In Conversation with Rosana Paulino

“The body is a political issue”

Artist, researcher and educator Rosana Paulino says, “I’d like to touch on subjects that have been swept under the rug in Brazilian society.” An active participant in various exhibitions both in Brazil and abroad, she holds a PhD in Visual Arts from the University of São Paulo and took printmaking courses at the London Print Studio.

C&AL: How do you believe your work as an artist can bring about change in the way black women and men are seen in society? To whom do you imagine addressing your work?

RP: I think all artists make their work for themselves first. But I also think a lot about if what I’m doing is going to reach people. I wonder if my work will reach people and how it will reach them. Not so much whom it will reach. I’d like to touch on subjects that have been swept under the rug in Brazilian society, especially in the visual arts, as if they didn’t exist. I try to be effective in the way I communicate, that’s why I’m such a perfectionist. But in art this is also a matter of form, what I say needs to be formally developed. The main thing is that I want to raise issues. There’s no way for me to know if the way black men and women are seen in society will change or improve, but I raise the issues. I want people to think about why. Why are black women at the bottom of the pyramid? Why do we have a country that kills its own youth? Why is this so naturalized? Or rather, why do we accept this? That we accept it is what hurts me the m

C&AL: Your work (and your research as well, such as the thesis you wrote at ECA/USP) is characterized by a debate around memory and the representation of black bodies in the history of Brazilian society. Could you tell me a little about this?

RP: The body is a fantastic machine, but above all I think of it as a political issue. What do representations of the black body say about our society? In what way do these representations contribute to the naturalization of places intended for the black population in society? To a large extent, I try to ask these questions through appropriations of photographs, such as family albums or images from history. The representation of black men and women in the history of Brazilian art, since the time of the explorers, is linked to hard labor. Photography corroborates this idea. Postcards were made in Brazil and sent to Europe as souvenirs, spreading the idea of the black man as servile, as an exotic and wild being. These images construct the idea we have of this population today. On the other hand, I like to think of images in a somewhat homeopathic way. If in the history of art images were used to mark a position of submission for the black body, more muscle than intellect, then intervening in these photographs and changing their meanings for me brings a sense of healing.

C&AL: In a recent talk you gave, you spoke about the image of the black man in the history of Brazilian visual arts, in a long journey from colonial Brazil to the present day. Could you comment on some moments/images that you consider most representative in this context?

RP: What stands out to me most is a painting by Modesto Brocos, The Redemption of Ham (1895). The painting depicts a black grandmother, probably a former slave, lifting her hands up to the sky, her mixed-race daughter, with a white baby on her lap, and a white man sitting in the doorway, probably the baby’s father. This baby boy raises his hands up to the black woman as if absolving her of her sins. What is the idea behind this painting? It evokes the solution of whitening the population, so the country can get out from under its “backwardness”. It’s an issue that was being debated by the science of that period. This picture was taken to London for the first eugenics congress, as an example of what was expected for Brazil: the elimination of the black population. This may have been a state policy. Obviously it’s a horrible and perverse thing, but the point is that it is still detrimental to us today. Some paintings by Albert Eckhout, such as Black Woman and Child (1641), also draw my attention because they begin to construct the image of the black woman as exotic. Even from the 20th century I can recall a painting in which the black woman is represented as a maid: Cleaning the metal (1923). What can one conclude from these images? The places of the black woman are exoticism, domestic work or exclusion from the national project. When a black artist, on the other hand, begins to self-represent, the situation changes form.

C&AL: And how do you believe that the situation changes?

RP: Now the one talking about the black population is also the one who lives and breathes their doubts, their dilemmas. They are data of diversity. Only ones who have gone through certain issues can bring them to the forefront. I’m not saying that only blacks can talk about these issues, but their perceptions are different. My issues as a black female artist were not the subject of study and representation in contemporary Brazilian art when I began working. Works such as Gargalheira or Athlete’s Dream, by Sidney Amaral, could only be made by someone who went through that universe in adolescence. What bothers me most, in fact, is our Eurocentric education, as if other populations didn’t produce art. I was trained at a time when conceptual art predominated Brazilian production. I looked at all that and I didn’t feel represented. As if only this Eurocentric, white and almost always masculine parameter could be art. Then I looked for my roots, I looked to sewing, which I learned as a child, to family photos. When I started working, what bothered me most was this: I didn’t see myself in what was produced at that moment.

C&AL: You often say that the work of black artists in Brazil has never been so rich and intense as today, when there is also talk of a “discovery” of art with African roots by the international media. How do you break down this phenomenon?

RP: As something not that simple to break down, partly because we are in the eye of the hurricane. What I do notice in Brazil is a large number of well-trained black artists who try to think about the country in a different way. We have new data here, the consequences of which are still difficult to analyze. On an international level, I think that the European market is going through a period of exhaustion, and so the possibility of renewing oneself in what is “different” is sought. It’s also a trap. On the other hand, I notice many African artists shifting and bringing a new way of thinking to Europe. It’s a complex time, with different situations. The return of fascist and exclusionary ideas is taking place at the same time as there is an effort to construct more universalist thinking, which seeks a greater dialogue with the other.


Victor da Rosa is a writer and holds a PhD in Literature. He lives and works in Belo Horizonte.


Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.