BY Claudia Calirman in Features | 23 AUG 18
Featured in
Issue 7

Brazilian Modernism: Feminism in Disguise

How the radical practices of female artists drove the Modernist movement in Brazil

BY Claudia Calirman in Features | 23 AUG 18

The recent exhibition ‘Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil’, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, credits the artist with creating the visual identity of Brazilian modern art. This begs the question: why did so many Brazilian women artists reject feminist discourse, even as their works struggled with similar issues addressed by their counterparts in the US and elsewhere? The most common explanation has been that Brazilian women artists, such as Do Amaral, had a prominent role in the visual arts and so didn’t need to fight for space or visibility. According to the critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff, women were more than contributors to the visual arts in Brazil: they were the driving force of Brazilian art in the 20th century.

Do Amaral was the link between artistic communities in Paris and São Paulo and so became the catalyst for the emergence of Modernism in Brazil. Her 1928 painting Abaporu (which translates from the indigenous Tupi language as ‘the man who eats people’) – is a depiction of an elongated figure, a sun like a slice of lemon and a cactus. It became the visual representation of the concept of Antropofagia, which was set out in the Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto, 1928), by Do Amaral’s husband, the poet and writer Oswald de Andrade. He encouraged artists to critically appropriate, digest and transform foreign influences into something new and uniquely Brazilian, proposing an end to cultural dependence. The artist Anita Malfatti was also instrumental in presenting avant-garde visual languages to Brazil in works such as O Homem Amarelo (The Yellow Man, 1915–16). The 1960s saw an explosion of great women artists such as Lygia Clark, Anna Bella Geiger, Anna Maria Maiolino, Lygia Pape, Wanda Pimentel and Letícia Parente, among many others. More recently, the work of artists including Jac Leirner, Beatriz Milhazes, Rosangela Rennó and Adriana Varejão – all of whom were born in the 1960s – have been exhibited internationally and widely collected.

Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928, oil on canvas, 85 x 73 cm. Courtesy: © Collection Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires and the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mostly from privileged backgrounds, Modernist female Brazilian artists had access to higher education, artistic training and the latest developments in the visual arts. Despite the fact that many of their canonical works tackle topics around identity and the body, feminism did not have a significant place in the country’s visual arts when the movement gained momentum in the West in the late 1960s and ’70s. Because Brazil was under the most brutal phase of its dictatorship during 1968–75, important debates around identity were relegated to the sidelines as many artists focused on the fight against government repression while feminism concentrated on issues related to women in the workforce and wage inequality. Critical discussions around women’s sexual emancipation and their subordinate role in society were dismissed as subjective, individual and personal. The famous motto ‘the personal is political’ was rejected by leftists as bourgeois reformism.

Under these circumstances, many artists resisted being labelled as ‘feminists’ since it was perceived as limiting one’s artistic significance or, even worse, as being divisive and counterproductive. Over time, the discussion of feminism in Brazilian visual arts became a subject deemed best avoided. Though many canonical works by leading female artists questioned assumptions around gender, their attempts to explore or respond to feminist issues were often disguised or hidden.

Anita Malfatti, O Homem Amarelo (The Yellow Man) 1915–16, oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm. Courtesy: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Maiolino and Pape, for instance, addressed the authoritarian regime while also indirectly challenging patriarchal structures. Both artists employed the double entendre of the word língua, which in Portuguese translates as both ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. In the most poignant image of Maiolino’s photo-sequence É o que sobra (What Is Left Over, from her series ‘Fotopoemação’, Photopoemaction, 1974), she holds a pair of scissors, as if ready to cut out her own tongue. For Maiolino, the series was a way of transforming an act of poetic freedom into one of political resistance. Severing your tongue symbolically implies that your ability to speak has been undermined and so alludes to a twofold critique of censorship and the exclusion of women from male discourse.

The wounded tongue as an imposed sign of silence, self-mutilation and pain is also present in Pape’s concrete poem Língua apunhalada (Stabbed Tongue, 1968). In this work, the artist’s gesture of sticking out her tongue implies civil disobedience and political resistance. The body is stripped of its ability to articulate cogent meaning, destroying the efficiency and clarity demanded by patriarchal culture.

Both Pape’s O Ovo (The Egg, 1967) and Maiolino’s Entrevidas (Between Lives, 1981) tidily knit together notions of birth and destruction. O Ovo comprises a series of giant, wooden cubic structures (not ovoid-shaped, as the title might suggest) covered with coloured plastic from which either the artist herself or members of a samba school burst out. The thin surface of the cube is like a skin easily torn apart by the participants – a symbolic act that not only references birth but also the need to break free from political repression and societal constraints.

Maiolino’s Entrevidas consists of a rectangle on the floor covered with dozens of eggs. This ‘carpet’ evokes a sense of the precarious, the fragile and the sensorial. As the artist walks barefoot among the eggs – literally walking on eggshells – the implication is that of a minefield.

Anna Maria Maiolino, Entrevidas (Between Lives), 1981, gelatin silver prints, each: 144 x 92 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan

The constant need for self-imposed restraint under the military regime is also explored in Pimentel’s paintings. Influenced by graphic design, Pimentel uses vivid colours and smooth, flat brushstrokes in a Constructivist grid to render intimate scenes – including parts of her own legs, feet and toes – intruding into household spaces. In her ‘Série Envolvimento’ (Involvement Series, 1968–84), parts of sewing machines, telephones, hairdryers, stoves and other devices related to the realm of women’s lives evoke a sense of domestic confinement and entrapment.

Likewise, in Parente’s videos the household becomes a space of instability and estrangement. The artist transforms familiar domestic chores – such as ironing, sewing and applying make-up – into unfamiliar and uncanny situations. In the video Tarefa I (Assignment I, 1982), Parente lies face down on an ironing board, while a maid presses the clothes that the artist is wearing. Through this ironic and painful act, Parente converts her own body into a passive object in an allusion to domestic violence. The objectification of the female body is also suggested in her video In (1975), in which the artist suspends herself through her blouse on a clothes hanger – as if she has become a commodity herself. She then closes the closet door remaining inside its claustrophobic space, replicating the asphyxiating atmosphere of the period.

Parente’s self-representations are far from the conventional feminine depictions of women in advertising and mass media. In the video Preparação I (Preparation I, 1975), the artist stands in front of a bathroom mirror brushing her hair and applying make-up. She sticks a piece of adhesive tape on her mouth and then outlines it with lipstick. She repeats the procedure on her eyes, drawing an eye shape with a pencil over the tape patches, and then takes her bag and leaves the room. Here, the functions of seeing and speaking are denied to the artist – a reference to the assault on the right to free speech and the impossibility of bearing witness under the authoritarian regime. The work also violates ideal standards of female beauty, questioning normative aesthetic values imposed on women by patriarchal culture.

Notwithstanding the fact that Brazilian women artists such as Do Amaral ‘had a seat at the table’, many of her peers confronted patriarchal structures alongside their critiques of political repression. As such, they forged new ways of representing women’s subjectivities and – even if they did not label themselves feminists – conceived a particular form of feminism unique to their country at a critical historical juncture. 

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Feminism in Disguise’.

Main Image: Anna Maria Maiolino, É o que Sobra (What Is Left Over), from the series ‘Fotopoemação’ (Photopoemaction), 1974, digital print, 62 × 153 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan

Claudia Calirman is a writer and curator based in New York, USA. She is currently associate professor of art history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York