Paradise in Disguise: A Diary of ImagesSince 2000 Diana Blok has visited Brazil several times. On her last visit in 2003 she was invited by the Sacatar Foundation, together with colleagues from Africa, America and Europe as artist-in-residence, to stay for two months on the island of Itaparica in the Baia da todos os Santos to the south of Salvador. The Brazilian travels of Diana Blok also have a strong personal character. It appears that she is restlessly in search of the paradise of her youth.
Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, Diana is the daughter of an Argentinean Catholic mother and a Dutch Jewish father. She spent her youth in Uruguay, Colombia and Guatemala, thanks to her father's diplomatic career. Later she studied sociology for three years at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Since 1974 she has established her home base in Amsterdam as a diaspora artist. She travels regularly, returning to her roots in the Caribbean and South America, as well as to Brazil. Significant in Blok's earliest memories is Coca, a large black woman from Salvador de Bahia who regularly took care of her in Uruguay. Salvador, northeast of Brazil, was the capital until 1763. In Brazil, where slavery was only abolished in 1888, particularly in Bahia (one of the 27 states), there was an influx of Yoruba and kindred West African peoples during the 18th century and late into the 19th. The strategies of oppression and opposition, of accommodation and transformation of these slaves, of the original native Indian population, the Portuguese colonialists, European adventurers and criminals, Jews fleeing the Inquisition, and--after the abolition of slavery--Asian workers in their various processes of transculturation led to a complex society. Diana Blok, with her own personal past and her present profession, has undoubtedly been sensitive to this history.
Also imprinted in her memory is the journey that she long ago made with her parents to this oldest capital of Brazil. A Dutch missionary guided them to baroque churches and convents full of dusty saints' statues and paintings, where suddenly bats came flapping out from behind. Once more back in Bahia, she brought these memories from her youth to life in several photographs of these realistic, polychrome statues.
The photos that Diana Blok made while in Brazil are complex, and not only because of their layers. Those who are familiar the earlier work with which she made a breakthrough 20 years ago, will surely discover similarities. The titles of her first two books, Invisible Forces (1983) and Blood Ties and Other Bonds (1990), speak volumes in this respect. Some of the formal qualities of these early photographs --their sculptural characteristics, for instance, or Blok's related interest in "the skin" and sensuality--are still important elements of the imagery in her oeuvre. Since then, her work has developed even further. As different genres combine with each other, multi-interpretive intermediate forms originate and analogue photographs are shown together with digital prints. Working on a monumental photo commission for a prison in the late nineties, Blok started using colour, and she now uses more colour, as well as video. Some of the changes--for example the more documentary character and the use of colour--are clearly visible in her previous book, Ay Dios (2001), a publication dealt with in issue nr 71 of this magazine.
Blok made a number of interesting self-portraits in Bahia. These are somewhat veiled by being reduced to hands, feet or other body parts. Yet at first glance it seems that her recent work is less personal. The intimate character of her studio shots has made room for a more public approach. Staging in the studio is replaced by what looks like a documentary registration of reality. But appearances are deceptive: reality can have hidden layers, and what appears to be a faithful recording is sometimes actually staged. When Blok leaves her studio, "objective reality" becomes her poetic décor and is meant for the viewer to project. The particular point in time for many of the exposures is one of the threads that run through her Brazilian story. The sun that disappears behind the horizon draws heavy skies and leaves long traces on the landscape. The images of birds that are caught lend this décor the ambiguous, melancholic atmosphere of a late afternoon in the tropics where light and shadow, pleasure and pain, Eros and Thanatos strive for precedence.
The realism of her photos depicting saints' statues does not minimize the effect of the capers that she lets the local fishermen's sons cut. Their dexterity is incorporated into the game that Blok plays. They do capoeira. Probably of Angolan origin, this Brazilian martial art was initially practiced by black slaves to withstand their oppressors and to keep their often forbidden culture camouflaged. After the abolition of slavery, capoeira, though forbidden until 1928, flourished in the back streets of urban districts. Since this martial art had in the meantime almost developed into a dance form, the boys, under Diana Blok's direction, have been given wings--while high above the horizon, on the beach of Itaparica, she got her camera to freeze their gracious movements. Portraits of the same figures, with their wet sand-caked skin, remind us of her earlier work.
Blok's fellow artists also figure in her photographs. Sometimes their poses or actions in the tropical forest can be thought of as mysterious rituals of the Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian variation of the Cuban Santería and the Haitian Voodoo. In other photographs, the game of light and shadow is a metaphor for writing with light. Diana Blok's Brazilian travelogue has become a diary of images. Drawn from these images, her own story can be told over and again. The meaning of this story is also determined by the form in which it is presented (in magazines, books, on gallery walls or in installations) and by the chosen sequence of the photographs. The manner in which the people she portrays go about their business, or who are intimately busy with one another, is intensified by a particular manner of framing that creates distance. Still, the various sequences from this diary are never contrived. The voyeuristic gaze of the viewer, so common to tourists everywhere, dissolves into active participation--for these are also images in which we are able to recognize something of ourselves, while in our thoughts we can (re)construct our own story accordingly.