The anatomy of exploitation


An interview with artist Ayrson Heráclito

Introduction and interview by Ulisses Carrilho
Photographs by Victor Nomoto, Victor Takayama
Wednesday, April 22 - 2015

Ayrson Heráclito works in the academic world as a professor, teaching those who teach. Heraclito is an artist, he teaches how to gaze (but also about other senses). With a more horizontal artistic production - and a strong post-colonialist bias - both positions intertwine in an interesting way. It's not uncommon to ask him about his artistic production and hear him talk about the historicity of Brazilian Modernism. When asked about his views of art, his mystical beliefs come up.

His speech has power. In addition to being a professor and an artist, Heraclito is also a curator - he participated in the 3rd Bahia Biennale, in 2014. He frequently mentions the participation of young black artists in the arts circuit. The historical understanding of inequality is a characteristic feature of all works that Ayrson performs. Exceptionally, he gave this interview remotely. Ayrson currently is in Dakar, Senegal, for a project.

He was selected by Paula Garcia, Lynsey Peisinger, and Marina Abramovic for MAI Presents, a section of the larger exhibition Terra Comunal, which includes eight individual artists and one performance collective, all of whom are Brazilian. Here, Heráclito talks about his work with writer and curator Ulisses Carrilho:

What is the role of materials for formal research in your work? At which point does animal flesh create a unifying tension between the man and the animal?

Organic materials are key in my research. It's the living raw materials that I choose and keep as tactics to think about the issues I discuss. I pay attention to their multiple meanings within the versatility of their applications, and their physical and symbolic densities. I take one or more materials and start composing. I say "compose" because I think I'm making poetry, painting and music. I consider myself a composer of visual orikis [literature, text].

When I use flesh, for example, I intend to activate non-binary tensions in the complex relationship between Men, Nature and Culture. Jerked beef, specifically, is understood by me as a material that is culturally informed by the Brazilian Northeastern population. As food, its consumption makes us think about subjects from our own cultural universe, and it's impossible not to remember drought, hunger and misery. Dried and salted, it doesn't go off easily, it's hard and durable like a body that takes long to be consumed. The charque [jerked beef] also reminds me of the pain and torture of a body that was enslaved and leads me to question the place of black people in the grammar of inequality that formed the Brazilian society. The mixed, blended jerked beef that, in the past, was the cheapest meat in the market. It's also one of the main ingredients of the sacrificial food that is offered to the great and fearless black god Ogun.

The material speaks for itself and informs us of its contexts. So, it occupies an important place in my art.

I would like to talk a little about the genealogy of materials. Palm oil, meat in the state of jerked beef, sugar, all these materials make us think about the history of Brazil. What is the role of the historical reflection in your work?

I like thinking of genealogies. Sugar, meat and palm oil are the substances that make up what I usually define as the "cultural body." My sugar isn't sweet, quite the contrary, it speaks of slavery and slave trade. It also speaks of the crisis of the old Portuguese colonial system, a moment when, to me, the "inner secrets" of Brazilian cultural identity started unfolding.

The jerked beef is seen in its primariness that is immanent to this cultural body. A strong and sturdy body that transcends illness and hardship throughout historical and social times. Reinventing and introducing other forms of existence. The flesh is this naked, nude body, devoid of skin, constantly exposing its anatomy.

Palm oil is the lifeblood which oxygenates this body. The plant's ancestry is the blood that feeds it. The semen and the element that fertilizes and perpetuates it. The saliva that makes it speak, that produces speeches, narratives, orality and memories.
All such materials are filled with historical sense, which requires the (sometimes difficult) experience of deconstruction. The past, history is set in an autophagic pace, an uncertain in-between, which innovates and interrupts the action in the present. So, I use materials to reflect and produce actions through direct associations with problems that I'm interested in, namely: how to think about black North, Central, and South Americans in the post-colonial reality? How are the forms of political interference by black people, their various affirmative actions, their distinct interactive grammars, their belonging ecologies nowadays?

Why have you chosen to stage your intervention in the the exhibition opening? Can we think critically or commercially about the events in the world of arts?

It was Marina's choice. I think she intended to leave her hallmark in the opening of the exhibition in Brazil. A political and mystical choice. The pain that I bring with my work is transmuted by the performance ritual. After all, the commotion and tears that the work awakens, they wash and purify. Water and salt are substances that clean such historicized pain and, paradoxically, they're not universalizing. Brazilian pain, American, diasporic pain that can and must dialogue with the world.

About the art system and its markets, yes we can think critically. I think the curators managed to convey their message well. I think it was no coincidence their choice of SESC to host the project. I see direct affinity with Lina [Bo Bardi]'s ideas and Marina's incursions in Brazil.
As I go into a deep state of concentration during the four hours of performance, I'm not a good witness to realize the full context in which the action is inserted. I only learned in the next day about the number of visitors at the opening event and the specificity of the public. I'm an artist who has been working since the 1980’s without a direct relationship to the market. In fact, things are starting to happen now. I had a brief experience with an African gallery in São Paulo and an art office. My work has always taken place in museums and cultural institutions without a direct relationship to commercializing it. However, I see this phenomenon with the belief that all art is socially determined. Because I live in Bahia and because I'm away from the great trading market in the country, I was able to build poetics more freely and with no expectations towards this system.

Terra Comunal - MAI is free and open to the public until May 10, 2015 @SESC Pompeia, São Paulo - Brazil.