“Resilience,” meaning “a body’s property to regain its original form after suffering shock or deformation” or “ability to overcome adversity,” was the theme chosen to bring together Fernanda Carvalho, Liana Nigri, Liene Bosquê, Maíra Senise and Vitoria Hadba—Brazilian artists based in New York. The exhibition, curated by Juliana Leandra and organized by the creative lab Dream Box for the space of the Emma Thomas Gallery, the second Brazilian gallery to open in New York, creates a connection between the works exhibited, including painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and photography, and the experiences of immigrant artists in a new country. With an accompanying text by the French artist Courtney Smith that incorporates fragments of the declarations of the participating artists about their experiences in the city, “Resilience” offers an important reflection, in times marked by great migrations due to the intensification of the wars in the Middle East, on human endeavor in its constant search for adaptation and creation of new identities in a foreign land. In order to explore this theme, I spoke with Maíra Senise, who left her hometown Rio de Janeiro for New York, in 2015. Since then she has produced works that are an extension of the paintings and sculptures that she began in Brazil, always portraying strange and mysterious worlds using universal symbols and figures of hybrid beings. Senise told me a little about her fears, rhythms of creation and subjectivity in the midst of an inevitable loneliness and restraint of space, and how she accepted imperfections and the incompleteness of her gesture as a way of facing the challenges imposed by a new territory.
You were born in Rio de Janeiro and worked in fashion. Now you live in New York and are undertaking a more serious path as an artist. Tell me a little bit about your fashion years in Rio.
I worked for years as a fashion and pattern designer in Rio de Janeiro. I always thought it was my first professional option and I put a lot of energy into that. But the drawing was always in my life, as a way to think, represent or just as distraction. Through these drawings I started to do fanzines, posters, temporary tattoos, t-shirts; for years I did all at the same time. Fashion business from nine-to-five, art studio at night, and weekends for art book fairs. At some point I realized that I actually wanted to understand more about how it would be to go deeper into my artwork, reserving more time and consciousness for that, since for years I was just producing for fun or for an unassuming necessity. It took a while for it to be clear to me that I didn’t want to keep working in mainly fashion labels. I was also getting a couple of invitations to group shows, and naturally started to produce and organize more of my artwork for them. After some group shows in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, I had my solo exhibition in Casamata, an art space that functions as an incubator promoting emerging artists in Rio de Janeiro. In this exhibition, called “Blind Valley,” I had the chance to show such artwork as ceramics, paintings and drawings from the past years. It also helped to prepare me for a new moment in my life. So I came to New York after that to do one semester of continuing education in oil paint and mixed-media, but naturally I decided to stay more and more, and now here I am.
You grew up in a family of great artists: your mother and brother are important filmmakers (Paula Gaitán and Eryk Rocha), your sister a singer (Ava Rocha) and your father one of the most important contemporary artists (Daniel Senise). How did all this influence your process? Did you ever think about taking a path away from art to avoid some kind of stigma?
My mother raised my siblings and me having art as a normal daily thing. Since I was a kid, she influenced me by bringing a lot of art references without the pressure to be an artist but with the purpose to stimulate me as thinker and upright human being. She made me see art as something organic, something mystic but without mystifications. When I was teenager, I truly wanted to study and work with fashion design and I conquered that. My path to visual arts as a profession was natural but the transition did cause me fear. It was healthy fear, with doubts that makes you think about your choices and make you stronger, deeper. Every person that deals with art as a living question ends up having many questions. How can I be doing just art? Is what I am producing necessary to the world? But of course I had some internal questions. How could I, being the daughter of a great visual artist, not be constantly associated with that?
You usually work with pottery and paint. Which came first? How do you see the dance between one and the other?
First came drawing. Drawing in a nervous and fast production. Second came oil paint as a kind of method to try to get another rhythm of production, less quantity but dedicating more time in each one. And then the ceramics came as an exercise I elaborated for myself in order to see my figures in 3D. Again, in a time different from drawing and painting, since to produce them you also depend on outsiders, tools to fire and finalize. Nowadays I work with both medias simultaneously, alternating between real demands of on-view projects or my personal wishes at the time. I constantly have a necessity of coming and going with these materials, and creating through the confusions that could come from these experiences in the studio. I like the intermediary points between ceramic [sculpture], drawing and painting. How is drawing with painting tools or how it is to sculpt something that will be shown as 2D work on the wall, or insert drawings on the sculptures. Those are some of my process subjects of the moment.
There is something “naif” in your work. Do you agree? Is there a playful pursuit here?
I work pretty much with simple symbols. Things around us, connected with our human daily life and that work as universal visual language (human figures, part of bodies, hybrid animals, house, sun, moon, islands). These subjects melt with a crude technique going to this “naif” place. It resembles something between childish and primitive, and most importantly brings to the drawing the means of learning and desire of representation. I will never think like a child, but I try to create exercises and rules in my process to search for unexpected situations, shapes and scenarios. I give the material a lot of space to show me tracks and solutions, and sometimes turn them into the main subject of the artwork.
How did the invitation by Juliana Leandra (curator and founder of the Dream Box) to participate in the Resilience project come about? What discoveries did it bring you?
Juliana and I met unconsciously in a restaurant where I used to work in Brooklyn. We had a short conversation about Dream Box and I showed her my work as well. In our next meeting we started to think about a show together, and she brought the idea and desire to do a group show with female Brazilian artists based in New York that she was following for a while. We had weekly meetings for a while, and we saw that we were going through similar problems, situations and obstacles as immigrants in a foreign country. So naturally we built the theme and context of the exhibition on these themes.
The French artist Courtney Smith wrote a profound presentation text for the exhibition that creates a connection between the works exhibited and the experiences of the immigrant artists in a new country. How do you see your works and your experience away from home?
I had to restart part of my life here in New York. I came from a very familiar place to me, Rio de Janeiro. Everybody in my social circle knows each other, knows what are you up to. Then I moved to New York and I had to rebuild everything. It was strange and frustrating sometimes. I have an independent spirit that helped me a lot. But I was also very lucky. I made friends, I found people that saw my work for the first time and were generous to me, talking, inviting me to do projects, giving me space and opportunities. I had to realize that I wasn’t that privileged person anymore, I was following the path of an emergent visual artist. Just another girl from South America trying to survive in New York. I had to understand that and convince myself to cross my line of victimization. It is an everyday exercise and I am in the process to outstrip it.
The meaning of “Resilience” would be something like “a body’s property to regain its original form after suffering shock or deformation” or “ability to overcome adversity.” Do these mean anything from your experience in New York in the production of these works? Which way?
No doubt it has an impact on us. People that come from tropical and warm places sometimes forget how soft the language is or to kiss people when you meet for the first time, in spite of the weather. Personally I was lucky; I found a cheap and great studio as soon as I moved to New York. It was pretty small and with a view of a highway and the subway. It was not perfect at all. But I had a strong connection and affection for this place for the year that I was there. When I moved in there it was already winter, with such a grey view that contrasted with the colorful ninety-nine-cents stores around. No doubt that it makes part of my finding in New York. So many things changed and grew in my work in that place. The size of the space interfered a lot in my artwork. Since I had space to do just one large canvas at a time, those are pieces that are really fragmented and messed up, with a lot of little situations pile up together, or colors merged with with other since I was always nervously changing something before it dried. Another characteristic of some of my pieces that I accepted and embraced in New York is the adhesion to the unfinished. It was an internal problem for me for a while, how could I show that imperfect and rawness in my work was a conscious choice.
Human, animals and the faces of incomprehensible beings, friendly or a little scary at times. Tell me a little about those faces.
I do have the incessant necessity of bringing the human figure in somehow. Sometimes more diluted, sometimes more explicit. Every piece is a struggle to me to understand which face deserves to stay, and which is to disappear. Every piece generates resolutions and projections for future pieces. It is like the answer of the questions that I have for myself is to never stay stuck on the piece that I am producing in the present moment, but to focus on the next one to come. That creates connections and narratives between the pieces. So those faces and figures could float between these series, and who knows, maybe they are all the same character. Another characteristic about these figures is that I give a lot of space to myself to find them in abstract events on the canvas. A lot of clues of what could be highlighted as an eye shape, a nose line or a month stain. I am really attracted to this border line between figurative and abstract and how a few marks can transform everything and be a face figure. Many times the main line of the piece is just an excuse to find these sudden forms. Always trying to balance with layer interferences and materials. Somehow, constructing a painting is like a puzzle. It is an attempt to build a narrative, but always throwing an isolated figure in the middle that interrupts this narrative. These random figures can be catchy or funny, or completely misplaced from the context.
Does loneliness, which originates from the isolation of this foreign body in a new city—according to Courtney’s text—demand a coexistence with these many others endowed with faces that inhabit us?
There is something really dissonant with the idea of loneliness in the middle of the multitude. It is an internal space independent of people. This is strong as an image, but also as a symbol that projects into painting. Loneliness in a new strange territory that makes you touch somewhere that you may not visit when you are surrounded by familiar people and places. And for sure it makes you understand several different fragments of yourself. It is hard, but take me beyond.
Through January 11, 2017
Emma Thomas Gallery