Martha, you are from Maceió, a city in the Northeast of Brazil. I haven’t been to that region yet, but I can imagine that at that time (1968) the Northeast was even further away from the metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. I ima- gine as well that much courage, and above all conviction, was necessary to live away from home. I am curious about the process that led you to study Art in Rio. Were there important references that stimulated your choice for art? Leaving Maceió to study was something common for a woman at that time?
I left Maceió for other reasons: for political reasons and to continue my Pedagogy course at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Although I knew it wasn’t the education I desired, to my family it was a convincing argument to leave Maceió. At that time people were flocking away, several friends and I left in 1968, some were already being persecuted by the dictatorship. Others, like me, were already part of the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), the “Partidão” (a.k.a. the “big party”), but then we broke up with them and we were going to Rio to affiliate ourselves to the PCBR (the commu- nist party aligned with the armed struggle). But I remained affiliated for only about 8 months, when I realized it wasn’t my thing. Some of my friends were assassinated by the dictatorship, others exiled or were arrested… there was a group of Alagoanos (na- tives of the city of Alagoas) in Rio that we used to be part of, but politics was the only subject of interest,, and no one cared about art.
Art, to me, belonged to another category, it was ingrained in my life, it was visceral. Years later I recognized as performances works I was doing since I was a girl, still in school. Also, the art milieu in Maceió didn’t make this discovery any easier, since at that time all that was being produced was drawing and painting, of the most traditio- nal kind.
I only started making art for real in 1982, when I came back to Maceió and started the “Desenho e Criatividade” [Drawing and Creativity] course with the artist Jadir Freire from the Projeto Arco-íris [Rainbow Project] of Funarte, the National Arts Foundation. The course prompted me to carry out a performance in the centre of Maceió that was a “Via Crucis”. I walked through the centre of the city pulling a rag doll tied to a halter, and I entitled this performance Apêndice Bruxeleante [Flickering Appendix].
In 1983 I returned to Rio to take the courses in “Pesquisa Matéria/Forma” (Matter/ Form Research) with the sculptor Roberto Moriconi and “Escultura/Objeto” (Sculpture/Object) with the sculptor Goldenberg at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio (MAM/RJ). Still in 1983, I also took courses with Sergio de Camargo and Tunga. At the beginning of 1984 I enrolled in the Oficina de Escultura (Sculpture Workshop) of the Museu do Ingá in Niterói where I stayed until the end of year of 1987, under the orien- tation of the sculptor Haroldo Barroso.
During that period I produced the series Hábito/Habitante (Habit/ Inhabitant) and the “mattresses” series that I entitled Para um corpo… (For a body…), and also the performance installation Para um corpo nas suas impossibilidades (For a body in it’s impossibilities). At the beginning of 1988 I went back to Maceió and started the Pia- çabugos series, tactile sculptures with polyurethane foam sheets and Piassava fibers (fibrous product from palm trees). I went back to Rio in 1989 and continued producing the Piaçabugos. I carried out an individual at the Galeria do Ibeu/Rio in 1991. In 1992 I was back to Maceió again to assume the post as assistant teacher at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL), where I remained until 2006.
So you had an interest in the body since you were a child. I remember one of our conversations where you talked about your desire to study ballet in Russia, whi- ch ended not happening. The opportunity to study in Russia arose because your family was connected to the Communist Party? I imagine this kind of education must have influenced your view of the world. When I look at your work I feel that, besides interrupting a life directly related to politics, your work emanates a poli- tical concern with respect to the limits of the body and the relationship between the binomial addition/fragmentation, the experience of being with an Other and at the same time retaining a sense of freedom. Do you see a relationship between your personal experience and your artistic research further on in your life?
Indeed, I belonged to a family in which my father and my aunt were card-carrying Communists. My father was a merchant and financed the PCB. When Communist lea- ders visited Maceió (such as Gregório Bezerra, Luiz Carlos Prestes, etc.), my father was the one who met them at the airport, and he would place me before him to welcome them with a bouquet of roses.
When I was 18 years old, when I was finishing high school, my father was granted a scholarship for me to study at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, as a prize from the Communist Party. I opted not to go to Moscow because I wanted to study ballet, and at Patrice Lumumba there were only traditional fields of study such as me- dicine, engineering, law, economics.
My father taught me to obey a set of principles, such as respect for the Other, truth, justice, equality, and freedom. Every Sunday, my aunt developed a project with the labourers of a tex- tile manufacturing company in Fernão Velho, a district of Maceió, and would take me with her.
My mother, on the other hand, inculcated in me awareness of the senses and courage. We were taught to walk in the dark, groping. My house had no ornaments, it was like a monastery, there was nothing superfluous. It was just the furniture and us, nothing hung on the white walls. But that’s a long story, which is indeed very important in my education, since I’ve always navigated between the material and spiritual worlds. Therefore, I had a very rich life experience, which subsequently influenced the course of my artistic research.
Tell us a bit more about your return to Rio in 1983. How were these groups that were part of “Pesquisa Matéria/Forma” and “Escultura/Objeto”. Do you remem- ber what your process was like at that time? What was your research about and what interests did you nurture at that time?
My process was one of exploring all the possibilities of the material, constructing it and deconstructing it. I would go after the material at the “Saara”, in streets in the centre of the city of Rio de Janeiro, in the public market. I also used discarded clothing.
Did the classes function as experimental laboratories? What were the dynamics of these groups, and do you remember colleagues that were important to you
at that time? What were the methodologies of your work? Also, I imagine you searched for specific characteristics in the materials to develop your research on how to address the body in relationship to the Other. Was that the moment, for example, that you started to work with magnets?
Both courses had very different methodologies. In Moriconi’s, “Pesquisa Matéria/ Forma”, research of materials and experimentation were highly stimulated, without the concern or obligation for producing something in particular. On the other hand,
in Goldberg’s course, “Escultura/Objeto” we would research the materials in a more directed way. We visited liquid polyurethane factories, foam mattress factories (Vulcan Company), wood carpentries, sawmills. We were encouraged to build with the ma- terials we chose. The courses were carried out in rooms and workshops where there were all kinds of equipment and tools. At the end of Goldberg’s course, an exhibition was held with the works we produced at the gardens of the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio, where the courses were held. My production was abundant and very diversified, I made works with expanded polyurethane, with the foam from Vulcan (later on, when
I was already in the Sculpture workshop of the Museu do Ingá, Vulcan sponsored the production of the series Para um corpo… (For a Body…), with their mattresses). I also built a clothes line with discarded clothing, which was plunged in plaster, and also two installations with materials I gathered at the public market (cow rib bones and rope tobacco). It was like vomiting, evoking all the desires that inhabited me for many years. By the end of the course, in November of 1983, we visited a sawmill, where I gathered iron filings. That was when I started the course with Tunga, and there I expe- rimented the “dança das limálhas” (“dance of the iron filings”).
I made lots of friends and was invited by Goldberg to participate of his group, who worked in his sculpting studio in Jacarepaguá (a district in Rio de Janeiro). But I de- clined. Moriconi offered me a scholarship in an art school in Florence, with a traditio- nal teaching approach, and I declined as well because the objective was to “turn the tables”, as I had done so during his course, like he used to say. At that time I told him I wanted to dedicate myself to Contemporary Art and asked him to introduce me to a group working in those lines. It was then that he introduced me to Haroldo Barroso, who coordinated the Sculpting Workshop of the Museu do Ingá in Niterói, and there I stayed until 1987. It was there that I produced a belt and two bracelets with the mag- nets. The objective was to bind the wrists onto the belt, but I noticed they didn’t stick together as strongly as I wanted, I needed something with more bondage, so as to produce a more powerful feeling of liberation, because the more imprisoned you felt, the freer you felt when you released yourself. I was exercising this binding/unbinding one day when Barroso called me and asked me what I was trying to do. I explained to him that the magnets weren’t bonding with the strength I wanted them to. He told me to take the bracelets off, and at that moment we discovered that the velcro that closed the bracelet was what really had the power to bind as I wished. I bought cloth and started experimenting with the velcro, I did a paper mould and started to make overalls in pairs, one with one side of the velcro, and the other one with the other side, in a way that one overall stuck to the other, and when you pulled them apart you would hear a skin-ripping sound that was really strong. It was liberation from the Other. It was at that workshop that I developed the series Hábito/Habitante e Para um corpo…. (Habit/ Inhbitant and For a Body…)
I would like you to tell me more of your experience in Rio, about the classes. I remember you commented on an important prize in the drawing category… and how you then decided to go back to Maceió.
About the prize at the Salão Carioca: at the time I was in Rio de Janeiro there were two salões1. The most important one was the Salão Nacional de Artes Plásticas that happened at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. In 1984 I was selected with the performance of the overalls, which was the first of the series Hábito/Habitante (Habit/Inhabitant), and in 1986 I was selected and awarded in the drawing category in 1986 – which was a surprise, as I never drew, I’m not a drawer, I only draw to illustrate my projects. At that time I was experimenting with buckram paper (white and black).
I would rip the black buckram with my hands, pulling out its layers until it was almost transparent. I would do the same with the white buckram, and affixed strips of the black at the base of the white buckram with a clothes iron, forming a path that would run through the front and back of the white buckram. I didn’t give continuity to this research. At this same salão I was selected in the sculpture category, with the double Hábito/Habitante. The problem was that in this salão the category for performance didn’t exist, and the work was recorded as a sculpture. As for my return to Maceió, I was selected for the teaching position at the Universidade Federal de Alagoas (UFAL) and I came back to take up the position..
It is interesting how your work explores the act and the feeling of freedom. I would like to know more about this impulse and your interest in relation to the potential that this action brings. What is the origin of this interest? Do you belie- ve it has a connection to your life or with the context in which you lived?
This is a very interesting issue, and I only became aware of it through repetition. This feeling of liberation has always been connected to the “bonding-for-unshackling” – its as if the greater force of liberation was felt after an imprisonment. This is a recurrent feeling. You see, in 2011/2012 I produced a set of weaves over photographs, “impriso- ning” the image, but the result seemed to be remain suspended in the “imprisoning” itself, since the image does not possess the power of liberation, and what remains is only as a representation. Maybe it does have an origin in my life experience.
Your work questions when and how we stop being One to “be” or “become” with the Other. Its ingrained in the famous feminist reference “the personal is poli- tical” and confronts the issue of how can we exist without the Other, and how these forms of existence happen through personal negotiation. To me, this is how your work stands, exactly on the different production limits of the collective and individual spheres. More specifically, I find it fascinating how your work, through a sensitive act (like separating oneself from velcro), produces in the body the ne- gotiation to challenge the visible limits, placing a political issue in the emotional, mental and invisible spheres. Martha, do you identify with this interpretation?
Manuela, I don’t really identify with the “feminist” reading, but I believe my work is open to many interpretations and I respect the freedom to produce them. Some talk about the “deterritorialization” that Habit provokes. Others, like Harum, have presented a broader reading, when they say my work aims to rediscover and search for a new body. And there are others, still, to whom my work is an exercise of being simultaneously with oneself, with the Other, and with the surroundings and, at the same time, free from all this. The issue of binding/unbinding would be a metaphor of our experience of the world, always in search of liberation from the Other, from ourselves and from the environment in which we live in. As you can see, my work is open to several interpretations.
In the series of the “colchões” (“mattresses”) you propose the opposite of Hábito/Habitante (Habit/Inhabitant). Here, the action if one of putting the body in contact with something else, making its boundaries and contours disappear, creating unity, to become a fragment of itself. How do you view the relationship between these two works?
Manuela, I consider touch the sense that I have privileged in my works, but I also have the “capacetes” (“helmets”) that are also part of the series Hábito/ Habitante, which have a small internal pocket placed at the nose’s level to be filled with childhood “odours”. There are six in total, and a string interconnects them. There’s also a “col- chão sonoro” (“sound mattress”), which I entitled Para um corpo na solidão dos ecos (For a body in the solitude of the echoes).
As for the issue of the difference between Hábito and the “colchões” (“mattresses”), you can see that I have selected as interlocutors of the body objects that are in contact with it for long periods of time in people’s everyday lives – clothes and mattresses (from 6 to 10 hours approximately), which could mean they’re the body’s biggest experts, by continuous coexistence. Hábito/Habitante establishes a dialogue with
the “Other”, with the person who wears these objects and relates to the surrounding space, whereas the “colchão” Para um corpo… (the For a Body… “mattress” ) is a soliloquy, it’s a reflection the body has with itself in relation to a myriad of issues such as emptiness, the fragmentation of the body, desires, solitude, and the geographical direction of the body.