Interview with Beatriz Lemos – ““Feminism goes deeper than an argument over who’s better and who’s worse, weaker or stronger – it is about the women’s role in society. It is also about taking a stand, even when something seems unimportant.””

“Beatriz Lemos recalls her experience as an independent curator and as a researcher for public collections, the challenges feminism faces today and her research on the works of Márcia X., which resulted in a book on the artist’s work. She also discusses her experiences in residences, her views coming from an all-encompassing standpoint are a result of her travels and research through Latin America. The fruit of her labor is available on the Lastro platform, which maps the independent art circuit of Latin America, which is discussed in detail on this interview and also works as a database for a reflection on the insertion of women in this scene.” – Lilian Maus

ISABEL WQUIL – How’s life as a freelance curator?

BEATRIZ LEMOS – It’s unstable. I have been working as a freelancer since 2008. Before that, I worked at a museum for six years. You have to deal with the instability because there’s no consistency, but it’s a choice – to work with more unique projects. I have the freedom to create my own processes, my ideas, even though at times they are reliant on state funding or private financing through which I have been articulating projects.

How did the Lastro research came about?

Lastro came about because of research I was doing as an undergraduate in Art History. That was back in 2005. It’s not that long ago, but at the time there wasn’t this much information about Latin American contemporary art available online. The research began with the idea of interviewing artists in all the places I visited. I gathered a lot of material trying to bring the art scene in Brazil closer to that of its neighboring countries. The project grew a lot and now we have a small library with materials about the eight countries I visited during research. Through crowdfunding, I was able to fund the website, which is a database, and along with that there are other projects I’m working on, like the travels. Right now I have been traveling with artists through Lastro leading the way to work focused on exchanges and movement, this time not only focusing on Latin America but in a broader spectrum.

Is that why you were in Lisbon?

Yes. I was there to kickstart a new stage of this work, as Lastro is not only a research in Latin American territories anymore. I’m focusing on countries that have Portuguese as their native language – Portugal and their former colonies in Africa, China and India. So I have projects for all the Portuguese speaking countries of Africa and also for Goa and Macao. These are long term projects though.

What were the main challenges of such an extensive research?

The main challenges are in funding. Perhaps a continuous funding, but the support is very restricted and specific. For a long time, I had funding for the travels and the research ended up in the background because I had other things to work on. I work with the Lastro network, which is a lifetime project, but I have other things to work on as well. So this side of researching, cataloguing and writing proposals all suffered on account of not having their own continuous funding.

You split your time between Lastro and what other activities?

Last year I was focusing on research on Márcia X. I got funding to go on with this project of cataloguing and organizing all of Márcia’s work, who died in 2005. We held a retrospective and published a book. The family wanted to donate her works to a museum and it went to Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art, so we handled the legal aspects of that as well. We spent 13 straight months working on this project. So, back to the last question, when you have continuous funding you can see the difference it makes to have support, to have a team and work with that team for a long time and end up with a good project. It was a positive experience. The book came out in October, closing the project. Soon after that I went to Europe with Lastro and now I would like to work on the projects I started in Europe, as well as talks and workshops.

Back to your research – do you see dialogue between independent artistic spaces or is it still a rather disconnected reality?

I see a very fragile situation, but I think the connection between Latin American independent spaces is gaining strength. It’s still a bit fragile, because even though there’s a network of independent spaces, it’s not very well established. I think the most powerful encounters and partnerships are one-to-one, like Lugar a Dudas from Colombia and Capacete here in Brazil. They worked together a couple times and it went well, creating things other than paying artists to travel and do residences.

In an interview from 2010, about four years ago, you quoted a very interesting line from Argentinian Octávio Getino, saying that Latin America needs to transcend its adolescence, with all the complaints, and become a young adult, creating its own utopias. Are we still in that transition period? That line really stayed with me. I heard it a long time ago, in a conference, but I think that at the time this was even more latent. I started this work in 2005 and the reality was completely different from what it is today. We didn’t have the interest or the energy to make this connection. Now everything flows, little by little. I think we are definitely still in the middle of this transition, but if you stop to think, Europe and the U.S. are already focusing on Latin America. I think it is a time for self-understanding and recognition, knowing how to deal with the interest of the other. That way things keep moving, and not only in art – art is just a reflection of everything else.

You do this very intense work of traveling through Latin American countries to strengthen this exchange network. What would you highlight from the contemporary art scene in those countries? Are the dynamics similar to what we have here?

In relation to Latin America, Brazil has a clear distinction in terms of size and of the economy. The system is a little more well structured here – this system thought of as clogs. There’s galleries, collectors, universities, courses,  post-graduation programmes and so on – things that form a circuit. In a few countries there’s no draft for this circuit or system; you have one part of it but not the other. I would highlight Colombia, who has a very powerful art scene nowadays, with many independent spaces, which I believe is what brought the scene back to life. Before, there was a classic landscape of an underdeveloped country: no public policies, weak institutions, the galleries were not interested in young artists or contemporary jobs. Nowadays, Colombia is gaining all of that. The independent circuit there is interesting because it is more well established than what we would imagine an institutional circuit to be. That’s their main strength.

In Bolivia we see something peculiar – I was just there for the second time, having been there in 2008 as well – it is a country with a very strong indigenous culture, with a government pro-popular culture, and because of that what is considered contemporary art is left behind. There are few grants and the traditional and popular artists are competing in the same spaces as the young artists. It is complicated. Our idea of what contemporary art is, as Brazilians, is very different from what a Bolivian has. There are differences that I find very interesting because they deconstruct what I see as art, my tastes and my certainties over what is a good work – because all that varies from one place to the other.

Does Lastro materialize these deconstruction processes?

I usually say I am very patient. What I am drafting, my intention, is for Lastro to become a network that raises these questions and to actively be a place where you can see those differences. So far I have been working on this research by myself – sometimes I have an assistant, but only for specific moments. Working alone, it is harder to stay updated and dedicated. For now, the platform works as a database; people are invited to it and add their portfolios to it, so it is a space of database for research and production of each place. There’s a side of it that features those parallel residence projects, and there’s also a library. My true wish is that the other collaborators and I can have more time for the platform to move in a more dynamic manner. 

What is it like to get to know a country through its artistic output?

At first, I talked a lot about cultural identities, about artists that worked with these identities in a way. Nowadays I don’t even approach this issue because it is a very deep subject. If you think about cultural identities, especially in terms of Latin America, we have so much miscegenation that I try to stay away from the notion of a single Latin subject because that is not even possible. I seek out artists that deal with subjects that interfere with society somehow, so the works deal with politics, gender issues, public spaces – in a way you can understand a bit of their reality, even if they are talking about something broader than their local realities. That’s how I can figure out the local logic and how the local codes work, each countries’ codes. This way I can find a more fluid way to enter the history and culture of each place, something I really enjoy.

You said in an interview a long time ago that “young artists are pointing towards socio-political issues”. Do you feel like that’s still the case?

Yes, in many places it is. Not so much in Brazil, because we have other influences that are very strong, such as the market, but in most places the young artists are closer to activism, are more concerned with that. That has been changing rapidly, though. Nowadays, if a work is critically charged in an activist manner, it is quickly absorbed by the circuit, and if there’s a market, it is absorbed by that as well. Perhaps a few years ago that was not as strong as nowadays.

You once said the artists’ role in Cuba is different. Why is that?

Cuba is a very particular example. There, the curator and the artists have their roles reversed. While here and in most other countries the curator has a certain status, in Cuba the curator relies on the artist. Cuban works are very valued outside of Cuba. There’s a lot of interest in it, especially coming from the United States. Artists that sell their work in the U.S. go back to Cuba with a lot of money. Many live like that, although most artists have left the country. Many artists that still reside there have this financial lead because of their sales abroad. There’s also the fact that to leave Cuba you need a permission from the government, but the artists get a free pass because in theory they are bringing the art and culture of Cuba to other countries. Many artists have it easier when it comes to traveling, unlike the average citizen, and their financial situation also makes a big difference there. The curators, on the other hand, are either connected to institutions that are heavily censored or if they choose to work independently they are mostly connected to one artist, almost like a private curator. They get paid by the artists to write something about them and curate. There are no other situations where you can pay for something like in a gallery or internal market.

From 2002 until 2008 you worked as a researcher and curator at the Museum of Contemporary art in Niterói. What did you learn about the relationships between the major artistic institutions and other parts of this cultural circuit in Brazil?

I worked at that museum in Niterói doing research, and it was from that experience that I gained knowledge in archiving. Later on, I worked as a curator’s assistant, where I worked directly with the artists. It was a very positive experience because we, Brazilians, usually tend to criticize the institutions. And our institutions are weak. We have a culture of not believing in institutions, we tend to believe more in the individual. For example, we don’t think about a political party as a whole, but about a certain individual. That is very particular to Latin America. Our institutions are weak, but they are still a symbol of power. It was very interesting to be there, because we were relying on the city office and that was very tough. We had very little money to work with but the team was devoted to making things happen and connect to other artists and spaces. The machine behind it was so heavy it made things very difficult. Having had that experience, I know what it is like to be in a strong place, either public or private, with this institutional load. I believe that, in theory, the job of the institutions is to deal with the audience; to allow the young artists to have a place to showcase their works and dialogue with society. That, to me, would be ideal. I believe the independent space has become a seal. Independent of what? Money? City money? I believe in autonomous spaces more. I don’t like to introduce myself as an independent curator either, because I am completely reliant on the capitalist system. Of course it depends on my ethics, my own wishes, but I am involved in it. My choice was to be a freelancer to say “yes” or “no”, so I can choose my own path. Nowadays these spaces begin outside the institutions, but many are also completely inserted in the same vices and wanting to be like the institutions.

How do you see the development of curatorship in Brazil considering that the term “curatorship”  is so spread out right now?

It’s a very new profession. Even in our own circuit people have a hard time understanding the role of a curator, how far that job is supposed to go. Things get mixed up. Many experiences in that area start to get mixed up. It’s a very new profession but it is still very appealing because of the status it brings, even though it relies on the attitude of each curator, on how they handle this. What are the choices of a curator nowadays? There’s a lot of curators, but it’s the same with artists – anyone can call themself an artist and a lot of people complain about that, but the difference is having to deal with that professionally. You can curate an even, but it is a completely different thing to stick to that as a profession, facing all the demands that come with that. Actually, only the time and the circumstances will tell how far that will go.

Regarding women’s role in these contemporary art dynamics, how’s their participation in the art circuits you were researching?

Because of Márcia X. I started to dig deeper into the feminist movement and tried to see it in the art circuit context. What I saw, unfortunately, was that it was very difficult to find feminist discourses in contemporary art. I think there’s a lot of discourse on femininity, feminine discourses, but there’s a clear lack of politically consistent discourse regarding this subject, especially in Brazil. There’s a lot of women working in this field – artists, curators – but surprisingly, probably because of the patriarchy around us, when you look at a collective exhibition you will always see more men in it. Independent of how many women are making art. I think the reason is that we really live in this patriarchal mentality. Even the women working as curators don’t raise those questions. Lately I have been thinking about this – not trying to force it like through this idea of quotas but instead trying to reverse the logic behind it.

Is there any current discussion on gender that you were following during your research, you did you come across this issue because of Márcia X’s work?

It was mostly through researching Márcia X’s work. I went after that because I was looking for a more critical artistic production. Sometimes I’d find women artists discussing those issues but it would end up being too cliché. I think our fear of feminism comes from the vision of this battle for gender equality that stems from the socialist struggles in the 20’s. I guess the artists avoided the label so they could stand in a more equal way. Even Márcia did not see herself as a feminist, neither did her friends. One of them said to me they renounced that label, because it was not interesting for them at the time.

It wasn’t interesting in what way?

It was something connected to a very square, conservative world view – setting bras on fire, militants, factory workers and so on. But feminism goes deeper than just an argument over who’s better and who’s worse, weaker or stronger – it is about the women’s role in society. It is also about taking a stand, even when something seems unimportant. I went to a feminist gathering when I was researching Márcia’s work that was very important for me. It was a whole week with 30 women in a house in the woods. That’s when things clicked for me, because first I thought “why is there only women in here?”, you know? Than I realized it was actually very important for it to be only women discussing those issues, because we are the only ones affected by it. Men, no matter how open and critical they are, will always be in a place of privilege in a patriarchy. This conscience of unisson amongst women, of working together for ourselves is in a way different from the older type of feminism.

Regarding this current type of feminism and taking into account the experience in residence you mentioned, what came about in those discussions? What do you think are the main issues nowadays?

The main thing is a collective consciousness of women, of breaking patterns. Be it in language, social codes or, most importantly, taking those issues to primary education. I think that’s a very important aspect of it: taking this discussion to the schools.

Heloísa Buarque de Holanda says today’s artists saying they are against feminism is the biggest proof of what feminism has conquered. Do you agree with that, taking into account Márcia X’s stand on feminism and also her friend’s testimony on renouncing the label?

I think it’s important to think about Márcia again because her work is very feminist. Her body of work is very powerful and really deals with important issues of the feminist struggle. However, she did not carry the label, so in that sense she can only have a limited amount of space – and at the time she wasn’t heard as much – because of women that came before her. I think we are still afraid of owning feminism. Feminism is not about annoying grumpy women fighting all the time! I think deconstructing the old notion of feminism is important. What is wrong with being feminist? I think we must be proud. I think all women should reclaim the feminist label, leading to a paradigm shift. Otherwise we again have a minority fighting to be heard against a majority that, by not calling themselves feminist, might end up contributing to a sexist discourse supporting patriarchy.

In that context, what works from Márcia would you say are most important?

Almost all of them. “Pancake”, Lavou a Alma com Coca-Cola (Washing the soul with Coke)… Mostly her last works. Her pieces from the beginning of the 80’s were interesting because of the critique of the system and exploring the performance language, which few people were using here. In the 90’s, her work is more centered around objects, inverting the children’s universe with the erotic adult’s world. She deals with the homossexual issues a lot, it was almost gay art but made by an artist that was not gay. But it was in the 2000’s that she dedicated herself to the aesthetics of the stereotype, the aesthetic dictatorship of the feminine. “Pancake” is pure pleasure. To me, it is very pornographic, very erotic, but also incredibly beautiful, which you can’t see very clearly. She can be very subtle and her discourse is not militant but it is harsh, even though it is very poetic and the strength is in the images, the details of the materials and the editing.

For the future, what motivates you to work, to research? What’s in sight?

I am very excited about Lastro, this project in Africa, the language, what’s there that is “us”. Regarding studying, I am interested in colonization, the insertion of culture in time. Apart from that, I would like to research feminism in Brazilian art. For example, I would like to host a collective and historical exhibition. Perhaps not only with women, but with a feminist discourse centered around the national artistic output. Márcia, for example, has all those pieces I was talking about before, but I never read anything about how that relates to feminism, or calling her work feminist. In this book about her work, there’s a passage where I talk about feminism, which I think was very important in my experience. Many artists were never connected to this discourse. Not that they should be called feminists, I don’t think that’s the way to go, but they should be linked to politics, to the demands of the movement. I would like to have a studies group to research this, trying to bring the movement closer to art.

Do you think this is a void that is still present in historiography?

I think there’s a void when it comes to identifying the discourse. Official history has left a lot of women behind, and that’s a fact. I don’t know if my idea is to taking back all women’s voices, which is a deeper kind of research, it would be more in the sense of finding hidden discourses. Take Márcia X for example – she has works that are very well disguised, but if you look closer, you’ll see she’s talking about women and society.

There are questions being raised by women who feel today’s feminism has certain sexist traits to it and so they avoid this discourse. It is interesting to think about this relations.

Yes, nowadays we see a lot of queer culture. When I wrote about Márcia I did in “X” language, without generalizing and putting masculine over feminine when we talk about the collective. If you have three women and one man, we use a masculine pronoun to address that group. That’s very powerful, so I always try to use the neutral “X” language. I talk about that in a footnote of that essay. Some feminists adopt the “feminine” language, something very particular. They will say, for example, minha corpa, substituting the feminine for the masculine pronoun and noun of the traditional meu corpo. They do that because they believe that instead of being neutral, they should have a feminine voice that must be heard. It is pointless to be neutral and believe there’s no gender inequality when women had no active voice in achieving this neutral state. It’s a very strong movement. There’s a lot of lesbofeminism, which is completely against men. There’s also a lot of radicalism, as with any other movement, which is why some people are afraid to talk about feminism. I think that’s the danger of those things, they might be what creates that fear of the movement as a whole, even though the feminist movement is not all the same.

That’s where the challenge seems to lie – in the complexity of the discourses and in trying to find common ground for dialogue.

Exactly! For example, the black movement is very strong in the feminist movement. A black feminist has a different discourse than that of a white feminist, and even different demands. They have different outlooks, but the feminist movement is very connected to the lesbian movement and the black movement, because, afterall, we are all women.

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