PIPA Popular Vote 2017 Winner Éder Oliveira invited the researcher, professor and artist Orlando Maneschy to write about his work for the PIPA Prize 2017 catalogue. Contextualizing Oliveira’s work in the Brazilian sociopolitical scenario and emphasizing its importance at a time when art is being retaliated in the country, Maneschy elucidates the existing relations between identity, media and power discussed in the artist’s work.
“The Amazon is not for wimps”, paraphrases the curator, pointing out the political complexity of the theme. Maneschy also talks about Oliveira’s research on the identity of the Amazonian man and makes a parallel between the artist personal history and the political dimension of his work. Finally, he addresses his methodology, the maturing of his production and his research with colour, which has resulted in the giant monochromatic paintings of anonymous and marginalized faces he has been making these days.
In difficult times, art is the only option against violence
“The Amazon is not for wimps”, goes a saying in Northern Brazil. Extreme distances, poor roads, hard-to-reach places… Boats are one of the few transportation means flowing continuously through the rivers… flights are either too expensive or poorly planned within the region (in some cases, you need to go to Brasilia and from there back to another state of Northern Brazil).
Speaking of art produced in the Amazon recalls numerous obstacles, exclusion, abandonment and violence, all of them factors that have historically characterized the region and insist on defining space, impairing the life of the less privileged. Huge properties, the forest being destroyed and replaced by pastures and soybean plantations, which are currently a major contributing factor for deforestation, with enormous environmental impacts, whose production (nearly 80%) is destined for animal feed, an unjust setting in which virtually 100% of it comes from genetically modified soybeans.
The shortage of water that has alarmed the country was announced in a survey published in 2014, revealing the increasing destruction of forests in a report from INPE – Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (National Institute for Space Research). Billions of tons of water circulated to the Northeast and Southwest of Brazil through clouds, but the constant burning and deforestation have changed the patterns of atmospheric pressure, causing a decline in humidity. What does the future hold in such chaos?
In the Amazon, exploitation is continuous. The destruction of forests for the benefit of the celebrated “agribusiness”… the illegal exploitation of timber … land conflicts, disrespect, violence against traditional communities which, expropriated or dispossessed of their lands, no longer possess means of living and have their dignity stained. The incidence or murders is large among the weak, oppressed and exposed to all kinds of abuse – they are stripped of everything and nothing good is offered to them
It is about the inhabitants of this region that Éder Oliveira will launch his acute, unique vision – an environment in which opportunities for a decent future are so rare. The artist is not touched by the success but rather strives to, with attention and humanity, face up to the reality around him and insists on calling the attention to the elimination processes that occur in such territory. I met him in the dawn of his early creative sparks at the university, which at the time discussed identity, revealing the intensity of issues that deepened the work that evolved from there. He was then the character itself, the subject of reflection in the search for understanding himself. Similar images from an identification document… His intense gaze stared at the viewer in a delicate impression on craft paper. Since then, a solid path developed a path full of criticism, in a live clash with its history, with a social history of the inhabitants of an Amazon that is quite different from the image publicized as the largest rainforest in the world, full of rivers, of endless green trees. No, this exotic, beautiful Amazonian paradise no longer exists – it was devastated by pastures, by plantations, by hydropower plants and by mining camps.
The Amazon burns in high fever and no longer lends itself to this image, because everything you see, including in the media, are attacks on environmental reserves and indigenous peoples. We are talking about the spread of strains of bacteria on contaminated objects launched into the jungle to decimate indigenous peoples… ambushes, fires, mass slaughter of small farmers, as well as other wicked methods of exclusion and genocide.
The practice of rape has not changed much since the colonial period, at a time when a division was drawn between the State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão (1621) and the State of Brazil; it just became more “sophisticated” as its wickedness increased…
Anyway, at the end of the day, what does this have to do with Éder Oliveira’s art? Born in Northeastern Pará, in a village near the small town of Nova Timboteua, the son of a professor and a homemaker, the artist was raised in the Bragança region, surrounded by nature, his drawings and school activities. At the time, he did not perceive clearly that his town, with about 15,000 inhabitants, was an environment in which the Human Development Index (HDI), was declining; the situation was no different from other places in the Amazon, which has very low growth rates of education, health and source of income.
In his native town, this mestizo boy who knew how to draw was asked to do paintings on walls or illustrations for school papers. When, a few years later, he moved to Belém to complete his studies, Éder broke free from a pattern he would not have the life that was expected of several of his colleagues who were not able to get out of their hometown. Living on the outskirts of a big city, he saw so many other migrants who had come to the capital in search of work and a better life, helping build a city, but who had no voice as compared to the decision makers. He rediscovered in the facial expression of individuals the mix that makes up the typical Amazonian man, whose marked facial features, intense expression and striking colour call his attention.
Upon entering the university, Oliveira, who bravely chose Fine Arts as his major, had to adapt to life in the capital of Pará and multiple cultural differences. When faced with the numerous artistic productions and the entire universe of art before his eyes, he began to devote himself to painting; at the same time, he discovered something that had gone unnoticed from him until then, a peculiar way of seeing colours. His visual perception of some shades was deficient; he was colour-blind. However, what could become a disappointment or the abandonment of a language made him stronger: looking back to his own life, he developed a desire in wanting to portray characters from the periphery, mestizos like him who, often because of their colour and physical features, have less opportunities and are left at the margins of the labour market. His “disability” then starts to be incorporated as a language, as he chooses monochromatic hues among reds, browns, blues and greens.
Colour goes beyond the sense of vision to reach the colour of skin, the characters who live in extreme situations, those who can only have their five minutes of fame on the police occurrences pages of newspapers. Suspect, guilty and victim mingle in this context. Ultimately, who is responsible for the factors that push those individuals to situations of violence? What kind of visibility is this that so often exposes the weakest on the police pages of newspapers even before a proper trial? What is the better “choice”? Staying in an inhospitable prison cell for a suspected small crime or disappear in the middle of the road, as in the recent case of Amarildo, an assistant bricklayer driven from his door towards the Police Station and who was never to be seen again, became a symbol of police abuse and violence in Brazil.
We are all Amarildos, Josés, Marias, and L.A.B.s, a minor who was trapped in a cell in 2016 in Pará, together with several men and submitted to all manner of abuse.
Tha’s right, the Amazon is not for wimps! Neither is Brazil. The abolition of rights seems to be imminent. In the countryside, we often see situations of slavery. Éder Oliveira exposes the open wound, sheds light on this marginalized, harassed inhabitant, destined for failure, on a threshold between victim and predator, hovering in a sort of symbolic “state of exception” that the State itself seems to lead. How many men and women are constantly moving from the countryside to the big city in this country? The movement has expanded in recent decades. For many, the dream of a better life ends up in frustration, poverty and segregation.
It is to this citizen, a caboclo, a Brazilian like himself and like many of us, mestizos, that the artist points his radar. He transports, by means of mural painting, portraits made by the media without permission, to another site, a more humane, more dignified one.
The portraits printed for immediate consumption on the bloody police pages of newspapers gain a new dimension and show the precarious conditions of those who are violated by the media, violated in their own faces, exposed in newspapers which are then discarded and end up wrapping produce sold at the open markets. By painting them, Oliveira makes us face the evils of society and forces us to confront our own fears, our prejudices, our insensitivity towards the other.
From to the police pages of newspapers, then again to the world, represented by large paintings that redefine and resize a citizen otherwise destined to oblivion. The artist amplifies, making us look at the face shown as a portrait arbitrarily done, imposed, in conditions that are far from correct. Individuals who are exposed to invisibility day after day.
The screens and wall paintings of Oliveira, the looks, sometimes annoyed, sometimes frightened and full of despair, now start to ask us questions, confronting us with our cruellest side.
Then, again, the colour bursts; among blues, ochres and reds, his characters come to life. In colour-blinded individuals, the red colour is the most difficult colour to work with and seems to be one to have the greatest impact on the observer of Oliveira’s work. Red… a protagonist and currently persecuted colour in Brazil that reveals itself to censorship and prejudice. Nonetheless, red is not the only colour – several other shades form the Amazonian people.
In the series Monocromos (Monochrome), the artist reaches the minimum particle, the pixel image of the skin of a citizen, and amplifies it, collecting hues in a kind of mapping of the individual whose subjectivity is of no interest to institutions, but his skin color and physical features do matter because he does not correspond to the Western beauty standard.
Well, we are in the Amazon… Statistics show that the poor, brown, black and caboclo individuals are the most numerous group approached in police checkpoints and raids. Integrity is not at stake here. They are potential suspects anyway because their colour and shape so determine. They are not white, they have no fine features. They are “sullen-looking”. “It is better to get them off the street”, “it is safer to lock them away”. That´s right, the Amazon is not for wimps!… and Éder Oliveira knows it well, he is familiar with this absence of the State in relation to the other… His work exposes deep processes of subjectivation.
Unhappy portraits: subalternity, exception, anonymity; drug trafficking, extermination groups and one of the highest homicide rates… as shown by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) with its Atlas of Violence 2016. And through it all, combined in the same chromatic mass, we have criminal and victim, side by side, all of them stemming from the appalling violence established in the root of the region’s overwhelming social fabric.
They are not politicians, nor celebrities. In Oliveira´s mural painting, the logic of power is subverted, wore thin to its utmost limit. Suspects and policemen are together in an abyss that segregates and hurts. Oliveira starts from some conducts that might appear in an anthropological research and then manages to be next to others, invite them to a field of reflection about the game of representations. Soldiers and marginals are listed in this challenge of opposites. Are they really opposites? History is here, and we know what leads many young people to consider the police force as a means of survival, but bring with them all the frustrations of exclusion which are also present in the life of their supposed opponents.
The invitation that Éder Oliveira makes us is very strong and serious. A continuous process of otherness and critical reflection about our place. These are images, image-words that shake us as if saying: See! Wake up! Take a stand.
Those are dark times we are living in; colours are persecuted, and art is accused because, deep down, it leads us to think about our role as humans and must position ourselves.
There is an urge to counteract the enormous wave of violence sweeping over Brazil and the world. With his colour-blind look, Oliveira does not shy away from looking at and extending the borders to give an account of the struggle that he sees in life and to make a painting that, beyond its technical and aesthetic quality, is conceptual, ethical, and exposes the banality of everyday violence introduced not only in the Amazon but throughout the country. He focuses on the marginalized citizen who faces daily stigmas. Brown, mulatto, caboclo, typical, indigenous, northern, marajoara, camouflaged in his own daily life by racism and discrimination, pushed to margins of society by society itself.
Captured by the works of Éder Oliveira, we can be sure that, in difficult times, Art is the only option against violence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Orlando Maneschy is a researcher, professor, artist, critic and independent curator. PhD in Communication and Semiotics from PUC-SP, Orlando is the curator of Amazoniana Collection of Art in UFPA.