Art in history, History in art | A conversation with Tiago Sant'Ana - Bubblegum Club

Art in history, History in art | A conversation with Tiago Sant’Ana

Everything that has happened in the world is a part of history, however, it is not necessarily in History. What we are taught and told is filtered through the perspective of those who are doing the teaching and telling — and these are often individuals in privileged positions. This, ultimately reflects how and what we see, therefore our founding vision is based on their hierarchies of Historical truth. Art has great capabilities all over the world and In time, its direction changes. It is unlikely—because of evolving cultural and socio-political contexts—that works of art from the middle ages function with the same intention and aim to raise the exact same questions as works of modern art. This is because art accompanies history; it is part of it. The presence of history in art is inherent. It is up to the artist to decide what counts, how to tell it, as well as what to question. And so, little by little, art becomes present in everything Thinking about it, the work of Tiago Sant’Ana creates a magnificent contemporary power. His relationship between these themes demonstrates the capacity to dialogue and question through artistic doing and art exhibition. In a conversation with me for Bubblegum Club, the artist talks about his work, the importance of Afro-Latin history in art and much more.

Refino II, 2017.

Much of the production of Brazilian history books, films and novels—even though they are Brazilian—seem to be extremely canonised. The narrative is very similar to the one told by the coloniser. Your work possesses a great capacity to tell the story of the colonised, to praise and bring out the story that has been erased. This is clear in your performances in the sugar mills. How is it possible to re-count history, using art as an instrument to visualise the erasure?

Tiago Sant’Ana: History—like all knowledge construction—is a field of power. And, in turn, the social position of those who look at the facts is intrinsic to the process of history composition. It is a field in which we need to dispute narratives, because it is from it that we are able to understand which memories will be preserved and which will be left hidden. I believe that when we think about the history of the sugar cycle, exactly that happens. It was a narrative [constructed] from a Eurocentric point of view, which understood colonial expansion as a great benefit to the world, bringing progress to the Americas. However, when we scrutinise this history of ”colonial glory”, we realise that it was structured through violence and the judgment that Eurocentric models of life should be taken as a parameter for each and every society. It is precisely because of this, that the colonial wound is still open today—consequences that can be felt today because the different subjectivities and forms of social organisation that escape the Eurocentric whiteness model—especially those of Black and indigenous origin, have been judged as non-human or susceptible to extermination.

Da-série A-invenção da iberdade, Free black girl; 2019. 

Art, in this sense, has a fundamental role which is to process those images constructed by the colonial imaginary. It is an exercise in imagining that where official history sees a person enslaved, we see a warrior who fought until the end for his life. Where the official history tells of the pomp and glory of raising a sugar mill, we see a refined extermination machine. It is a perspective that has strangeness as its main strategy. Within my poetic universe, sugar mills are not only seen from the physical, architectural point of view — but also as places capable of telling us another story through the energy data, layers of the invisible. It is to look at the solid foundations of the sugar mill today [with many] in ruins and not to see the static data, but rather, the forces that for centuries made that mill move. When I perform actions in the ruins of the sugar mill, I am remembering gestures and actions from the past with the aim of purging this pain from my ancestors and transforming it into creative energy and no longer suffering.

We are one of the largest sugar exporters in the world. Even with the abolition of slavery in 1888, we still see its brands. One of the ways you represented this was with your work Sugar Shoes. Thinking of today’s world (where we find not only in Brazil, but also in other parts of the world, the erasure of Black cultural history and a state-sanctioned Black genocide) how do you think citizenship and the rights of the Black population are placed?

Tiago Sant’Ana: The Sugar Shoes perhaps compose a synthesis image of my work as an artist. There, the shoes that were a symbol of racial distinction, since enslaved people could not have their shoes on, are composed of the material that is the very tormentor of the black population in Brazil: sugar. It is a contradictory image because it is a shoe that is impossible to wear, but which is also fragile, as well as the metaphor that that shoe represents: freedom. A completely precarious freedom and citizenship because the Brazilian post-abolition was a process without social redress. On the contrary, post-1888 policies will [violently target] at all costs—even through eugenic experiments—the presence of the Black population in the spaces of the cities. The rights of the Black population in Brazil, in terms of public policies, happen very late.

The quota system in universities, for example, was a very difficult achievement even with the opposition of many so-called intellectuals. However, it generates an important and profound consequence, mainly by a change in Black subjectivity. I believe that the change in the social position of Black people is increasingly intense because the Black population is in a hurry and is tired. And they are in a hurry because our Black children are still being born today in a completely racially hierarchical society.  But also because we have managed to create escape zones within a system made so that we continue to repeat a colonial repertoire. Even so, there is much to be done because we are still the largest prison population in Brazil, because we still have Black people underemployed, because our appearance is still judged not to be “ideal”, because in the artistic scene they often limit our production to a single niche (or it is not even included in the category of “art”).

Da série Sapatos de açúcar, 2018.

In 2020 we had the case of the removal of the statue of Edward Colston, one of the largest slave traders. Colston became extremely wealthy with his commercial interests and sugar plantations on St. Christopher Island. To build his reputation, he donated much of that money to philanthropic organisations in Bristol. These in-turn built and spread Colston statues after his death in 1721. We are witnessing a moment when we are slowly becoming more aware of history for itself and of the non-innocence of the historical archive. Do you think that contemporary art has helped this process of society?

Tiago Sant’Ana: I believe that monuments are a great image to think about building a colonial history because public monuments—even in Brazil—despite being almost always sober, are the public materialisation of the violence of those who had the power to decide history. The images of the overthrow of racist monuments will be eternalised in history as a moment of inflection. Many people find it an exaggerated action, but I always say that it is like having inside your own home a big altar for a person who has done you profoundly wrong and that every day you need to go through [your home] and notice it. On the one hand, it may even be good because this way we organise our anger and understand what we need to fight. On the other hand, it is the open violence inserted into everyday life and it was made with monumental grandiosity to be noticed.

Monuments are effective because they have a performative function: it is something that we absorb by the ritualised repetition of seeing that monumental presence in the city. And then, you question art, and we must remember that monuments were created by artists. So, art alone is not enough to fight inequalities. The producing agents must also change. But I agree that contemporary art is a very interesting field because it often creates images that allow us to think of escapes from these monuments. Or even create other types of monuments. Or satirising these colonial monuments, revealing how much exaggeration there is there, how much the colonial machine has endeavoured to highlight the importance of someone to the point of eternalising their presence on a scale so different from human. It is the colonial delirium itself.

Da-série A invenção da liberdade, 2019.

Da série Açúcar sobre capela, 2018.

Refino IV, 2017

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