Bárbara Wagner, "The Cortege" series, 2013

The methodology of the meeting in Bárbara Wagner’s work, by Júlia Rebouças

Throughout the week, we published a series of exclusive texts that are part of PIPA’s 2017 catalogue, each written by a critic/curator invited by each of the four finalists of the eighth edition of PIPA Prize. Today, we publish the last of these texts, written by critic and curator Júlia Rebouças, invited by PIPA Prize 2017 winner Bárbara Wagner.

In the text, Rebouças talks about the artist’s references, underlining her interest in popular culture and in the discussion of issues such as gender, race and class. The curator also highlights the ethical and political aspect of Barbara’s work, that approaches marginalized social groups and seeks to establish with them a relationship of complicity. Júlia also emphasizes the importance of art in the defence of freedom of expression.


Júlia Rebouças

The characters portrayed by Bárbara Wagner in the series “A Corte” [The Cortege] and “Faz que vai” [Set to go] emerge from the universe of Pernambuco’s Carnaval. Members of the Maracatu and dancers of Frevo lend their bodies to the practice of a tradition that, while referring them back to the cultural history of the region, is also crossed by the present. Against the background of the vibrant Carnival mis-en-scène; Bárbara Wagner’s photographs are focused on people, emphasizing individual peculiarities. In the photographs, what you see is a character in the foreground, detached from the context, showing both fragility and power at the same time. It is by the means of individuals that a collective body takes form; the phrase is used by the artist herself and is impregnated with gender, race and class issues. The pop and popular universes, so commonly overlooked by systems of cultural representation, are claimed in Wagner’s work.

A photojournalist by training, Bárbara Wagner brings from documentary records to her research the desire to communicate, forged in the fine line that separates reality from fiction, exactly when ways of life and identities are invented. If her photography happens in the pose, the characters play themselves. In the development of such a language, she chooses to maintain the technical convention, using simple advertising and journalism resources; the use of flash photography, associated with ambient light, is perhaps the most explicit of such resources. The twist is, conversely, in the symbolism of shedding light, highlighting colours, emphasizing contours, and playing with light and dark effects to stand out from the crowd an individual that is hardly part of art’s hegemonic narratives. From her images come out singers of corny music, young people in an occupation, evangelical pastors, MC’s of funk music – each of these groups engendering new social, political and cultural economies.

Photography was widespread in Brazil for many decades; in the first half of the 19th century, it was used to record landscapes, urban views and particularly characters from an ethnographic and documentary perspective. Portraits of the imperial court in Brazil come from the same period; Dom Pedro II was a pioneering enthusiast of photography in the country. Bárbara Wagner’s A Corte suggests a return to the memory of such images by accessing an iconography that refers to the construction of the country’s imaginary. Here, the queen and the king, vassals, princesses and ambassadors have dark skin and wear costumes that do not match their existence, blending wigs, brocades, stones and cetin to objects of consumption which characterized the social mobility experienced in the first decade of the 2000s in Brazil.

On the other hand, in “Faz que vai” [Set to go], co-authored with Benjamin de Burca, Bárbara Wagner works with Frevo, a genre of music and performance also originating from the cultural tradition of Pernambuco. Four contemporary characters dance in isolation, against a background of precarious urbanization, to the sound of a Frevo performed only by percussive instruments, without the harmony usually presented by wind instruments. Faz que vai, one of the dance steps itself, inspires both instability and balance. Interested in power and in the issues of the idea of folklore today, the artists watch how the bodies update the habit, allowing the coexistence, at the same time, of markers of pop culture, fluid genders, technological devices, performance gestures, and the clothing, the steps and the beat of Frevo. They thus oppose the claims of purism made by the state and institutional framework that makes use of this culture.

In her work, Bárbara Wagner pursues what is deemed less important or low quality, making the meeting of it not only a concept, but also a methodology. Even though the images show strength and demonstrate complicity between Bárbara and the subjects portrayed, the artist does not emulate a feeling of belonging, neither does she judge, or separate by difference. It was in the sands of a beach at the borders the Brasília Teimosa community, in Recife, that Bárbara Wagner took the set of photographs that would inaugurate her production as an artist. For two years, every Sunday, she attended one of the most popular and yet stigmatized areas of the city. The area was occupied in the 1950s, concurrent with the construction of the federal capital, Brasília. Stilt houses and shacks on the mangrove and beach formed the geography of the place, which divides the south area of Recife and downtown. In the face of successive attempts to remove the families and their fierce resistance, the community was given the nickname of Brasília Teimosa (Stubborn Brasília). In 2004, in the wake of an urban intervention, new houses and a coastal highway were built, and the neighbourhood received a new qualification. This new landscape was the background for Bárbara Wagner’s photographic series, named after the community and its beach. If at first the photographs were taken at a distance – the artist was afraid of invading a moment of intimacy and pleasure of its regulars – it didn’t take long for her to understand that the power of her work was precisely in the approximation and exchange with the characters portrayed. Soon, she lost interest in long shots and the landscape; instead, she was now interested in everyone with whom she interacted, and from then on, negotiated the production of the images. In this equation, the body pictured is involved with desires and expectations.

Throughout her trajectory as an artist, Bárbara Wagner chooses spaces between categories, aware of its political and poetic strength. This approach affects not only conceptual frameworks and the technical practice of language but also the systems of production, exhibition and criticism of art. Therefore, it is important to note that this text, as an integral part of the PIPA Prize 2017 catalogue, was written in a context in which Brazilian museums are under heavy attack because of their contents – works of art are censored and artists are being intimidated. The attacks are fed by reactionary political groups that appeal to a speech full of false moralism and ignorance. It is no coincidence that, not long ago, in the context of this same PIPA Prize, its virtual voting platform, that rewards artists by popular choice, was used as a tool for the spread of racism, misogyny and hatred, in an action accomplished by groups and/or individuals who seem aligned to an obscurantist movement and who have on their agenda, among other resources, to expose art, its agents and institutions to public embarrassment. In this case specifically, the insults, directed to the artists – women and black women – were considered as personal attacks, unconnected to institutional intervention. Soon, the focus of aggression turned to the museums and their brands, spread to other places, and covered indistinctly the most varied exhibitions, in a clear demonstration that there is no limit to arbitrariness and persecutory rage for those who are guided by intolerance and ignorance – entities that always go hand in hand. In this historic folding of the present, the importance of art as a formulation of resistance and repository of free creation is emphasized. Thus, every agent or institution must defend the practice and the free expression of thought, but above all, respect the values of democratic diversity. Resiliency and the ability to reinvent itself in the face of any attempt of coercion favor art. Don’t be mistaken, art will not be damage-free; however, it will always pursue freedom.


Júlia Rebouças is a curator, researcher and art critic. MD and PhD in Visual Arts from UFMG, she was a curator at Inhotim Institute from 2007 to 2015 and co-curator at the 32nd São Paulo Biennial in 2016.

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