A Mineral Archive

Posted by Ricardo Duarte Filho – PhD Student in Spanish and Portuguese at NYU

Vi os montes, e eis que tremiam.

E todos os outeiros estremeciam.

Olhei para a terra e eis que estava vazia,

sem nada nada nada.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade – Triste Horizonte.

This summer I am conducting a research about extractivism and mining in Brazil. I was propelled by the dam that collapsed in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, at the beginning of this year – an accident that killed at least 248 people. In my original plan, I had proposed a clear split between the archival research, to be conducted in the first two weeks, and the fieldwork, in which I would go visit some cities that are historically linked to mining activities – including the cities that were affected by the dam collapse. Even though I am still following this plan , it has been an interesting experience noticing how these two parts of the research are continuously superimposing each other. 

This minor – and almost cliché – realization is making me comprehend how the mining’s history – both to the Colonial golden rush as to the modern iron extractivism – is not only part of the documents that I had access through the archival research at the Biblioteca Nacional and Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa. This archive is also part of the day to day life of these cities affected by this activity, such as a long small talk between two strangers that I overheard on the bus trip from Goiás to Goiânia. The two men discussed the old gold mining and its relation to slavery and how both of them were certain that one could still find gold in the town’s river up to this day – neither of them had ever tried looking for it. This archive is also part of the own geology of these places, such as the rusted rocks alongside this river – Rio Vermelho (Red River), named for the reddish rust stains that indicate that these rocks contain iron minerals.

The idea of a mineral archive was also suggested to me by the Afro-Brazilian artist Dalton Paula while I was visiting his atelier. During this visit he showed me his latest work, a commissioned work that will be part of the 36º Panorama da Arte Brasileira, an exposition that will take place at the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. In it, he painted elements from Afro-diasporic cultures in forty-five bateias (gold panning) – instruments that were used in garimpo (artisanal mining). Paula also showed me his collection of minerals and, while talking about a rock called Quartzite, he told me how it is associated to ideas of memory and ancestrality, elements that are crucial to his own work. Seeing his work and hearing him talk about his mineral collection, I thought on how these intertwined memories and histories must be a central point to an investigation on these topics, and how one should not only focus on the human activity, disregarding the agency and history of non-human subjects, such as the minerals.

This does not mean that the more classical archival research was not important for the research. During my first two weeks, I have conducted archival research in the Biblioteca Nacional and Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa. Since my research interests are usually focused on contemporary art, I had never conducted this kind of activity before, so with the scholarship offered by CLACS I could begin working on this skill. Even if some of the documents that I wanted to see were digitized and available online, some of them were not. I have had access to documents and maps that allowed me to establish connections that I had not before, such as how the creation of the Vale do Rio Doce Company, the company whose dam collapsed at the beginning of this year (2019), was closely associated with the exportation of iron to the US and to England to be used in the fabrication of weapons during World War II. Thus, this more “classical” archival research folded with these other impressions and experiences, enabling a dialogue from different stratas. This image made me think of this research as pursuing a baroque geology, one that is enabling me to crisscross these different folds and archives, pointing to connections that maybe I would not have noticed if I had perceived them as two completely separate entities.

Going back to older documents, I had access to a military map from 1800 that represents the Rio Doce. In which you can read: This region is infested with Botocudos (an indigenous group). This official document portrays the indigenous population as a kind of a nuisance, an obstacle to the better use of the region. Reading documents produced during the Colonial period, such as letters and maps, it is visible how the mining activities were dependent on slavery. With these documents, I began thinking about how the deaths caused by the dam were part of a much larger extrativist trajectory, built upon the systematic death and destruction of racialized populations and non-human agents.

I still have two more weeks in Brazil, in which I will visit some cities in Minas Gerais. I intend to continue pursuing this idea of a mineral archive, trying to notice how the topography of these places can be perceived as an archive and as an agent that actively shapes these extractivist histories.

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