Interview with Vera Chaves Barcellos – “People want objects and I work with ideas”

“Vera Chaves Barcellos discusses her educational background and talks about specific works, such as the series Testarte, as well as Epidermic and Dones de La Vida, all from her feminist and amusing standpoint, present in many of her works. She also reveals the motivations for her research, recalling the period she spent in Spain and her travels across the globe. It’s worth highlighting her accounts of the 1960’s and 1970’s and her relationships to artists from different generations, which resulted in initiatives such as Nervo Ótico and Obra Aberta.” – Lilian Maus

ISABEL WAQUIL – In an essay on women who work with art, Berenice Lamas talks about the role of the family in the artistic upbringing of women, saying that often the access was facilitated according to the family life, the “artistic tradition or aesthetic preferences”. Was that the case for you?

VERA CHAVES BARCELLOS – My father and my mother were from the border region. My father was from Quaraí and my mother was from Livramento. They met here in Porto Alegre at the Majestic Hotel (where nowadays Casa de Cultura Mário Quintana is located). That old stuff – he waved at her from his window, she shut her window. I spent my childhood in a farm in the northwest of the state, and when I was 9 years old I came to Porto Alegre to study. My parents were always culturally stimulating. My father was very open and sensitive; he would read Shakespeare for me when I was 10 years old. So of course I wasn’t raised by television. Only later I became interested in images, even though I was already drawing and taking piano lessons.

How did it go when you decided to become and artist? What was it like to decide and fund this decision in the 60’s?

It was funny. I was still in high school – I went to Sevigné – I was 16 years old, it was my sophomore year. I walked up to my father and told him “Dad, I don’t want to go to school anymore because I want to dedicate myself to piano lessons only”. He said “That’s too bad, but do whatever you want”. He was very sensitive, very wise. My mother was very smart too – the kind of person that always says the right thing, always has the right answer. Sometimes it takes me a long time to answer something and then I’m like “That’s what I should’ve said”. She would just say it. But back to your question, I think the artist always leaves something behind, a mark. I see a lot of people just passing through. Most people won’t leave anything behind, or leave very little. So there was a bit of that, a certain kind of pride probably – from a very early age I wanted to leave my mark behind.

You first started out studying music. Did you want to be a musician? When did you turn to visual arts?

I started with music. I wanted to be a pianist, I even performed. I started taking lessons in the countryside, in Carazinho, when I was 7 years old, and continued taking lessons in Porto Alegre, where I graduated as a pianist at the Academy of Arts. Later on I realised I was always drawing and painting on the side. So when I was around 20 years old I decided to focus on visual arts.

That’s when you want to Europe?

When I was 22 years old I got married and went to Europe. I had a lot of incentive when it comes to culture, but I was also a very traditional person, from a traditional upbringing.

In the sense of getting married, having a family?

Yes, although I married an architect so we had a lot of affinities culturally speaking, so we went to Europe.

Did you go there to study?

He had a scholarship and I was studying too. We went to England, Netherlands and France. We travelled a lot, because during the holidays we would go to a lot of museums, for example in Germany or Italy where I saw a Fontana for the first time! Then recently, which is funny, I saw another Fontana, I think in London, called Venezia tutta d’oro, the same painting that impressed me so much in the 60’s, it’s the one that is all golden and slashed. It’s wonderful! At the time it was something very impressive. It really caught my attention, it was very radical. In the Netherlands, we saw the CoBrA group, with their vigorous painting. We went to Amsterdam very often, they had a lot of retrospectives on Mark Rothko, Adoph Gottlieb, Ben Shahn…it was great. And London with all the museums was, of course, spectacular.

What about Pop Art?

I first came into contact with Pop Art a bit later, at the Biennial in 1967, which was a really big one. Those works were very recently painted – 3 years old tops. Then, in the middle of the American representation, there was Edward Hopper surrounded by all the Pops. It was great!

That was shortly after your first stay, correct? The first time you went to Europe, to study, at the beginning of the 60’s, were there any tensions brewing from what would culminate in the social movements and struggles of 1968?

No, not yet, because my first stay in Europe was in 1961-62. But at the time there was something happening, the young people dressed like the Beatles, the English boys with long hair and boots with heels. They couldn’t be ignored, they would run down the stairs of school! In 1968, we should remember, I was in the U.S. – New York, Washington and Philadelphia. I saw a great exhibition at MOMA, “The Art of the Real” with all the minimalists and a few abstract painters like Jackson Pollock, and at the Philadelphia Art Museum I saw works by Marcel Duchamp. He would die the next year.

You then went back to Europe in the 70’s, a different time.

Yes, I went back in 1975 with a British Council scholarship for 3 months that was extended for 6 more months. It was great, the 70’s were excellent for Europe because there were so many movements happening – arte povera, conceptual, and I was already studying photography. At the East Croydon school, the one I went to, I learned a lot about laboratories, making transparency sheets and so on, and I used that a lot on my work afterwards. Photography, graphic design, bookbinding! I learned bookbinding. It was great, we would make embossed images in metal and use that as a book cover, it looked beautiful. I went back in 1976 for the Venice Biennial with the TESTARTE series and then again in the winter of 1977-78, I traveled extensively through Europe, ending the trip in New York.

Reading about gender and feminism, I see a constant critique of the lack of women in the history of art, as well as in major exhibitions and internationally renowned institutions, even though there seems to be some progress nowadays with those issues. How do you see the evolution of this panorama, since you have been following this scene for a few decades?

I don’t think that’s the case with art in Brazil, because since modernism we have had great female artists such as Anita Malfati and Tarsila do Amaral, as well as important female painters and artists in the decades that followed, to this day. If you look at North American art though, their great names are almost all male. There are a few females, but lost in a sea of men. I think there’s more sexism there, or maybe there used to be – nowadays there are so many artists it’s hard to tell. In Europe there’s also a lot of important female artists nowadays. There are feminist artists even in the Arab world, like Shirin Neshat.

Don’t you feel there’s a certain expectation from a woman, even if she is an artist? The traditional values, like you talked about before? The woman can be an artist, have an exhibition and so on, but she’s expected to follow a certain path, with marriage, children etc?

Marriage and children also involve men, even if in a different way. In the traditional way, with the man as the provider, it wasn’t easy for him as it wasn’t easy for the woman, in her role as a stay at home mother. Perhaps the difference is that, for the man, his work could contribute for his personal and professional fulfillment, which did not always happen, while the domestic work fades away in the daily life and nothing stays from it. Nowadays things are more balanced. It’s more common for both, men and women, to have work beyond the domestic realm, taking care of the children and so on, and those tasks are usually shared. At least in a few contemporary societies.

You were invited to exhibitions in many countries and you live between Brazil and Spain. Through those experiences, what differences in the dynamics of the Brazilian art scene compared to other places would you highlight? From your point of view are there any differences or is this a system that is always similar and not attached to regionalisms?

I have been taking part in international exhibitions for a long time, since the 60’s, but I wasn’t always there in person. I can tell you, however, that in Latin America there was a certain resistance when it came to following the international canons, which were considered a form of cultural colonialism, following the ideas of Marta Traba. On the other hand there was a more internationalist approach which, generally speaking, Brazil would take. Regarding the differences, obviously there are many. Before, information would arrive at the less developed countries with a certain delay, that was the case back in the 80’s when I moved to Barcelona. Europe and the U.S. had, and still have, resources and cultural institutions that are much more powerful. And, today, Middle Eastern and Asian countries add to the countries with powerful cultural institutions. Today, with the internet, information flows and is global, but still nothing substitutes the contact with and the fruition of art in loco. So I still believe in the didactic role of museums.

Regarding my personal experience, when I left to Spain I was already bothered by the comeback painting was making in Brazil during the 80’s. Before that, I made prints, xylographs, silk-screening, and in 1972 I started to take photographs, and in 1973 I started to use photography in silk-screening. In 1974 I started to work with offset and photography, a lot more laid-back, and I made Testarte, a turning point for me. It was the series that got selected for the Venice Biennial. That was a very important time for me, because it established my position. I worked with that until 1981. In the mid-80’s in Brazil we were following what was popular internationally, which at the time was painting. Then I met Patrício Farías and, in 1986, we went to Spain. When I was there before, in the 70’s, I really liked Barcelona. It was the Post-Franco era, it was great. Everyone would speak Catalan loudly, because until then it was forbidden, you could only speak Spanish. It was beautiful, it was so political. We picked Barcelona and left. But globalization standardizes things. The city has changed a lot. Urbanistically speaking it is more modern, but its peculiarities and flavors have been washed out.

And now there’s the crisis. I usually say that a crisis in art precedes the financial crisis. When you start to see a crisis in art, in the art market, it’s because something worse is about to come. The crisis at the art galleries in Barcelona started in the 90’s. Our gallery, Artual, closed in 1996. Many others closed around the same time, and it kept getting worse until it got to the point it’s at now. We belonged to a group that had a beautiful gallery. It was unfortunate to lose that space. It was in Born, it was gorgeous and set in an old fruit shop with three large glass doors to the street. It was at Calle Comercio, near the Estació de França. I had a beautiful exhibition there, Dones de La Vida in 1992, a work based on women’s names. I made it for the gallery, even though it wasn’t a site-specific work. The same installation was hosted by Santander Cultural in  Porto Alegre, for the exhibition O grão da imagem in 2007, but an installation that’s been adapted to a different site is not the same. It’s a different thing.

Speaking specifically about this work that deals with feminine elements and which you say evokes this universe through the audience’s memories – what do you think about femininity in the visual arts?

Regarding my own work, I often return to that subject. I have a project about skin called Epidermic. It started with my own skin, but then I expanded it and anyone could have something printed on them – men, women. I also made  Per(so)nas, (1980-82) which are women’s legs… That was perhaps the first one focused on women. I had a project I wish I had developed with Per(so)nas that consisted on going through Latin America taking pictures of women’s legs, only the legs. The legs reveal a lot. They are psychosocial portraits, I would say. When I had an exhibition at Girona, in 1999 where I filmed women saying their names, which is also a psychosocial portrait. That video, which got remade in 2010 has a lot to do with this spirit and has over 400 women saying their names. There’s also a project that consists of pictures of women’s hand, called Sudários. Most of them are open works, because I could add to them. They are ideas. I often work with open projects. With the series Meus Pés (My Feet), I photographed my own feet throughout the years in different circumstances. I think that is the difference between my work and the work of those who make artistic objects. I have a hard time with exhibitions in galleries, I can do it but it’s hard to sell it. People want objects and I work with ideas and possibilities of the unfolding of images and their relationships. 

Why make this video with women only?

It was just an idea I had to add to an exhibition in Girona where I included all the works that had those references to the feminine.

Regarding the feminine, in a dialogue between Paulo Herkenhoff and Heloísa Buarque de Holanda, she says that she does not believe in an equality in the artistic language of men and women, that it is too late now and the difference is the accumulated capital of women. How do you see this issue?   

I think at times there are no differences between the works of men and women, and sometimes there are differences in the works of women, and probably there are works that are obviously masculine. And perhaps, less frequently, a male artist can have an aesthetic or a sensibility that is more feminine. That is funny, because there are certain works that I look at and think “that was made by a woman” and it was. But there are many works that you cannot tell the difference, they could be one or the other. I don’t think it’s that radical, the issue of women always producing works that are recognizably feminine. But there are women who do this, of course, like Marcia X or Ana Miguel.

Heloísa Buarque de Holanda also talks about a radicalization of the “feminine sensibility”, taking certain elements and elevating them to a higher potency, a high voltage circuit (as an alternative to explore this capital of difference). Looking at it from that angle, where does Le Revers du Rêveur stand? 

The word Revers has a double meaning, it can mean inside out or misfortune. The Rêveur is the dreamer. So it’s the “misfortune of the dreamer” or the “inside out dreamer”. Here, I took pictures of a movie on TV; an old movie, a period film about a queen. We first see her with a lover, and then she’s not on the last scene – there’s only men and her maid sitting in the middle, and the subtitles would read: “When did you first take him to the Queen?”. I reconstructed the belongings of this Queen; a window, a silk dress on a casket bed etc. I really like this project. I once showed it in a chapel in Catalonia. It looked beautiful in there! But yes, it could be looked at from that angle since a queen cannot decide anything regarding her own sexuality. That was of course a different time, but there are places where that still happens. The situation of women in the contemporary world has many variants depending on issues like culture, religion, geographical location and social status. There’s a lot to improve still.

Can art be a way to discuss those issues and fight for equality in other areas, apart from the art circles?

Naturally, it can and it often does in a very effective way. But merely talking about this does not turn a work into art. It could be just a pamphlet. To reach the status of “art” it should have certain qualities in terms of style, the “how”.

You have another project, Enigmas, with a gorilla dressed as a bride.

Yes, indeed. But that’s more about culture, the marriage between animal/human to culture. I really like that piece, but it’s an installation I made twice only and I would like to exhibit it again. It has a greek alphabet made out of salt. There’s something that happens to my work: when it’s centered around photography, or a series, I have a more logical approach, but the installations are very intuitive. There’s a certain mystery about them. Sometimes I don’t know what that primate-bride means. It’s very disturbing. I had many doubts about showing her. But I forced myself to. And a lot of people get scared.

In what way does the monkey-bride disturbs you?

It’s disturbing, because it’s an image that’s allegorical. There’s a certain ambiguity. Obviously there’s a certain humor, but there’s also something very dense that touches the audience deep inside when they first see that image. It’s like it is asking you: what is human? Has the animal/culture marriage worked out?

There’s a certain humor to those pieces.

Yes, a lot. In Enigmas, the monkey is actually a male. Cross-dressed. It’s the size of the Mona Lisa, and ‘Mona’ is a monkey, all those things. Humor, for me, is a sign of intelligence because you can assume that the person can get over a serious topic and laugh about it. But it depends on each project, it’s not a rational decision, I don’t think “let’s add some humor to this”, like in Regina Silveira’s Receita de Arte Brasileira (Recipe for Brazilian Art). In the 70’s we worked with a lot of silly stuff – I have a piece that’s part of a picture of a bell, in a museum in the countryside of Italy, and it’s a giant bell, bigger than me, and then there’s a picture of me in front of the bell. While in Brazil I took those pictures and copied them twice, cutting and pasting it over and over. Then I took a picture of it and made a slideshow where I would appear and disappear. O Estranho Desaparecimento de VCB (The Strange Disappearance of VCB). It’s silly, but that was all.

There’s an interesting process in making a project where sometimes the project makes itself. For example, Os Nadadores (The Swimmers) from 1998. Sometimes I see pictures in the newspaper that I really like so I keep them, I have this archive. Lately I haven’t been doing this because in Spain the newspapers are more interesting, some are black and white and have that nice grain. So there was this picture of amateur swimmers about to jump into the  Barceloneta, and I thought the picture was interesting because they were all in different poses. I kept it for two years and when I was invited for the Photographic Spring in Barcelona I thought about using it. I copied it, cut out the copy in pieces and saw that they all looked different – one in the back, a few in the middle, one up front and the last one was just a shadow jumping in the water. They were all different but looked like they were all one. I picked out ten and formed a sequence. At one point I thought about projecting it in the slide carousel, which has 80 slots. I went to a friend and asked him to digitally combine the first and the last leaving three in the middle. He came up with 40 images, but the slide carousel had 80. So I said to him “Well, now do the other way around.” So we ended up with 80, and the last one plays from the first one in a loop. It’s amazing, because the process itself created the piece and I projected the slides inside an aquarium with bubbles playing the sound of running water.

Does this matter of discussing a process instead of a work/object have anything to do with Nervo Ótico (Optical Nerve), which sought to question the same thing?

That’s very 70’s, when the process was very important. To me, it still is.  That’s recurring in my work, so I’m very fond of series instead of single objects. I have a few photographs, a few marked works where one thing is enough, but in general my works are in series because there’s a certain flexibility to them. You can develop the project in a different way. And I think it’s a characteristic of post-modernism, or what we started to live at the time (60’s-70’s), and nowadays art seems to be becoming non-art. There’s the tendency to drift towards different areas, which always seems superficial to me, without any further commitments. To be honest, I did that a bit towards the end of the Testarte series (back in the 70’s) with psychosocial research, but I went back to art because suddenly you are entering a no man’s land: you are not a psychologist, you are not an artist. That’s been happening again.

Ana Maria Albani talks about Nervo Óptico and more specifically about the word “nerve” in the sense of transmitting stimulus from one point to another and, much like that, Nervo Óptico was based around the idea of exchange and “sharing the artistic output beyond geographical, social and cultural circumstances and conditions which might limit the local artistic scene”. Do you believe those limitations included gender limitations? How was the participation and the output by women in the context Nervo Ótico was a part of?

There was, within the scarcity of our environment, a need to create dialogue partners, the possibility of dialogue in a context that was adequate for the developing of my own work as well as other equally restless people. That’s where the tendency to work in what we called “Cultural Animation” comes from, developing groups and spaces where that could happen. I don’t have to tell you that there was no financial interest in any of those initiatives, and we were not part of a generation born with their own art dealers under their arms.

At Nervo Ótico, from 1976 to 1978, there was me, Mara Alvarez and Romanita – she was with us in the beginning and then left, she didn’t even stay until the first poster was published. The rest were all men. At Espaço N.O. (N.O. Space) we had 9 months of work with women only. Then the men came in. When we started out, it was only women. There was already a lot of women working with art back then in Porto Alegre, and there were also gallery owners like Tina (Presser – Zappoli), Maria Helena Webster, Emília Marvão and Iara Kraft. Porto Alegre had women working as art dealers, not only as artists.  There was Tina. There was Maria Helena Webster and Emilia Marvão. I think someone should research and write about the history of art galleries in Rio Grande do Sul and then we would see that there was a lot of women inserted in that context.

Was working at the Obra Aberta (Open Work) gallery from 1999 until 2002 something that changed your vision of the art market, being on a different side of the negotiations? 

There was no time for that. But we always worked with artists we liked and that we believed had a cultural value, without focusing on sales. What I learned was that good gallery owners must love the artists they work with so they can convey that enthusiasm to buyers. That is very important. I’d recommend reading Leo Castelli’s biography to better understand this. But with Obra Aberta, as we started to sell more, when the gallery was about to turn 3 years old, our partner Pasquetti left and we felt it would be too difficult to stay open without him, so we closed it.

There’s one author that talks about how the film cameras in the 70’s and 80’s allow women more access to the art world because they were so easy to obtain, it allowed for more freedom, experimentation and defiance. Do you think that was a fact? Was there more women getting into art through photography and video?

That ease brings about new ideas, but I don’t think it creates new artists. The technique does not create the artist. It’s the artist who makes use of the technique to put their ideals in practice, provided they have the ideas. For me,  taking pictures since the beginning of the 70’s has helped me focus my gaze and attention to the world around me. I would not be able to tell you if photography or video directly influenced women to come up with a new kind of artistic output.

How do you see the challenges of being a female artist nowadays?

Personally, my challenges are not from being a woman. If there are challenges in getting wider distribution for my work, it’s because of the kind of work that I do. I feel like in Brazil there are no impediments due to gender – if there are hardships, it’s because of the type of work, the work centered around the process instead of the object. There’s also a geographical issue in such a large and diverse country, as well a concentration of possibilities in the more powerful centers. If you are in a satellite state outside of those centers you will certainly have a hard time getting your work in the art scene – museums, critics, the market itself – and obtaining the visibility you may deserve.   


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