Tunga was born in Palmares, Pernambuco, Brazil, in 1952; he lives in Rio de Janeiro. He arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on May 15, 1999, overlapping with Janine Antoni and Willie Cole, and returned twice more during the course of the project. Tunga collaborated with several groups of children and teenagers from Bandaxé, at the Casa de Cultura unit.
Since the mid-1970s, Tunga has organized his work not as a series of discrete sculptures but as a series of projects that feature a repertory of interrelated forms, images, and materials through which he destabilizes our perception of art, life, and the relationship between the two. Although the components of these projects often take sculptural form as objects from everyday life, they cannot be easily categorized: a bundle of interwoven copper wires is not just that, but a sculpture, a conductor of invisible energy, braided hair, intertwined snakes; it is all and none of these things. Equally destabilizing is the fact that the components of these projects infect one another through a process of contágio mútuo (mutual contagion), a phrase the artist first used in 1982, in which the categories we use to define reality interpenetrate and mutate. Heightening our awareness of the limiting constraints of conventional sensory experience, this process has the potential to transform our consciousness.
On his first trip to Salvador, Tunga developed the idea for his project and decided to work with several percussion groups from Bandaxé. He designed an ensemble of about twenty-five drums, ranging in size from small to large, fabricated according to his specifications out of folha de flandres, a type of industrial galvanized iron. The drums resonated with the popular culture of Salvador, which is Brazil's most important center for rhythm and is especially renowned for its percussion groups. When the steel cover of each drum is opened, one sees a chain attached to the cover's interior. Linked to each chain are a variety of domestic objects made of the same galvanized iron—funnels, graters, roasting pans, and storage containers, which the artist collected rather than fabricated. The chains resonated with another aspect of popular Salvadoran culture: balangadas, ornamental silver or gold buckles to which amulets are attached, which Candomblé adherents wear hanging from the neck or from their clothing or belts. Because each amulet represents a Candomblé orixá (deity), the balangada is invested with great magical power. Tunga conceived the drums with the chains as the primary locus of mediation between the artist, the children, the educators, and the public; they existed fluidly in the space between sculptures, percussion instruments, domestic utensils, and amulets.
On his second trip, the drums were brought to a classroom at Casa de Cultura, where Tunga organized the first rehearsal with the children. He instructed the children to try to discover the type of sound that existed before orchestrated sound (at Projeto Axé, the children are taught how to orchestrate sound) and told them to create a sonic thunderball, in which they could even destroy their instruments. The scene that ensued was intensely chaotic. The children struck, threw, and even destroyed some of the drums in a powerful release of energy. They were like the members of a carnival bloco (contingent), in which they joyfully but at times aggressively liberated themselves from the rule of order.
On his third trip, Tunga, the children, and the educators met for the second rehearsal, which took place outside of the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia near the ocean. He surprised everyone by presenting a series of cotton swabs, needles, and other small objects, which he asked the children to use with the drums to make almost imperceptible sounds. The children had to become as quiet as possible to hear such faint sounds as a needle being scratched on a steel surface. They began to see that by becoming quiet, they could begin to hear sounds that were ordinarily inaudible, which metaphorically included their own internal voices, their desires, and the choices they could make.
On the opening day of the exhibition at the museum, Tunga organized a final performance with the children. He also created a sculptural installation of the drums for the exhibition. By experimenting with making sound—cacophonous noise in a Dionysian act of liberation from order, structure, and system, to barely audible sounds on which the children had to concentrate in a focused and intense manner in order to perceive—the children began to realize that they could become the agents of their self-transformation.