Interview with Lia Menna Barreto – “The feminine energy can handle the mysteries better”

“Lia Menna Barreto tells the story of her career as an artist, all through the 1980’s, the stories of her life and the influence that motherhood had in some of her work, like Diário de boneca (Diary of a Doll). Lia talks about diverse aspect of her work, such as perversity, brutality and mimicking the human body. She also discusses her creative process that includes collecting materials related to the feminine routine in a process that Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer have coined as femmage.” – Lilian Maus

ISABEL WAQUIL – You started to study art at the City Hall’s Free Atelier in Porto Alegre, in 1975. Did you already want to be an artist, to live as an artist?

LIA MENNA BARRETO – Before that I was drawing at home. It was a kid’s thing, people would say I was good at it and so on. So I started to see myself as an artist. My mom signed me up for the Atelier when I was 14 years old. That’s when I started to draw people, and then you feel even more like an artist because, afterall, you are drawing a naked body. When the drawings start to come out well and you realize you can draw a face or a certain part of the body, you feel like an artist. So I decided to go to college.

How was trying to be an artist in the 80’s?

It was romantic. It was a romantic decade, because I was making no money and worked for “the love of art” only. I worked a lot, it was a decade where I gained a lot of experience and it was very romantic because I did not care about making money at all. In the 90’s things started to change.

In what way?

I had more initiative to try to get exhibitions. I realized this was not working here. People did not like that kind of work, at least not the way it was at that time. It was different. It was odd. So I went to São Paulo with my portfolio. I heard a lot of “No!”. When you are young you have the boldness of someone who has nothing to lose. I would go to the best galleries in São Paulo and ask for the owner! I was so full of myself! Nowadays I wouldn’t just walk into a gallery, just like that. But, amongst all the galleries I went to, one was interested.

Which one?

Thomas Cohen, in Rio de Janeiro. It was the gallery that launched Leda Catunda, Leonilson. He was interested in my work and so I had my first exhibition outside of Porto Alegre. It was great. People then knew that I existed. It was very good, a very positive experience, and I started to make money – sell a piece here, a piece there, and I got myself into a more professional realm. After that I had an exhibition at a prestigious gallery in São Paulo, but I always stayed in Porto Alegre, never went to live in São Paulo. My husband never wanted to leave, and I chose to stay with him. I ended up having a child, but I still had exhibitions in São Paulo.

You said in another interview that your work is very renowned here in the South, but there was no market for it.

There was never a market, and it’s not just me. Most artists find there’s no market for them.

Do you think it has to do with your own work?

No, I don’t think so. I mean, my work doesn’t help because it is more complicated. In the 80’s, my work was more complicated because it was made out of materials that were difficult to showcase in a room. I didn’t think about that. When I was working on a project, I did think about anything.

Do you take that into account nowadays?

It just so happened that my work became easier to sell. The last ones were actually framed, something I had never done before. Those framed pieces are at the gallery Bolsa de Arte, here in Porto Alegre. The gallery is going to open a branch in São Paulo in the next few months, so I won’t have to do what I had to do in the 80’s and in the 90’s.

How was your experience in the U.S. in the beginning of the 90’s?

It was great. It was so easy. They wanted to invite an artist to really get to know the country. I spent the first few months traveling around, trying to get to know the places. They wanted me to get to know the Grand Canyon, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Then, towards the end, I stayed at Stanford with other artists that went there. I had my own studio and I didn’t have to show them anything unless I wanted to! They even paid me a stipend. It was really good. It was great. I don’t think they have that exchange program anymore, I don’t know…

“…what were they thinking”?

Yes, I was shocked. They took me to all the museums. I saw everything in real life, all the artists. I came back to Brazil with so much stuff. I got a lot from it. I bought a lot of things, books, materials.

Did that reflect on your work?

I don’t know, but the experience gave me this feeling that I was being taken into account. It’s something maybe we don’t have in Brazil – respect for the artist. I felt respected, which was really nice. It was a great experience. When I went to New York there was so much snow. It was so cold we couldn’t breathe. In the end there were many little things that added up to a very positive experience.

It is common to associate your work to childhood, certain elements in particular. How was your childhood? Do you feel like you bring anything from that time of your life to your work?

No, because I didn’t have that kind of childhood – I didn’t play with teddybears, I didn’t have a lot of dolls. I had one or two. I was a bit of a tomboy, living in the countryside in São Paulo, where it was very hot. We wore shorts all the time. I was always climbing on trees, walls. I remember being outside on the sidewalk barefoot playing with a hose. I didn’t stay at home playing with dolls. When I was in college, at the Art Institute in the federal university of Rio Grande do Sul, I started to study works in wood, clay, cement. I did like any of those things, I thought it was boring. One day I walked past a store and I saw some plastic dolls, carrots, chayotes. I saw them and I thought: “Wow, this is a sculpture!”.

And it just clicked?

Yes. I bought a few of them that were cheap – I was happy they were cheap because I was broke. I got home and started to work with those objects. I remember cutting a little window on the chayote, it looked like a little house. I started to play with it, fragmented the doll and so on. I became very interested in the idea of the simulacrum, the imitation. I was drawn to everything that imitated something else, and that has stayed with me.

A lot of people talk about metaphors in your work. Do you think about the metaphorical aspect the work takes in when disfiguring certain elements?

No, I don’t. I follow my own path. I saw those things, took them home, manipulated them. I don’t think too much. Afterwards I realized that I am drawn to that which imitates something else.

You said you don’t like your work being associated with evil. How do you feel about that labeling?

I don’t like it. Everyone thinks my work is perverse, but I don’t think it is and I don’t like it because I don’t think about that when I make them. People are so used to it that when they see one of my pieces they go straight to the darker side of it. For example, I have a project where I melt plastic dolls over silk. I don’t see anything perverse about that, all I see is that I took something made out of plastic and melted it. It was a doll, but I did not mean to discuss anything deeper. It is an aesthetic work. What I think is interesting is the deformation of the doll. When you buy the packaged dolls, they all look the same, but when you melt them, they all end up with a unique face. It’s personalized and I find that very interesting. Because of that I find this interpretation of “evil” a bit poor, but I accept it because I understand that people see this on a melted doll. The thing is I don’t think about that when I am making them, not at all. When a child takes apart a doll it might be seen as “evil”, but it’s just curiosity, research. The intention is not to hurt, to rip off an arm. The intention is to explore an object that is changing. I never did that as a child because I was very tidy. Sometimes I think about that, how I never did it before but now I work with this. 

You said giving birth to your daughter lead you to create one of the most touching works you have ever made, O Diário de Uma Boneca (Diary of a Doll). How was that?

When I got pregnant and had that big belly I couldn’t go to the atelier anymore. I used to go there often, I was always there. But while I was pregnant it was very difficult. Once my daughter was born, it was so much work! Being a mother, with a small child and no nanny or grandmother, is very difficult. So much work. I did everything, feed her, change the diapers, everything. It was very gratifying, of course, it was very nice. But I remember it was a lot of work, I couldn’t do any artistic work anymore. It had already been 2 years without working, just taking care of Lara. One day, I decided to make her a doll. After she fell asleep I went to the studio, dusted it, grabbed some fabric scraps and made a doll with great love. The next day, she loved it, she played with it a lot. So I went back and made a set with a blue haired doll – to this day I still really like that set. When I decided to go back to the studio to make more dolls I realized that meant I had to start working again, so I would go to the studio after Lara would fall asleep. I made a doll in one day, another doll the next day… Seven days later I realized I had a weeks worth of dolls and I associated that to the calendar: the monday doll, the tuesday doll, the wednesday doll etc. So I figure I would make a months worth of dolls. I was very happy because I had found work! Until then it seemed impossible to find work in that situation. But then, you know what it is like to be a mother… Some days you are just too tired, some days you are too annoyed! So I wasn’t always happy when I would go to the studio, but I had that goal set, it was my project. One day the doll ended up more like a pouch. I was so tired, really tired, I just made it, wrote “WEDNESDAY” on it and that was it. Then I realized she was sitting by this really beautiful doll and I realized they would end up different depending on how I felt. Sometimes they were really poorly done, sometimes they were very minimalist and at other times they were incredibly detailed! Before I knew it a month had gone by, then two months, three months… In the meantime a lot happened and the dolls were indeed like a diary.

So this was a different kind of project, even though it’s also based around dolls, because you are usually more interested in the aesthetics but here the focus was on your own emotions.

Yes, one characteristic of my work is that it happens in groups. For example, this one went on for a year. Another one, with corn, also went on for a year. It depends on what I am going through at the time.

What’s your favorite material to work with?

I don’t know. I like simulacra, imitations. But I loved working with corn for example, even though I stopped working with it. I’m not “Corn Lia” nor am I “Doll’s Diary Lia”. My passions happen at intervals. I fall in love with something and then it’s over. I fall in love with something else and so it goes. But, for a certain period, I am smitten. When I was working on the Diary, I was in love! I would look at all those dolls and it was enchanting, there was an aura to it. 

In a study conducted by Camila Bettim Borges, she mentions taking images of your work to children and they are a bit frightened. In the next activity, however, they have a chance to manipulate the materials themselves and “play Lia”. Are you interested in those kinds of reactions to your work?

You know, I was once invited to do a workshop with young children at my daughter’s school and their interpretations were amazing! It was great!

What did they do?

Everything! They worked a lot on the dolls, turned them into planters, destroyed the dolls and put them together again… Their interpretations were very interesting and it was a very rich experience for me. They loved it! It was great. I am interested in those reactions, but I don’t seek them. The occasion I mentioned was interesting because they handled everything with such lightness, it was as if they were at home. It was very intense.

Do you think there’s a certain brutality to your work?

Yes, I believe there is. Sometimes it is brutal. Urgent. For example, I have one piece that is very brutal, it’s a doll with an iron inside of its belly and the title is Sobre o amor (On Love). The iron inside the doll can be plugged in and the doll would become, conceptually speaking, warm. The idea was to give life to this doll, but the way I expressed it was brutal. Even though it is about love. A lot of people say my work has a certain tenderness combined with the brutality. I wanted to talk about tenderness but it came out in a brutal way. Sometimes even I am surprised with how I handle things. But often there’s a certain sense of urgency to it. If there’s an iron nearby, I use it. I could have thought about warming up the doll with a heater, I could have come up with a different solution. I really like this work, Sobre o amor.

This also brings to mind my husband, because he works with wood. His atelier is full of gouges and chisels, all very sharp. He hits it so hard when making the sculpture, it’s amazing! My kind of brutality is close to that one. But his work comes out soft, polished. He hits it hard when making it, it’s a lot of work, he might as well start yelling! In my case, there’s also a manipulation of the materials, but with an iron instead of a chisel. I see the brutality, the aggression he expresses. He is very aggressive with his materials, it’s a battle! He fights the materials the whole time until he ends up with this soft piece of work. Sanding itself is a corrosive act, it’s aggressive. A lot of people think he’s the soft one and I’m mean! I have to laugh. My work is frightening and his is tender.

Do you think this has to do with the feminine sensibility as opposed to the masculine sensibility?

I think women can be brutal too. Having my daughter was a very powerful experience; it’s like becoming half animal. You have to deal with everything, situations where you have to clean the child, where you end up dirty yourself. You become more resilient. Women go through something very brutal during pregnancy. So much that after Lara was born my work changed a lot. I used to make clean pieces, sewing, very detailed. Then I started to work with earthen materials, making planters. I felt closer to nature. I started to work with organic mediums. The baby is organic, sucking on your breasts. With a newborn, the mother has this slightly animalistic energy. The artistic work is nothing compared to that. The urgency, the brutality, is also feminine. The feminine is not just the pretty side, quite the contrary. It’s something deeper.

Did that blossom inside of you after you had your daughter?

Yes, you change a lot. It’s very powerful. I felt it very strongly. Maybe other people don’t feel it as much, but for me it was phenomenal! It is absurd. How is it possible? When you see a newborn child, it’s amazing. My father is a doctor, so I was raised in this very sterile environment. When Lara was born, I lost some of that. If needed, the mother can change diapers right here, she will find a way.

How did your daughter react to your work when she was young?

She didn’t care very much, because she was born in the middle of it! I noticed she would invite her friends over to our house and they didn’t care about my doll heads. The grownups where the frightened ones! Really, the grownups! Lara would take her friends inside the studio to play. I had a bunch of plastic frogs, alligators, pieces of dolls… They would have a great time there! They saw all those materials being used in different ways, a whole new universe. She never cared very much. But you know, you’re not the first one to ask me that.

Really?

Yes, everyone who interviews me thinks “What about Lara?”. But, for example, I have been asked if I ever grabbed one of her dolls! Of course not. She had her own dolls. I never worked with Barbies. Lara had her dolls, put away. She liked playing in her room with the dolls, unlike me. Playing with the earth, outside, was never her thing. She used the read a lot, she always liked reading! I was surprised when comparing my childhood to hers. Mine was so organic! I was always climbing trees, eating fruit! Mangoes, guava, straight from the tree.   

Is it important for your creative process to have an emotional connection to the elements you work with?

I have to like what I buy, what I find. I have to like it. If that is an emotional connection then yes, it is important. On a recent project I used many birds, the first time I saw them at the store it was love at first sight. So I bought a bunch! I was so smitten. There’s a certain affection in the sense of joy when you find something. Like finding an interesting doll. The doll I used for the piece I mentioned before with the iron doesn’t even exist anymore. Many dolls I work with don’t exist anymore.

In other works you used pigs and frogs beside the dolls, along with other elements. Is the role of flesh, the body, important for your work?

Yes, it is important. The one with the pigs, it was important that the heads were of actual pigs. However, with the dolls the bodily aspect is not so important. But, for example, the frogs were also “dolls”. The “doll” is not just the girly type, the frog that I use is a frog doll. What I enjoy doing and have done a lot is to fragment, melt, dismantle. Perhaps this matter of working with the body is more in the sense of dismantling, flattening a 3-D body. I use the language of sculpture a lot – crushing, cutting, stretching. I often try to do that through applying heat or through fragmentation. It is a way to manipulate the material. How can I manipulate a plastic doll? It’s not like clay, I can’t just crush it.

On your website you have a list of names titled Associações Afetivas (Emotional Connections). How do you choose the names? Is it just names you identify with?

Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a friend’s name, or someone in my family. The connections are not formal similarities, it could be something to do with energy! Escher, for example, has this piece with heads entangled and that was the connection. I did one of those with my brother because when he was very young he once said he really liked that piece. So it varies.

A few authors talk about this extremism in the feminine expression, to quote Márcia X, Ana Miguel etc. Do you see yourself in that universe?

Yes. I can identify with a few things about Márcia; she worked with dolls for a while too. When I made that project with the pigs she came to Porto Alegre, and later on I saw she did something with dead chickens. I associated this to the piece with the pigs, this raw work. It was a very brutal work. It was absurd. People were not very happy about it. But I was very calm when I did it. Afterwards I was a bit frightened too, I thought to myself “how did I do something like that?”.

It was scary even for you?

Yes! To this day I am impressed by what I did there, and it was very last minute! I was invited by the band Chelpa Ferro to make an installation for the stage they were playing on at the pier in Porto Alegre. I spent three weeks just thinking that I had to do something. I was nervous, but I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t know what to do. I would think “how am I supposed to do something for such a huge space?”. Then one day at the City Market I saw all the pig’s heads. I had this idea to work with those heads, and back at the studio I had been working with an iron so I thought about combining them. There were 22 pigs. I tied the irons to the pigs and during the concert the irons were plugged in to power outlets. 

And it turned into a barbecue!

It smelled like bacon! My work dominated the place! The pier turned into a barbecue. I think it’s a great work, I love it. But it was brutal! There was an urgency to it; it’s explosive. It was raining very hard that night, the place was packed, and then there were those heads being grilled! It was crazy! There were a few punks, the people from the bank, people who worked in theater, circus, a bunch of shows… And the grease running down the walls! It was so funny!

That’s surreal! Would you do that again?

Yes, I would!

Do you see any differences between feminine and masculine works in general?

Well… I think women have a different feeling. I do a lot of sewing, handmade things, which is something seen as feminine. We don’t see a lot of men doing embroidery, but there are some doing that, such as Leonilson. On the other hand, the work of Mauro Fuke, my husband, I wouldn’t dare do that. I’m not strong enough. Besides, there’s a line of reasoning behind it that seems more masculine, I think. I don’t know, I always go back to being a mother, this primitive thing. There’s something intuitive about being a mother. You see things that men can’t see. You feel things, there’s a certain fortune-telling to it. We are different and I think the artistic work follows that. It’s like that project with the pigs, that I made based on intuition, I didn’t think about anything, didn’t do any research. I took the head, took the iron and combined them to see what would happen. I think that’s a feminine way of thinking, acting in the dark. I feel like the masculine energy doesn’t flow as well as the feminine in the dark. The feminine energy can handle the mysteries better. The masculine side wants to see everything clearly. But I think I also have a masculine side that I bring to my work – this brutal characteristic of it, usually attributed to men only. I mean, it used to be attributed to men. Nowadays men can also explore the feminine sensibility and women can explore the masculine. It’s not like the 70’s anymore.

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