Capoeira and conceptual practice

By Lukas Peter

At a time when public institutions are under increasing pressures to face up to the insidious legacy of colonialism, I embarked on a simultaneous journey into a Master’s degree and a capoeira education. The city of Bristol, former key node in the Atlantic slave trade and Colonialism of the British Empire, became the site to this dual path of learning. Two years along the way, I have not only witnessed the clunky word ‘decolonisation’ gaining public purchase far beyond the fringes of academic scholarship and indigenous struggles, but find myself deeply puzzled by the entanglement of these two seemingly separate worlds, scholarship and capoeira, in my nascent work. In an appreciation of how both, in their very correspondence, have enriched my conceptual practice, I thus aspire to exhibit how the work of thinking and knowing is never exclusively academic. Could troubling encounters of practices as diverse as scholarship and capoeira provide an appreciation for the deep necessity of correspondence in existence, and thus of a project of decolonisation?

Bristol post-colony – Human Geography

In the fall of 2017, I moved to Bristol to commence a Master’s degree in Human Geography. Both in terms of location and discipline, I came to one of the coronary arteries of the former British Empire and its Colonialism. As a former port city heavily involved in the Colonial rule of the British Empire and the Atlantic slave trade, Bristol still bears the trace of its colonial past. The extravagance of Clifton’s colonial architecture and the names of former slave traders, like Edward Colston, on central urban complexes now stand side-by-side with a vibrant graffiti, arts and music scene which have precipitated the city’s recent reputation as a ‘creative capital’ marked by critical, progressive politics and culture. After a period of post-colonial and post-industrial devastation in the middle of the 20th century, Bristol has become one of the most attractive places in Britain for national and international ‘talent’ since the 1990s. This ‘up-and-comingness’ has become publicly visible through its crystallisations in music duo Massive Attack, graffiti artist Banksy and the annual St. Paul’s Carnival, to name but a few of the most popular faces of the ‘new Bristol’. Both from the grassroots and recently more aggressively through its planners and ‘architects’, Bristol has been re-inventing itself around a celebration of “wonderful diversity” (Turner 2019).

 

08. Lukas imageImage: St. Paul’s Carnival 2019 (Turner 2019)

Demands to explicitly recognise and appreciate the contributions of other traditions, cultures and ‘worlds’ have also become increasingly audible in universities. As privileged sites of education and research in modern society, academia and scholarship have come under increasing pressure to both face up to their colonial legacy, and their continuing exclusion of non-Western, non-European, and non-white accounts from curricula and research agendas. Around the concept of ‘decolonisation’ a nascent tenant of public scrutiny extends far beyond disciplines like human geography and anthropology to the role played by universities in continuing the kind of knowledge production and education crucial to the administration of Empire to its colonies and subjects. This line of critique has already merited a number of institutional agendas like the University of Amsterdam diversity commission’s 2016 report “Let’s do diversity!” (Wekker et al. 2019). Not only academic canons – dominated by European, white, male accounts – but academic modes of engagement are now being exposed in their complicities with (post-)colonial power, violence and politics. The recognition of ethnography and cartography as central to colonial administration has thrown the disciplines of anthropology and human geography into identity crises in recent decades. The very appeal of human geography, a discipline I was entirely unacquainted with as a philosophy and politics undergraduate, to me lay in its obligation to face up to the violences, past and present, it has been and is complicit in. In a sense, human geography, in its specific British and Bristolian formation is both the product of and an attempt to reckon with the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing coloniality of its institutional and geographical location. Both the site of Bristol and the discipline of human geography, these new physical and academic stations on my path, derive their appeal precisely from their conflicted legacy.

Capoeira – companion practice

At the same time that I enrolled at the University of Bristol and their School of Geographical Sciences, I joined local capoeira group Nucleo de Capoeiragem. My move to Bristol has thus, over the past two years, facilitated not only a path of academic learning but, from the beginning, included a parallel learning journey: weaving together elements of improvised movement, acrobatics, martial arts, singing, drumming and ritual, capoeira engenders an Afro-Brazilian art form born out of the colonial encounter of African, Portuguese and Indigenous bodies, cultures, instruments and practices. On an eclectic trajectory in (post-)colonial Brazil, from criminalisation to national identity, capoeira has garnered a global community with a number of masters have progressively taken it beyond the borders of Brazil since the 1970s. With strong influences on break-dance, contact improvisation, mixed martial arts, and parkour, capoeira has proliferated both in its own right and in creatively mixing with other local practices. Both human geography and capoeira are characteristic of the post-colony as products of and responses to the colonial and post-colonial context. Bristol as a site, therefore, not only commenced a path of academic learning and scholarly practice but precipitated a contiguous education and practice of movement and music. My journey of academic maturation over the past two years is inconceivable without the companion practice of capoeira. From the beginning, these two practices – academic reading, writing, speaking on the one, and movement, singing, drumming on the other hand – were deeply intertwined.

While their simultaneous ongoing-ness and mutual enrichment is so palpable in my everyday life, the challenge of appreciating these practices not as separate but in their correspondence, appears to be almost impossible from either end. From the side of capoeira practice, its practitioners and teachers, there is often a liberal openness to researchers, and perhaps even a sense of pride that one’s practice/culture has entered the debates of reputable academic institutions. Scholars, however, rarely succeed in showing how their practice could contribute to capoeira beyond the prestige associated with academic publications. It remains to be shown how scholarship and capoeira could possibly be allied in a political struggle (of whatever magnitude). On the opposite end of the academic institution, capoeira at best sparks (mild) interest as a ‘cultural practice’: “Oh yeah, that Brazilian dance-fight, right?”. While a recent movement towards recognising the value of artistic practice to academic work by scholars and funding bodies alike, has merited the proliferation of work that integrates art as a method adjacent to research, it remains questionable whether this handing of an olive branch from academia to arts only further entrenches the divide we draw between theory and practice. Whether as an object of study or as a ‘method’, the framing of ‘arts’ as valuable to academia maintains a clear hierarchy of master and servant between theory and practice, science and arts. Over the past two years, the emerging correspondence of scholarship and capoeira in my life has ceaselessly troubled this common configuration of capoeira and scholarship as art and science, practice and theory, method and analysis.

Written accounts of Capoeira, while still rare, generally adhere to a strict division of two camps: on the one hand, there are written manuals and historical accounts by masters of Capoeira which mostly draw on autobiographical experience, some archival material, and the proto-mythical stories about the origin and history of Capoeira; on the other hand, there are established professional scholars (mostly anthropologists) who have made Capoeira their object of study in attempts to elucidate this product of ‘afro-Brazilian culture’. In the first case, writing becomes a means to telling the story of Capoeira and disseminating its teachings; in the second, Capoeira becomes the means to generating research and testing theoretical concepts. For both Capoeira Masters and anthropologists, these two, Capoeira and scholarship, have to be delineated. One always has to be supplementary to the other, otherwise professional credibility and integrity are at risk. Crudely put, for a master, the real thing is always the jogo de Capoeira, his book is just an appendix. For the most part, whenever I have seen a master promote their book at a Capoeira event, it was apparent that the author him/her-self found the whole ‘book situation’ somewhat silly. Conversely, for the scholar, the real thing is always her research, the game of capoeira is just where she gets her data (the appendix in her research paper). In many cases, the scholar herself is quite open about the awkwardness of her involvement in capoeira events. In my case however, can I treat my practice of capoeira merely as a source of data? Can I treat scholarship merely as a referential guide?

My arrival in Bristol two years ago kicked off a movement of thought and body, a vibration across diverse instruments. This assemblage, of practices and people, this temporary confluence of diverging lines of movement is contingent upon Bristol’s colonial past. Can this (post-)colonial gathering, in its very resistance to neat separation, be the starting point to trajectories of decolonisation, of reckonings with violences past and present? What emerges as the fragile starting point to my dissertation project is this: Instead of being able to approach capoeira from the outside as a scholar, I have found myself with one foot in both worlds from the start, wondering how capoeira is already continuous with my scholarly work. In other words, what would it mean to appreciate the ongoing correspondence between these highly diverse practices? Can they be seen, in their very difference, as forming the wholeness of my nascent conceptual work? Is my ‘conceptual’ academic work of theories, ideas and essays really dissociable from playing the berimbau (capoeira instrument) and playing in the roda (capoeira circle)? Is it not, in the literal sense of the word con-ception (taking-together), always both that are at play? The properly conceptual question that thus emerges from the correspondence of these seemingly separate practices puts the finger in the wound of an academia which poses as the sole authority of conceptual knowledge and work: are there not, in any conception, already at least two corresponding practices at play?

 

References

Turner, A., 2019. Bristol celebrates ‘wonderful diversity’ at St Paul’s carnival – in pictures. The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2019/jul/08/bristol-celebrates-wonderful-diversity-at-st-pauls-carnival-in-pictures?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook&fbclid=IwAR1UeSkCsZ5oZdQo8LsfKZ1f6CpzvjwCwWQih44o2vK-YWeVH_wUHJotgig, accessed on 16 July 2019).

Wekker, G., Slootman, M.W., Icaza, R. and Vazquez, R., 2016. Let’s do diversity. Report of the University of Amsterdam Diversity Commission. University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.

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