Appropriating, fragmenting, and giving new meaning can be a tool to subvert the Eurocentric hegemonic gaze. Three artists hailing from Brazil –Domitila de Paulo, Alberto Pereira, and Moara Tupinambá – talk about why collage is central to their works.
Yuíre. Moara Tupinambá. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Domitila de Paulo. Collage series Deusas no Orun (Goddesses in Heaven). Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Kuêra. Moara Tupinambá. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Domitila de Paulo: Collage and Reinventing the Self
It was through a process of compiling, fragmenting, and adding new meaning to established images that Domitila de Paulo, of Minas Gerais, assembled her symbolic portrait as a visual artist and black woman after starting her career as a stylist and fashion designer. Because, to what extent was her image represented in the pieces she was creating for top brands? “I was seeing few references that led me to understand my identity and Afro-Brazilian identity,” she recalls. Her return to the use of collage – a mainstay when she was in fashion school – resulted in the series Deusas no Orun (Goddesses in Heaven, 2015), a creation inspired by her reading of the work Igbadu, a cabeça da existência: mitos nagôs revelados (Igbadu, the Head of Existence: Nagô Myths Revealed), by Adilson de Oxalá, about the creation myths of the religious universe which gave rise to orisha worship.
The canvases connecting woman, nature, and the universe drew attention and, today, her collages also illustrate album and book covers. The artist works with analog collage, and gleaning used images is an important part of the creative process. “I always liked collecting vintage publications, curious about materials and how they have changed over time from past eras to the present in which I am living. And recognizing, through touch, the different paper textures, impressions, colors, and approaches,” she remarks.
The image of the black woman occupies a privileged space in Domitila de Paulo’s canvases, for whom redefining images of Afro-Brazilians is important. “The white figure has always been presented as universal, a protagonist in positive situations. Those who do not fit into whiteness do not see themselves represented,” the artist points out. “We need to reflect on the difference between representation and representativeness. Taking action to change this logic is very important. Being in decision-making positions and in positions to rebuild these systems is crucial to make actual change,” she concludes.
Alberto Pereira: Contorting Meaning
It was through the appropriation of paintings from the 15th to the 18th centuries that Alberto Pereira, of Rio, launched the series Negro Nobre (Noble Negro), in 2014, in which the faces of black cultural icons of Brazil, such as the musicians Jorge Ben Jor, Dona Ivone Lara, and Seu Jorge, figure prominently as portraits depicting the European monarchy. With the series, Pereira proposes a new narrative for images that were produced at a time when the Black man was never portrayed. It’s also about emphasizing the fundamental participation of black bodies in the construction of Brazilian popular culture. “I like to contort meaning. My aim is to dislocate seemingly unrelated elements and give them new meaning by putting them together,” said the artist. Noble Negro redefined 40 portraits with the help of image editing software and spread rapidly across social media, being reposted by artists who saw themselves unusually represented. “My aim is for it not to look like a collage, and for that purpose, the analog process ends up being limited,” acknowledges the artist.
Left: Alberto Pereira. Naná Vasconcelos. “The Bone Player.” William Sidney Mount (American, 1807–1868). Right: Alberto Pereira. Dona Ivone Lara. “Portrait of Queen Maria Josepha (1699-1757), Wife of King Augustus III of Poland,” Pietro Antonio Rotari.
The production of the first collages coincided with a rising awareness about racial issues in Brazil – the stimulus Pereira needed to subvert discourses with colonial undertones. That was the impetus for an image he made which, today, is well-known by those who walk the streets, not only in Brazil, but also in Lebanon, the U.S., Argentina, and Switzerland: the collage Jesus Pretinho (Black Jesus), printed on street posters and pasted onto walls and siding since 2016, questions the Eurocentric imaginary of a white-skinned Christ. “With the collage, I realized that I could create alternatives to the imposed ‘reality,’ offering other insights, retelling stories, inverting logic, and redefining certain socially imposed symbolic aspects for negritude,” says Pereira.
Moara Tupinambá: Collage as Reconnection
The work of Moara Tupinambá, of Pará, finds its inspiration in America’s indigenous populations. A descendent of the Cucuranã and Tupinambá, her collages are also a tool for activism. With the series Mirasawá – people, in the Nheengatu language – she debuted her technique of adding images. Layers of stars, planets, moons, leaves, flowers, and paintings work together to re-signify indigenous women, transforming them into figures with a mythical aura. The emphasis on the feminine arises from the desire to reconnect with ancestry and to recognize the role of women in the struggle for the rights of indigenous nations. “I use collage so that I can connect with those kinswomen. Since I did not have a family album of my ancestry, art helps me to create the connection,” says the artist.
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The origin of the appropriations signals two phases of the series. In the first, Tupinambá uses photographs taken through a Eurocentric gaze. The work Kadiweu, for instance, proposes a re-reading of the well-known portrait of a young indigenous woman made in 1872 by the Italian Guido Boggiani: a canon of ethnographic studies about corporal graphics of the Kadiweu nation, in Brazil’s Central-West. The artist argues that thanks to the arrangement of the collage, it was possible to restore the identity of a face which, today, is associated more with anthropology than with indigenous culture.
In the second phase, we have contemporary photographs of working women in the indigenous society, taken by indigenous communities themselves. The president of Apib (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil/Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), Sônia Guajajara, is immortalized with a mythic statue under a shower of stars. With the pandemic and the consequential restricted access to bookstores, where she gleans her primary materials for the collages from magazines and encyclopedias, Moara Tupinambá’s works started involving digital processing as well, and some were made with animation. The artist’s work is on display at the exhibition Resurgences of Amazonia! alongside Uyra Sodoma, at the Kunstraum Innsbruck, in Austria.
Anna Azevedo is a journalist, filmmaker, and scholar of visual arts with a focus on processes of re-employment of the image and decolonization in contemporary art.
Translation: Sara Hanaburgh