Cabelo, Pastor das Sombras (Shepard of the Shadows), performance at Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, December, 2000. Photo by Wilton Montenegro.
Last November, I visited Brazil for the first the, and only then did I begin to understand the work of artists who had been familiar to me at a distance. From the late ’50s until now, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Tunga—and more recently Cabelo—were each described as having Brazilian vision; words such as “geometric” or “abstract” were used as frequently as “anthropological” and “participatory” in relation to their work, and I pretty much thought that I understood the reasons for their use. Critical reactions were split down the middle—partly European (especially the geometric and abstract) and partly political (artists taking to the streets in the spirit of ’60s activism). But only in Brazil did I realize the inadequacy of such readings; the vital pump that drives creativity in that vast and multifarious country is fueled by a communal sense of the public that I had not experienced elsewhere.
In Salvador I watched in wonder as two men danced at an intersection. Arms counterpoised, hips and torsos meting out a rhythm that seemed dictated by a beat I couldn’t hear from inside the bus on which I was riding. Closer up, it was evident they were just talking, but the initial image of the physicality of that street tableau was indelibly imprinted in my mind. Late that night, a band of dancers filled a cobbled street, their lantern-shaped skirts forcing my friends and I into a circle of samba swayers as we went by. In Rio, the samba school began an hour after midnight; hundreds of people of ages and classes, in a huge gymnasium in an out lying favella, throbbed to the beat of a full blast until sunrise.
Street life, public interactions, were such that they made me rethink entirely the art-work of these artists I had watched from afar. Their work was not the result of a tendency to take projects out of the gallery and into the public realm, but rather was an excuse for encounters with people; an expression of Brazilian character. This nature was matched with a sympathy for all kinds of random materials. Indeed, the very ordinariness of the art materials—bales of fabric, reconstructed clothing, strips of paper—and the everydayness of their actions—people wearing “art clothing” for street performances—corresponded to the enlargement of the audience involved. The goal was always to connect.
In just 48 hours in Brazil I was caught of guard. After all, I have always believed that historians need fabulous imaginations to project themselves across great distances into the tunnels of history. Fantasia, Giambattista Vico called it, a kind of empathetic entering into the minds of others. Writing about performance art, with its sparse records, seems to require even more fantasia. For this particular work, however, imagining would not have sufficed. Being there was something else entirely.
CABELO = HAIR = CABELLO = HAAR = CAPELLO = CHEVU=
To begin with, I don’t belong to myself. I’m a
horse* of the world. Poetry’s vehicle. In such a
condition, I’m much more a “what” than a “who.”
That which they call cabelo is not only one, but
many, like the hair that grows on one’s head. I’m
possessed by entities, energies, acting jointly or
separately. Like one or two soccer teams. The combi-
nation of these forces guides the body. That kind of
spaceship, or octopus, or now-mobile, we might
say, plunges in different densities, sailing the
instant. Thus goes the arrow. Along its
course, its crew, its tentacles, collect
what they find and display it on
the deck: gifts fished on the
*”horse” is the medium who embodies a spirit or orixá in some Afro-Brazilian rituals.