Iron is the backbone of Luana Vitra's research and magnetizes the installation she created especially for the 35th São Paulo Biennial. The element – accompanied by other metals such as copper and silver – unfolds a myriad of meanings in the Minas Gerais artist's work, incorporating references of a biographical, poetic, symbolic, historical and even metaphysical nature, by embodying the idea of transmutation of matter and space, through the transformative action of air and rust.
Luana grew up in the mining city of Contagem, and the extraction and processing of ore marks her history. Her great-grandfather, Domingos Zacarias, for example, died of silicosis, a disease resulting from inhaling waste linked to his work in the mines. In addition to the direct family connections, this web of stories present in these places where her family lives, she also recalls the central importance of African culture for the development of mining activity in the Brazilian colonial period. After all, the technology necessary to extract the metals came from Africa.
Oppression and defense strategies were combined in this process, leaving fascinating footprints that Luana now incorporates in her work. One of the forms of protection used by those who were forced to work in the mines was to take canaries into the underground tunnels to assess the air quality. Sensitive to toxic gases, the bird signaled in advance that the air was unbreathable, saving several lives. “I’m interested in thinking about how air was a vehicle of life and freedom,” he says.
In Luana's work, this power is linked to a discourse full of symbolic references and concrete signs. In a large open area of 100 meters on the second floor of the pavilion, it combines small and seductive sculptures representing birds, a series of metallic arrows, in direct reference to Ogum (orixá associated, among other things, with iron and technology, protector of artisans and blacksmiths) to other elements such as herbs, shells and indigo blue – another allusion to the African presence –, creating a powerful installation that enlivens the entire space. The artist, who also works in the field of dance and performance, establishes a spatial choreography and creates harmony with the motto of “impossible choreographies” chosen for this Biennale. Montage, a fundamental process for the artist, promotes tensions, balances and repetitions. “That’s where the enchantment of things happens. It’s my signature, almost like a litany, a miracle,” she says.
Luana, who has just won this year's Pipa Prize, says she is very happy to participate in this edition. For her, the exhibition breaks a unique logic, deviates from a course, a ready-made trail and allows for “a path in a dense forest”, by bringing black curators for the first time and having 80% of non-white people among the participants.