Cai Guo-Qiang was born in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China, in 1957, and lives in New York. He arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on July 15, 1999, with Chen Zhen. He chose to work with a group of fourteen children and teenagers, ten to eighteen years old, from Projeto Axé's Casa de Cultura unit. These children were members of Bandaxé. Cai's wife, Hong Hong, and nine-year-old daughter, Wen-You Cai, arrived on August 8 and worked with him for the last two weeks.
For their project, Cai and the children addressed the history of social and political violence in Bahia, including acts of violence committed by the military and the police. Then, with Cai's guidance, each child built a cannon based on their drawings. The project was intended not only to deepen the children's understanding of the historical causes of racially motivated violence in Bahia, but also to reclaim a symbol of destruction, cannons, as one of hope. As Cai has remarked, the project focused on the passages from violence to beauty and destruction to construction; it mined history to create a new art for a new society.
Cai's work draws from his deep engagement with Chinese culture: history, technology, philosophy, and medicine. He is perhaps best known for the drawings and events he creates by exploding gunpowder, which the Chinese invented in the tenth century (his birthplace, Fujian Province, is famous for the manufacture of firecrackers). Cai produced his first gunpowder paintings in 1984, by laying a canvas or other support on the ground, distributing gunpowder over the canvas, covering the image area with a blanket, and then detonating the gunpowder. The explosions would leave traces on the canvas; in this manner, he transformed acts of destruction into acts of creation. In 1989 he produced his first gunpowder painting using the earth as his canvas. These projects are shaped by the historical, cultural, and political significance of the site or occasion for which they are intended. From the perspective of traditional Chinese culture, they are situations that the artist creates to activate the flow of qi (energy) between the artist, the event, and the public.
As Cai learned more about Bahian culture, he became intrigued by the similarities between the significance of gunpowder in ancient China and Bahian Candomblé. In both cultures, exploding gunpowder functions as "poison against poison," in that the explosion is believed to cleanse the spirit by sending away evil. Indeed, the Chinese word for gunpowder, huo yao, is composed of two characters: the first signifies rising flames or fire; the second, medicine.
Cai began the project by showing the children images of his work and how to make a gunpowder drawing. He subsequently asked them to make two drawings. In the first, they expressed their personal impressions of the work; in the second, they drew pictures of things from their own culture that interested them the most. Then Cai and the children began a study of the history of racially motivated violence in Bahia and the role of gunpowder in society. Their activities together included visits to historical and military museums and sites, such as the old fortresses built to defend Salvador, and a discussion with two police officers trained by Axé. After they had completed their activities, Cai asked each of the children to design a cannon. They built the cannons using materials of their own choice, which ranged from paper to wood, iron, and bamboo. On Cai's last day, they fired the cannons in the courtyard of the unit in front of invited guests. In a ceremony on the opening day of the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, they fired their cannons again as instruments of celebration.
The process of making the cannons allowed the children to experience how energy can be channeled into destruction, or into something meaningful and positive. For Cai, firing the cannons was a symbolic gesture of resistance, healing, and getting rid of evil spirits. His daughter echoed this sentiment: "My life in New York is very privileged. It is hard to be poor. I think that what Cai did was great. He made cannons to help the children forget all the bad that had happened to them, to send all the bad things away."