— February 15, 2023

Vergara wore the skin of the Caciques and generated “complicity between the observer and the observed”. Incorporated to the crowd, Vergara is now part of the group. In a relationship of sensory commitment, the bloc party’s only demand was to have Will. The possibility of squeezing oneself in and feeling free. READ MORE

During the research for the Santa Teresa collection, in the second semester of 2022, we had the great fortune of visiting the atelier of visual artist Carlos Vergara, near Largo das Neves (RJ). The house is a maze of several of the artist’s phases and projects, a space he still frequents, every day, to work and create. In one of the rooms, we came upon the photos of the Cacique de Ramos bloc party and instantly fell in love. In the fast-approaching Carnival, Cacique will finally hold its commemorative parade celebrating 60 years (61, since last year there was no parade thanks to the pandemic). We remembered Vergara’s photos and contacted him to gain access to them once more. After reading the book Carnaval-Ritual, by Maurício Barros de Castro, we dove into this work that pulsates and moves, suggests sound, sweat and the different sensations of occupying the street and being part of a carnival bloc party.

It’s the 1970s and Brazil is living under a military dictatorship. The artistic movement is censored at every step of resistance. Exhibitions, films and stage plays are prevented from being shown. Carlos Vergara, who had already participated in the famous Opinião 65 exhibition, at MAM RJ, was part of the Nova Figuração Brasileira group, comprised of people such as Antonio Dias and Rubens Gerchman. The group proposed direct communication with the public, modifying reality through a critical eye. Vergara also communicated with important anthropologists of the time, such as Roberto da Matta and Victor Turner. All that creative drive, halted by the dictatorship’s persecution, made Vergara decide to “look outside” his atelier. This gesture made evident his desire to connect his art to Brazil’s social reality.

Vergara was already a regular at Zicartola, the samba club owned by Cartola and his wife, the cook and pastor Zica, a townhouse in downtown Rio de Janeiro. But what brought him close to the Rio de Janeiro carnival was discovering a street bloc party created by black youth from the periphery of the Ramos suburb, far away from the samba schools, which were already intellectually renowned at the time. Cacique de Ramos was founded in 1961, in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro. Its founders had indigenous names:
Ubirany, Ubirajara, Ubiracy, Aimoré, Iara, Maíra, Jurema, among others. They brought, in their history, their  indigenous (the country’s native peoples) and African (Umbanda and Candomblé) ancestries as well as references to American Western films.

Every year, Cacique creates a new costume, which is the same for all members. No hierarchies, anyone can participate. All you have to do is buy the costume and use it on the day. The bloc party’s construction is totally horizontal and its participants are all equal, with the same cacique skin. “A free and radical contract in its anti-bureaucracy”, says the author of the aforementioned studied book, Maurício Barros de Castro. The only thing that the bloc party demands is that one joins the collective.

This “disorganization” in its genesis evidenced a form of political power. In the words of Vergara himself:

 “ [...] the movement that was made, that of looking outside, led me to discover a group such as Cacique de Ramos, who had an absolutely political and organized discourse; “we are 7 thousand and we are all caciques, we are all equal and we are all different.” And the operation called my art was to move from that place of carnival, which is, in a way, a place of oblivion, to another place, the museum, which is a place of memory, remembrance and permanence.”

“Of its 7,000 members, I am 1.” That is the group’s motto. This voice affirms the equality of the members and, simultaneously, the uniqueness of each one. Something like the 3 musketeers, “all for one and one for all”, but a lot larger. 7,000 adults, youths, men, women, black people and white people: most from the impoverished periphery, an army of the people with indigenous skins and the beat of drums. The nappa and silk screen costumes colored white, black and red, created every year by Romeu de Vasconcellos, brought forth the uniform’s aspect of wearing the same skin. The incorporation into one single body. The face paint, referencing native North-Americans, was made with adhesive tape, and each one brought its own uniqueness, none were exactly like the other. 

On a trip to Búzios, Vergara observed from up close a group of snails stuck to a rock. At first glance, he perceived the snails as being all the same. But, upon closer inspection, each of them had a unique trait, singular features, just like the caciques of Ramos. Vergara began photographing the snails in several different positions and combinations, including the equal and not equal signs, proposing reflections regarding the singularities within a mass, a simple perspective based on the snails.

The street carnival experience of mixing in with the crowd reveals a fragile border between the collective and the individual. Hannah Arendt called it “public happiness”, feeling your true self, even when among so many other different people. Wearing the costume “implies in simultaneously hiding and revealing one’s individuality”, in the words of Roberto da Matta. “Masking oneself, in truth, is to replace one mask for another, revealing oneself.” Vergara commissioned an essay from anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro for an exhibition with his photos of Cacique. The essay is in the Carnaval-Ritual book and a passage from it translates well the spirit of carnival and of this act of (un)masking oneself: “A passion of the same and a desire of the other at the same time, in this other time that is Carnival.” This strange mirror that attracts and repels. It reveals truths, hidden desires. No wonder Vergara chooses to capture some scenes through puddles of water on the streets, revealing a reflection of the image and not reality itself. 

This incorporation of dressing oneself was also noticed by Hélio Oiticica, a friend of Vergara’s, who, at the time, live in New York. Vergara sent the Cacique costumes a few times to Hélio in the USA. His research with the Parangolé headed the same way and after talking with Vergara regarding the experience of wearing the nappa and transforming himself after this act, Oiticica consolidated his interest on the “corporeal climax”. In his own words: “The work then requires direct corporeal participation; in addition to covering the body, it is requested that the body moves, and ultimately, that it dances.” Both the Parangolé and Cacique de Ramos’ nappa costumes depend on the body wearing them, they only exist in movement and incorporated to someone.

Vergara wore the skin of the Caciques and generated “complicity between the observer and the observed”. Incorporated to the crowd, Vergara is now part of the group. In a relationship of sensory commitment, the bloc party’s only demand was to have Will. The possibility of squeezing oneself in and feeling free. Many photos portray the bloc’s famous attack moment, in which the drum section walks ahead and the crowd holds back around 100 meters. When the drum fill happens, the crowd runs, screaming war cries and throwing their costumes into the air. It is a true experience of undressing from everything, total joy, maximum euphoria. The captured images pulsate, move. The photographs travelled to the Venice Biennale in 1980, and they occupied and continue to occupy galleries and museums throughout Brazil.

“There is a king of costume that I can’t undress, which is the one of seeing the world in a way that is also critical” - Carlos Vergara.

by Luísa Pollo

The book Carnaval – Ritual, by Maurício Barros de Castro is distributed by Editora Cobogó and was published in 2021.

We thank João Vergara for his openness and receptivity, as he was always enthusiastic and a great advocate for his father’s works.