Land, territory, house, community. Labor, resistance, space, language. Containment, colonization, communication. This could be the glossary for “Jonathas de Andrade: One to One,” which opened April 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago. The exhibition brings three new works by the artist to the public for the first time—while the one older work, from 2014, has a new arrangement and new implications after five years of political turbulence in Brazil. Including film, installation, educational materials and engagements with communities in the Brazilian North and Northeast, the show is somewhat of a demonstration of de Andrade’s practice that manages to draw his profile as an artist without assembling past work.
One day before the exhibition opened, I met de Andrade for a walkthrough of the gallery. The artist spoke about the status of collaborations in his work, and reflected on making and presenting work that is so keenly Brazilian to an international audience.
Working up a sweat: new contexts
Entering the gallery, the visitor is confronted with a compact formation of colourful, work-stained shirts on identical racks. In this new configuration of “Suar a camisa” (“Working up a sweat”), the 120 shirts, exchanged and bought from workers on the streets in 2014, are arranged in a square grid of close lines. It is the image of a mass of workers, brought together by a purpose that remains unsaid.
“The shirts have something of the presence of the body in its absence,” the artist explained. “Each of these shirts brings a story, the sweat of that worker, and this moment of exchange with each one of these people.”
The shirts are exhibited for the first time “as a battalion,” in the artist’s words; before, they were always displayed in a line. The catalogue describes this display as a “cluster” that alludes to a “worker’s strike.” De Andrade also emphasized the potential to action of the mass—but he did not miss the less empowering implications of the form: “I really liked this new display. I think it has enormous impact. This is a battalion of workers ready to react, but they can also be understood as organized in function-of. It can be an assembly, it can be the preparation to react, it can be a preparation to labour.” A battalion is also a group of people subservient to a leader. “Exactly. Or it can be a battalion of unemployed people,” de Andrade added, referring to the increased unemployment rate that is one of many topics of distress in Brazil’s prolonged economic downturn.
The form itself allows multiple readings. The line display allows the viewer to look closely at each individual shirt, while still evoking a typified posture of the worker. The grid at the MCA, by contrast, presents the workers’ shirts as a collective, where viewers are not allowed to walk between the rows. The form could emphasize union, but also the ultimate anonymity of the workers as a mass. Meanwhile, the reference to a military formation is particularly charged in Brazil today, as President Jair Bolsonaro was elected with a discourse of apology to the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and when the proportion of military officers in the government is the largest since that period. (Although a rift has since split open between the president’s ideological core and the army officers in power.)
Five years of intense political turmoil since the work’s first presentation have also given it new significance. “After these years, the exhibition gains a historical dimension. It starts to speak about time, and about our current moment,” de Andrade says. Among the shirts in the installation are uniforms from foreign and state-owned infrastructure and distribution companies, and shirts from political campaigns. “There are historical shirts here,” he says. There is, for example, a uniform from Petrobras, the national oil company that was at the center of the major corruption investigation that opened the floodgates to the political crisis in 2013, and which recalls the current administration’s promise of mass privatizations. There is a shirt with Lula and Dilma and the words “A verdade vencerá” (“The truth will win”). The phrase was used in support of the two leaders of the Worker’s Party as they were ousted from power under charges that many regard as phony. For de Andrade, within the new display this shirt evokes the connection between the ex-president’s imprisonment and his relationship to the masses. “Lula is locked up, as we know. It is this process of containment of his power, of his leadership potential,” he says.
One to one: relations to space, relations to others
For de Andrade, “the exhibition as a whole speaks about containment of the body, a kind of limitation of the body, when faced with [political] control.” Restriction of the physical space of living is central to “Um para Um” (“One to One”), the wall-mounted installation that gives name to the show.
“Um para Um” is “a drawing in one-to-one scale of the floor plan of an occupation by the train tracks in Recife, like so many others in Brazil, in Latin America,” de Andrade says. The houses of more than fifteen families fit on the museum wall, “drawn” with dotted lines made of clay bars, each held up by wire hooks around two nails. The composition is simple and the structure is evident, employing the abstraction of the floor plan; but the materials also recall vernacular construction and the building grounds of the occupation. These are not favelas, but more precarious settlements, consisting of one-room houses built with pitched tarp, wood poles, and other easily available construction materials, and subject to removals and frequent confrontations with the police.
De Andrade chose clay as “a material that speaks, that is of the earth. For me, it is something of the immediate ground. And I wanted the pieces to have that quality of the handmade, which is the mark of struggle, the struggle for housing, of this kind of occupation which is actually an experience of radical marginality in a country shaped by hopelessness and exclusion.”
As assistant curator Nina Wexelblatt noted, some of the shacks have the dimensions of large paintings exhibited in the gallery across the hall. For de Andrade, the work “challenges how disconnected we are with an invitation to imagine how it is to occupy these spaces. Normally, people who go to the museum already have a host of guarantees: education, housing, food, water”—rights denied to the dwellers of those diminutive houses. “This gives the tone to the rest of the exhibition,” he says. “It proposes the question of the real scale and of how we behave in face of another. One to one is us, in relation to others.”
This work is also a challenge that the artist proposed to himself. De Andrade’s works have typically relied on words to convey a message—not only wall texts, but also written information within installations and books. With “Um para Um,” he sought to express a fundamental relation with a reduced use of materials and without verbal language.
Fome de Resistência: unbound territories
“Fome de Resistência: Fundamento Kayapó Menkragnoti” consists of a large-scale map of the Kayapó indigenous land, in the Brazilian Amazon, printed across forty-two square sheets, where the officially defined boundaries of the territory are marked with a meandering red line. Artists of the Kayapó Menkragnoti community have painted over each sheet with ancestral patterns, in wide black lines that cover up the clear mapping of the territory. Also part of the work is a series of photographs, showing the hand of each painter who altered the map, with their names, accompanied by samples of the traditional patterns they used.
The sheets are maps made by the Brazilian Army that are gradually being discarded for research as they are replaced by digital copies. De Andrade collected the maps—thirty-five originals and seven copies from the digital archive—and invited the Kayapó women to intervene on them as they wished. Normally, these ancestral patterns are painted on the body, or on fabric. This was the first time that the artists painted them on paper. “Their drawings expand beyond the limits of this territory, as if their culture did not have this containment, which is a logic of the white man,” the artist says.
The project speaks to the role of mapping and systems of knowledge in colonization, and to the history of ethnic encounters in the formation of Brazil—a recurring topic in de Andrade’s practice. But this work, too, is particularly sensitive in the current political context in Brazil. “We’re seeing a peak in genocides against indigenous peoples,” he says. “Fortunately, the territory shown in this map is already guaranteed. But all of the territories that were in the process of gaining official demarcation are being revised and guarantees are being loosened by the federal government.”
De Andrade met the artists through a connection his partner Marcelo Rosenbaum made with the Instituto Kabu, which represents eleven villages in the state of Pará. The organization is run by the Kayapó people to preserve the forest as their living space, and to make products using traditional craft and materials. While the Kayapó territory may already be defined, Rosenbaum stressed that every indigenous territory in Brazil is endangered. Every area is threatened by the logging and mining industries, and all suffer under the wide environmental impact of the region’s economic exploitation, such as the pollution of waterways.
For de Andrade, the photographs and patterns on the left half of the installation act as a label, or legend, to the map. They tell the names of the patterns and give a human presence to the culture uncontained in the maps. In the images, the hands of the artists are lifted, palm open to the viewer; on one larger print, artist Bekwyiki’s hand holds up a paintbrush, the tool of her poetic agency over the map. “For me, energetically, this work has this tone, ‘These are the hands that touched this map,’” he says. “And this is also a gesture of presence. A gesture of resistance, which is the crux of the project.”
Both “One to one” and “Hunger of Resistance” incorporate the work of other artisans and artists. Many of the artist’s previous projects have also involved the labor of other makers. The wood-carved sign to “Museu do Homem do Nordeste” was commissioned to a carpenter from the street market in Recife; the pedestals in “Suar a Camisa” were also developed with an artisan, who is not named in the didactics at the MCA. “But now I start to understand better what these requests are, that they are in fact a process of collaboration,” de Andrade told me. While “One to One” operated as a commission, and the artisan Valdik Graciano, who is mentioned in the wall text, acted as consultant and fabricator, “Fome de Resistência,” is the work of multiple artists.
“Sometimes I come with a more defined agenda. For example, in ‘One to one,’ I already came in with a precise drawing, so it was more about understanding if the design was viable, whether it would crack,” he says. “But in ‘Fome de Resistência,’ we have a different level of collaboration. This is the ancestral art of a people. They are credited as the artists in this work, obviously. And I am the author of this articulation, of taking up the map, proposing the project to them, and giving it a title, photographing, and so on.”
For the first time in de Andrade’s career, the income from the sale of the work will be shared with these collaborators. In this case, one third of the revenue will go to the Kayapó artists, one third to de Andrade’s gallery in Rio de Janeiro, and one third to de Andrade.
Jogos Dirigidos: communication and community
The fourth and final work in the exhibition is the film “Jogos Dirigidos” (“Directed Games”). From the screening room, sounds of percussion and bursts of joyous laughter punctuated our conversation. “Jogos Dirigidos” cuts between scenes of storytelling and images of the people of Várzea Queimada playing hide-and-seek in the village cemetery, or running around musical chairs on a flat dirt clearing.
Várzea Queimada is a community of 900 people in the drought-ridden back land of the state of Piauí, in the Brazilian Northeast. The village has a higher-than-average proportion of deaf people, who have created their own highly performative sign language. In de Andrade’s film, a group of deaf people play games and tell stories, which are partly glossed with captions to key signs.
“Jogos Dirigidos” is named after a book that de Andrade’s mother, an educator, used as a source for dynamic group games in schools. The film confirms de Andrade’s enduring interest in alternative pedagogies. The work’s full title, “Jogos dirigidos e dinâmicas de aquecimento emocional: integração de elenco com a comunidade de não atores de Várzea Queimada” (“Directed games and emotional warm-up dynamics: cast integration with the community of non-actors of Várzea Queimada”), is a nod to Augusto Boal’s book “Games for actors and non-actors.” The Brazilian dramaturg created the “Theatre of the Oppressed,” a theatrical tactic for communities and conflict resolution, itself based on Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
De Andrade planned to use his mother’s book as a starting point to the film, instructing the group to play games to the camera. But things worked out differently on the ground. The games, after all, were not so directed. “I got there, and was blown away by them. They are absolutely free, at ease, self-confident people. Things just rolled off. So those speech acts are not directed, they are spontaneous.” The community might have been immediately comfortable with the camera, but the experience was still transformative. “It was a very intense process, of cohesion, even,” de Andrade says. “I think they hadn’t yet experienced this situation in which everyone gathered to see one of them speak. There were many moments that were so moving. And they are the protagonists, absolutely. That is why the credits are like this.” The credits rolled on the screen, featuring each non-actor in a short candid close-up. At the end, the film also shows the interpreter, the camera, and the crew, making visible their work, and its own mechanism. For de Andrade, then, the title of the film gained new meaning: “The ‘directed games,’ which I initially thought would be games among them, happen instead between us, the spectators and the film. It becomes a game where we are guessing and coming closer to this language.”
It is often said that de Andrade’s works tread the line between fiction and non-fiction; a quality that he has grown used to calling “ambiguity.” “Jogos Dirigidos” continues to play on this dynamic, this time with different ethics, introduced by the consent and performativity implied by the act of playing games. The word “directed” brings to the foreground the determining presence of the director and the cinematographic apparatus. At the same time, games are semi-scripted actions also in their real-life practice. And with all its playful artifice, the film manages to reveal much of the community’s day-to-day actions and relationships: basket-weaving, harvesting and family members are some of the words translated in the stories. “That is why I thought that the title was important,” de Andrade says. “It admits the presence of direction, but it sustains this ambiguity that is always part of my work. And I think that is where the magic of art lies. You are testing the spectator: is this ritualistic? Do they usually do this, or not? This is a question that hangs in the air.”
The local and the universal: Making for an international audience
Three of the works in the gallery are first shown to the public in this exhibition; “Jogos Dirigidos” is in fact a commission of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “I already knew that I was in conversation with an international audience. But it’s not that I make it for an international audience,” he says. “The film has to work for any culture. I decided that I needed to have the words in English,” rather than providing the glossary in Portuguese with further English subtitles. But the artist edited the film in Portuguese, and only then had it translated. “I needed to understand the impact of this work in Portuguese, first,” he says. “The translation reveals so much about the words. How to translate the word ‘rebolar’? To ‘shake the hips’? You can make it more sexual or less sexual, more or less aggressive. The translator and I went back and forth on such questions. It’s exhausting, but it’s also fascinating. Because it is about communication. It is about making the works mediate feelings that are shared by us, as experiences of human beings.”
De Andrade’s subjects are often resolutely Brazilian, as he deals with regional paradigms, economic history and the complexities of the relationship between race and class that are most at reach to those who have experienced these realities. Reliance on text within the works has made them more accessible to non-Brazilian audiences, together with what one may call a didactic clarity of his projects. At the MCA, an introductory video with the artist, posted outside the gallery, also provides context, available even before the viewer interacts with the artwork. But de Andrade’s works also affect an audience with no special knowledge of Brazilian realities.
“I believe that the more specific the work seems to be, the bigger the chance that the public will open up to questions that are actually very universal. So that’s what I bet on when showing my work,” de Andrade says. “The audience may have the comfort of seeing something they at first see as exotic, different, strange. And with that, they relax—I believe that they let their guard down. It involves a judgment, in the first moment, but then I believe that I make a positive use of it. It’s a strategy, it’s almost a trap, so the work can suddenly speak to you. After a moment, you understand that it is a question that is on the same side as you.” The title “One to One” is apt to describe this relationship. “I always seek to present what is apparently specific, but is also universal. Or the universal that emerges from the local.”