Dancing With the Ancestors to The Rhythm of Poetry
Originally from Caruaru, Ana Lira is a visual artist, photographer and researcher based in Recife, Brazil. CHAMA, one of her most recent projects, is the space where Lira works hand in hand with the artists Marta Supernova, Suelen Mesmo and Libra around “Negro-descendant, Afro-Amerindian/Ameafrican poetics of diaspora and its expressions through sonorous, celebrative, sensorial and written means.” This is a project with historical, political and spiritual value that marks a key point in Lira’s extensive gathering of knowledge and sounds.
Because of her long career, the first time I knew that I would speak to Lira I felt an exciting expectation. I knew that in front of me (or in this case on the other side of the phone line) there would be a lucid woman, a specialist in her subject, an artist who has dedicated her energy to the creation of art from a place of community awareness and in defense of memory. I would like to point out, however, that from the first minutes of our call it was clear to me that, hand in hand with her creative achievements, Ana Lira is as kind and generous as she is knowledgeable and wise. I share our conversation with the hope that more people will get closer to her work and that of the other artists that make up CHAMA’s line up.
Thinking in political terms necessarily implies conceptualizing. Therefore, the first question that I share with Lira is in what way is it possible to understand the term diaspora in the Brazilian context. It is evident that we are immediately faced with a term that holds infinite imaginaries and subjectivities. In her own words:
In her own words: I think this is very delicate for us that live in Brazil because we are talking about a huge country. Sometimes people have the idea that when we talk about diaspora we are talking about just a simple move from a group of people from Africa from all these points in America. This is the main idea that’s usually spread. The first thing that comes to me in this process is that Africa is not a country but a continent with different countries and cultures, different ideas of being black. These different groups migrate most of the time forced by the transatlantic traffic to another continent that in this case is America. By these forced movements, these cultures somehow had to connect to each other. So the first thing that comes to me when I think about this word is that here in Brazil specifically we cannot think about one diaspora, but a lot of different migrations that relate to different people in each part of the country and these different diasporas produce different types of sensorial experiences. Precisely, these experiences are what I am calling poetics.
This proposal is challenging and represents a change in perspective. When thinking of the term diaspora in this way, one does not speak only of a displacement but of an entire imaginary with a very clear starting point: the body. Each sensorial experience is valuable, anything that goes through the body has political and creative potential:
Sound experiences, taste, colors, different kinds of hearings, gatherings, connections. Everything that promotes some kind of change in our sensorial bodies… I am trying to see this as a poetical movement, as a poetical element that is important to talk about in these diasporas. That’s why it’s not just myself or people from my city in the project. I wanted to understand how these poetic connections are made, how the other artists in the project feel these elements in their bodies, through their research, in the music that they play and study.
One of CHAMA’s particularities is its incorporation of written and spoken word, that is, of poetry in its traditional form. I think about the importance of this union, music and poetry, and how it articulates new ways of inhabiting and narrating the world. If language is how we delimit our reality, poetry provides an expansion, a sensitivity to collective history. In the case of Lira, written and spoken word are part of a tradition that is linked to the roots, a fundamental concept for the poetics of diaspora:
Here in Brazil at least, through a lot of experiences that we are hearing, the last decades have seen movements coming from the black communities that are being moved by poetry. I see this space as something very important, a place to reconnect and build knowledge for the next generations. These poets publish but especially they perform. (…) The oral tradition is very important for the Brazilian culture of poetry. We go to the streets and connect to each other. This poetry is activating connections to the past, to the ancestors, connections to the daily problems and politics of daily life. We have a very beautiful movement of poets that are creating poetry in terms of respecting their emotions, their desires. This movement is connected to music, sonorities, a culture of DJs, sound systems. The sonority culture in these communities is very important.
For Lira, it is impossible to separate these two elements, words and music or sound, because together they create and color the poetic imaginary of these collectivities. Why isn’t it possible for a poetry reading to flow with a beat? Why have we dissociated these two activities if they both propose the union of sensitivities, the liberation and revitalization of the body? As the artist mentions, “sounds are as important as the first language is. I can say that it’s a parallel language in the community: some people speak and some people play.”
The work of Lira and the other CHAMA artists creates a dual state, which consists of living through the present with the past as a searching compass. By telling the story of the past, the story of the ancestors, all CHAMA artists tell their own story and draw new lines into the future. Thus, the roots are once again visible, celebrated, nurtured:
Once I heard the material that I had I started to think about the legacy that we received from these groups of people and the cultures that arrived here, in my case, Recife five hundred years ago. All these colonial processes that try to tell us that everything is universal, that everything needs to be the same and that we need to speak one language, that’s something that I don’t believe in. That’s why one of the most important things that we acknowledge in the project is that we’re building the tradition for the future. We need to respect and understand what arrived until this time. We need to understand what we are going to do with these codes, this legacy, this material. What can we add? What is going to create a new environment of creativity? There is a power involved in this legacy. It survived five hundred years although all kinds of strategies were created to destroy it. We need to think how we create our own strategies to keep these codes alive for the future. How do we protect this material?
When talking about diaspora, Lira emphasizes that we must see it not as a dissolution but as a strategic process in which black identities were violently scattered. Taking this fact into account, another question may arise: how is it possible to begin gathering knowledge, the stories and sounds that were separated throughout so many latitudes? Lira embraces seeking this knowledge from direct experience. If orality is key, face-to-face listening, travel and feeling are key as well. CHAMA self-defines as a project that rejects “colonial processes of translation” and, in that regard, also moves away from colonial ways of building knowledge:
Here in Brazil when the transatlantic traffic arrived they used to separate people from the same region, culture and family to put them in different groups because if these people didn’t have the same language it was going to be hard for them to communicate and organize a revolution. One thing that I think is that now is the time that we are doing these revolutions through another process, even if we don’t speak the same language we are creating these connections and we are posing a different way of understanding identities, connecting things that are not in academical language or tradition that is connected to modern thinking. The way that these groups arrived to a common place was through the poetics, through all the things that were not seen as important for the colonial project, like music, foods, the way you dance… When I think about my ancestrality right now, I am discovering this kind of thing. I am paying attention now and have been for the last three years, when I started thinking that this project should go on. I started to organize this experience that I am having, not only with myself but also with my family. I’m trying to understand how these identities work in this flow. That’s why it’s important to talk to other people, to sit and listen to them.
Lira, a researcher on the themes of the collective and visibility, tells us that CHAMA comes from an enriching previous experience in her formative years. After going through a few years of engineering, she became interested in journalism and radio. The artist looks back with tenderness and joy upon that time, which was the starting point of several projects, including CHAMA:
I had a weekly program for three years, it was really interesting because we created a whole sound experience. We played different songs, it was not a program focused on one genre only. Every Saturday during one hour I was there at the radio, talking to people that were listening to us. So I would play forró, then rock, then coco, which is a sound connected to a collective expression that we have here. We thought that people would not connect to our idea but they did, they responded really well. Right now I’m using the experience that I had to look for the songs of diasporas, not only one but the different diasporas that we had in America.
We seem to forget now that the radio is a source of valuable and accessible knowledge. Lira sees this medium as a tool that allows her to approach others across distance: “I really like the radio. For me it’s one of the most powerful tools of connection. In Guinea Bissau I discovered that radio had an important role in the community and that they also listened to radio stations from Brazil,” she shares excitedly. Present in the streets, in kitchens and public transport, radio is more than a mere companion. It is a political catalyst, a point in common between subjectivities.
On the other hand, radio has been a space in which Lira has explored further her notion of language and dialogue processes. During our talk, she mentions an article by a researcher who concludes that fifty percent of the languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing. This, she notes, is a delicate problem because “if we lose fifty percent of the languages we lose fifty percent of the chance of answering things in different ways.” Back to the notion of not imposing colonial translation processes, Lira invites people to approach different languages without falling into a translation desperation (a common practice in our contemporary world):
Ever since I read this interview I started to think that we need to open new possibilities of different languages in order for them to breathe. Not forcing translation is not forcing these languages to exist in the dark. In terms of cultures, for example, every time that a cultural expression is translated into a specific form to be spread into the world, through museums or galleries, we lose the chance to see it as it is. (…) The radio is a great place to respect these different languages and sonorities.
Letting a language breathe is a revolutionary proposal in a homogenizing system, which still insists on naming a single type of identity as valid even after many hundred years of colonizing bodies and knowledge. Stories are born from language, life and customs become alive through it. That is why projects like CHAMA are important and urgent across Latin America. And the people that make up this group undertake this task with courage and strength, taking into account the responsibility that they have. In my opinion, I tell Lira, this is the work of a lifetime.
As a way of closing, I asked Lira how she would like CHAMA to inspire people into learning more about who they are. The answer, like Lira, is enlightening:
If we think that our daily sensibilities are valuable, if we listen and think about this knowledge as a power that we have, I think that we are going to arrive at a very interesting place. We have to understand that we are different and that these differences are not a problem. We don’t need to translate everything into one pattern of subjectivity. Our bodies’ sensibilities are open to different experiences, we don’t have to be afraid of that: that is one of the most important things that this project can give.
Lira gives us an open invitation to observe ourselves and others in ways that come from bodily and emotional receptivity. This is the sensitivity that we need in order to approach CHAMA, always understanding that the history of black poetics, full of dignity and beauty, gleams with more and more life when shared in collectivity.
Oyendo el sonido del tambor y también del berimbau
Van llegando los poetas para hablar en mi sarau
Van llegando los poetas para hablar en mi sarau
Find out more about Chama here.