On April 21st, 1960, the bell from one of the first chapels in Vila Rica tolled for the birth of Brasilia. I imagine the bell being taken down from the tower—with ropes and pulleys, I suppose.
I imagine it being transported through the narrow steep streets of Ouro Preto, and from there to Belo Horizonte. I imagine a small aircraft and a serious pilot. I imagine the debarkation, the expectation, the wooden structure waiting at the square. The lifting, the knots, the suspension. I imagine Amador Gomes exiting the same plane with his eyes on the staircase. I imagine him lifting his head and looking at the new capital, which he couldn’t have seen yet, not even in pictures. I imagine his astonishment, shared by all, in face of the future that seemed to be present at last.
The present, tomorrow. Let’s take the story up and read it against the grain. 1960. Inauguration of Brasilia, futurist capital of Brazil. Carla Zaccagnini (Argentina, 1973) imagines the bell and the one who tolls it during the city’s inauguration. She imagines the influences of African cultures and rhythms that arrived to the country with the slave trade, infiltrating white and Christian rituals as the church bell rang when someone died, but not when she or he was being executed by felony or treason.
There was another 21st of April, in 1792, when someone waited anxiously for the right moment to ring this same bell. Amador Gomes stood by in order to be better seen. His predecessor was a shadow in the dark, holding back to move quietly, without being identified. And when the bell tolled, nobody (or almost nobody) expected to hear its sound. At least, this is the story that is told. Bells throughout the whole country were forbidden to chime during the day and night of the execution of Tiradentes, traitor to the Crown. But they say that when the night was already dark and silent, the sleepless inhabitants of Vila Rica could recognize the well-known sound of this one bell.
José da Silva Xavier, Tiradentes, dentist and military officer, was executed. Alongside twelve other “conspirators” that refused to continue paying the excessive tributes to the Portuguese Crown, Tiradentes led the independentist movement of the Inconfidentes in Ouro Prieto (previously Vila Rica), in the region of Minas Gerais. Given away by one of their members, the Inconfidentes where exposed in 1789 and condemned to exile, with the exception of Tiradentes, who was hanged at the gallows and quartered. In the manner of the time, his limbs were impaled and scattered along the roads his ideas had travelled, a daunting warning meant to serve as an example for anyone attempting to organize a revolt. The head was stuck on a pole in front of the Casa de Câmara e Cadeia de Vila Rica (simultaneously a Chamber and a prison) and disappeared without a trace.
It has been said that before being scattered, Tiradentes’ limbs were placed in bags filled with salt. It has also been said that salt is a remedy to liberate the living dead from eternal life; an antidote to awake the zombie from the spell of the dead and bring him back to the world of the living. The historical figure of the zombie evokes the specters of slavery and Colonial times. What was terrible, they would say, wasn’t running into a zombie but ending up as one and being condemned to forced labor for life.
But Zaccagnini says she believes that everyone dies forever (although she doubts this at times), and in reality, the death to which Tiradentes was sentenced (on the gallows and without a burial) was called pena de morte para sempre: death penalty forever. But this was not the case of Zumbi. Zumbi (zombi, from Quimbundo language: ghost, spectre; or from the Iimbagala language: someone that has died and come back to life).
By 1680—Zaccagnini recounts—Zumbi had become the leader of Quilombo de Palmares, an independent territory in Northeastern Brazil governed by fugitive slaves. After coming to power, Zumbi overturned the treaties that his predecessor had reached with the Portuguese Crown, which granted freedom exclusively to those slaves of African descent that were from Palmares: There would be no peace unless freedom was for all. And it never is. The governor of Pernambuco decided to invade and destroy Quilombo de Palmares. Zumbi was wounded but managed to escape. He was later betrayed and executed; the head—which had already lost an eye—was transported in a bag of salt in order to be exhibited in the city of Recife and intimidate those who though he was immortal. And perhaps he was, for myths survive, transform and resound.
What sound is this that only this bell can produce? What can be the aural quality that made it necessary for this and no other bell to vibrate on the same day on such different years? How can this sound, then, be capable of paying homage—secretly or publicly, clandestinely or officially—to both the traitor who would become the first hero [Tiradentes] and the city that would be built as the third and last capital of this country [Brasilia]? I imagine this sound and its echoes, in one place and the other…
Today, that bell’s percussions—slow at times and hasty at others—traverse the minimalist, asymmetrical surfaces of a modernist building that condenses the material abstraction of gold and the ornaments of Colonial baroque; the premature nostalgia for a future that became present at the expense of heroism, martyrdom and treason; at the expense too of the mutilated bodies of men and women, and a truncated gaze.
Zaccagnini responds to the very need of the space for creating a ritual atmosphere that is not necessarily religious but transmits a spiritual elevation to generate a sense of community; an expanse where the echoes inscribed on the bell’s surface and their cross-references can interweave the scattered narratives in which official history appears as a footnote. But let us return to the point of departure, which was also the point of arrival.
One can understand why Brasilia would be the terrain for this retribution, and for a new start. One can also realize the advantages of doing this subtly, by connecting these two historical moments through the presence of a bell’s abstract sound. One can’t help thinking of that lapse, however. The small slip or grave error of recalling the insurrection by the date of its punishment and through the lament of its repression. Then came the future: from the same central square in this new capital projected for brighter times, thousands of new murders were commanded by the State during the following decades. And no bell ever tolled.
*This text incorporates excerpts of Carla Zaccagnini’s essay presented during the seminar Fables of the Undead: An Allegorical History of Latin America that took place in Tecoh, Yucatan, on April 26, 27 and 28, 2018. Both The Present, Tomorrow and this seminar are part of The Missing Circle, a larger project initiated by KADIST, the final manifestation of which will be presented at Museo Amparo, Puebla, during the summer of 2019.