Anita Ekman, a contemporary Brazilian artist, photographer and performer, would also ask us to linger inside that cave. But for her, drawing on a rich tradition of millennia of artistic creativity, the cave is, subversively, the real world, not a sham—a place of truth, not of deception; of insight, not blindness; of life, not death; of light, not darkness. The key to her re-envisioning is ochre, a reddish mineral which contains oxidized iron and, ground into a powder and mixed with liquid, was used by our earliest ancestors to draw pictures, abstract patterns, or entire stories on the walls of caves. Ochre was good for multiple things: for art, as sunscreen, as an adhesive, for communication (what better way to attract someone’s attention than to paint yourself red?), and even, some researchers think, as food, boosting human brain development when we needed it the most: a rich supply of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), iron, iodine, and other nutrients, that might have just enabled Homo sapiens to take possession of the world like no other species before.
Archeologists have found evidence of ochre use—in Ekman’s phrase, “the blood that gives life to … rock painting”—in the far-flung caves of Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands and also South America, where the rock shelters in the Serra da Capivara mountain range in northeastern Brazil bear the traces of the oldest settlement on the continent. Here ancient artists, tracing the natural undulations of the rock, employed a variety of shades of ochre to create some of the most outstanding examples of ancient rock art anywhere—hundreds of thousands of images, many of them part of meter-long panels, featuring the animals they knew (deer, jaguar, the extinct rhea, the capybara) as well as humans doing what humans do: hunting, dancing, having sex, skirmishing, and participating in rituals. Investigations of stone tools and fireplaces have shown that the first humans came to live in these caves around 50,000 years ago—evidence that would complicate the received theory of American settlement through the Bering strait and suggests deep connections between the first human waves that populated South America and cultures originating in the African continent.
Ekman treats caves not as prisons but wombs, places of renewal and rebirth, evoking a tradition that spans the world—think of the sacred lava caves on Mount Fuji, the subterranean circular “mundus” placed under Etruscan or Roman temples; the cave in which, according to some accounts, Christ was born. Several installments of Ekman’s montage feature the unclothed artist herself, a powerful, proud, chthonic figure, her full, luminous body the product of this environment as well as its controlling symbol: an effective rejoinder to those allegedly “ethnographic” images in which nakedness serves to objectify and humiliate, rather than elevate, indigenous women. In the first segment, Ekman sits on a rock, her skin illuminated and legs tightly closed, a mask pressed to her face, signaling both control and the potential for abandonment, vulnerability and discipline—the essence of ritual.
In Ekman’s “Ochre” series, femininity is not a distinctly or uniquely human quality, however, but a generative principle shared across a universe of created things, shared even with the rocks, which in this sequence almost inevitably arrange themselves in triangular shapes suggestive of female reproductive organs. Ekman herself appears inside one such triangle, formed by the light that illuminates her body. Dwarfed by her environment and at the same time sanctified by it, she seems like a Venus born not from the sea but from what Sylvia Plath called “the jut of ochreous rock.”
In the next segment, the ochre stains on the walls, reminiscent of birth and menstruation, enhanced by the proliferation of clitoral shapes above them, seem to universalize the experience of femininity. There is nothing suggestive or titillating about these photographs. Rather, the viewer gets the sense of witnessing an almost elemental process, of being allowed to participate, along with Ekman and her collaborators, in a ritual as old as the Earth itself. In the first of these, Ekman, her arms raised high as if in prayer, appears to replicate a vaginal rock formation above her, while the second shows a similar opening, with light breaking through—a revelation and an inspiration, breathing new life into the old rocks.
In my favorite installment of the series, Sandra Nanaína Tariano, her skin adorned with ochre stamps, a patterned wonder, stands in front of a panel of cave drawings, her arms extended in a posture that repeats precisely that of one of the figures on the wall. Ancient past and recent present meet here, linking rock and body, drawing on rock and drawing on skin. The photograph, a product of modern technology, commemorates that fusion, but in a manner that subverts the conventions of western portrait photography—here there is no foreground and background, and whatever singular act of creativity has placed Tariano’s painted body in front of the lens has already been anticipated and superseded by multiple other acts of creativity: the ones left on the wall by the unknown ancient artists as well as the patterns left, by the ceramic stamp or pintadera made by Ekman herself, on Tariano’s body. Condensing thousands of years into the instant captured by the camera, Ekman challenges not only philosophical tradition, in which truth and insight are portrayed as the result of the journey out of the cave, but also the way we tend to write the history of humankind, as sharply divided into periods marked by conquest and genocide. Ochre was there from the beginning; in Ekman’s work, it stands for the persistence, perseverance, and resilience of indigenous cultures.
Ekman’s series ends with a photograph featuring only one hand (this time, her own hand), palm open toward the viewer, her fingertips dipped in red ochre. Given that in the western iconographic tradition the artist’s hands are always male, it matters that this is, recognizably, a woman’s hand, and that this hand is covered with, nay steeped in, a material that is so much more than paint: a substance older than paint and deeply associated with the life-giving power that belongs to women, a power that, in Ekman’s understanding, is equivalent to the power to make art. Which would make it more than a coincidence, then, that some archeologists, after examining ochre handprints in caves in Spain and France, believe that they exhibit feminine characteristics, raising the possibility—tantalizing, and, from the perspective of Ekman’s luminous cave, entirely appropriate—that the world’s first artists were, indeed, women.