Throughout 2020, through letters like this, the curatorial team of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo will make the reflections on the exhibition’s construction public. This second letter was written by Paulo Miyada.
One poetic line, many poems
One morning, we opened our email inboxes and found a message from Carla Zaccagnini. This is what it said:
“We thought about many names for this Bienal, from eclipse to ambush. We thought about calling it a sphere of interest, the widest whole, an endless linkage, one only learns to swim in the water.
We thought about calling it the Bienal of Luzia, referring to the woman Luzia whose fossilized skeleton was the oldest ever found in South America. A posthumous name given to her bones. Luzia lived for 24 years, they say, and rested under the ground for 11 thousand. Her bones came to light in 1975 and were burned in 2018, in the fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Luzia. A verb in Portuguese meaning to give light or to shine, in the past-continuous tense, that is, an interrupted action in the past, a verb tense also known as “imperfect.” It is also a women’s name. The name of a saint, of a saint they set on fire, but who was immune to the flames. The name of the saint whose eyes they tore out so she could no longer see the light, nor the light of her name. New eyes were reborn in their place and they said she was the saint of vision.
We decided to call it Faz escuro mas eu canto [Though it’s dark, still I sing], as in the poem by Thiago de Mello published in 1965.
We decided to call it Faz escuro mas eu canto. Because we are in dark times. And the darkness in which we now find ourselves is firmly settled. Because we want to look at this darkness, to look in this darkness. Allow our pupils to dilate to capture the light which is still there, and begin to delineate outlines in the shadows. Because the darkness is not solid and unfathomable.
We decided to call it Faz escuro mas eu canto. Because in the darkness there are also songs. Because the voices that sing are heard without light. Because we believe in the importance of singing, in this way of stating things through a line of poetry, in the power of the refrain on the memory and of the rhythm on the blood, in the impulse of a standing ovation. In the force of the choir. It’s dark, so we sing.”
A textual exercise, this note seemed much more secure about the final choice of the title than we had been up to that moment. Making this sort of choice is not a linear task. In the following months, there were advances and retreats, doubts and researches, until confirming what in Carla’s words had already seemed decided.
An important step was to sketch out the path of this poetic line and the way that it gained and lost meanings in the first years after it was written, as this could inform the multiple readings that it can receive today.
The Amazonian poet Thiago de Mello wrote the poem “Madrugada camponesa” [Peasant Dawn] in the period spanning from 1962, in the state of Amazonas, and 1963, in Santiago, Chile. The last two lines of this poem are: “Faz escuro mas eu canto/ porque a manhã vai chegar” [Though it’s dark, still I sing/ because the morning is coming]. Lines of hope addressed to those who were going through the rural night and needed to plant truth, happiness and love for an imminent future. It was a time with some promises of transformation, watered by progressivist projects and some desire for the expansion of basic rights, such as education.
When the poem was published in a book in 1965, however, the horizon was very different. Brazil had been torn asunder by a military coup supported by part of the citizenry, and a dictatorship was being consolidated. There were few signs of any morning. Thiago de Mello’s book of poems was called, simply, Faz escuro mas eu canto. It was therefore more an insistence than a celebration.
The following year, the line returned as a title of a song on the record album Manhã de liberdade [Morning of Freedom] by Nara Leão. One of the key voices of a generation that took the risk to speak and sing about the freedom of critical thought in times of political narrowing, she ended her record with a new musical poem composed by Thiago de Mello and Monsueto Menezes. The lyrics were no longer addressed especially to peasants, but to a multitude willing to “work for happiness.”
Between the release of the song and the year 1968, this multitude grew and took to the streets, to which the government responded with more repression and more violence. Thiago de Mello was arrested that year and tells that he entered prison fearful of his fate. Then, in his narrow cell, he found his own poetic lines, scrawled on the wall by the previous inmate: “Faz escuro mas eu canto/ porque a manhã vai chegar.” Murmurs and resistance. He then regained his forces and must have learned something about the power of poetry.
Over the course of five years, as the world had changed, the readings of these poetic lines had also changed. And now, entering 2020, in what ways can this poetic uttering reverberate in this country and beyond it, in a fractured world? In September, when the main show of the Bienal opens, how dark will the horizon be? It is impossible to predict – on a recent day, the ashes of the burning forest darkened the afternoon sky in São Paulo…
There is another famous poem, by Bertold Brecht, which says “In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?/ Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.” It is similar, but not the same thing. With Thiago de Mello, one imagines that the singing will be about the dark times, but not only about them. This is important. Especially those who are more threatened, in the path of projects that desire their extinction, know very well that in this context every song bears, within itself, a potential for life, and, therefore, a challenge to the desire of death.
Image: Antonio Dias, The Image: The Day as a Prisoner, 1971. Collection: Jones and Paula Bergamin, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy: Bergamin & Gomide. Photo: Ding Musa