The new exhibition by Maria Thereza Alves at the Jaqueline Martins gallery is made up of a series of watercolors on paper that portray landscapes and animals, as well as sculptural objects that focus on aspects related to the environment, ecological activism and new ways of understanding nature in relation to social processes—recurrent themes in Alves’ artistic and activist practice, developed consistently over the last few decades.
At first glance, the set of watercolors does not present a directly activist or politically strident discourse, and seems to refer to botanical catalog drawings, or even the drawings made as records by traveling artists in the colonial past. However, this apparent resemblance ends there, and is subverted when the artist proposes that non-human beings be, in some way, included in national decision-making processes, through the idea of the possibility of voting, of becoming subjects.
With the help of a biologist, Alves listed those beings that, due to the processes of urbanization and progress, were uprooted and expelled from their natural habitat (in this case, the Atlantic Forest1): the armadillo, the praying mantis, the blue butterfly, among others. This aspect of the show’s narrative immediately reminds me of the process of struggles over the right to vote for women (granted in 1932), and even more so to the vote of illiterates (only allowed by the Brazilian State in 1985): Vote, voice and political participation for those who are marginalized by society. Alves also presents, among her watercolors, brownish landscapes of hills without vegetation, evoking the dilapidation of the Atlantic Forest biome. The tridimensional works presented are proposed as homes for those exiled beings to somehow find new shelter, refuge, protection and peace.
There is no way to disconnect the exhibition from the recent movement that has emerged in the intellectual, academic and legal circles that connect the effects of the Anthropocene2, the urgencies and climate alerts resulting from it and the debates regarding the rights of nature3 and of non-human beings. Alves also argues that the purpose of the exhibition lies in “nurturing processes of exchanges and conversations between different forms of life, which together face a precarious situation of future survival.” This metaphor that Alves’ exhibition proposes to us—based on proposals for dialogue, pause and negotiation—could not be more appropriate to the present time, of attempts and a need for national reconciliation after troubled years of a regime that proved to be, at the very least, retrograde… And I’m still skeptical about the real possibility of achieving anything close to a national reconciliation. And if we can’t, I think the classic “Animal Farm” (George Orwell) might come in handy.
Maria Thereza Alves, “Conselho de seres” / The Council of Beings
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, Saõ Paulo
March 25 – May 27, 2023
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1 Today, only 12.4 percent of the forest that originally existed remains, and of these remnants, eighty percent are in private areas, corresponding to the areas of most Brazilian homes, and are home to about seventy-two percent of the population, seven of the nine largest watershed basins in the country and three of the largest urban centers on the South American continent.
2 Scientific term (geological age) used to describe the most recent period in the history of the planet. There is still no precise and officially appointed start date, but it is commonly considered the end of the eighteenth century, when human activities began to have a significant global impact on the climate and the functioning of ecosystems.
3 The rights of nature (or rights of the earth) theory is a legal and jurisprudential theory that describes inherent rights as associated with ecosystems and species, similar to the concept of fundamental human rights. The concept of rights of nature defies twentieth-century laws, generally grounded in an understanding of nature as “resources” to be exploited and owned. Its defenders argue that, just as human rights have been increasingly recognized in law, the rights of nature must be recognized and incorporated into human ethics and laws.