Janine Antoni


Omolu and Mary Star of the Sea

Janine Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1964; she lives in New York. Antoni arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on May 15, 1999, and her husband Paul Ramirez-Jonas arrived on June 15. She worked with the Ballet Company of Projeto Axé. Challenged by Axé's conviction that art and culture can transform lives, Antoni worked hard to discover what her art could offer these former street children. Concluding that it did not make sense for her to teach them art, she decided to open up her creative process to them to give them the space, as she stated, "to experience the power of their imagination and intuition and to think about how they could use the knowledge they had gained through their experiences." To create this space, in which they could question the very reasons they were dancing, as well as ask themselves what they were communicating through dance, she organized workshops with the dancers, in which they looked at everyday life. They also visited Feira de São Joaquim, Salvador's main market, and the Mercado de Peixe (Fish Market) to observe and photograph people carrying things. In addition, they visited a church to see how statues communicate emotions such as sorrow, pain, ecstasy, and transcendence through bodily expression. Back in the studio, Antoni showed the dancers images of contemporary art and tied them to images she was taking of Bahia.

Inspired by the group's discussions and the discoveries they made by exploring movement, Antoni developed several performative objects to be used in their final performance: a dance they had choreographed after she had returned home, which they performed for the opening of the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia. Combining the materials used in the market to make slingshots and brooms, Antoni used tree branches, tire rubber, elastic hospital tubing, and leather to make five brooms with forked handles, from which she made slingshots. Each broom-slingshot represented the fusion of male and female: slingshots, sold everywhere at São Joaquim, are traditionally toys that boys play with, while brooms are more associated with women's work. Inspired by experiments in which Antoni and the dancers moved corn kernels across the studio floor and explored different ways in which it influenced their movement, the artist decided that for their final performance, some of the dancers should use the brooms as slingshots to burst a series of hanging balloons filled with popcorn, which would fall on the dancers. They would then begin to dance with the popcorn and sweep it away with the same brooms.

Antoni connected the objects the dancers used with Omolu, the much feared Candomblé orixá (deity) of smallpox and infectious disease. An ancient, wrathful orixá with deformed limbs and pockmarked skin, Omolu has complex and contradictory characteristics: he has the power to prevent disease, but also the knowledge to release it. In addition, as Robert Farris Thompson observes in Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, he has the power "to shock the thoughtless into social awareness and concern." He hides his body with raffia, and his emblems include the club and the lance, with which he pricks the skin of the hapless (weapons, just as Antoni's objects functioned as slingshots). As Thompson further notes, Omolu is also associated with extensive broom imagery. Dressed in his raffia costume, he dances in terreiros (places of worship) with his scepter-like broom, in gestures "that are smooth and orchestrated, as if to suggest a sweeping away of terror, . . . amid dark clouds of dust." His favorite foods include popcorn and roasted corn, and in Salvador sick people come every Monday morning to the Church of São Lázaro to participate in a healing ceremony, in which popcorn, whose form evokes smallpox pockmarks, is poured over them.

In conjunction with the dancers' final performance, Antoni developed a performance exploring the syncretic identity of Yemanjá, the powerful orixá of the ocean who raised Omolu, when she found him lying in a basket by the seashore. In Bahia, the personae of Yemanjá and the Virgin Mary fused, because both represent sacred love, purity, and faith. Antoni was interested in Yemanjá because of her interests in syncretism and in the Virgin (she was raised Catholic and has made several works dealing with the Virgin). For her performance, she designed two dresses sewn together: one, the Virgin's; the other, Yemanjá's. During the opening, Antoni and Maria da Conceição do Amor Divino, a female dancer from Projeto Axé, slowly transformed back and forth from the Virgin to Yemanjá. At the moment of transformation, a sculpturally complex form consisting of half of the Virgin and half of Yemanjá emerged. This emerging object evoked Catholic notions of incorporation (of one body into another) and transubstantiation (of bread and wine to flesh and blood, as in the Eucharist), while simultaneously referencing the moment of giça in Candomblé (when the orixá enters one's body and one goes into a trance). Antoni transformed the objects used in both performances into an installation for the exhibition.

Antoni saw the power of syncretism as an approach that looks for the things that unite rather than separate cultures, while nevertheless understanding the complex differences between Candomblé and Catholicism and the children of Projeto Axé and herself. In her project, she sought to bring into focus the tremendous gap between her reality and that of the dancers, but also to find the connections between them. One of the strongest, she found, was the power of transgression as a means of personal, social, and cultural transformation: "It was a revelation when I found transgression to be the common ground between the children of Axé and myself. As an artist, I have come to know this as my role in society, as well as what I have to offer. Transgression has also always been the position of these former street kids, and it has given them knowledge and insight that I, as a sheltered and privileged child, did not have. I have told them that their power is not in denying their past, but in using that knowledge and spirit of transgression to make real change in society."