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Walking backwards as counter-ritual

Paulo Nazareth’s 2013 performance, L’Arbre D’Oublier, provokes nostalgic grief for the lost mother.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Jan 04, 2023

Ever since I made its acquaintance, I have been irrevocably moved by Paulo Nazareth’s 2013 video, L’Arbre d’Oublier (Oblivion Tree). I had been assisting curator Judith Waldmann with writing succinct and sensitive caption texts for select works in Kunst Meran's latest exhibition, Turning Pain into Power and while the show has many special pieces that speak to systemic racism, xenophobia, queer activism, and domestic violence, this piece stood out for its audacious simplicity. In it, the visual artist Nazareth walks a total of 437 times backwards around the Tree of Forgetfulness, stationed in Ouidah, Benin, presumably marking the spot of the erstwhile tree that was among the first four stops along a ritualised four-kilometre stretch enslaved people had to walk before being shipped off to work on plantations in the 'new world'. Men had to encircle the tree nine times, women seven, in keeping with a voodoo belief that their circumambulation would lead to a shedding of their past identities, relations and personhood. Some accounts I read suggested that the Dahomey Kings, who worked in cahoots with the Portuguese to enable the transatlantic slave trade, encouraged the ritual to exorcise potential slave spirits. The circling was the first among other brutal attempts to torture, dehumanise and commodify the bodies of kidnapped people so that their spirits were crushed, making them too weak-willed to rebel. Waldmann offered the word ‘counter-ritual’ to contextualise Nazareth’s performative gesture, and I was drawn to the word because it seemed to encapsulate how the act of walking backwards could be perceived as a form of exorcism. But the more I dwell on the work, the more I wonder if it is also an attempt to return to source, or to mourn the impossibility of returning to source because of the ancestral severance that the transatlantic slave trade facilitated.

L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento), 2013, Still from Video performance, Paulo Nazareth| Paulo Nazareth | Mendes Wood DM | STIRworld
L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento), 2013, Still from video performance Image: Paulo Nazareth; Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM

Almost seven years before the Brazilian artist Nazareth walked backwards around the tree, Saidiya Hartman published Lose Your Mother, a memoir recounting her journeys along a slave route in Ghana and retracing the history of the Atlantic slave trade from the 15th to the 20th century, reckoning, as the blurb says, 'with the blank slate of her own genealogy.' In the book she writes about the abundance of such rituals along West Africa, performed for slaves to ‘lose mother’, reminding us that the captive seldom chose to forget but was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. She writes:

Every part of West Africa that trafficked in slaves possessed its own Lethe, rivers and streams whose water made slaves forget their pasts, dense groves that trapped old memories in the web of leaves, rocks that obstructed entrance to the past, amulets that deafened a man to his mother tongue, and shrines that pared and pruned time so that only today was left. Traditional healers devised herbal concoctions that could make the most devoted husband forget his wife in the blink of an eye, marabouts applied potions and dispensed talismans that erased the trail home, priests forced captives to vow oaths of allegiance to their captors, sorcerers tamed recalcitrants with the powers of the left hand. European traders, too, employed occultists to pacify and entice slaves with medicinal plants.

L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento), 2013, Video performance by Paulo Nazareth Video: Courtesy of Paulo Nazareth

Hartman speaks of the plant Crotalaria arenaria, found in the savanna, called manta uwa, which means ‘forget mother’ in Hausa. In a touching passage that attests to the power of the plant, Hartman articulates the implications of the act of involuntary forgetting:

'Manta uwa' made you forget your kin, lose sight of your country, and cease to think of freedom. It expunged all memories of a natal land, and it robbed the slave of spiritual protection. Ignorant of her lineage, to whom could the slave appeal? No longer able to recall the shrines or sacred groves or water deities or ancestor spirits or fetishes that could exact revenge on her behalf, she was defenseless. No longer anyone’s child, the slave had no choice but to bear the visible marks of servitude and accept a new identity in the household of the owner. It was one thing to be a stranger in a strange land, and an entirely worse state to be a stranger to yourself.

L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento),  Still from Video performance| Paulo Nazareth | Mendes Wood DM | STIRworld
L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento), Still from Video performance Image: Paulo Nazareth; Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM

I learned that Paulo Nazareth was born Paulo Sérgio da Silva in Minas Gerais in Brazil. On his mother’s side, he is a descendant of the indigenous Krenak people. On his father’s side, he traces his roots to Africa and Italy. He adopted Nazareth as his artist’s name, borrowing it from his maternal grandmother, Nazareth Cassiano de Jesus as a way of honouring her ancestral legacy. In 1944, she had been abducted and cruelly committed to Hospice de Barbacena or Hospital Colonia, a psychiatric institution 500 km from Minas Gervais, soon after the birth of his mother, whom he calls Mama Ana and considers a spiritual advisor. De Jesus was persecuted because she was a practitioner of Candomble de Angola, an Afro-Brazilian religion that is a synthesis of Yoruba, Fon and Bantu religious traditions. She died 20 years later, in the same hospital. 'De Jesus is the biological and spiritual foundation for Nazareth and his artistic practice,' writes artist Sisipho Ngodwana in her touching essay, 'Make for where the August hams grow', accompanying the catalogue for his 2021 exhibition, Phambi Kwendlovu at Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town. 'Nazareth is the saint, the mother, because when Nazareth went to the hospital she lost her name and was changed into a ‘number’. We don’t know anything of her after the number,' Ngodwana cites Paulo Nazareth: The hospital today houses a ‘Museum of Madness’, though many Brazilians continue to regard it as a form of concentration camp in which many patients were forcibly admitted without diagnosis, and were tortured, raped, and killed. 'To be Nazareth is to be my work,' Nazareth has said, or so I read in an Art Forum review.

L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento),  Paulo Nazareth| Paulo Nazareth | Mendes Wood DM | STIRworld
L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento) Image: Paulo Nazareth; Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM

I had interpreted Nazareth’s performance as an attempt at rewinding or reversing history, a manifestation of a desire to resurrect lost histories and erased identities, but reading Ngodwana’s essay pointed me to the significance of walking as an artistic methodology within his practice. I read that he even once walked from his native village in Brazil to Art Basel, Miami, picking up all forms of odd jobs along the way, usually wearing just havaianas, like in the video, never fancy footwear. Ngodwana contextualises this methodology as one that has adapted the practice of the flâneur into that of the trecheiro, a Portuguese term that means ‘one who walks long distances by foot’. This is what Nazareth has said about the term, cited in Ngodwana’s essay:

Trecheiro comes from trecho (the stretch). Trecheiro or trechero is the one who walks on the trecho, the one who is on the stretch, the one who walks the stretch… but it is not a term that is widely used outside of this ‘community’, it is an internal term… But the walker walks great distances, crosses a country of continental dimensions… Each walker has a reason to be on the stretch to make his walks, the walker lives on the stretch, he lives on the road…

… it is a hard life, of many deprivations, but it is also a life of freedom where such individuals are not subject to the laws of the market… it is a way of life.

And while a single person may bear the weight of a large stone, the stretch bears the weight of a world that is both erased and remembered.

Still from video,  L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento) | Paulo Nazareth | Mendes Wood DM | STIRworld
Still from video, L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento) Image: Paulo Nazareth; Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM

The 27-minute video documents him circumambulating counterclockwise, which feels like an oxymoron, considering the act of circumambulation is related to the sacred, and is usually performed clockwise. He performs this action almost casually; the gesture of walking revealing a dignified solemnity that offers a sanctimonious dimension without it being overly ceremonious or affected. He doesn’t begin with any form of incantation, nor does he end with any. He simply walks backwards, sometimes stumbling, each time disappearing for a few moments behind the tree truck, but always returning wearing the same concentration and deliberation. Bizarrely enough, the first image the artwork brought to mind was of Superman flying backwards around Earth in order to rewind time and cause an event to un-happen. Nazareth’s act made me think about circles and sacred geometry, and what it might mean to physically move the body in a counter-intuitive direction along a path that still holds residues of ancestral loss, all the grief that Hartman tells us is simply not immediately visible within the landscape of Benin. Is it at all possible to go back, to retrace, and in doing so, heal? This is a question that both Hartman and Nazareth pose through their works. Nazareth’s performance, through its attempt at rewinding, attests to the colossal nature of inter-generational trauma and the inconsolable, historic anguish that has its roots in the slave trade.

Video still, L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento), Paulo Nazareth | Paulo Nazareth | Mendes Wood DM | STIRworld
Video still, L’Arbre D’Oublier (Árvore do Esquecimento) Image: Paulo Nazareth; Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM

Incidentally, in 2013, Nazareth also began a project titled The Red Inside. I am unsure whether Oblivion Tree precedes that work or comes after, but it is surely connected. In that long-term project, he traced the route of the Underground Railroad used by enslaved people as a way of escaping slavery. Nazareth walked from Brazil through the United States to Canada. When he wasn’t walking, he, along with friends, drove a Ford van full of watermelons, either organic, or made from cement or mud from the Mississippi River, stopping along the way to plant watermelon seeds. This act, Ngodwana tells us, is performed in memory of the freedom seekers who cast the seeds along the route not only as a marker of the escape path but also to offer sustenance to those who would inevitably follow. They called them August hams, and the phrase, 'make for where the August hams grow' pointed to the route towards Betty Town in Beaufort County, North Carolina, which was known for its large population of free Black people.

Watermelons, I learned, trace their origins to Africa. Oddly enough, the mention of the berry took me back to the stories I have heard of my mother’s childhood summers spent at her grandmother’s home in South Goa, which, at the time, involved a crossing of the river Sal. My mother spoke often about how her grandmother grew watermelons, and they rarely ever cut them, rather, they struck them against the earth to break them open and eat its flesh during the summer heat. Re-examining this memory of a memory, I feel an irrevocable loss at the fact that I do not even know the name of my grandmother, and have little knowledge of who her mother might have been. Goa’s complicated history of being a Portuguese colony for almost or more than 500 years is rarely spoken about when the world speaks of colonialism. The inquisition that took place has slipped into amnesia. I think about it when, in the first world, I visit homes and see family trees that go back centuries. I can perhaps only go back one or two generations, through church records and have no idea who my ancestor’s pre-conversion was from either my mother or my father’s side. Am I someone who lost mother? Unlike Maria Couto, my lovely friend who died just last year, I do not have the time, caste privilege, and resources to uncover my ancestral past, as she managed poetically in her Goa: A Daughter’s Story.

Perhaps that’s why Nazareth’s work is so moving. Because I find I am walking alongside him. Because we are united in our lived histories of colonialism, despite the differences in how they manifest. My grandmother was frequently committed to an institution because of her compulsive behaviour—she washed her hands too frequently. Each time Nazareth’s feet touch the earth I wonder about whether the act of healing must be intrinsically bound to soil… if our collective salvation might be found in acts of phytoremediation.

What do you think?

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