On Anita Ekman’s Ochre (Part II)

The Origin of the Reproduction of the Image:
A Response to Christoph Irmscher
Translated from the Portuguese by Marcela Lemos and Freg J. Stokes


I am a Brazilian artist, born in the womb of the Atlantic Forest. This origin (both my point of departure and the destination I seek through my work) forms a type of optical instrument, an epistemological kaleidoscope through which I envision “space as an uneven accumulation of times,” as the Afro-Brazilian geographer Milton Santos put it.

The light that allows me to see the fixed and flowing aspects of the human relationships established over time with the body of the Earth comes from the intersection of the different ways of being and living of the cultures that make up the territory where I was born and raised. It is through the relationships established by Indigenous peoples and African cultures with the Earth and specifically through the relations between these cultures in this territory that I see reflections emerging kaleidoscopically, producing unique images. They are the basis for the way I perceive and think about the world; they form my cosmos-perception. For me, photography is an attempt to approach these “original” images through other dialectical compositions.

In the Ochre series, I draw from the history of the uses of ochre (iron oxide, hematite, the “blood stone”) to discuss the role of performances presumably carried out by women during the dawn of art, investigating the concept of origin in the sense proposed by Walter Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “Origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance. Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis. That which is original is never revealed in the naked and manifest existence of the factual; its rhythm is apparent only to a dual insight. On the one hand it needs to be recognized as a process of restoration and reestablishment, but, on the other hand, and precisely because of this, as something imperfect and incomplete …. Origin is not, therefore, discovered by the examination of actual findings, but it is related to their history and their subsequent development.”1

The current highlighted by Benjamin translates the constant displacement that allows the kaleidoscope to produce new mixing and scattering games, creating dialectical images that do not repeat themselves, even though the elements of their composition remain the same. This metaphor for my Latin-American cultural identity leads me to think that origin is constant becoming, a spiraling movement.

I adopt the Guarani word Ombojera, signifying the unfolding of the potentiality self-contained in an act, to express this founding movement, frequently represented in the spiraling patters of my ceramic stamps, which mark the bodies featured in some of the photos of the Ochre series.

I recovered the technology of ceramic stamps used for body painting (the earliest trace of which was found in the Brazilian Amazon and dates from 6,500 BP) to interrogate the way we view the origins of image reproduction in the Americas. I believe the emergence of image reproduction in South America is intrinsically connected with the invention of stamped body painting techniques. To arrive at this theory, I studied ochre handprints applied to the rock faces of Serra da Capivara National Park,2 which is located in the region with the greatest concentrations of rock art in the Americas and where potential signs of the most ancient human settlement in South America (approximately 48,000 years BP) were found.

Unlike other archeological sites around the world where ochre hands appear in negative (that is, only as an outline), the hands on the walls in Northeastern Brazil were stamped on the rocks in positive, with spirals on the palms. Such spiraling patterns are found in various archeological sites in northeast Brazil (a territory as large as Mongolia). I propose the hypothesis that, since the spirals have the exact same proportions in different stamped ochre handprints, as occurs in the archeological site of Pinga do Boi, (shown in “Ochre: The Era of the Reproduction of the Image”) that they could have been created with the same body-painting stamp. If this is the case, this would have been a two-part process: the artist prints the spiral stamp on their hand, then leaves a handprint on the rock.

It seems relevant to me to present this theory since, even if my hypothesis might later be overturned by advancing archeological research in the region, it paves the way for us to realize the fundamental importance of the body as a critical element in the early days of art. After all, rock painting has, until now, not been often perceived as a performative art.

This is one of the factors that motivated me to use the language of photography (photography being the icon of what Benjamin considered the age of mechanical reproduction) to create a series of images in which the ochre-painted bodies that have been present in ancient art for thousands of years appear combined with bodies stamped with ochre and urucum (a natural dye made by Indigenous people from the seeds of the achiote tree) in the present. The image of the site Toca do Salitre (near Serra da Capivara National Park) below, featuring Sandra Nanayna Tariano (an indigenous Dyroá actress from Alto do Rio Negro, Amazonas), is a representative example from the series “Ochre – Women (Skin and Stone).”

I printed this series on amate paper (produced by the indigenous Otomi artist Dom Fausto Rojas, from the community of Pautlán, Mexico), because this material is manufactured with pre-Columbian techniques. It seems relevant to me that the background for the printed photographs harbors this fundamental relation with the history of image production technology in the Americas. A photograph that measures approximately 7’10’’ x 3’11’’ replicates the scale of real rock art paintings.

Another relevant reason why I have chosen to work with the relationship between skin and stone in the history of ochre use concerns the importance of body painting to indigenous peoples (among whom this art is performed mainly by women) as a visual notation system for origin myths.

The myths of origin (what the Guarani call Ore ypy rã – The beginning of everything), along with the archeological investigations, compose the conceptual pillars of this work. The way I understand them, these myths are also related to the spinning movement associated with origins, the formative element of the spiral. To me, myths, in all their spiritual dimensions, not only govern a narrative about the beginnings of humanity on Earth but also capture the entire arc of time as the axes around which our own lives endlessly revolve.

It is very difficult to communicate this perception of the origin embodied in the realm of myth to a Western audience that understands time in a linear fashion and usually believes in a dichotomy between myth and history. In this sense, the allegory of Plato’s cave can be used to explain how western conceptions of knowledge have a hierarchical structure. In common Western understanding, the mythical thought of Indigenous and African peoples is seen as a series of shadows inside the cave, while the complexity of the outside world is considered accessible only through scientific knowledge.

When I gather with collaborators from different origins and areas to occupy these spaces of ancient art and produce rituals (i.e. a performative knowledge), what I really seek is the subversion of that logic. I believe it to be extremely necessary and urgent to break with this hierarchical Western paradigm of human knowledge, which is intrinsic to the destructive power of colonialism and the basis of structural racism in our societies.

In this sense, I believe that, as we turn our attention to the ochre marks of creativity and wisdom left in rock shelters and caves around the world, we encounter a precious opportunity to deconstruct the existence of a style of thought that imposes a single way of understanding time, ourselves, and the Earth.

To me, ochre is the blood that brings art to life and enables the encounter between multiple ways of thinking; it is the materialization of our potential to draw nearer our common human origins. By creating this game, a kaleidoscope of ontological mirrors reflecting human creativity, we spin around the beautiful force of ochre imaginaries in different times and spaces, expanding the comprehension of our presence on Earth.

I believe that rock art sites are sacred spaces. They have endured for millennia, carrying messages that continue to emanate an indescribable power, messages that transcend, in my opinion, even what we can decipher through archeology. For the many peoples that maintain a living symbolic relationship with rock art in their territories, such as the Indigenous peoples of Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon and the Aboriginal people of Australia, this art is a spiritual experience. What is present in those rock formations are beings, not paintings or pictures. They are “stone people,” as defined by Sandra Nanayna Tariano, one of the collaborators on the 2019 project in Serra da Capivara National Park. Rock art encompasses different scales and multiple perspectives. For this reason, the sincerest way I could find to get in contact with these spaces and produce dialectical images was through the body painting performances, which generate a special intimacy between these sacred spaces and the people painted (on skin and stone). According to Sobonfu Somé: “The whole concept of intimacy is fundamentally derived from the ritual. Outside of the ritual, nothing can be truly intimate. . . . Thus, anything close, anything intimate is impossible without a ritual space. Anything that leads people to express, to each other, something different from their daily life, touches the spiritual world, the ancestral world, and is, therefore, a ritual event.”3

For this reason, I call what I do in this project a “ritual performance.” Although very different from the original sense of the rituals performed by the first artists in these spaces or from the spiritual sense of the rituals present in indigenous and African cultures, what I want is to demonstrate that artistic creation with ochre in these sacred spaces is a ritual that is in itself human, as fundamental and ancient as the rite of telling stories around fire.

The shadows are a key element in my own interpretative view of rock art. Fire is central to human history and indispensable in the production of any kind of image inside a cave, where it can generate its own shadow shows. I believe that, amongst the various human figures depicted in the rock art of Serra da Capivara National Park, those that appear more elongated or inflated could have been inspired by the distorted human shadows cast by campfires on the cave walls.

Exploring the aesthetic of the shadows, I developed ritual performances in the Paleolithic rock art caves of Cantabria, Spain, which are filled with ochre hand outlines that, according to researchers, may have belonged predominantly to women. The filmmaker Raquel Nuñez documented this ritual via photography and video.

Anita Ekman’s ritual performance “Ochre Venus” in the Paleolithic cave El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain, July 2019. Photo by Raquel Fernandez Nuñez.

In the ritual performance that I carried out in the cave El Chufín, in Cantabria, Spain, July 2019, I hold in my hands a replica of the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf (which was discovered in Austria painted in ochre). The shadows of my body and of this Venus statue are projected on an ochre-painted wall (on the left side of the statue in my hand) that likely represents the image of another Paleolithic Venus. My shadow and this image of the Venus appear in a special part of the cave, framed by a rocky texture reminiscent of a variety of clitoral shapes. On the opposite side, following the contours of the cave’s ceiling, lies an open vulva that was probably painted 18,000 years ago.

“Venus’ Ochre Vulva,” in the Paleolithic cave El Chufín, Cantabria, Spain, July 2019. Photo by Anita Ekman.

The search to understand these depictions of vulvas in rock art is another theme I explore in “Ochre.” In the photograph I took in Serra da Capivara National Park (Toca da Extrema, 2017), down to the right of what could be a male body painted with a zigzag pattern, we see a type of vulva from whose center emerges a tiny person.

I am fascinated by the diversity of representations of vulvas in rock art around the world. For this reason, the photographs in my series explore the similarities between the caves themselves and the vulvas depicted within them. I have observed that, in some instances, the very path to enter a cave that contains rock art already seems to corroborate this visual metaphor. A case in point is the El Chufín cave in Cantabria. To access this cave, visitors pass through a small opening along which they must drag their bodies, crawling for about four yards, penetrating the darkness as if returning through the vaginal canal to the uterus, the center of the cave, where the above-mentioned scenes of the Venus and vulva are located.

This relationship with the darkness and shadows inside caves makes me think of the words of Carlos Papa, a Mbyá-Guaraní filmmaker, collaborator in the Womb of the Atlantic Rainforest project and a long-time friend, who defines shadows as a feminine emanation: “the dark is Yva, the mother of the entire universe. The shadow is part of this first mother’s love, it means that our mother is always with us and that she will follow us to all places on Earth.”

As I perform my rituals in caves, the shadows of other women that have also been projected in this same space come to mind. They have opened this ochre path so that I could create in these sacred places, too. I like to imagine that my shadow is very similar to those of the first women artists in these spaces and that what distinguishes us through millennia fades away in the existence of this image. An image that will only be seen, however, outside this uterus and in the light eternalized in photography. During all the rituals I performed within uterus-caves, I have felt a sort of rebirth.

My first ritual performance in a cave took place in 2017, in Toca do Inferno in Serra da Capivara National Park. The name means “hell’s burrow,” due to the fact that the cave, which contains an ochre deposit, is colored an infernal shade of red. Popular belief says that voices attributed to spirits have been heard coming out of the cave. The images of my performance were taken by my friend, the photographer Ana Mesquita. Ana was a collaborator in the initial stage of this project, when we traveled for the first time to Serra da Capivara Park with David Turnbull, a philosopher of science, who provided me with the theoretical basis for understanding ochre (and for understanding rock art as performative knowledge) so that I could develop this project.

As I painted myself with earth’s ochre blood (which, since it goes back all the way to the Cambrian explosion, David Turnbull has called “the stain of life, the indicator of all living beings on the planet”), at a place where other women probably had done the same for millennia before me, I experience the profound feeling of being able to connect myself with themes that cis women have experienced throughout human history, such as menstruation, pregnancy, and especially the abortion, which is one of the themes of my performance, because I understand that this remains a taboo topic in our society and in archeology itself, which often interprets fertility as the principal key to symbolizing woman. My quest, then, to bring to the fore the performative role of women in the origin of art and to discuss their contributions to archeology is motivated by a concern over the ways in which cis- and trans women are concealed, stereotyped, and abused today in a society strongly marked by patriarchy.

Beyond this critique, I believe there is another dimension to my motivation for creating this photographic series, and that has to do with the myth of the origin I mentioned above. According to my Guaraní collaborators, my Nheẽ (meaning both word and soul), which designates my spirit, is connected to Nhandecy Eté (the true mother). Sandra Benites (anthropologist and current adjunct curator at MASP–São Paulo Museum of Art), who belongs to the indigenous culture of the Guarani Nhandeva and is one of my main collaborators in the “Wombs of the Atlantic Rainforest” project and a close friend, declares that “the Earth is a living body. She is our mother, Nhandecy Eté. Even as we step on the ground, we are also stepping on a woman’s body.” The Mbyá Guaraní name for Nhandecy Eté is Jaxuca. Jaxuca is the name with which I was baptized in this culture, which has generously welcomed me and taught me, since I turned eighteen, to perceive, think, and live inside the Atlantic Forest where I was born. To the Guarani, the word is the soul. It is not, thus, only my name that is Jaxuca: I am like her, her daughter. I carry the principle of the beautiful and feminine strength of this true mother who has opened the way for humanity. Therefore, my life’s walk under her spins around her uterus, the axis of my spirit.

Anita Ekman’s (Jaxuca’s) ritual performance “Ochre – In Nhandecy Eté’s Uterus,” in Toca do Inferno, Serra da Capivara National Park, May 2019. Photo by Edu Simões.
Anita Ekman’s (Jaxuca’s) ritual performance “Ochre – In Nhandecy Eté’s Uterus,” in Toca do Inferno, Serra da Capivara National Park, May 2019. Photo by Edu Simões.

Jaxuca, Anita Ekman. 11 October 2020

1. Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), p. 45
2. All images of Serra da Capivara National Park were authorized by ICMBio – Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation as part of the project “Ochre and Wombs of the Atlantic Rainforest” supported by the Goethe-Institut (Echoes Fund).
3. Sobonfu Somé, O espírito da intimidade: Ensinamentos Ancestrais Africanos Sobre Maneiras de Se Relacionar (Editora Odysseus, 2003), 55-56.

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