LETTERS ON SPEECH, BODY, EMOTION AND SURVIVAL STRATEGIES
Revisiting the political commitments of five avant-garde Brazilian artists, the following eulogies continue to increase the awareness of the political role of the body today.
there’s an urgency to do a retrospective of artists who bravely protested against dictatorship only a few decades ago, once nowadays brazil’s far-right elected president jair bolsonaro is openly nostalgic for authoritarian rule (1). i believe that addressing the production of female artists during the dictatorial period means looking back at an ongoing wound that continues to haunt us in the form of conservative speech and right-wing politics (2).
while speaking with lygia clark (1920-1988), anna maria maiolino (b. 1942), claudia andujar (b.1931), anna bella geiger (b. 1933) and lygia pape (1927-2004) (3), i look back at their practice through nowadays lenses. either resisting the repressive military regime, tackling the issue of gender, exploring private and public space, or using participation to activate the artworks, their practice share a special focus on the body. these letters address how, in my perspective, these five artists have questioned the political role of the body as a space for resistance, tackling not only corporeal but also social issues (4).
by writing them, i look back on how they have told their stories, and how can i tell mine (5). some artists had to leave their countries, live in exile, and start a new life. some of them worked in silence and very much in obscurity. some had children, and their careers were not typical like a man who has the ability to produce art throughout his life. it was hard, and sometimes so hard that they stopped making art. but each of them have found their own way to say unsettling things (6).
the physical is becoming more and more virtual. i feel it is urgent to investigate the geography of intimate space. hasn’t the lockdown shown us how vulnerable we are, and how vivid is our own emotional reality? in a digitized world, both the physical and the emotional experience are at stake, and while looking at your practice i wonder how could we continue to increase awareness on the political role of the body. replacing the eyes and the mind by multi sensory strategies in which the tactile, skin, surfaces, and touching the entire body are activated seems like a very powerful tool (7). in times of fear, how can we get closer to what mário pedrosa named as the experimental exercise of freedom? (8)
maybe one of the answers is choosing a radical path, in which we could turn against the dominance of the visual over other senses. (9) i think of your playful approach to everyday tactile sensations, human beings, their bodies, their sexuality, and empathy with the other sex. throughout your practice, we crawl through tunnels, put on masks, feel stones, put on suits. nets are knotted and walls are shifted. from your máscaras sensoriais (sensory masks, 1967), to the objects you made for nostalgia do corpo (nostalgia of the body, starting at 1964), and all the way down to objetos relacionais (relational objects, 1976-88) during your therapeutic phase, you address very different senses and focus attention on small and tiny regions of perception. (10)
to rethink intimacy and primal experiences is so powerful, i see this is a tool for change. how poetical it is to activate the body symbolically once again from conception to birth: penetration, ovulation, germination, expulsion. your large-format labyrinth a casa é o corpo (the house is the body, 1968) is one of the last material works you realized before placing yourself entirely in the service of experimental therapy. as your landscape expanded to include psychoanalysis, so did birth, sexuality, and cannibalism became prominent in your writings. an obscure undated text you wrote during this period explores the inextricable bond between fetus and placenta, newborn and breast, and the cannibalistic aspect of this fusion between self and body part. (11) there is still so much to be done under these paths.
i see the disappearance of the art object here as less the dematerialisation of the art object that lucy lippard described as characteristic of experimental art than incorporation and assimilation of it as something indistinguishable from the bodies and actions of the participants. (12) the house-body not as one fixed environment, but a set of collective gestural expressions, and the development of a living biological architecture, dissolved at every experience… how powerful can the ephemeral be?
you have a multifaceted identity that cannot be easily placed within our country’s dominant narratives around national belonging. due to your european roots, perhaps it is your connection to two cultures that brings you closer to the ‘other’, in your case, to the indigenous other. (13) living abroad i tend to identify with this otherness, with the foreignness that makes you and me as ‘exotic’ as the subjects of your work. who gets represented and by whom? by questioning hegemonic narratives, brazil’s colonial past and the country’s social reality, by articulating politics, self-representation, irony and fiction, often based on an autobiographical perspective, perhaps you were, as i am, frustrated at the way dominant narratives have depicted minorities as the ‘otherness’, leaving the white supremacy as an aesthetic ideal. (14)
the nine pairs of postcards in brasil nativo, brasil alienígena (native brazil, alien brazil, 1977) proudly present the bororo, an indigenous people of the state of mato grosso, as an idealized vision of contemporary brazil, while also reproducing the colonial myth of the tropical paradise. (15) these propaganda images, which were sold at news-stands in touristic cities, are seen to be quite perverse when considered in the context of 1970s brazil when the indigenous peoples were suffering from the violence of the military dictatorship’s policies. (16)
using your own body and autobiography, you parodied the postcards, by inserting yourself into the scenes. just like they assumed poses directed by the white photographer who created the images, you were also essentially playing a role: like the indian women, you got together with your friends to swept your patio, patted a small animal, rubbed your arm, readied yourself to shoot with an arrow, and observed a reflection of your image. your photographs remind me that several indigenous people were posing for the sake of the exotic memento that tourists would take back to their ‘civilized’ lands. what does it mean to be native or alien, and whose interests do such distinctions serve? your perspective on brasilidade (brazilianness) feels pertinent in light of the recent election of far-right president jair bolsonaro, when the very existence of dissonant positions is under threat at the hands of polarised narratives of nationalism. (17)
you later took in your practice the map as subject, where bodily interventions and other distortions frequently create ruptures in a way still laced with colonial ideology. (18) in o pão nosso de cada dia (our daily bread, 1978), you documented yourself eating the center out of two pieces of bread, leaving behind holes in the shapes of south america and brazil. it is such a strong act to draw a map by ingesting it. how many maps must be subverted in order to turn the narrative upside down and begin to tell the same tale in another way again?
for over five decades, you have devoted your life to photographing and protecting the yanomami and their rights, which you were significant in securing. these are now slowly being whittled away by current bolsonaro government, and the president’s outright disdain for, and some say persecution of, indigenous people. (20) together with kopenawa you fought for the demarcation of their land in 1993, after a fourteen-year long battle. (21) but despite the power of memory, they have not been spared in the last decades of various catastrophes, including disease, fires and attacks by loggers and miners. this year a legislation was introduced to legalise mining and commercial farming in the area, effectively displacing them from their territory for corporate gain. (22)
it all began in the 70s, when you were working as a photojournalist, and assigned to photograph the yanomami. by then you eventually left são paulo and gave up photojournalism to live in the states of roraima and amazonas. but in 1978, you were forced to leave the indigenous territory because of the national security law enacted by the military government. (23) once you returned to são paulo, you organised a group that advocated the delimitation of a territory for the yanomami indians. seeing a need to protect their health, you traveled back to their territory to work on a vaccination campaign that would help saving many lives. from 1981 to 1983 you photographed each immunised man, woman, or child holding an identification number. the photos were then attached to the individual’s health charts as a means to identify them since they did not reveal their names. did you felt that in your contact with them, you were somehow reproducing a colonial gaze, or were you trying to create new narratives around such a traumatic encounter with whiteness? (24)
these photographic medical records are the ones that originated your celebrated series marcados (marked, 1981-83). (25) i believe that if we could overlook the numbers on their chests, i would above all see noble and playful faces, also among children and youths. but the identification number is an inevitable mark of exclusion, subalternity and difference. your father died in a nazi concentration camp, and you say that you were specifically struck by how much the images showing the faces of the yanomami with identification numbers in their chests resembled photographs of jews who had been marked for murder by nazis. (26) but unlike the jews, the yanomami were marked to be saved. did you wanted to help them survive, while your own family could not? (27)
looking back at your works, i somehow see that by staging your own body you were connecting its figure to the torture and repression of the governing regime by then. (28) in your soft sculpture glu glu glu (1966), you articulate the problematic of the body reduced to pieces, to partial objects. i believe you were looking at the world, and trying to understand in particular this extremely difficult moment in the life of our land. these body parts, nakedly protruding out in space like exposed viscera, alluded to the torture inflicted on political prisoners during the military regime. it was a way of reflecting, making, or trying to make of this act of poetic freedom one of resistance to what was being established and imposed by the dictatorship that has taken control of our lives by then. (29)
"thinking about the body’s fragility and finite nature, can it be understood as both the carrier of the burden of repression and as well its poetical vehicle?"
in the central image of the photographic triptych é o que sobra (what is left over, 1974), you hold a pair of scissors around your tongue. speak, the photograph seems to say, and you may be brutally silenced - in a time when critics of the regime were routinely murdered. (30) the sentiment resonates today: president jair bolsonaro, elected in 2018 following a racist, misogynist and homophobic campaign, has openly praised the former dictatorship’s use of torture. (31) the feminine struggle against the male, patriarchal, and univocal sense of order is also seen in your film in-out (antropofagia) (1973) through the lack of proper language. were you silencing yourself to survive? or at that time were you being silenced to be kept mute? (32) i believe your visceral works addressing the abject and the sensorial also question traditional gender roles and introduce topics related to women’s constructed identity. (33) we are being brutally muted nowadays too, especially under the regime of fake news, control of algorithm and online data. perhaps the central power continues to cover its eyes, choosing what to see, so that it can pursue its arbitrary acts. (34)
some years later, entrevidas (between the lives, 1981) was performed in rio de janeiro in the final years of the military dictatorship. consisting of a floor dotted with hundreds of eggs, which the audience is invited to walk through, this fragile egg carpet acts as a minefield potentially charged with the possibility of birth and annihilation. you once said that faced with the egg we are confronted by nothing and everything; the empty and the full; the beginning as past, the end and the infinite. (35) do you also consider your eggs as a symbol of the fragility of life under censorship?
i think is it so strong when you say that in moments of repression and torture, all bodies become one in pain. it is both a single, subjective entity and a total collective self. thinking about the body’s fragility and finite nature, can it be understood as both the carrier of the burden of repression and as well its poetical vehicle?
in your performance o ovo (the egg, 1967) the experience of birth and destruction is performed by the surface of a cube made of a thin plastic material, acting as a second skin, which is torn apart in a visceral act. the violence and spirit of transformation implicit in this act also referred the political repression of that time, and the need to break free. (36) i also see the sensorial experience to go through a surface to create a new transformative space being similarly investigated in the collective performance work divisor (divider, 1968). at this time where brazil was a dismembered body, in which different parts were isolated from each other. what I find fascinating is that you were more interested in proposing ideas then authoring a finished work of art. the process, the doing was at stake, not the result. even if your practice was rooted in the brazilian neoconcrete movement from the 1960s, you avoided any specific label, understandably also opting out of feminist discourse and any other narrowing stamp. (37)
divisor consisted of a sheet of white cloth measuring thirty square meters and pierced with multiple holes into which the viewers could stick their heads, thereby forming a single body: a performative collective body, in a time when subjugated masses were being affected by political repression and state terrorism. (38) i consider this work as a device to transform the masses into a community and spark a sense of solidarity that had been curtailed by the authoritarian regime. the military dictatorship had been in power since 1964, and by 1968 this work had a clear political agenda: to bring people together in the face of threats to freedom, in circumstances when congregating was considered itself subversive. (39) i think it is curious that again since 2020 the use of public space is at risk, now due to a worldwide pandemic. (40) what would you do if everything surrounding yourself cracks, and your dreams for the future tremble?