Exhibition at Pinacoteca de São Paulo

Rosana Paulino: The Suturing of History

“Rosana Paulino: The Sewing of Memory” brings together 140 works, tackling topics such as gender, the social place of blacks, racism, memory and affectivity. Drawing on personal experiences, the artist undertakes a rich reflection on Brazil’s history.

Two of the photographs featured in Parede‘s mosaic also appear in Bastidores (Embroidery Hoops/Backdrop, 1997), printed on circular pieces of cloth in the embroidery hoops that give the piece its name. The original title in Portuguese is polysemous, referring also to the backdrop in which many black women are stitched in the patriarchal and racist weave of Brazilian social fabric. Women, with their mouths, throats, eyes and heads hastily stitched over, sewn by crude strands of silence and violence. Patuás and embroidery hoops that form a kind of self-portrait by way of family tree. Placed directly on the wall, they also seem to literalize one of the artist’s self-confessed political goals: to fill the white cube of museums and galleries with black faces. Not with exoticism, labor, slavery or sexualization of their bodies, of which examples in the history of photography and art in Brazil abound. Here, the aesthetic and political premise is a record in the first person, singular and plural.

Biography, biology, history

The exhibition brings together a collection of 140 works by the artist from São Paulo, in an arc from 1993 to 2018. The rooms highlight “three main aspects of the artist’s work”, according to the introductory text by curators Valeria Piccoli and Pedro Nery: “the autobiographical dimension”, “interest in biology” and “works centered on history”. This division is more didactic than conceptual. In truth, these themes intertwine in Paulino’s works, with their original solutions, creative mediums and processes contained by an artistic view that is distinctively authorial, and impossible to reduce into thematic blocks. Reflections on gender, the social place of blacks, scientific racism, exercises in classification (entomological, botanical and human) as instruments of power, memory and affectivity, the rewriting of the history of art, country and self are some of the artist’s centers of interest, which often intersect. They testify to the consistency and longevity of Paulino’s research.

And they also affirm Paulino’s technical versatility as an artist, moving elegantly from engravings to photography, from needlework and sculpture to drawing and printing.

Smaller works, such as the blinded terracotta Rainha (Queen, 2006), with breasts of a black Artemisia and watchful glass eyes scattered across her lower body, to larger-scale installations, such as Tecelãs (Weavers, 2003), in which insect-women, outside glazed earthenware nests, spill across the exhibition room, writhing out of the cocoons that envelop them with fibers spooling from within. Metamorphosis, reconstruction, the act of becoming a woman: concepts that span differences of language and prism and are reflected in Paulino’s other works, such as the shocking Assentamento (Settlement, 2013).

This installation reframes, in life-size, “Somatological Triptych, identified as Mina Bari” (1856), a set of photographs of the front, profile and back of an enslaved woman, taken by Augusto Stahl in Brazil, commissioned by the scientist Louis Agassiz. The split soul of the Black Diaspora is given shape in the unease on the face of the woman whose name was not recorded, in the crooked seams that attempt to mend parts of her body. Heart, roots and fetus stitched atop the oversized image reassert the humanity that was denied her in the photographer’s studio, but which is not completely restored. Assentamento signals an important shift in Paulino’s career: the family portraits that marked the artist’s first works are now joined by photographs of enslaved men and women, re-rooting them in a lineage, in a story. From reinstating the past with longings to put an end to trauma in the present, superimposing the I and we, yesterday and today, personal story and the history of Brazil.

Key artist for understanding Brazil

Rosana Paulino is an artist who interprets Brazil. She analyzes it from a place of singular enunciation: the embodied experience of a black woman. Acting as a spinner who sutures the country’s history, she exposes the reverse of its official side, stripped of its operating structures. Like a lens, her work helps us to see our own daily lives more accurately. As if, to paraphrase the lyrics of Gilberto Gil, the needle of the real in the hands of the artist were embroidering, stitch by stitch, our daily lives.

Paulino is also a teacher and an inspiration for artists of her own and future generations – one witnesses echoes of her works in Sidney Amaral’s cocoons in Como construir cidades? (“How do we build cities?”, 2012), in Lídia Lisboa’s mobile and performance structures, in the softness Janaína Barros imparts with her needle. Rosana Paulino holds a bachelor’s degree in printmaking and a doctorate from the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo. She furthered her printmaking studies at the London Print Studio, has taught courses at major universities, participated in group and solo exhibitions in Brazil and abroad, and her works feature in the collections of Brazilian and international museums. In short: she is a key and essential artist on the contemporary Brazilian art scene. Why did we have to wait so long for a show of an artist of this importance, at a museum of such magnitude?

Hélio Menezes is an anthropologist and curator. His recent work includes the curatorship of the “Afro-Atlantic Histories” exhibition (MASP and Instituto Tomie Ohtake, 2018) and the performance art show “Ain’t I a Woman?” (Instituto Tomie Ohtake, 2018).

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.