Sementes Selvagens: Rivane Neuenschwander in Serralves
After Leonilson and Mark Bradford’s exhibitions, Serralves continues to develop bridges with activist artists, with a relevant political voice in Brazil’s recent history – champions of several issues, such as minority rights or the denouncement of the destruction of the Amazon Forest and the resulting indigenous genocide.
Rivane Neuenschwander’s exhibition is curated by Inês Grosso, based on a medium-length film developed in partnership with the filmmaker Mariana Lacerda. Eu sou uma arara sets a document of the actions promoted by the artist in São Paulo within the museum. Heir to a community Carnival, different from Rio’s glamorous sambadrome, and an artistic tradition that engages the body and attracts the spectator, such as Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés and Lygia Pape’s Divisor; Rivane Neuenschwander challenged more than a hundred artists and activists to put on the skin of native species of Brazilian fauna and flora (costumes sewn by the artist using recycled materials) and take over public space, in demonstrations for environmental preservation, feminism and racial equality. According to Neuenschwander, the first appearance of this “crystal forest” was associated with the Fora Bolsonaro Social Movement, on 2 October, coinciding with the election of the former president, two years before the opening of the exhibition in Serralves.
If, on the one hand, São Paulo citizens have suffered from the privatisation of public space and the decline of local commerce and traditional market, crushed by real estate speculation, during the pandemic the streets and parks were transformed into places of assembly, conviviality, discussion, and enjoyment. Given the militias and the oppressive and conservative politics of recent years, Inês Grosso emphasises the urgent resignification of public space, as this is the place of emancipation of democracy per se.
“I am a macaw” is a famous saying of the Bororo indigenous people, which has been studied by several current philosophers and anthropologists. Being a talking bird, the macaw has in itself the idea of spirituality, representing a link between the divine and terrestrial realms. The feathers are used to adorn objects and clothing used in funeral rituals, which are very important for the identity of the people. The Bororo believe in the transmigration of the soul. They believe that, after death, they are incarnated in a macaw. Originally from Mato Grosso, they are one of over three hundred indigenous peoples who have been disappearing. According to the curator, the name Bororo curiously refers to the layout of the villages that are built around a courtyard where rituals and parties take place, in a direct association with Neuenschwander’s actions. In the form of a Carnival block, she transforms the street into a space of protest against Brazilian politics.
O Alienista is a 2019 work that recovers a Machado de Assis short story from 1882, about a doctor who returns to Brazil after a period at the Portuguese court, obsessed with studying the human mind and identifying cases of supposed madness. With the support of the local government, the character creates the Casa Verde hospice, where he begins to intern some people that he deemed irrational. The doctor ends up interning more than half the population, triggering several riots. This makes him conclude that the exception is not the insane, but the wholly sane. So, he flips the strategy: release the insane and institutionalise the sane. At the end of the tale, the Alienist has himself admitted and frees the others, believing that he was the only one who had all his mental faculties intact.
Neuenschwander transposes this satire to denounce the oppressive regime, the politics of fear and the legacy of colonialism. She presents paper-mache figures inspired by characters from Assis’ short stories and, at the same time, caricatures of Brazilian public figures. We see O Alienista, dressed in blue and with wings, similar to the viral photo montage of Bolsonaro, disguised as a dengue mosquito; O Revolucionário, a red-dressed cactus with a sickle in his hand, in the image of the newly elected president Lula da Silva; O Rato, wearing a uniform with the US flag, reminiscent of Sérgio Moro, the judge who convicted Lula, in the Operation Car Wash. And, in the centre of the room, A Morte. Following the same logic as works made in recent years, such as Em nome do medo, on the walls we see paintings of figures located between the human and non-human, seductive monsters that take over the tropical world, reflecting on Portuguese colonisation, from its predatory form to sexual exploitation.
At Capela da Casa de Serralves, we find an iconic work by the artist from 2003. Desejo o seu desejo consists of several coloured ribbons with dreams inscribed on them, reminiscent of the Senhor do Bonfim bracelets, a tradition of the city of Salvador. The viewer is invited to replace a bracelet with a piece of paper with their wish, which will be added to the work in a future exhibition. This adds a participatory side to the work, which moves from the museum to the street, the fruit of a collective expression. As in the video Eu sou uma arara, it underlines the mission not only of art, but also of museums, as agents of transformation and tools for protest and resistance. Besides the contemporary significance of talking about democracy, freedom, and human rights. Analysing the dreams of this work, presented in different social and economic contexts around the world over twenty years, shows that fear and desire are inextricably linked. Often what we desire is also what we fear.