“In the testimony of Maria Helena Bernardes, who’s not only an artist, but also works as an art history teacher at the NGO Arena, we see an approach that identifies key issues in the feminist historical revisions. Subjects discussed include the female artists’ place in art history and the ways in which those historical revisions are patching up holes. Maria Helena talks about the risks of falling into a sexist discourse and the differences in the stands of feminist artists in the 1960’s – 1970’s compared to today. She also discusses aspects of Brazilian Modernism and Neo-Concretism, with the kind of reflective thinking that stems from a lot of research but without losing sight of a more personal view on historical documents. The artist ends the conversation talking about her personal path, artistic works as well as recent research work.” – Lilian Maus
ISABEL WAQUIL – Is the history of art in debt of women?
MARIA HELENA BERNARDES – That is a question we hear very often because we find so few references to women’s work in the history of art before the twentieth century, at least in the societies connected to the Eastern European way of life. Women start getting some visibility in the artistic world with the first Modernist avant-garde, but it is still very little. With great difficulty, they start gaining their space in a field taken over by men. The feminine participation that actually made a difference, in terms of art, is even more recent. For example, if you read the testimonies of Eva Hesse (a North American with Jewish and German origins who died very young in the 1970’s) you’ll see that she was around people from a generation connected to minimalism and post-minimalism, people with “open minds” who were connected to avant-garde political, social and cultural movements in the 1960’s. Eva Hesse expressed, many times, how hard it was for her to be taken seriously by these men, and we see it was very difficult to be treated equality by your male peers… If we think about conquering equality in terms of opportunities and the participation of women in the historical narratives of art, we’ll see that this only happened recently, at the same time as contemporary art happened, as traditional historical narratives entered a period of crisis. The historical narrative models used up until halfway through the twentieth century, with their evolutionary perspectives, enter a time of crisis and we still don’t know how we will tell the recent developments. It is at that time, during this crisis in the narrative, that women achieve a more equal participation in terms of working and gaining visibility, as well as, hopefully, the narrative of their work.
Back to the question of history being in debt of the women artists of the past, that is a delicate matter because I don’t think society has, in the past, built itself on a dualistic, antagonistic and dichotomous basis between the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s an arrangement. Society, in order to maintain the current system throughout a long time (such as the system in which the masculine role is dominant over the feminine one) requires a certain agreement between both parties, otherwise things would change. What agreement was that? What was the basis of this dominance? What was considered to be art in the past decades? Why was art restricted to the masculine universe of doing, with visibility and social rewards destined to the figure of the male artist? There’s a lot there that is studied by sociology and that come up as complex social issues. We can’t simply take the contemporary consensus on the need for gender equality for artists and project that model to narrate the history of Renaissance art, for example. Even though there were women artists at the time, they did not have the same projects, the same artistic and social ambitions a contemporary woman has. They dealt with a very different notion of the artist compared to the one we have now, there was no “artistic field” and the art world. The notion of men and women as social components were also different. Therefore I don’t think it would be very productive to try and fix history’s narrative mistakes by proposing a historical narration from a point of view that does not fit the social reality of that particular time. Are there mistakes that need to be corrected?
Much of your artistic output comes from the déambuler, a practice that became popular in the mid-nineteenth century France and later also influenced the surrealists. It is important to notice that the flâneur of that time was eminently male. Women, in general, did not have the same freedom to come and go as they please, and wandering around the streets was something associated to prostitution. You have a piece that starts with the reading of Breton’s “Nadja”, which was actually something you worked on together with your husband, Fernando Mattos. What got you interested in this character that embodies this “free spirit”, with a “convulsive beauty”, that also denotes the exotic outlook on a mysterious, erotic and clairvoyant woman? How do you see the way surrealists perceive the women, which is often considered fetishist?
This questions takes me back to what we were just talking about, regarding how recent is this kind of conjunctured understanding that turns gender relations into something consensual and necessary. We talked about Eva Hesse and now we go back only 40 years to talk about Nadja, who lived in the 1920’s in Paris, Europe’s modernist capital, and was involved with the leader of one of the most potent and libertarian artistic movements – surrealism. In this context, so recent, the role of women might be shocking to us if we don’t approach it with the care and the cultural relativism necessary for those looking at it from afar. Nadja was a very unique woman if we take into consideration Breton’s own reports in his book, as well as the letters, notes and testimonies he left behind. The surrealists had conventional marriages while openly engaging in love affairs, all justified by them being labeled as “Bohemians”, as non-conventional artists criticizing the system and all the habits of the bourgeois. I believe the women that got involved with them ended up seduced by that very image, and the wives were not usually involved in their surrealist adventures. The ones that did get involved were those that were, as you said, “exotic”: teenagers (by whom they were fascinated), clairvoyants, actresses, fortune-tellers, prostitutes or a “wandering soul” like Nadja. Nadja’s story is fascinating because it shows a brilliant man, a powerful artist like Breton with the superior reality in his head, but seeing it incarnated in the living figure of Nadja he could not deal with it: he feared being devoured, losing his ground, being annihilated by the infinite freedom suggested by Nadja, detachment from everything and everyone. He then realizes, with his rational and brilliant mind, that he was not able to deal with such intensity of intuition and imagination incarnated in real life. I think that everything would be different if Breton was a woman and Nadja was a man, that the story would have taken a different turn – not necessarily better or happier, but different! Perhaps a woman would not feel the need to create something like surrealism.
Do you think women are linked to men throughout art history? For example, artists that end up known for their relationships to other artists instead of because of their own work, like Camille Claudel because of her relationship to Rodin and Maria Martins’ relationship with Duchamp?
With Camille Claudel the thing is people say Rodin was the heroic, late Romantic type, working on huge, monumental pieces with his monumental ego… And together with this monumental social persona there was no room for anything else to develop. We all know the simplistic version of the story, that Rodin was “intellectually envious” of Camille Claudel and that’s why he decided to cast shade on his partner – but I believe this thesis expresses a certain resentment without any certainty of how things actually happened. Let me tell you in all honesty and fairness, as I’m not a fan of Rodin’s work; I have seen Camille Claudel’s sculptures and I don’t think she was such a powerful artist like people say she was. There were other artists at that time who were trying to leave behind this rusty, academic model of sculptures made in a heavy bronze, influenced by neoclassicism, baroque or rococo that still reigned at the time – things that painters had already broken away from. Painting followed pari passu the revolutions of literary Romanticism. It was with Rodin at the end of the nineteenth century that sculpture takes the big leap towards modernism. There were however other artists that started to work the Romantic sculptures, seeking in Michelangelo the miracle of the matter that reveals itself as a rough material while simultaneously contrasting with the form projected and engraved by the artist, inducing a flight from the concrete to the metaphysical right in front of our own eyes – in a single piece of art. This comeback of Michelangelo’s work in the nineteenth century allowed for sculpture to move more towards modernism, and Camille Claudel is one of the artists that did that together with Rodin. However, to be honest, I was not impressed by her sculptures. I went after her work because I wasn’t very interested in Rodin, so I thought “Let’s take a look at this person who’s being rediscovered” – but I was not impressed. To me this realization only weakened that discourse full of resentment against Rodin, the megalomaniac genius of the monumental that purposefully decided to cast a shadow on his partner, keeping her from the recognition she deserved. Things are never that simple.
Regarding Duchamp and Maria Martins, I don’t understand how she would become known for her relationship with him when they had such a well hidden relationship – if they even had one! When you read Duchamp’s interviews, letters, testimonies from people who knew him, you get the feeling he was borderline misogynous, you know? We don’t know the truth when it comes to those relationships. Duchamp is strange, he’s a mystery. Women frequently fell for him, that seems to be true, but the real extent of those relationships can’t be known. Regarding Maria Martins, we know she was a very powerful woman in Brazilian society. She lived off of social relations with the elite of São Paulo, married a diplomat and traveled the world; I mean, it does not sound like a woman who would end up subdued by an artist, even if that artist was Duchamp. I don’t think she was hidden behind him, because she got the recognition she deserved for her work at the time, and she was very political. Maria Martins lent her full spectrum of social and economical relations to grant credibility to new cultural institutions in Brazil. The Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro and the São Paulo Biennial were politically and institutionally supported by her. She was a powerful woman who made a very interesting sculpture and was invited to the São Paulo Biennial even though at the time a more concrete art, as opposed to her onirical sensibilities, was prefered in Brazil. She was in the front row of Brazilian art and critics as important as Mário Pedrosa discussed her work.
Many initiatives started out because of this demand for the inclusion of women in the historical art narrative, such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, but there are also critics who say initiatives such as the NMWA are sexist. How do you see this issue?
Personally, although I recognize a few important contributions, I am not particularly enthused by critical, historical and curatorial approaches based on gender. If you think about the contemporary artistic field, what are the hardships, restraints or weaknesses female artists go through? I don’t think those are particularly relevant, at least not in our country or other democracies. Because of that, I don’t like this sort of division – I don’t understand what problems it could fix. On the other hand, perhaps it would be interesting to have a museum dedicated to mapping art from the past, where the social context did not allow enough visibility for the artistic production coming from women. Maybe it would be interesting to see the influence these women might have had on the male artists of their time, trying to regain and study the artistic work of these women and placing them with the works that “made it into history”. There might be something like that somewhere, but I don’t know about it. Something like a museum for female artists that covers a time span from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, for example. I think that would be very interesting. Dedicating a museum to women working today, however, does not make much sense to me. I’m not opposed to it either, it’s fine if does exist – I just don’t see a reason for it to exist. As an artist, I would not want to be in a museum just because I am a woman.
How do you see the relationship between the demands of women artists in the 1960’s, and the women who work in the art field nowadays?
Those feminist voices, so important in the 1960’s, came from intellectuals who were in their twenties at the time. Nowadays, many of them are still active, they are around 70 years old and still influential. They carry with them the merit of fighting for the society we live in now – one that is much more tolerant and democratic in terms of gender issues. Even though prejudice still exists, laws and common sense force the conservatives to hide it. Today there’s no room in a democratic society for a curator and member of a jury to hinder a woman’s application for a funding opportunity. When it comes to sexism, I believe we are still under the influence of those counterculture activists who carried the tension of that time where we still needed to radically open up a new universe, a new democracy for all genders and sexual orientations, minorities and so on. An example of that could be this idea of opening up a museum for female artists in 2014, to favor women. I believe there are still other fields where women do need help from the state and attention from social agents that fight for human rights – women working in agriculture for example are part of a segment of society with high levels of domestic violence and exploitation. Fragility in all levels and types are found there much more than in the social segment artists are included. Black, indigenous, illiterate and homeless women are much more vulnerable in many ways. Contemporary artists like us are part of the urban, middle class (at least) segment, having studied at least up to college. I believe the gender gap and the discrepancy in terms of women’s rights are more present in other segments. Like I said before though, I am not opposed to it, I would just like to hear more about the necessity for projects like that.
Talking specifically about the artistic output, how do you see the dialogue between the feminine and masculine sensibilities?
I would say that yes, the feminine sensibility leaves its mark in the artistic work. However, I don’t think the feminine sensibility is exclusive to women, just as I don’t think the masculine sensibility is exclusive to men. In any given person, sensibilities are composed in a gradual manner. Because of that, we have women that, in a way – in terms of intellect of affection – are closer to the masculine sensibility, and men that, in a way, express a more feminine sensibility. What I mean is that there is, indeed, what we call masculine sensibility and feminine sensibility. Of course we leave it to the sociologists and social psychologists to debate whether these sensibilities are acquired through nature or nurture. I tend to intuitively believe they are acquired mostly through nurturing while also having a connection to our innate nature.
How do you see the contemporary feminine artistic output? Do you see any specific characteristics, anything their work has in common? Any name you would highlight?
I have been enjoying the work of Mexican artist Natalia Almada very much. Her work has its origin in documentary and she has been invited to contemporary art exhibitions and biennials. She’s less than 40 years old and the kind of documentaries she makes – with their extended rhythm, sensibility and intuitive instead of assertive approach; black or white, good or bad – have some of this feminine sensibility we were talking about very present in them. That is very clear in a film she presented at the Venice Biennial called El Jardin. In it, she takes on a universe that exists only because of a very masculine sect of Mexican society, made up, basically, by rather violent men – the drug cartels. I think the feminine sensibility is in her delicate approach: a cemetery for drug dealers near the border with the United States, in a very dysfunctional and violent area. What happened was a city came about around this cemetery, because the constant burials generate a demand for various services: contractors, musicians for funerals, cleaners. The drug dealers build gigantic tombstones and compete in opulence. Natália Almada films 24 hours of daily life in the cemetery with the camera basically still, starting from the time the janitor arrives for the night shift, throughout the day, in between his shifts, until the time he comes back the next night. With a very delicate observation, a non-invasive and non-judgemental camera style, she shows that even in a place like this, the result of one of the most terrible conflicts we have nowadays, there’s life, real and intense feelings, relationships, gambles, projects and tasks to be done. Throughout the film, we feel touched by the deaths of so many youngsters, a real juvenile massacre, and there’s no space for prefabricated thoughts along the lines of “they died because they got involved with crime” or “they are victims, but they are also murderers” and so on. We are not judgemental because we are exposed to brutal deaths. The pain the families show by the coffins is real and deserves compassion, just like any other family would. She shows us a universe full of life centered around death, people who work with that, kids that play with that, street vendors, the horizon of those building the tombstones…. It’s a whole universe. The approach is maternal, in the sense that everything fits. If it’s human, it fits.
I also think that in the feminine work we tend to see more flexibility when it comes to formal concerns that seem to be more strict for men, who are more fascinated by structure, form, language issues. Women have a certain understanding of content, an interest for content that is very characteristic, while men, at least the ones I know, derive more pleasure from form. The way I see it, content opens up the possibilities for form to exist. Whatever it is: painting, video, writing, walking. I like this difference, which is very clear, between André Severo and I, when we work together in Areal. In general, women treat artistic work with a certain permissiveness, letting their work be trespassed by subjects, medium, contexts or forms that used to be foreign to it. It’s a good kind of permissiveness, it’s not bad. I’m not saying men are strict, that’s not it. Men is simply more assertive, he points, directing the work. He needs the landmark that his work and his authorship represent. That’s not a rule, of course. You can’t see it that clearly every time.
In an essay on the exhibition Manobras Radicais (Radical Maneuvers), Paulo Herkenhoff and Heloísa Buarque mention Lygia Clark as an example of a woman who genuinely did this radical maneuver in the sense of going deep and working in sharp movement in the art field. A role that, as they say, is usually attributed to Tarsila do Amaral. Do you agree Lygia Clark played such an important role in this?
I think there are many issues there. First of all, Lygia Clark’s work is definitely very important to understand the turn in Brazilian art brought about by neoconcretism. It opened up the possibility for another kind of art to emerge, one so different from what happened before that it could have another name, or not even be called ‘art’. This was an international phenomena; artists everywhere were discovering that art can be so different, that it can go beyond what used to be understood as art to an extent where it is almost not art anymore. Lygia Clark is one of the artists that allowed for this other kind of art to exist. However, I think her historical role will be determined by our recently gained knowledge of the works of Lygia Pape. The more we learn, Lygia Pape is growing and she should grow even more. She has the strength and stamina of Lygia Clark, even though they had different careers and a very different body of work. Lygia Clark, acting in the name of art, is very important for a relativist approach on what art could be beyond any medium, as well as for the appraisal of the experience, of an integration, a holistic comprehension – to use a term very dear to their generation. I wonder why Lygia Clark became more popular than Pape who also did phenomenological experiments, worked in the streets, interfered with reality, dealt with the body and gestures, the individual and the collective…
Why do you think that was?
I think the fact that Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica died a long time ago, as they both died in the 1980’s, allowed them to come up as representing the kind of investigation that characterized tropicalism in the arts, the discovery of the body, the revolt and the relativism of the medium. Lygia Pape was also a part of all that, but she was alive and working until the beginning of the new millenium. Research and written history in the 1990’s shed more light onto those who already had a set body of work, which is the case with Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, than those from their generation who only passed away recently. Now, because of the retrospective on Pape’s work that went abroad and was at São Paulo State’s Pinacotheca (a beautiful exhibition!) we can get to know this wonderful Lygia; the Lygia Pape of the movies, Lygia Pape of “Divisor”, of creations, of photo performance. And more: Lygia Pape the “visual artist” contemporary to Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, “visual artists” in the more traditional sense, during the concrete and neo-concrete period that they all experienced thoroughly; a powerful period of true visual and plastic mastery in the sense of significantly transforming their materials. I think Lygia Clark will stop being a lonely start in the women’s universe as we rediscover this fellow artist who was also there at the time.
Regarding the more radical experimentation, in the beginning of the 1970’s Clark made art for ten more years, a period she questions herself and did not want it called “art” anymore, but “cure” instead. I think that’s so wonderfully illuminated and brave of her! Lygia Pape, however, still considered her work to be art – and the quality did not go down, she maintained a beautiful work, always fresh, until the end. The important thing is that Lygia Clark was not alone. It’s interesting to revisit the role of someone like Carmela Gross, who was much younger than the two of them, but was already working in the 1960’s. There’s also Letícia Parente who experimented with body art, performance and video, and the founding role of Ana Bella Geiger, not only an avant-garde artist but also a master, who during the dictatorship opened the gates for young artists to do experimental work at the studio of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.
What about Tarsila’s role in this historical context?
Regarding Tarsila, I would disagree that her work was not radical. I think she was extremely relevant. Tropicália, for example, was a time of condensing and eruption of the thoughts of a generation of musicians, performers, fashion designers, poets, filmmakers and so on – finding in the term “tropicália” a cannibalist Brazilian truth, a demand for a Brazilian art and not a xenophobic one; a non-nationalist, open kind of “Brazilianism”. Being authentic, true, pulsating and powerful, this Brazilian ethos requires openness and feeds off of itself, growing constantly. That only happens because they went back to Oswald and Tarsila. Oiticica, Clark and Pape’s generation are going back to Oswald’s Manifesto Antropofágico (Cannibal Manifesto), – written based on the revelation he had standing before Tarsila’s “Abaporu”. The notion of cannibalism was already guiding Tarsila’s work ever since the first paintings from her Pau-Brasil period in 1924. Oswald also wrote a manifest on the impact his wife’s paintings had on his understanding of the paths Brazilian modernism was taking. On her paintings, Tarsila showed how she could bring Futurism to her work, along with Cubism, processing Orphism much like during her Antropofagia period she processed Surrealism. In 1924, Tarsila was processing all the information she received from the Parisian avant-garde movement together with a Brazilian theme and content together into something unique. It was her Pau-Brasil period. It’s not Cubism, Futurism or Orphism. It’s not a scholarly rendition of Brazilian naïf painting. It’s Pau-Brasil. Antropofagia was already present then, as an essential and formative principle, processing the creation. Though Antropofagia wouldn’t be fully processed intellectually and verbally until 1928, it was already present in Pau-Brasil. I think Tarsila represents a great turning point. Then we also have another wonderful artist, Anita Malfatti. Personally, I resonate more with Anita’s work than with Tarsila’s more strict paintings, but Tarsila haunts me. It even makes me a little uncomfortable even I see those paintings that look like there were made in a vacuum. The well defined forms, one thing against the other, that dry blue that I don’t even know how she managed to make. It’s actually unpleasant at times.
It’s a bit disturbing.
Exactly. Of course, as we are not Modernists, we would not say that Tarsila is better than Anita because of those things. It’s not about that. Anita developed her European influences in a very personal way. Those influences are very clear in her work – we can easily identify traces of Fauvism and Expressionism. However, much like Tarsila, it’s hard to pinpoint what it is exactly. It’s not Futurism, Surrealism or Cubism. It’s not naïf. It’s Pau-Brasil. It’s Antropofagia. Tarsila played the flâneur with Oswald in Paris and in São Paulo, but she didn’t hide her oligarchic background. She even talked about how her painting A Negra was about a story she would hear from the black workers in her grandfather’s property about the slaves who would end up with their breasts really saggy from carrying their children while breastfeeding them. So, she painted a black woman with one of her breasts over her shoulder. Tarsila and Oswald were left-wing intellectuals, and she remained one for the rest of her life. She was not a shallow woman, despite her wealthy background.
Do you feel like the written history still struggles with the issue of completeness, of wanting to find a closed scenery, a fixed protagonist, as if that would be perfectly orchestrated? The reason I’m asking is because in some bibliographies on gender there seems to be a yearning for a complete discourse, a proper way to see the issue, even though those things are constantly being constructed and deconstructed. How do you see the issue of narrative and historiography nowadays?
Indeed, I believe standard historiography is still attached to that. Formatting things into specific chapters with main characters going from point A to point B is very characteristic of it. It’s currently going through a period of heavy self-criticism. We can’t really tell what schools we’ll have, there’s even going to be schools in the historical narrative of contemporary art, for example. I am very curious to see in thirty years what will be written about the art from the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twentieth first century. I’m curious to see if those two periods will still be a part of a cycle or if they will be seen as two separate things. We can’t really tell when it comes to contemporary art. I think historians are afraid to be called retrogrades when narrating contemporary art as a continuum from the 60’s until now because that sort of historiography based on evolution and historical determinism has already been heavily criticized.
There’s an interesting phenomena: the art world today, unlike the 1920’s and 1960’s, is characterized by theses. Curatorial theses that are institutionally validated, and institutions that are, in turn, validated by an organism that involves market interests, collectors, galleries, fairs and institutional circuits. In this circuit, we have the curators examining pieces and churning out their theses on the artistic output. Some of those theses have proven to have investigative qualities, perhaps inserting themselves into chapters of a future book on contemporary art. Maybe we should look at the exhibitions more. Not that I think they are a decisive factor or that you will find the truth about art there, but some exhibitions throughout history were very emblematic. For example, the São Paulo Biennial in 1985, curated by Sheila Leirner, had its curatorial axis nicknamed A Grande Tela (The Great Canvas), with the curator having a metacritical approach. That means the exhibition itself, with the way it was organized, ended up guiding the audience’s gaze to a more critical approach of the paintings from the 1980’s that made up the exhibition. It drew attention to the first wave of globalized artwork. For the first time art really was globalized. The same was being done in São Paulo and in Tokyo. The same size and the same intensity.
You are deeply involved with art history. Up until the consolidation of the courses at Arena, for which you have gained a lot of recognition, where did that come from?
I had an experience when I was very young working in an independent school with other artists that studied art in college with me. It was like a studio where we would teach drawing, painting and so on. I worked with drawing and art history and my students were all adults. I’ve always been interested in art history. We had a colleague teaching silk-screening, which was very popular at the time. Others worked teaching children. That was between 1989 and 1992. I stopped teaching afterwards and went on to do other things. I started working at the state’s culture department, but ended up quitting. I went on to teach in different places across the state to make some money. The possibility of teaching was simply laid out in front of me, but I never thought about going to grad school and teaching at the university. I didn’t want to and it seemed like a big commitment in terms of time and effort. My husband is a teacher at a federal university and I didn’t want the same for me. I would be stuck and if I went to grad school I’d definitely have a moment of weakness and apply to teach there. So I didn’t go in order to prevent that.
For a long time, between artistic projects and funding opportunities starting in 1995, there was this possibility of making money off and on, teaching a little bit, so I kept doing that. In 2004, I had that kind of mobility, but I always had to “reinvent the wheel”. I would be done with one work and I had to start another. Besides, producing projects is a lot of work and it gets tiring after a while. In 2004 we stopped everything here and moved to France because Fernando, my husband, was doing a doctorate program in Paris. Then I was able to dedicate myself exclusively and freely to studying. Not in schools but by myself – I’d see what I wanted to see and read what I wanted to read. I came back with a lot more knowledge related to what I used to do as an artist at Areal.
All the knowledge that I acquired, that I translated, everything I saw there before it ever made it to Brazil made me want to come up with a course – I also wanted to settle again in Brazil and restart the work I had been doing here. So I pitched this course to Koralle, in Porto Alegre, called A História da Arte pelos Artistas (The History of Art as Told by the Artists). First one: sold out. Second one: sold out again. So it became a permanent course for two years. It was always full. It was based around artists’ writings, I brought a lot of information on Situationism with me because at the time there was only one book in Portuguese on the subject, published that same year. Many students from the Arts Institute of the Federal University came to me because they already knew me through my work with Areal, and they knew me as an artist that talks and writes. Because of writing, because of what they thought I had, maybe a certain clarity regarding my own artistic processes combined with my knowledge of art history, students started to ask me to prepare them for their masters and doctorate programs. I started to do that on the side, teaching a few groups in my house. I started to make peace with the idea of teaching. Then as the groups started to get bigger, I had to find a place to work. Throughout all that, I kept studying art history. That is something that comes from before I ever got into college – I was always interested in art history and have always studied it. I studied for myself, I liked all periods. I studied it because I enjoyed it. After I graduated, I continued to study it.
Did you do that by going after certain books?
Yes, going after books, references, reading authors, one artist takes you to the next, always looking back at all periods through history. So I had a lot of knowledge that I really enjoyed having, without worrying about organizing that knowledge. In 2005 we already legally had the NGO Arena. Since we needed a place, we bought a space that ended up being used for Arena and that I also used for teaching. The courses at Arena came about because of this need for space and bringing it together with the NGO we had. Despite having that space, at one point I had five groups coming to my house, each with 7 students. It was crazy. When we opened our space, we already had a decent amount of people that knew about us. Of course, we need to think about what we wanted to achieve there, because our intention was not to turn the space into a waiting room for the universities. That’s how the courses at Arena started. Together with Melissa Flores, we worked to develop courses on art history and theory, bringing in a fresh perspective and sharing artists, readings, visions, approaches, communicating a particular focus on art.
What are you studying and researching right now?
Something that has nothing to do with art.
What is it?
I’m working on a project to elaborate cultural indexes that was granted funding by the state’s culture department. It’s called Observatório de Sensibilidades Morro da Borússia (Hill of Borússia Observatory of Sensibilities). We want to map the different sensibilities that translate the human formation that was historically built in the area of the city of Osório, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. What’s in that area today is not a direct result of what people who inhabited the place did to it, but it’s also what’s inherited from their ancestors. It’s a community that is essentially invisible, as few people in Rio Grande do Sul know that it exists and that it was a historical point of entrance for the Portuguese speaking Rio Grande do Sul. There are many extremely important facts in the history of the state that started there, in that area of the coast. The people there are the result of a very interesting ethnic mix, with quilombolas and descendents of the aboriginal population who were killed on that hill by the white people that entered the state through the area known as Campos de Cima and those that came in and occupied the beach. There were many conflicts in that area. The forests had been completely devastated and now since AGASA closed (a sugar and alcohol processing plant from the 1980’s), the nature came back and nowadays it is again a forest. Because of that there’s also the conservationist aspect, as it is a protected area. All that collides with the local sensibilities. But what are they? What are those sensibilities? What others existed there before the contemporary ones? What is this place that no one sees? My own artistic work is fed by experiences and sensibilities. I am interested in understanding and getting to know the lives of the ghosts that passed through a place, what was left behind and the current agents that turned the place into what it is. Even if they don’t know, they interact with the lives of those ghosts. That area has a lot of history that the state of Rio Grande do Sul simply does not know about. We have a lot of writing about it, about the paths along the coast, about those who deserted Colônia do Sacramento coming through all of our coast until they reached Laguna in the state of Santa Catarina, leaving behind their stories.
All those situations created a very different kind of human, with a cultural experience and aesthetic sensibilities of their own, mixed with their past experiences. There, you’ll find the melancholic and distrusting nature of the Portuguese açoriano, but also the colorful oral tradition of the cowboys. Then, you start to see the tensions too: why do the legends revolve around slaves and lagoons so much? There’s always a black man suffering, a slave mistreated by their owner and curses the lagoon. From those legends you start to understand that, according to their tradition, the lagoons were cursed because they were used by the owners for navigation, they were the point of entry for the slave ships coming from the ocean. A lot of people there are still afraid of lagoons. You start to understand this story, and since I enjoy writing, I derive great pleasure from studying this, which has been taking up all the time I currently have. That’s what I’m dedicating myself to lately. It’s my work, it’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t question who I am doing this for, or why. I’m just doing it.