Self-portrait, 1960s. Computerized image print on paper. 36x36 cm. Artist's collection, Rio de Janeiro.

the merit of the show native Brazil, Alien Brazil, by Anna Bella Geiger, simultaneously at MASP and Sesc Avenida Paulista, is to bring back into public debate the work of one of the most important Brazilian artists, explaining the coherence and pertinence of her path, always focused on the issue of identity.

In fact, it is the identity problem (in its broader sense) that, in my view, best characterizes the artist's work, which, although seen by many as fragmentary, the MASP/Sesc exhibition rightly configures it (in a consciously or not) as a single territory, even if it is in conflict. In it, issues related to identity clash and overcome each other to reappear later in new battles, convulsing the very territory created by the artist (the war metaphors used here are in accordance with part of Anna Bella's iconography).

I liked the sober way in which the works were arranged by rooms, making it clear to the public that this question remained in all the directions that the artist gave to her work, even showing moments in which she, in fact, marked Brazilian art. , affirming a path far from the concrete/neo-concrete heritage — undoubtedly a north, but not the only one — to be considered as legitimate. Anna Bella is one of the few Brazilian artists with local and international recognition, whose poetics did not constitute a continuity of those currents and whose outstanding characteristics make it difficult even for those who want to align their work with the “continuity” of Neoconcretism during the 1960s.

The interest of Anna Bella's work is that it develops autonomously, dialoguing here and there with productions by some of her colleagues (especially in the 1960s), however, more from outside influences.[1] than locations. Originating in lyrical (or “expressive”) abstraction, the uniqueness of his work is mainly due to its inadequacy to groups and even market demands.

 

Above, I used metaphors linked to location (“a territory”, “a north”) and this attitude was not gratuitous, as it suits the peculiar aspect of Anna’s production that marks, since the 1970s, a specific place from which she says: she is a white artist, of European descent, living and working in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Visiting the show, one can see the artist working with her location and her place of action and, for that, making use of a series of media, such as photography, engraving, video, installation, among others and, as method, in most of the works, cartography.

It is by destructuring this technical and scientific language that Anna will represent herself and her circumstance as an instrument for her own location in space (and in time) in the continuous search for understanding about that place that can be (or become) her place of action in the face of reality and the reality of art.

But it is not only through the destructuring of cartography that Anna Bella develops the affirmation of her place in the world, as a Latin American artist and woman. She also makes use of certain procedures to undermine other discourses already established by tradition, using them to continue the work of demarcating her place of struggle.

In view of the scope of all these aspects that Geiger's retrospective brings us, I chose to focus on a few works in which she dismantles the traditional concept of the self-portrait from parodic and/or allegorical procedures. The interest in this sector of her work arose, on the one hand, by the relevance of her production which, from the 1970s onwards, dialogues with works by other artists who discuss the identity of women from no longer, or no longer only, of works aimed at the “expression” of a self-centered subject, but of a being that is formed from the clash with the world (as an example, the North American Cindy Sherman who, in those years, presented herself unfolded in stereotypes of women from North American cinema). On the other hand, Anna Bella's self-portraits, along with those of a few other artists who also developed works of the same type in Brazil in that period (I am referring here to Carlos Zilio and Gabriel Borba, among others), will initiate a type of production place, in which artists will start to use their own bodies no longer as a mark of an insurmountable individuality, but as an element for the discussion about contemporary subjectivity, marked by the clash with society, tradition, the cultural industry, etc.

***

It was a happy idea for the exhibition's curators to present, along with Anna Bella's best-known works, lesser-known works, but no less important, given their significance in the context of Brazilian art. I pause here on a wall of the exhibition where there are three self-portraits by Anna Bella, one from 1951 (Col. G.Chatteaubriand/MAM-Rio), the others from the 1960s and 2003 respectively (both from the artist’s collection).

In the first, graphite and charcoal on paper, the artist's desire to adapt her image to the tradition of self-portrait is evident: the torso and face are described in a synthetic way, with emphasis on the eyes, with the pupils turned to the right, half restless and uncomfortable. This adaptation of her own body to the structures of traditional portraiture, the emphasis on the “expressiveness” of the look (eyes, the “windows of the soul”), attest that, even in her formative process, Anna Bella embodied the vision that Western society built. for the artist's self-image. In the work, not only an adequacy is perceived, but a belief in this constructo (despite the model's apparent discomfort).

Anna Bella shows signs of moving away from this tradition when, about a decade later, she proposes a self-portrait that, in fact, already assumes itself as a readymade modified: originally an analog photograph of your face, now processed via computer. Nothing in this piece exudes the artist's aura: none of the expressiveness of the authorial gesture, of the dense gaze. This self-portrait is pure manipulation and displacement.

Already in MonalisaTo backlight, the artist's image is presented as both parody and allegory. It simulates, in jocular terms, Leonardo's Mona Lisa (and the parody of this work, made by Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of the last century) and, at the same time, functions as a complex commentary on the art system in Brazil. By walling up the image itself between a poster (which reads, “Anna Bella Geiger” and further down, “Photo Rubber”) and, in the foreground, a photo of the favela of Santo Amaro, in Rio de Janeiro[2], Anna Bella ironizes herself, taking herself as a “photo rubber stamp” of the art circuit, overlapping the social reality of her hometown.

With the set formed by these three works, the visitor is led to understand Anna Bella's journey, both within the tradition of self-portraits and the history of recent art itself: the initial respect for tradition opens up to new technologies and ironic instrumentalization. of the image itself for the production of works that belie that initial respect.

***

native Brazil/alien Brazil – a work from 1976/77 that lends its title to the exhibition – is made up of nine pairs of postcards. Each pair, in turn, has a postcard representing Brazilian indigenous people in different actions, and a second card in which the artist reproduces the scene present in the first, using her own image and, in some cases, also figures from the your conviviality.

It is not by chance that this work marked a turning point in Brazilian art. Firstly, because it is configured as an action of appropriation, in this case, of industrialized postcards representing indigenous people in stereotyped situations. Rarely, in the country, an artist would have appropriated real objects as a constitutive element of the work.[3].

In turn, the cards produced by the artist to accompany the appropriate ones represented Anna Bella awkwardly trying to adapt to indigenous stereotypes, constructed decades ago, and reinforced by the local cultural industry, aligned with the civil-military dictatorship that then ruled the country. In other words, Anna Bella no longer presented herself as a subject who creates reality, in the romantic sense of the artist as a demiurge, but as an individual who edits the existing real itself, giving it other meanings. And, for that, she is not ashamed to use her own image to achieve her purposes that are far from seeking the expression of her “deep self”.

Hence, then, the resonance of possible meanings of native Brazil/alien Brazil: what does it mean to be Brazilian or Brazilian? How to adapt to the simulations of Brazilianness, having as parameters the idealized figures of the indigenous people who, at that time (as today) suffer the hardships of extermination? On the other hand, the concept of self-portrait that, if by chance, could still exist in those postcards produced by Anna Bella is totally corrupted or collapsed, given that she, critically, pretended to adapt to an iconographic (and behavioral) set. that was not part of his immediate experience.

***

The critical dimension of native Brazil/alien Brazil, by mocking the stereotypes of Brazilianness that were widely publicized in that heavy period in the country's history, it acted as a shovel of lime thrown over them. From native Brazil/alien Brazil, thinking about the issue of identity in Brazil gained another complexity, at the same time that the very concept of self-portrait gave signs that it should be rethought and redone.

At the same time, it is interesting to underline how native Brazil/alien Brazil can be understood as Anna Bella's search for a physical and symbolic location, based on the realization of what the artist not was, in relation to the society in which it was inserted.

***

Still in that decade, but shortly before the work discussed above, among videos, engravings and photographs exhibited at MASP, there are two series of photomontages in xerox, both from 1975. In Diary of a Brazilian artist[4], Anna Bella attests to her inadaptability as a woman and artist within a certain segment, the art circuit dominated by white men. She inserts portraits of herself in photos of famous visual artists, appropriated from magazines.

Diary of a Brazilian artist, 1975.

Register how the symbolic inadequacy of a Latin American artist to that universe, is made explicit in the very purposeful inadequacy of her portraits inserted in the photos starring Matisse and others, in a perfect conjugation (say) between the formalization of the works of the series and the intention that motivated it[5].

On the Serie art and decoration, cropped portraits of Anna Bella, always dressed in black (only her sandals were white, in contrast to her socks, which were also black), were pasted into photos depicting glamorous environments, in which works of art were presented as symbols of prestige, such as luxury goods. This series also emphasizes the artist's inadequacy to that type of place proposed for art by the mass media, a place she also showed not wanting to belong.

***

Visitors who are willing to go through the exhibition will certainly find several other works by Anna Bella, in which she demonstrates that the disruption of the traditional concept of self-portrait is one of her main strategies for the constitution of her work that, as mentioned at the beginning of these comments, configures itself as a territory of conflagration of identity themes.

Does the exhibition bring other segments of this same territory, also fundamental for the general understanding of this artist's work? Of course it does. To satisfy curiosity, it is necessary to visit her, getting in direct contact with the work of this one of the most important Brazilian artists.


[1] – Pop art, happening, performance, conceptual art, etc.

[2] – On the subject, read “Anna Bella Geiger: viscera, maps and portraits”, by Tomás Toledo. In São Paulo Museum of Art and Social Service of Commerce. Anna Bella Geiger: Native Brazil/Alien Brazil. São Paulo: MASP, Edições Sesc, 2019, p. 26.

[3] – At the same time, other artists in Brazil also carried out operations related to appropriation, the displacement of images and the construction of scenes. In addition to Anna Bella and the aforementioned Carlos Zilio and Gabriel Borba, it would also be interesting to keep in mind some of the productions by Aloísio Magalhães, Regina Silveira and Nelson Leirner.

[4] – Interesting Anna Bella naming the series reinforcing the masculine gender of the word “artist”. An ironic allusion to the fact that being an artist at that time meant being a man, or a faulty act? An issue to be analyzed at another time.

[5] – The photocollages that gave rise to the photomontages were produced in a reprographic machine whose results were very debatable from a technical point of view, causing the resulting images not to be conspicuous for their good visualization. Added to this fact, that of the deliberate inadequacy of the artist's portraits inserted in the photographs of famous artists.

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