plastic tapes and vinyl in 2005, weaving surfaces, covering objects and creating environmental installations. Here is a selection of his Tape surfaces (2018, 2019). Using the same strategy of a spider, Borges’ color threads tangle architecture and space. For him, the tape surfaces are “a place for the lying of the dream, the boundary or dual line of communication between two worlds, the passage from the inner and the external one, from one body to another.

This is the second time José Bento (Salvador, 1962) exhibits his work on the African Continent, although personally the artist carries a strong relationship to the land, being able to speak Iorubá, learned while practicing as spiritual leader of Candomblé (Santeria). His most recognizable and exhibited works are the Trees, a sculpture produced as a unique multiple, each individually crafted by hand. Beans (2018-) are made entirely of Brazilian woods – such as Braúna, Caixeta and Peroba – symbols of subsistence that relate both to the realm of necessity than that of freedom.

In conjunction with Ambush I present the photographic series Mystery (2019), a work made in an expedition to Bahia looking for traditional fish traps and documenting artisanal fishing culture. “Mistério” (Translated to Mystery) is the name of a fishing canoe found on site. Naming a boat is a serious aspect of fishing. The wrong name can be the difference between good luck or being lost at the sea – as the material culture we put in circulation in the world can shape other historical narratives. Once ambushed, are you in the position of the hunter or the prey? Written while listening to the sound of police sirens and rubber bullets in New Doornfontein, Johannesburg, September 8th 2019.