Head orisha, human body and bare feet

One must sacrifice for the head to be owned

In one of the photographs of the series entitled 
Cabeça de santo – or Orisha's head –, the body of a woman dressed in white floats on the dark waters of a river. Conducted by the current, it seems to be heading towards the horizon. One cannot know for certain if she is either dead or alive, conscious or unconscious. It is difficult to see what separates the intentional act of floating and the inertness of what naturally floats. Letting your guard down and letting yourself be taken: this is the ideal condition to see the recent works of Bruno Vilela.

Condition in which one can let go and be seduced by the immediate delight of each image, by the pleasure of glancing at the surface of each one and all of the photographs and paintings. And also by the texture of the rocks, vegetation, the wood,  the texture of water and mist in the photographs. An entanglement of branches in the dark forest, shadows cast on a bright blue background, almost violet. The erased, blurred stroke of pastel crayon on the paper, deconstructing the facial features of those portrayed in the drawings. There is no doubt about an aspect of the images: they are definitely vibrant.

But the force of the images may not emerge at first glance. Firstly, we float through them almost not taking notice of such force. Our eyes just follow the images, intoxicated by them. The work created by the artist shares the easy seduction of a known repertoire. The photographs show us astonishing scenarios of Chapada Diamantina, a well known touristic paradise in Bahia. The portraits were created making use of a traditional technique: the model poses taking up the central part of the composition against a black background. This "head and shoulder" framing is part of the classic repertoire of portraits. The dark and grim paintings, otherwise, quickly allude to expressionist painting, a style somewhat already decoded by culture in general.
But we must go beyond the surface, beyond what is commonplace in travel advertisements, touristic photographs, beyond the repetition of a film trailer scene, of images transmitted by the mass media, television culture, google images. However, this repertoire must not be entirely abandoned. In other words, we must float in what there is of resistance in it.

The photographs, which were chronologically produced by the artist before the paintings, show luxuriant nature, inhabited by strange, unrecognizable figures. Far away we see a shadowy person over a bridge. We also see a woman carrying a flag and sitting on the gigantic roots of a tree. They are visions: we do not know who they are or how they have arrived there. An example is the figure which comes to sight, lying on the top of a rock, in front of an immense waterfall. Despite their diminutive proportions, these beings somehow make themselves seen and are intriguing. They are not tourists neither local inhabitants. Their clothes are unconventional, they wear make up and costumes. They keep a distance from the public – and from the photographer – and such distance is almost a refusal to being discovered. They want to remain hidden.
Vilela left for Chapada Diamantina in August 2010. However, the work for the Cabeça de Santo series – which was ready on March 2011 – had already started before that, along with his research on Nordic mythology, Indigenous and Yoruba myths. These new topics of research were added to the artist's previous interest in fairy tales, also a theme of an earlier series of work. These characters or archetypes, as he defines them, emerged from the studied myths. White Buffallo Woman, Bluebeard's wife, Iansan, Ophelia and Oshun are some of them, among many others found in his work. The costume of each one of them was imagined and designed by the artist himself. The creation process began with costume sketches which, in some cases, led to prospective photo locations – Vilela knows Chapada Diamantina very well and already had some landscapes in mind.
 After the costumes were designed, the artist left in search for types of fabrics he needed and also for other objects which were indispensable: a razor, a sword, buttons, lacework, sewing thread. The clothes were made to measure (by a seamstress) for the actress going to wear them: Giovanna Simões.

At this point, it is interesting to notice, the work had already happened on a fashion which is similar to that of filmmaking. There was the storyboard of the scenes, casting of actors, choice of costumes and locations – besides all the production logistic the images also demanded. The artist simultaneously took on many roles such as director, cameraman, costume designer, producer, director of both art and photography.

When Vilela left for Bahia, he took with him camera, tripod, computer,  costumes – almost ten different pieces of clothing – and camping objects needed to hike the trails and spend the night in the woods. During the process he was accompanied by a local guide and the actress. Everything was meticulously planned and executed. They would wake up early for the morning light, sleep in the woods when necessary, eat what was possible and walk as much as they could.
Something that really calls our attention in the artist procedure is the coexistence of a will to "get lost in nature", of being in contact with the woods, the sun, the highway, the wind, the rivers and waterfalls, experiencing this "forgetfulness of the self" which occurs when one walks for long hours on a trail overlooking astonishing landscapes – on one hand, and the planning, the organization and the objectivity of the process on the other. Even if in a smaller scale (for there was no filming crew) the work demanded by the photographs was significantly close to that of cinema in regards to its execution and results, and cinema is an industry.

The possibility of a deep reconnection between man and nature is one of the central themes of this new series. The question the photographs ask us are: is it possible in today's world to keep direct, true contact with nature? Is it possible that nature still have secrets to be shown in front of a camera – or in front of a technical arsenal that will capture such image (which will be later photoshop-manipulated)? Is it possible for art to address nature with all this equipment and not reveal such nature completely? In a society in which all domains, including art, are colonized by an instrumental logic, how can a mythical, mysterious and magic relation be given an extra lifespan?

The answer that emerges with these works is: mise en scène. Not cynical stagings as those performed by Cindy Sherman. Neither specific theater staging and its techniques developed throughout a refined history of drama. But a staging constituted by elements of popular culture. Precisely, those of religion, of candomblé – a religion whose history is one of resistance. Thence, these beings inhabiting his photographs are representations of deities or mythical figures. Enchanted beings, emerging from the enchantment possible in a disenchanted world. Thus, religion becomes a partner of art in this series when both share the same intention of reclaiming the enchantment of the world.
If I am not mistaken, Bruno Vilela was not religiously educated, and is not exactly a candomblé practitioner by family tradition. Vilela resorts to candomblé, to its components, its culture, its rituals and garments. In candomblé rituals, the orishas incorporate into human beings – who are usually painted and dressed – and become transfigured after incorporation. They are then both men and orishas at the same time.
The paintings, as the photographs, are stagings or else, re-stagings. The painting Possessão – or Possession – for example is based in a well-known film scene. The references are Andrei Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice, and Lars Von Trier (referring to Tarkovsky) in Antichrist. The woman on screen is "out of control", as it is commonly said. In a sort of trance, she loses the ability to self-command. Her covered, hollow, face dyed blue shows someone who lost power over oneself. The intimacy the bathroom normally offers is deconstructed. The place is transformed into a frightening room, the color blue contaminates the ambiance, creating a mournful and gelid setting. The luminosity that ensures the solar atmosphere of the photographs is then replaced by a tragic one in the paintings, which present an environment of darkness, shadows and sadness.
Regarding the paintings, cinema is either the direct theme – as in Possessão – or indirectly alluded, as in the other two paintings. In the untitled one, we see a chandelier that is enigmatically hanging in the midst of a forest. There is a narrative in this painting, an implicit temporality that can be perceived as in the center of the forest something seems to be moving. All indicates something has just been there, although we cannot precise exactly what. The contrast between the "luminosity" of the world of culture (term used here in contraposition with nature) to which pertains the fine crystal chandelier and the darkness of the forest in which the shadows and the branches are confused, and become indistinct, once more brings to surface the same opposition: reason (or light) and darkness.
The obscure merry-go-round follows the same course and reveals the frightening side of everything that exists, even that which was made for entertaining purposes. It is usual for clowns, amusement parks and killer toys to inhabit horror films. Here, besides the immediate reference to this cinema genre, the mechanism of the merry-go-round is also mentioned, so is the daze created by the act of spinning, as well as the giras from the candomblé. A mention to spinning, rotating and repeated circular movements which lead to trance. The same sort of trance, staged by the possessed woman in another painting, is present here when it contaminates the portraits and the allusion to it can be seen in the drawing of the portraits.
It is in the drawings – in the portraits – to be more precise, that the natural man (in contraposition with the social one) appears, let us say, in close-up. In both portraits – Ogun and Oxaguian – the artist focuses on the moment in which what is familiar becomes unknown and that which was seen as usual becomes awkward.
The photographs are the starting point that leads to the portrait. Two of Vilela's friends, who are also artists, were photographed with ornaments of the two orishas whose names title the work. After that, a traditional drawing in black and white which respects all conventions of volume, chiaroscuro, anatomic proportions, among others, is made. The previous drawing of the portrayed ones preserves their original aspect: their faces are completely recognizable, as that of any person before the incorporation of the orisha. In the following moment, all the familiarity disappears.

Their physiognomies emerge transfigured. The facial features of Ogun are displaced by the encounter with water, while in the case of Oxaguian, it is fire which crosses the way and transmutes his countenance. The subject is apprehended at the same moment of its dissolution. He disappears as an enclosed unity and opens himself for the world. These two portraits are, undoubtedly, fundamental, climaxing moments – for the apotheosis in them – regarding the present production of Bruno Vilela.

Thais Rivitti

english version: Milena Durante