In the background, across the silver Baía de Todos os Santos, lies Ilha Dos Frades, like a shadow. Bay of All Saints, Island of Friars. Local legend has it that the native Tupinambás resisting Catholic conversion captured two Franciscan missionary priests who landed there, and assassinated them. (Whether true or not, I was told that they were boiled.) Later, the island became an illegal landing for slave ships from Daomé, where they enslaved made their first stop in the new world to be bathed, fed, and clothed before auction in Salvador. And later still, the site of Hospital dos Lazaros, presumably caring for lepers, though locals talk about the colonial sugar mills where the enslaved were dumped during quarantine, left to die. Ringing the island, coral. Magnificent, endangered, dying. Layers of beauty, and violence. Now the island is an ecological reserve, beset by schooner-loads of tourists. But in Diana’s pictures, there are no people.
In the foreground is a shape, abstract, evidently in flight. A leaf, a bird, a musical notation written on the wind. Is it lifting or falling? Is it dying or being reborn? Here is a fibrous bit of palm frond, seeming to walk, appearing as if it’s been replanted in the sand, new life given to the evidently dead, as Lazarus was miracled by Christ to live again, as the Catholic saints were absorbed by the enslaved into the Orishas, gods in exile, as capoeira evolved to look like a dance instead of an exercise in self defense and an act of resistance. Orixas en transito. Orishas in motion, emerged from the Bay of All Saints.
In the space between the haunted island and the mysterious forms moves the tide. The water rolls in, the water rolls out, like the breath of a deity. Silver, blue. Close, far. Receding, returning. The horizon shifts. One day is cloudy, the next is clear. Inhale, exhale. The light filters. The sea delivers its treasures. The cycle of life and death is one of transformation. The water evaporates and in the condensation of the clouds, our minds discover shapes.
In one single take, the artist, facing Ilha dos Frades turns the inside outside, recognizing that which is not obvious and making it airborne. She is struggling through the 900-page historical novel, Um Defeito De Cor, transported backwards in time while reckoning with mortality.
Here is a seedpod, encircling the rising moon like a diamond ring. Here is a coven of leaves, a long-legged dancer, an eagle, a nest, a UFO, a starving polar bear on a melting floe of ice. Playful, sinister, elusive, coy, sublime. As a group, the shapes suggest music, tissue, hair, lungs, ribs, moods, masks, cloth, lace, motion, dancing. Familiar strangers. A study in levitation, such as the capoerista on the beach, suspended between sea and sky, either a falling angel or a man resurrected from the dead. I was with Diana on the beach of Itaparica when she shot that picture, recognizing him as more-than-human, showing through the grammar of his flight, how a camera stops time.
It is not for us to know which of our myths will survive our extinction, nor what gestures they will make in the afterlife.
New York, April 1, 2019
Emily Raboteau is the author of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, and The Professor’s Daughter, a novel she finished in residence at the Sacatar Foundation on the island of Itaparica off the coast of Salvador do Bahia, where she met and posed for photographer Diana Blok in 2003. She is now developing a book of photo essays, entitled CAUTION.