Chapter C: Genealogy of Pain
Performance 1 of 3
Sao Paulo, a major city and the largest in the country, is rife with anger and distress. It would be strange not to talk about the omnipresent political tension here which probably echoes across the whole of Brazil.
Curiously, the story of Brazil’s independence isn’t special. There was no waged war, no intense passion and rage that fueled Brazil’s secession. In fact, it was just a simple declaration by the prince of Portugal who, understandably, fell in love with the land’s magical tropicality. After seeing Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain, his declaration seems obvious. Today, Independence Day, as my Brazilian friend told me, “is just another day to get off work.” However, as the stars would have it, this year of all years, Independence Day incites major protest.
I joined my friend on one of these protests. I chose the left. I am scared of one white (with orange overtones), privileged, conservative man taking over my country so I am sure as hell scared for Brazil where multiple such men in power do it all under the pretense of democracy. I walked with hundreds my age - a mass, strong in number. Suddenly, I heard two loud firework-like booms, and in an instant tear gas filled the air. People began running in the opposite direction. As I witnessed this, my throat stung, my eyes burned, and my heart froze. As I looked around me, a scene I could never have imagined just seconds ago, unfolded. The large, passionate unit of protest and solidarity - simply dissolved. It took an instant.
Shockingly apparent in this moment - numbers are relative.
Numbers. They quantify. They express sound, symbol, patterns. They hold time- age, love, heartbreak, success. They hold superstition - 13, a specific day, stars. They hold emotion- passion, idealism, fear.
The context of Brazil’s Independence Day and consequently, another protest day, as a backdrop to Kukama’s work is significant. Chapter C: The Genealogy of Pain took place at the Cemitério da Consolação (Cemetery of Consolation). The cemetery itself has an interesting history, first resting the bodies of those enslaved and then, much later, resting aristocrats such as Marques De Santos, the famous and very public mistress of Emperor Pedro 1. One would think of cemeteries as calm and peaceful, silent and still. Especially with the name consolation, one would think of solace. But due to the protest to take place just meters away from the cemetery, the evening’s loud helicopters and police sirens were obtrusive. Red police lights flashed all around and three helicopters were already above, hovering close, their light beam occasionally shining over the graveyard tombstones. The political black cloud levitating over the city and country serves as the milieu that so intensely heightened the effect of Kukama’s chapter.
Inside a small chapel, fitting in about 25 people within the circle of space, Kukama stood at a podium. To the left and right of her she had two projectors set-up at a higher level than the audience. One projector hosted a livestream feed of the parchment paper she had at her podium. The other was an overhead projector. Behind her stood another woman wearing all-black like Kukama. I was lucky to be very close to the front, but most viewers had to peek through the chapel windows to get a glimpse of what was going on inside.
The performance began with Kukama pronouncing the numbers 1-10 with phonetic stresses in a language I do not know (possibly a language spoken in South Africa, where she is from). Soon after, the woman slightly behind her pronounced the same numbers but in Portuguese. In progressing sets, Kukama and the other woman would switch off counting numbers- changing pace, cadence, and emotionality. At one point, the other woman counted in a conversational intonation. At another time she seemed to be holding back tears- prompting one person in the audience to cry. They created a rhythmic back-and-forth between English, Portuguese, and the 3rd unknown language to me.
Visually as the count ensued, Kukama tallied the numbers in different gestures- sometimes scribbling circles at each count, sometimes so roughly ticking the counts that the charcoal she used would crumble with her force. But the tallying wasn’t always rough or angry, at times it was slow and stretched out, cyclical and scrawled. Tallies became circles, dots, and scribbles.
For me, Kukama’s performance is about how different people relate to numbers. My thoughts oscillated through the numbers of protestors I had just so recently marched with and with those who were occupying the streets that very second - thoughts of the people killed in concentration camps - thoughts of the number of dead in the cemetery - thoughts of the number of slaves squeezed into one slave ship - thoughts of children killed - thoughts of Syrian refugees took over me. Kukama’s performance provided the space to feel the pain and memory numbers have the power to hold. The performance brought life to numbers that we don’t necessarily feel when we see digits on a paper. It created an intangible bond between the people in the room and the ambiguity of the numbers read, allowing us to individually create and interpret what exactly those numbers represented to each of us. The counts became place and space holders, allowing us to insert our own experiences into the numbers.
Kukama’s performance was so incredibly captivating that when she and her co-performer stepped down from their podium, like two ghostly spirits, the entire audience followed them in procession. Once outside the cemetery grounds, Kukama and her colleague stared out to us from inside the cemetery grounds, and in perfect coordination they shut the large iron gates of the entrance.
Continue to Chapter A: History of Anatomy