Rufino looks at his Araceae specimens
Rufino looks at his Araceae specimens. Photo: Disclosure.

Nature seduces, transforms, marvels, through exuberance and responsibility for the planet. There are artists who incorporate the environment in their research, driven by the trend of the moment and others who already bring it naturally within themselves. José Rufino experienced rural knowledge as a mill boy, graduated in geology and paleontology, worked with Marlene Almeida, his mother, in a research on earth pigments and now finds a special place to reverberate his experiences, the José Rufino Institute . With this, he inaugurates a new understanding of nature and artistic making in his life. In a bureaucratic process, the space is still called Sítio Sabiá, the name of the old place, and extends over an area of ​​50 thousand square meters, which will soon be 70. Located in the municipality of Bayeux, in the greater João Pessoa (Paraíba), it is a place to think about art, nature, culture and develop research taking into account the environment.

What makes this space provocative? José Rufino mixes his scientific knowledge in situations full of ambiguities, discoveries and many experiments with wild and domesticated vegetation. "THE Institute It has about 160 species of the Araceae family, of anthuriums, imbés and philodendrons, plus 250 of the Arecaceae family, of palm trees, in addition to a collection of native species, among which I highlight the tucum (ferruginea bacteria), whose spines are used as an indigenous body element. “I consider my plant collection a living archive of lived experiences. Each one represents a sensorial, ethnographic collection, a living sculpture”, she says. All the paths that cut through the landscape are irregular, subject to the interest and development of the plants themselves. It is an emancipated spatial reflection that also includes animals from the families of anteaters, three-toed sloths, capybaras, foxes, raccoons, marmosets, among many others. This expansion of the experience reaches the large studio that can be occupied by both Rufino and the residents. “The construction is located on the border between a stretch of Atlantic Forest and the highest part of the garden. The space was built between trees that were recovering from decades of careless cutting and burning, and are now quite leafy.” The total area of ​​the land lies between the coastal deck and the estuary of the Sanhauá River. It borders the Mata do Xem-Xem State Park, whose ruins of a 19th-century weir are within the property.

Choosing the location of the Institute triggered a pioneering thought in Rufino, who visited many ready-made sites, with layers of stories from their former owners, something that did not interest him. When he found a degraded, barren, polluted and clogged stream, he decided to buy it. The deepest impulse of his utopia came from the encounter with this environmental chaos, in 1984. “That excited me, I wanted to save these hectares starting from scratch. My father, who grew up on the plantation, when he saw the scenery, he was horrified and said that not even nettles would grow there”. In that sense, Rufino had to deal with expectations all the time, but this idea of ​​disagreement was more of a motivating provocation. Now, after many years of constant work, research and consultation with experts, the soil has not only been reborn, it is very rich. Nature responded to the height of their efforts, transformed, recreated the microclimate and everything is exuberant.

“My earliest memories of a solitary, silent conversation with nature were in my grandfather's mill. I didn't live there, but I went every weekend and spent the entire vacation. The sensory memories I bring back from my childhood are more from the mill than from the city.” Gradually he became closer to natural history, influenced by the botany books of his engineer father, full of illustrations. “I started to collect plants, fossils, which made me almost a child naturalist. I was also curious about the origin of the popular names of plants and the reason for the scientific names”. Acting between science and delirium, he went after tamarind seeds collected from the backyard of the poet Augusto dos Anjos. He traveled to Salvador in search of the cocoa fruit from a tree planted by Pierre Verger. "Today I have the pleasure of producing, through my father's insight, small bars of Verger chocolate."

Already trained in paleontology, his gaze was refined with method, as he says. But the Institute's terrain is self-explanatory, freedom runs wild there with a landscaping that respects the will of the plants, very close to tropical nature. “Burle Marx was the one who introduced this concept in several projects. He shamelessly placed the plants that climbed on top of the others forming a mass, it was not a planned thing like the European garden, especially the French one.”

Rufino's work on the balcony of his studio, with the Atlantic Forest and the Sanhauá river valley in the background
Rufino's work on the balcony of his studio, with the Atlantic Forest and the Sanhauá river valley in the background. Photo: Jose Rufino

O artist does not intend to turn Instituto José Rufino into a kind of Inhotim, full of works by artists. “Everything that is there has to cross my poetics. During the pandemic I did a lot of work and now I'm going to do an expedition through the land, through other itineraries, which will generate the exhibition Phantasmagoria, as part of the Ontologies project, which will be exhibited in March at FAMA (Fábrica de Arte Marcos Amaro), in Itu, in a shed that is being restored to receive it”. In the open scenario of the Rufino Institute, it will continue the artistic residencies, which have already taken place on a small scale, will open to scholars in the field of botany, zoology and ethnology who want to share knowledge and strategic thoughts on this scale. “We work close to the concept of residences in rural areas, because despite being located in the city, we are far from the urban perimeter”. Be that as it may, there is no turning back, as he says. Today the Rufino Institute is a reality, a heritage that must also have a social return and this is one of its challenges.

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