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Beatriz Nascimento

Composting the "Composteiras": Self-education and Co-formation into a Study Group with Beatriz Nascimento


with Millena Lízia

and Walla Capelobo

Leia este artigo em português aqui.

The working proposal of the study group was to relate this terrestrial technology as a research method to generate knowledge [...] Thus, our meetings involved learning through composting technologies as a way to connect with regenerative dynamics from living materials.

Portrait of Beatriz Nascimento. Source: Decolonising Geography.

Amid environmental and civilizational crises, where nature and humanities are seen as resources to be consumed, the need to imagine the transformation of the fates of history arises as an urgent concern for us. In this journey, among the paths we walked in the last two years, was that of conjuring our existences through the project "Composteiras: regenerative knowledge with Beatriz Nascimento."1 It unfolded during a time marked by the pandemic and the resurgence of the genocidal project in Brazil of a country handed over to the militia.

These meetings proposed an invitation to organize ourselves as a study group dedicated to the production of existences whose knowledge compositions would allow us to have nourishing exchanges, in the sense of dignities, in the diverse ways of being in the world, understanding ourselves as integral beings of collectivities built on relationships. Therefore, to value the lives and their times, it seemed powerful to list the contributions made by specific authors and to wander into the forest that each of us is.

During this period, we had exchanges arising from deepening into the knowledge produced by the historian, scriptwriter, teacher, activist, and poet Maria Beatriz Nascimento (1942-1995), which led our circle meetings with the participants that took place mainly online. The contributions of this Brazilian intellectual on the quilombos2 compelled us to investigate the struggle to exist within a society founded on authoritarianism. From the quilombola perspective offered by Beatriz, the answers to tyrannies were revealed in the newfound ways of being together, in understanding ourselves as deeply identified with the soil, and with our exchanges in terms of sustenance and memory; this is where we are and strive to exist. The contact with this body of knowledge invited us to nourish the circle with the theoretical and/or practical knowledge that constitutes each of us: that which has been part of our searches and, inseparably, of the ways in which we build.

It should be noted that, in this proposal, composting processes were understood as more than just an environmentally responsible way of managing everyday waste.

The working proposal of the study group was to relate this terrestrial technology as a research method to generate knowledge committed to questioning the hegemonic logics of discarding, producing scarcity and precariousness. It was from the relationship between food, digestion, decomposition, recomposition, and our walk through the world (physical, psychic, emotional, or spiritual) that we built our proposal for a study group, our pesquisa composteira.

The nutritive dynamics that enable our sustenance are far from being linear since these paths are cyclical and full of transformations, which occur through assimilation and excess. Everything was/is matter and we cannot possibly accept to continue dealing with the idea of waste production as an end. Thus, our meetings involved learning through composting technologies as a way to connect with regenerative dynamics from living materials that can only be transformed into living matter: nutrients for the world.

Residue/Register/Resistance? Without a beginning or end, we are medium. Composting comes to us as a way to offer continuity to life by providing fertility paths for the waste generated in everyday life, with the great Beatriz Nascimento as a guide in this journey. We reverence your life, Maestra!

Would it be necessary to lose ground for us to give its due value to the (E)earth?

(with Millena Lízia)

This question came to my mind as I prepared to write the first lines of the day after the blessings of a generous lunch.

Being grateful for the food—a common custom among the elderly—makes more and more sense here. Perhaps it is just the symptom (which takes on an air of luxury in the face of our losses) of growing old in this land. Or it might even be the realization of the proximity of what seemed but harmless ghosts for most of our generation, such as food insecurity and hunger, even though they invariably populate the stories told at home by our ancestors.

Let us beware: let circumstances not be interpreted as misfortunes or fatalities, for we are facing multiple scenarios of projected, structural, and criminal precariousness. Because some do benefit, take advantage, have comfort, and, ultimately, enjoy security.

When we share unsustainable situations (for ourselves, for our close ones, and for an entire population) the debates on sustainability are weakened if we do not understand the urgencies of that which offers us sustenance, a base, a ground, a support. Perhaps that is why, in recent years, I began to conceive of research as a search for paths that can offer us dignity.

This elaboration certainly echoes a question that (besides providing some level of organization for my anxieties) has been guiding me since 2018 in different terrains: Como produzir vida? (How to produce life?) This question seemed so central to me, that it became the only text that repeatedly occupied one of the pages of my MFA thesis dissertation.3 No other text was possible at that time, since it would not contemplate the emergencies we were going through. In this writing gesture, what finally settled on the page was a fragment of the initial question: Com? (a word that, in Portuguese, asks ‘with?’). Of course, this derivation did not come for free and added a layer of complexity, with the whim of presenting itself as another question that joined the circle4.

Millena Lízia: "Ser Sutura" (2020). Pen drawing of the occupation of water on vegetal paper during its evaporation, sewing needle, and hair strand. Courtesy: Millena Lízia.

From there, intuition pointed to the fact that one place where I would find ways to answer these questions would be in the production of Beatriz Nascimento. Until then, the only contact I had had with Beatriz's research had been through the iconic film Ôrí (1989).5 However, many of the learnings that I share today about the work of this great historian who was, as she liked to say, ‘committed to her time,’ are in that audiovisual production. But perhaps I needed some time for decanting to be able to integrate into my life the idea that losing ground—the opening line of this section—is not a figure of speech at all. Beatriz herself guides us that we are wherever we are, even if we need to migrate in order to be. Our heritage of displacement, of movements, is much older than the modern forced diaspora, and it has long been known that when you lose ground, you lose yourself.

Therefore, if there was any possible fuga—a fleeting path—it would be inward, following a wise movement that connects deeply with what/who we are from where we are; as Beatriz sharply points out, keeping the course of what guides us in these circulations. Therefore, this is something that is established by nurturing relationships and exchanges with everything in this world. Because, in truth, there is no outside; we are composed with each and every drop. There is fertility: a whole ocean. Atlântica.

Seeds, fungi, compounds, and earth-colored dreams

(with Walla Capelobo)

“That is why I think that quilombos arose not only as a result of a negative situation, escaping from slavery, but as a positive action to recreate the primordial connection between man and earth. The earth not as property but as an essential element for all human life, in its spiritual sense.”

Volta à terra da memória - Beatriz Nascimento5

I took some soil from the backyard, the red soil I see as I go down, and there I felt the variety of times that constitute us. It looks like something small, informing the need for darkness, feelings, and little vision. It becomes smaller, quieter, the size of a tiny grain, which in the words of Gilberto Gil in his song "Iansã," is so big for knowing who it is by being. It is conflicting to live in the flow of persisting in being within a society that imposes not being, as Beatriz Nascimento tells us when talking about the challenges of life in an invaded territory. She guides us in perceiving the multiple paths that are remade daily in search of organizations, in favor of the prosperous life they tried to make us forget that we once lived, knew, and perpetuated.

In our circle meetings, even if they were remote and virtual, I found ways to restore this oblivion. We exchanged earthly dreams of memories embodied in our lives outlined by black dreams. It was like grasping the red soil I embodied. Beatriz pointed the arrow before the horror of slavery, to the depths of unsubjugated times, to remind us of the civilizational legacies of transmutation from which we descended. It was like going down to the bottom of the well, as Mother Stella de Ochosi teaches us: a humid, earthy space, capable of regenerating, remembering, and starting again.

The ground, composed of multiple rock formations in a cyclical, continuous, endless phenomenon, keeps the incarnated historicity of the planet in its materiality. From the boiling magma to the eroded minerals in the mountains, in an infinite time for the individual human existence, it inhabits the stories that compose us. The red iron of the soil I now hold in my hand connects with the iron that colors my blood, whispering about our similarities in the synchronic composition of planetary life. It is in the earth, in the ground—as Beatriz points out—that the quilombola entity is forged and remade over time, as a response to the cosmic relational disconnection between us and the skin of the world. And from this desire to connect arises the desire to make soil, to face the cycles with responsibility, and to become radically involved in existence.

Compost bin of “um dia sonhei que seu fim era nosso meio” [I once dreamed that their end was our means] (2022). Photo: Sesc Paraty. Courtesy: Walla Capelobo.

I recently carried out work that most likely would not have existed without the rich conversations that took place during the study cycles and meetings. Since March 2022, I have been researching the quilombola community of Campinho da Independência in Paraty, on the Green Coast of Rio de Janeiro. Laura dos Santos, the Jongueira leader of the community, steered my steps toward the firm paths of the continuity of our liberations. My initial idea was to gift the quilombo of Campinho da Independência the germination of a tamarind seedling—a fruit of African origin that, like thousands of other beings, crossed the Atlantic to take root in another territory. This seed had come from the Quilombo Pinhões, in Minas Gerais, where part of my family lives. It came from a meaningful tree for the community and our experiences. Along the process, I noticed the seeds were refusing to germinate and, as the days went by, they showed no signs of sprouting. Simultaneously, communities of fungi—beings that I love—appeared in them. Beatriz Nascimento reminds us of the fundamentals of the Bantu people, in which respect for the vital forces of all beings is very important for the balance and exercise of earthly life. From this knowledge, I focused on trying to understand what these seeds presented to me. Even in these two sacred grounds of resistance, such as the aforementioned quilombos, the dehumanizing project of Brazil traverses us, insisting on our extinction as a model of civism, harming our germination in multiple ways. What forces do we need to unleash in order to flourish in invaded lands? Perhaps some of these forces are in the embodied memory of the earth, of good dying and good living. With the fungi and seeds, I created a video installation called um dia sonhei que seu fim era nosso meio [I once dreamed that their end was our means], composed of three objects, including a compost bin. In the work, I recorded the dialogue I held for several months with the seeds and the fungi, creating a fable in which these quilombola seeds will be the ones to decompose the historic colonial center of Paraty, a city known as "black gold" in the nineteenth century, due to the illegal trafficking of beings of African origin.

It is necessary to break down the structures that threaten us, those that give structure to power in favor of our annihilation. To return to the earth, to the depths of the intuitive dark matter capable of regenerating us, so that we can become the creole seeds we truely are. It is a matter of time, the earth will return.

Our Waters Will Flow

(with Millena, Walla, and you)

The understanding of power for black people is also built on the possibilities of leaving a legacy for the following generations, as Beatriz Nascimento suggests in her film Ôrí. From this, we sense that we can also gather elements that contribute reflections on cosmologies and experienced wisdom of a vital-temporal nature. Our works and achievements would be intertwined, as our present existences have the potential to be stitching tools for connecting all lives and times. Therefore, our lives do not end in us, for we are made up of continuities, and thus, we paradoxically elude the systemic annihilations imposed upon us. To recognize in each of us these ancestral technologies of the future is the work we undertake, but not without first acknowledging these resources in ourselves.

Record of the seed bomb workshop offered by Lohana Montelo at a meeting of Composteiras (2022). Photo: Renata Figueredo. Courtesy: Millena Lízia and Walla Capelobo.

The partnership that gave rise to the group "Composteiras: Regenerative Knowledge with Beatriz Nascimento" finds support, first of all, in the shelter resulting from violence suffered while working in an art space in Rio de Janeiro. This network of protection enabled the rapprochement and approximation between our projects. Therefore, what precedes Composteiras is the encounter between "How to produce life?" and "We will not be mined," which are the phrases that guided our research. The formation of a study group was aimed at strengthening networks of protection, shelter, and learning tools that empower the stubbornness of good living. However, in the face of the tragic pandemic scenario that we were going through, it was the earth that summoned us to its knowledge.

Our initial intention for the project was to periodically adopt a specific author to dynamize our exchanges, but as we delved into the work of Beatriz Nascimento, we found a whole world to immerse ourselves in. Thus, throughout those years, Composteiras became inseparable from her studies. We could rather say that we worked with her since each and every discussion that arose in our circle meetings was considered through Beatriz, from her knowledge, as we read and re-read her texts. We also considered the technologies of ancestral enchantment, which do not acknowledge coincidences and cannot be explained. They reach out to the people of today, inviting them to the technologies that will follow.

Seed bomb workshop offered by Lohana Montelo in a meeting of Composteiras (2022). Photo: Millena Lízia.

The numerous sophisticated points of view gave us nothing but a pleasure to assemble into the collectives that were formed (to whom we are immensely grateful). Thus, we concluded that the experiences we multiplied together allowed us to understand composting as a way to carry out research. It is worth mentioning that this pesquisa composteira we experienced transformed our understanding as researchers. Thanks to movements such as these and to all we have lived, we began to perceive ourselves in this journey as researchers of continuities, moving through the contradictions contained in the continuities that deprive us. For us, continuing does not mean to keep going in the same way; actually, quite the opposite. As the forces of annihilation do not cease to impose themselves upon us, we have no other way but to change to persist, connecting deeply with what we are and what we want: transformation.

“The foundation of the quilombo is the earth, man identifying himself deeply with the earth. Then, the Ebó is given to the earth, as all the living elements are in the soil and will participate in this banquet that is the Ebó. There will be viruses, there will be microbes, there will be cells that will decompose and become other cells... This is the principle of the 'axé,' of the force.”7

Maria Beatriz Nascimento