Tabatinga, on the southern coast of the State of Paraíba, Brazil, preserves the beautiful toponymy of indigenous origin that means white clay. Sandstone image with kaolin matrix and iron migration from its living cliffs
Tabatinga, on the southern coast of the State of Paraíba, Brazil, preserves the beautiful toponymy of indigenous origin that means white clay. Sandstone image with kaolin matrix and iron migration from its living cliffs

In Paraíba, a geological spectacle proves to be fascinating with the colored clays that emerge on the coast. Born with special textures and tonal games, the colors range from intense red, passing through yellows, blues, pinks. They seduce. The Brazilian cliffs leave foreigners ecstatic, because in some countries, like England, they are completely gray, due to the presence of lead. Definitely, Brazil is colorful from its entrails.

The Brazilian territory has a large reserve of utopias, and the Paraíba territory encompasses heterogeneous views of geological, artistic and institutional knowledge. Marlene Costa de Almeida, plastic artist and researcher, lived with this landscape since she was a child and never tired of admiring it. On the contrary, when she had already graduated in philosophy, she decided to dedicate herself to the study and research of the clays that emerge on the living cliffs in the east of the state, and which the sea is slowly dredging up. Cabo Branco, the northernmost point of Brazil, has already lost 20 to 30 kilometers of these walls over millions of years. With winds, scorching sun, excessive heat and even drizzle, Marlene has walked through valleys, plains, hills and even along roadsides, always in search of a new color, the impossible tone, a new study of the chosen territory. .

His work can be understood as provisional systems that are transformed with each field expedition. The plastic artist/researcher started working directly on the coast of Paraíba, in the so-called Barreiras Formation, the most important sedimentary deposit in her research. “As time went by, my work expanded to the interior and then to other Brazilian states”. Many areas were visited with her team, composed of José Rufino, geologist and visual artist (son of Marlene) and by Antonio Augusto de Almeida, engineer, former professor of geology at the Technical School (her husband). With this group in tune, she has been researching dozens of locations, guided by the polychrome richness of colored cliffs that form the geological unit that extends from the state of Pará to Rio de Janeiro. On it are settled, among other cities, João Pessoa, Olinda, Natal.

Like a travel diary, Marlene, aged 80, continues in the field, studying more and more and very calmly. She seems to follow the Situationist International, a left-wing movement of social, cultural and political criticism, active in the 1960s, which advises its followers to produce things that give them pleasure and not those that can enslave them. His vacations and those of José Rufino were often spent on expeditions that resulted in works that problematize the nature and physical condition of the materials found. “My work involves geology, chemistry, cartography because, to reach a positive result, it is necessary not only to know the materials in depth, but also to know how they should be manipulated, after all, each one has its specificities”. Every element collected is classified, manipulated and stored in small jars in her studio in João Pessoa, which will soon form part of the Terras Brasileiras museum, which is being idealized. This long research has the support of the Federal University of Paraíba and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPQ), and, this year, it will be turned into a book.

In her studio, Marlene makes a series of paintings, some of which show eroded land and local vegetation, which are transformed into light but critical landscapes. Such records are born from a flow of images that change from others, even from branches and foliage present in the studio. Her work diversifies in sculptures, and it is worth mentioning the installation Sticks of Shadow, composed of tubes of raw cotton fabric, sewn and filled with clay. As Marlene herself defines it, “this installation refers to the primitive way of measuring time, with shadows, before the clepsydras (water clock, one of the first systems created to measure time) and hourglasses”. The sand placed in closed tubes does not slip through the hourglasses and alludes to one of man's oldest wishes: to stop time. With a serialist character, the tubes, which are repeated, can be produced with several meters, which impacts when they are installed in large spaces, as happened in Germany.

In the field of sculpture, there are large pieces made with cellulose and natural pigments that take on organic forms. A series of circular cellulose plates takes center stage due to the pictorial materiality of the dense layers of pigments. This year she opened a gallery, the Costa e Almeida Art Office, located in Bananeiras, in one of the historic places of the city, where she was born, with an exhibition of her latest works. Under the title Copaóba, she brought together large works with tempera paintings. When visiting the exhibition, the critic Marcos Lontra wrote: “All the landscapes built by Marlene aim to present to each one of us the physicality and transcendence of the lands of the world and, with that, give meaning and beauty to that breath, to that enchanted and small period of time that constitutes human life on this planet, on this earth”.

Looking through the rearview mirror, the artist is not sure exactly when she decided to live for these undertakings. “I don't know if I was in the studio, looking at a blank canvas and thinking: I don't want these paints anymore, I need to go to a barrier to get some dirt to make a special paint. Or if I was in Cabo Branco, where I saw a beautiful land and decided to take it to the studio and make a paint”. In any case, Cabo Branco, the northernmost point on the Brazilian map, is the emotional landmark of her work. Marlene has not read Lucy Lippard, the American art critic, but, like her, she emphasizes the need to establish a singular relationship with the surroundings, to account for the geographic imagination.

The insatiable desire for discoveries was the driving force to broaden her research, which she only understood much later. “In addition to being a researcher, this work made me a land collector.” Marlene speaks of the study of colors as something very broad, and which began with the philosophers of antiquity. “They studied medicine, pharmacy, geology, geography at the same time. These scientists wrote down not only a color in the codex, but also the recipe of how to prepare it and, with the same material, even recorded how to make a medicine”. This mixture of science and culture is at the beginning of the study of colors that moves in a very vast field. “Chemistry is of decisive importance, because we have to know what the material is and how that material is transformed”. For her, alchemy also has its charms because the idea of ​​transmuting things, of transforming them in a more poetic way, is magical. “Aristotle spoke of colors, as did Vitruvius, Pliny the Elder, long before Christ. For me, philosophy structures everything in a person's life.

If today I were to start all over again, I would choose philosophy again so that I could be an artist and a researcher”. Marlene reveals that her ideological structure also comes from philosophy. She has always been a notorious left-wing political activist.

She exalts the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous peoples by remembering that some native peoples work with the clay where they are settled and name their territory by the color of the soil. “The clay from the Tabatinga region, which is an indigenous name, means white land. That of Tauá means colored land and presents an infinite range of colors. There are many names of territories derived from the color of the soil”.

The museum she intends to create in João Pessoa, with all her finds and studies, will be an extension of her work that now connects with the rest of the world. “From the beginning of my research, I had wonderful sources. Today, the internet enhances my searches even more”. Marlene cites study groups in Chile that are conducting an important study on clays. “In Portugal there are also researchers with good studies on pigments. Currently, we have the opportunity to discuss the work with a much broader perspective”.

With all the violent climatic changes, I wonder if the colors have also changed in these more than 50 years. “No, because 50 years in geology is a very short time. In the early 1980s, in Chapada do Araripe, Ceará, I found green clays, very difficult to locate. A long time later I returned to the same place and found the same formation still with the green clays that I had collected 40 years before. Geological time is slow, a different time”.

Marlene's studio is astonishing to anyone unfamiliar with geology and used to thinking of the earth as brown. I myself discovered the collection in the 1980s and was impressed. Her collection of pigments placed in bottles already exceeds thousands and she does not intend to stop. Each glass is a window into the fascinating world of geology and earth history. The clays that make up the collection were formed over millions of years by the action of wind and rain on the cliffs and rock formations of Paraíba. Over time, the minerals present in the rocks were deposited in the clay, giving each layer a unique color and texture. The Greeks call paradox what we call things that amaze, the materials collected and classified are, for the most part, from the Northeast, but there are examples of clays from all over Brazil. The set is fundamental not only for its aesthetic value, but also for its source of scientific knowledge, as it contains unique samples of clays with shades that have been incessantly sought after, with a lot of research and patience.

Marlene's idea is, in the future, to leave this material, which also has a pedagogical character, in some public space, to have a more collective purpose. “Also so that people who visit it can get to know and imagine a land. A different land, for us to look at, feel and, above all, love, and then we will be free to dream”. ✱

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