The writer Ariano Suassuna traveled with his family in 1971 to Taperoá, in Paraíba, when he asked the driver (he did not drive) to stop the van, on the border with Pernambuco. He put his wife and children (all of them from Recife) outside the car: they on one side, Ariano on the other and, as if receiving a home visit, said: “You are going to enter sacred ground”. It was the first time that they would vacation in the hinterland, the land where Ariano had grown up.
Who narrates the scene is Manuel Dantas Suassuna, 60, visual artist and son of the author of “Auto da Compadecida”. Dantas became responsible for managing the editorial projects of his father’s works, since his death in 2014, at the age of 87.
Painter, sculptor, draftsman and set designer, he was an assistant to Francisco Brennand (1927-2019) and works in visual arts, cinema, television and theater. In addition to the artistic vein of his father and mother (the painter Zélia de Andrade Lima), Dantas inherited from them the immense fascination with the sertão.
Despite living in Recife, it is in Taperoá that Dantas maintains the Cabeça de Cabro studio and develops his greatest work, Ilumiara Jaúna, “my greatest heritage”, he says. On a set of stones that his father used as a backdrop for one of the scenes in his latest book, “Romance de Dom Pantero”, he records figures and symbols inspired by the rock drawings of the archaeological site of Ingá, in the interior of Paraíba.
Between October 18, 1970, the launch date of the Armorial Movement, and today, countless changes mark Brazil. The initiative, led by Ariano Suassuna, brought together artists who sought to combine classical elements with popular art in the Northeast. The most hurtful ruptures in Brazil in 2020 are precisely those that threaten the identity of the Brazilian people, in “a new clash between official Brazil and real Brazil”, as Dantas says to the TAB.
Since 2013, the artist has toured the interior of Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas and Paraíba, in a performance research in cities where Antônio Conselheiro passed, who in the 19th century faced the Army questioning the State’s performance. Dantas travels wearing a habit similar to that used by Counselor, makes drawings and paintings and collects objects that will form the basis of an exhibition.
In this interview with TAB, Dantas talks about his work and the celebration of five decades of the artistic movement created in Recife by Suassuna, in search of erudite art based on popular cultural expressions.
TAB: Why retrace the paths of Antônio Conselheiro?
Manuel Dantas Suassuna: In a conversation with my father, he once said that in order to understand Brazil, it is necessary to understand Canudos, and that stuck in my head. I started rereading “Os Sertões”, and there Euclides [da Cunha] he said that before Conselheiro settled in Belo Monte, he was accused of two crimes, and was arrested in Ceará, in Quixeramobim. Then he was acquitted, because the charges were not true – he had been accused of killing his mother, who died when he was a child, and the woman, who was alive. They released Conselheiro, and on his way back to Bahia, walking, he made a promise that, in this trajectory, he would build 25 works. I went to find out more about it, and found in the daddy’s library the book “Cartography of Canudos”, by José Calasans, with the cataloging of 23 of the 25 works, including roads, weirs, cemeteries, churches. I decided to research the construction side of Antônio Conselheiro.
TAB: And how do you redo these paths?
MDS: I embroider on the clothes the names of the places where I passed. That outfit will be exposed later. I am collecting material, crosses, objects, which will give basis to sculptures, ceramic works, paintings and drawings. Remaining in the notebooks, as Euclides had when he visited Canudos, what I think is relevant in this process.
TAB: Did you find Canudos reflexes in Brazil today?
MDS: Deep Brazil is in the same way as Canudos was: its people seeking to improve things destroyed by real Brazil. The characters are very similar. We encounter mythical, religious characters, especially in religious and cultural manifestations. I see that there is a growing Protestantism in the hinterland. But I feel that in the moment of drought, this faith of the backwoods Catholicism increases, it becomes more exacerbated. It comes out more. And this symbolism of Catholicism is stronger than Protestantism. In a procession on All Souls Day, in Monte Santo [Bahia], for example, we saw people wearing clothes that take you back to that time of Canudos, with candles, lit lamps, music band, an incensed atmosphere from that time of Counselor.
TAB: In this case, do you speak of a Canudos also urban?
MDS: Yes, and that is part of the research. In the next steps, I want to visit the Morro da Providência church [no Rio de Janeiro], where they say the cross of Senhor do Bonfim is located in the chapel of Canudos. And I also want to visit the MST settlement called Nova Canudos, on the banks of the [rodovia] Régis Bittencourt [em São Paulo].
TAB: How will this material be turned into an exhibition?
MDS: “Along the Sacred Way”, as the work is called, is endless. It is a work always in continuity, a search for my own path. But the idea is to transform research into developments, which turns into lectures, films and works. Two documentaries have already been made, and another one should be released soon.
TAB: With your father’s death, you took over his editorial projects, including the publication of the latest book and the collection of plays. Did you think about that responsibility?
MDS: I feel proud, in fact, since I returned from Taperoá to Recife. With his “enchantment”, I feel that his work belongs to me too. Before it belonged to him. The cover of the reissue of “The love story of Fernando and Isaura”, released in 2019: I took his drawing and interfered. I made it our work. Obviously, he is a son in search of his father.
TAB: Did he talk about it?
MDS: In 2013, he had a heart attack. [O pesquisador e professor] Carlos Newton Jr. was going to the house to talk to him about the edition of “Dom Pantero”. One day, my father called me and said: “You stay here too, that the conversation will be with you two. As you know, I had a heart attack. I made a pact with God to finish the book, but if I can’t, you will be responsible for finishing. ” That day we talked about the publisher, about everything. It was a definite conversation between the son, the father and the friend.
TAB: Now in October, 50 years of the Armorial Manifesto are completed. Does Ariano’s thinking remain?
MDS: Brazil is looking at the Armorial. Not only me, [o músico] Antônio Madureira, [a bailarina e coreógrafa] Maria Paula Costa Rêgo, that we are connected to the movement, but I see a great understanding. I see artists who are not armor based on it too. Ai Weiwei, for example, used armorial typography in a work. That’s because they are ideas from Brazil. The base of the Armorial is in Brazil.
TAB: Your work has a very abstract, landscape style, despite the symbols. How did you build your own armorial identity?
MDS: When Dad launched the movement in 1970, he elected painters that he thought were armorial, who had already done work: Gilvan Samico and Francisco Brennand. My generation is already the next. But, unlike the artists and painters of my generation, I moved away from my father. Not sentimentally, but physically. I went to the sertão to look for my own identity, based on rock paintings, cordel engravings, the Iberian reference, the ex-altar altars and the symbols of Afro-Brazilian entities. When I got a little older, I created an appreciation for landscape paintings in Brazil, and today I do something very influenced by the work of Aluísio Magalhães. It is a mixture of landscape with symbols, which I call the Brazilian heraldic heritage, with the country landscape and symbols linked to the armorial movement.
TAB: On the eve of the second round of the 2018 elections, you published a letter which you called “Dialogue with my Father”. He said that there was an ongoing “new and great clash between official Brazil and real Brazil”. It was a criticism of Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy. What do you think Ariano Suassuna would be thinking about the country today?
MDS: He would be reacting fiercely. Everything that is happening is absolutely against his thinking. Brazil has entered a terrible path. Dad would be indignant, but he would be fighting beside us. Each, in their own way, must resist what is happening in Brazil.
TAB: What do you mean when you say that “this official Brazil today is completely the opposite” of what Ariano Suassuna thought?
MDS: For example, this wing of the military in power is a surrender. They are not nationalists. And I think that nationalist doesn’t even exist within that government anymore. So it’s all against what Ariano thought. These days, they dropped the statue of daddy, in the Center of Recife, and my daughter made a comment, jokingly, saying: “I think Grandpa played with the Brazil he’s seeing”.
TAB: How does the Armorial Movement help you think about Brazil?
MDS: Valuing the best of Brazil: its artists who think of Brazil. Not the artist who only thinks for Europe. Obviously I can do an exhibition there, but my interest is Brazil and the Northeast of Brazil. My interests are popular artists, rock art, real and profound Brazil, like that of Canudos. My interest is to show Brazil to the Brazilian.