Bird and Egg: A Dream-Essay
Dedicated to Rubem ValentimFriday, January 7, 2022
This text is part of Alternative Routes, a project that foregrounds the work of eight young Afro-Latin American and Indigenous artists and highlights the historicity of racial and ethnic relations within Latin America’s art worlds. This project was organized and edited by Bruno Pinheiro, Ph.D. candidate in History at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and Horacio Ramos, Ph.D. candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. The following text has been translated from the original Portuguese.
Este texto está disponível em português.
(...) by creating my sign-symbols
I try to transform into visual language
the world that is enchanted, magical, probably
mystical, which flows continuously within me.
(Rubem Valentim, in Manifesto albeit late, 1976)
... if reality is nothing more than the delight of a common point of view, I would say that Rubem was really interested in flight.
Because, despite much already having been said about him, I do not see why we could not allow ourselves to be placed in the bird’s extraordinary retina— in its animosity towards seeing space as a route to both escape and meet. But also, in its ability to create vibrating disruptions in space's aesthetics. I imagine the bird drawing during flight through its wings' turns and deviations, not worrying about the routes but about the lines, responding to the sphere below it—as if flying were a way to paint that space—and, if that does not make it feel truly alive, responding to the planet itself, by belonging to it. If this is the case, the bird's life is precisely its ability to express itself during flight, until it touches the space below it in its final swoop.
...And I cannot assert that Rubem was interested in birds, despite him having painted the emblem of the orixá Ossain so many times and in so many different ways. But there is something in the way Rubem expressed himself in the space-time in which he lived that makes me look at his paintings and imagine that he viewed them all from above. Before dipping his brush into the paint and landing on the canvas, it was necessary to float to a certain ideal height to try to organize it all, all that existed in the Brazilian stratum.
Is the Brazilian sky a reflection of the Brazilian ground? That is, could the drawings of a ‘bird’ named Rubem that flew over Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, London and Rome, Brasília and São Paulo be seen as a possible graphic trajectory from the ground in these six metropolises? In full migratory flight, a few thousand birds—forced, or not, by the harsh weather of the Catholic race, and motivated, or not, by the graphic scarcity of spirit within the colonizer's lands—crossed the oceans, casting the shadow of a complex design along the ground: the Black diaspora. Since then, both ground and sky were never the same. And it was impossible for Rubem not to fly through the skies of a Brazilian time under which he was born.
I sometimes thought that certain paintings by Rubem launched swift birds into the confines of the national archives that lay silent and preserved as if they were buried in a tomb designed in the shape of our politics. And in my own private flights over his images, I meditated on the "curves and lines" which, beyond form, fundamentally argued for regional, African, Amerindian, Northeastern, Brazilian words that had wings, whose breaths were capable of stirring the stifling air of modernist and ancient-contemporary museums. Lithe and stealthy flights within confined spaces.
In the terreiros, the opposite happened. Here, I narrated the clearest image I dared to fable about Rubem: a bird of wildly free heritage that descends elegantly from a sky transitioning between night and day, as light and shadow spread and occupy and dance on the ground we have swept; glowing on white-painted walls; over stones both large and small, sacred and not; above the Time-tree and other trees; over crosses and tributes to souls...
As light and shadow dance over mysteries, the emancipated bird enters the temple, discreet yet distinct. He flies over the altars, watching. A solemn, circular and noiseless flight. He is in motion and at the precise height at which synthesis with the sacred occurs, reflecting over the lines and curves and colors that become deformed by human faith. But which, through his eyes—having become accustomed to terrestrial graphisms—and under his wings that draw the lines of its flight, they are just webs of the spirit, intricately organized: continuous emblematic compositions. The altar was built like a planned enchantment. I say to him, not knowing if he would listen:
—Rubem, I can see in the shapes, the altars.
Over the red background of one altar, hybrid forms of Abebês to Oxum and Iemanjá, painted in blue, stand out. At its base, there is a thicker rectangle in gold and blue; on top rests the sacred grail, the chalice that carries the sun—one of the representations of Oxalá and Jesus Christ—in egg-yellow. On another altar, the background is an aged white. In the upper center, Exu’s trident floats in green, not touching the oxê, Xangô's red ax, which serves as the basis for the composition. On either side, two of Oxossi's arrows shoot upward, surrounding the screen in symmetry. And in this composition, the bird recognizes itself because, perched on top of the Paxorô, the staff of Oxalá, is a completely white sculpture, built like a totem, carrying the energy of Ogum and his tools below, climbing toward an Amerindian circle, then to a semicircle that I take to be a scale and, at the top, an arrow of Oxossi pointing to the ground.
And, although a lot of Rubem’s work could be seen, all this mystery was and still is on the table of an altar: the scales, the tools, the little rooms, the saints, the elders, the candles, the lines, the water, the memories, the presences and their symbol-signs, as he called them. And as the white light of dawn touched all this and the shadows gave three-dimensionality to the images, the wild bird that circled above synthesized this mystical body into the design of its flight.
With only lines and colors, and in a constructive effort of synthesis—and breath for a long flight—Rubem traced a symbolic and universal plan, the emblematic composition of an Afro-Brazilian, Amefrican altar: a graphic temple.
...a muffled noise announced an awakening.
It was night and he dreamed of a dark light. That is, he was immersed in a space so lit up and incandescent with darkness, that everything around him was black. There was not even a line of color. And even though his eyes knew everything was black, the dark light burned his retina; among the black lines he could distinguish very little.
There he was, quiet. Even comfortable, if he may say so himself. No yearnings. In the light-dark with open eyes, he could only see a handbreadth beyond himself. A compressed viewing space. However, within this span, close to his eyes’ surface, he could glimpse a drizzle of light-dark images that fell densely and very slowly around him. They were contours constructed like drawings and compositions that descended from the top of his head, flowing along with the light-dark droplets. Memories... hauntings... scenes...?
Everything was like that: there were doubts but no fear.
He knew that he was asleep, dreaming. So he was not reluctant to continue observing. On the contrary, every contour he could decipher with those young, burned eyes was another ecstasy he felt and that he wished could last longer. The line that drew a great rock quarry. Droplets that revealed a horse. The texture of a circular mask. A hybrid creature on a theater stage.
He was faced with this dream for some time. It was hard to determine its duration—perhaps the span of a pregnancy? He focused only on the images that descended like feathers.
Every now and then, he heard muffled sounds crashing against some kind of wall that was close to his body. He could not see, but he felt that on all sides he was surrounded, encircled. However, he was not scared, in fact, he felt the contrary. His eyes were blinded by the intense dark light. His body was defenseless against any attack. And yet, despite his vulnerability, he felt protected and secure.
In this dream, he realized that he was depicting a young, perhaps even ignorant creature who rested within a living, monumental energy...
...Until the moment he felt a tremor that came from all corners. Something that seemed to pierce the wall and rip through his safe space like the wind, approaching in the form of a sound. SHIIIU. It was a familiar noise, warm and muffled. He turned around and saw nothing but a new kind of light, which pierced and repelled his blind dark-lit eyes. He also noticed that on his face, he felt the hot sound leave a burning itch on his skin. He grew suspicious and attuned his ears.
It did not take long. There was a strong tremor now, coming from above, and a new hole opened up in the wall at the very top of his body. The new light outshone even those previous images to which he had grown attached. Another gust of sound arrived, crossing the hole, burning his chest. SHIIIU. His ears chased him. It was the same sound as before.
But there was no one in sight. He remained alone, within the light dark, which grew softer and less intense. He was starting to see some murky colors. The dew he carried in his eyes also dissipated, losing its opacity. And there was nothing in front of, or away from, his body. Except, there was an agonizing suffocation in his lungs, as if he were breathing for the first time; the trembling persisted; the temperature of the dream climbed.
New cracks formed around him, and everything seemed to fall down slowly. Like a husk. The same sound repeated itself and invaded the dark-luminous space of the dream where, before, he had felt protected. An intense, torrid wind slapped his body. The familiar noise gathered in his ears, and he felt his skin shrivel up with sweat. It wounded him; he was beginning to wish the dream would end.
Very close, or not close at all—a point of origin for which he could not account precisely in that dreaming moment—he felt the sting of hearing all around him, passing through the dream's shell, voices calling his name.
—You... You... You...
—What do you all expect from me…
The dark light went out completely now and there was only a white light that flooded the room. His skin burned with the sound of his own name. The shelter that had guarded and welcomed him was finally breached.
He saw the shadow of a colossal wing. Like a thick, gigantic cloud that contradicts gravity came swooping in the head of a wild bird with a long, sharp beak that brutally broke and cracked the rest of the eggshell in which he was clumsily inserted.
He stared into the bright, fierce eyes of the sublime bird right above him. And, reflected in the bird's eyes, behind its head, lay a boundless sky. It was a vast, blinding sky, painted in the light of a recent dawn.
In front of the great bird, he felt the initial sensation of having his head filled with a new and mysterious aesthetic.
And the animal, which had already destroyed the whole eggshell, approached him, merciless and self-conscious, with the loving brutality of a parent, and set its bird eyes on his body. He could see himself clearly now: in place of his black skin on an adult body, he had fragile skin and a bulging, flabby belly; in place of his mouth and eyes, lay a short gray beak and little eyes covered with a sticky colorful film; his hands were narrow, bony claws that moved awkwardly, trembling; his hairs were a miserable collection of fine feathers scattered sparsely across his torso. In this dream, he was the offspring of a wild bird.
In the reflection above him and in the bird's slanted eyes, there was also the vast dawn sky. Far away, he could see a flock of other wild creatures like him drawing their flights. The great bird stared at that small, young being for long hours; hard to tell the time of a dream. But he understood: it was as if the emancipated and wild bird had made him a request.