Conversation between Luiz Camillo Osorio and Renata Felinto

1 – Talk a little about your training? How has your academic training contributed to the construction of your work?

I regard my training as taking place in the informal, formal and non-formal spheres, just as the education of a human being is divided in the Western context when we study the disciplines of didactics. My mother and father’s concern, as black people in a racist Brazil, that myself, my sister and brothers should be well-educated people in all respects, well-dressed and clean, despite being from the lower middle class, an euphemism for the poor, has been fully realized. My female references, especially of my mother, are very strong in terms of the person I am today and my determination to achieve certain things that culminated in me being the professional I am today. I would say that my father gave me that sense of believing in what was not necessarily created for us, and that this “obsession with greatness” as my mother used to say in a more critical tone, was significant in allowing me to dream. The chance to learn about music was also essential, walking through downtown São Paulo, seeing things, activities that I did with my father. I studied in the public education system all my life, except for my bachelor’s degree. I grew up in Itaquera, São Paulo, around people like me. Going to a technical college in the center forced me to undertake a daily commute of almost three hours there and back. But it also presented me with the path that would take me to a public university before we had important policies like quotas. I studied the Plastic Arts, as one of the few dark-skinned, black women in the university and supported myself through telemarketing work. While working at Mostra Brasil Mais 500 anos Artes Visuais, of the now bankrupt Brasil Connects, I discovered a universe that was not addressed in the classroom: of black artists. From then on, I focused on my final course work, a dissertation and thesis investigating this field. I’m not going to get into all the difficulties I’ve faced in this regard. Anyone with the least bit of common sense knows about these things. I completed my doctorate in 2016, as a CAPES scholarship student, with two baby children, separated, with the support of my mother, and I moved from São Paulo to the backlands of Ceará. A place that denies in its historicity the presence and participation of black people in its populational make-up, but that boasts the Dragão do Mar Cultural Center, a major paradox. And in this paradoxical environment as an artist and academic, I have redefined aspects of my personal and professional life which have been transformed into my latest works, where I reflect on issues of social, interpersonal and intimate relationships, which connect to the thread of history as unfolding, redemption and revision. Before entering academia as a teacher, I had done numerous research projects, for work and out of necessity, so the difference on entering academia is that I have begun to systematize more what I research.

2 – How do you relate your work as an artist to your pedagogical practice? What has this experience been like there in Crato, Ceará, as a professor of History and Art Theory at the Regional University of Cariri? How do you translate the art historical references learned in São Paulo to this other symbolic and cultural territory?

Before entering academia as a teacher, unlike many of my artist peers, I believed that art has relevance when it has meaning for people who encounter artistic creation, when it can cause a sensation, feeling, reflection, connections with life, whatever they are. This is important and inseparable from my work. It is a concern. And this same concern is present in my teaching and pedagogical work. I’m concerned about connecting the knowledge of art history with the lives of the people who are my students, to work on this content so that there isn’t this very common and normalized gulf between the teacher’s knowledge and the student’s capacity regarding the development of what we call the history of visual arts. Then there is the question of the adaptation of language, the humility to use bibliographic references that go beyond texts of books that cannot be acquired by most people and, in addition to this, I seek to humanize the production of art from the perspective that everybody understands that we are dealing with other people’s work and that gender, color/race, socioeconomic class and geography decisively influence the people and work we study, which represent a specific context. At the same time, I always try to bring references from places outside of Europe, because the impression that historiography gives us is that art is not produced in other places. I love to highlight the weight of the classical canon and how, at the same time, it only exists because there was an Egyptian canon and, in this way, to show how there are connections between populations and that we are dealing with a phenomenon of creation with continuity, discontinuities, symmetries and asymmetries. More than anything, the history of the visual arts is about which stories to tell and that we need many, many visual arts storytellers. Seeking to apply the “Teaching to transgress” mantra, of bell hooks, I try to see myself as a student, to remember my weaknesses in order to connect with the people who are my students. But I demand reading, written work and participation in the classroom because I know they are capable of this.

3 – What is the artistic circuit like in the backlands? What alliances are possible for the continuity and reinvention of your work?

When we arrive in a small town, where people know each other and we are strangers, so to speak, it requires great care, especially for a black woman and mother alone in a place where straight men regard themselves as “macho men”. It is very dangerous, whether due to curiosity and/or another’s malice, the feeling that we southerners place ourselves on a higher level, which is highly normalized, or to other daily forms of violence that are expressed in ways of looking at and touching my body. So it was that first impact, that culture shock, that entered my work. This attempt to understand what it means to be a black woman in another corner of Brazil which is totally different from São Paulo, and with a different kind of racism that included the immense surprise of people when they see me get into a car and drive. Or even to say that I’m a college professor. And all of this even within the university, in the academic environment.

It was not easy to create an environment of exchanges, and personal and collective growth here in the backlands. I would say that when it comes to the visual arts, these partnerships that were more visible didn’t interest me. I went to see what interested me, what also inhabited my imaginary, such as the Espedito  Seleiro de Nova Olinda and the wood-graver artists of Lira Nordestina, a printer and publisher founded by José Bernardo in 1926, which is due to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It was there that I ordered part of my installation “Being so sweet in the hardness” (“Ser tão doce na dureza“), 2018/2019, where the names of people who engraved their presence on my arrival, for better or worse, are engraved. It was Cicero Lourenço who made the molds and engravings that together form the map of the state of Ceará. In this installation I present hearts, with the maps, made from rapadura (raw block sugar) and Kariri cachaça, which are very traditional here. The idea is for people to allow the rapadura to dissolve in their mouths. It’s a delicacy to be patiently savored through the action of the saliva. It’s a process that requires time to discover the sweet taste behind the hardness of the food.

I presented this and other works at Aparelha Luzia in São Paulo, at the invitation of my friend, artist, educator and now state representative Erica Malunguinho. She told me, in an informal conversation that to live right here, I would have to mix with our own people. Black people are found at the lowest levels of Brazilian society in any state due to our efficient caste system. And I quickly realized that white university colleagues can really represent a toxic elite because it is founded on a concept of whiteness that involves ways of being and acting designed to preserve privileges, whatever and how small they may be.  And I decided to mix with my own people.

I went to research and hear about characters that inhabit the popular imagination and local oral traditions such as Maria de Araújo, Maria Caboré and Maria Margarida. I got help with the research from women who are now friends of mine, and who are participants in the research group that I lead at the Regional University of Cariri, NZINGA (New International Ziriguiduns Created in the Arts). For example, the historian Edivânia Barros presented me with her monograph on Maria Caboré, a woman who was severely marginalized and raped in the early 20th century, having lived on the streets in Crato and whose grave is now a place of pilgrimage and who is considered a holy woman. Maria de Fátima Gomes, a singer and pedagogue, introduced me to Master Maria Margarida, who is still alive and is hospitalized in an asylum in Juazeiro do Norte, the creator of a traditional group composed only of women called “Guerreiras de Joana D’Arc” (“Warriors of Joan of Arc”), a musician, composer and very important children’s entertainer. Inspired by these three women I created the triad of performances “Axé Marias!” that I presented, among other works, at the 29th Program of Exhibitions of the São Paulo Cultural Center (“29º Programa de Exposições do Centro Cultural São Paulo”), at the invitation of the curatorship headed by Adelaide Pontes. It was also from NZINGA that a group of visual artists was formed with whom I dialogue and research, because when I arrived here the issue of black women in the visual arts, or even the black person, was not an issue; it didn’t exist. Maria Macedo who was my student is an artist who I believe is developing as an artist, and who has raised such issues since joining NZINGA, as well as Eliana Amorim, Nayra Gomes, Suaine Oliveira, Andréa Sobreira and Aline Lima. Not that they didn’t think about art, and some about being a woman, or even being black, but sometimes you need a person to explain that these issues are latent in some places. That’s what happened.  Nzinga helped them to become aware of the racism that exists in the region, in the erasure of the importance of seeing and understanding oneself as an intelligent person and black creator. Cariri with its sunlight, its abundant nature, its people, its own aesthetic challenges me even in the routine of everyday life to think about my existence in a very profound way and this has permeated my writing process, teaching and art.

4 – The phrase “Out of Adversity We Live” must have a strong resonance for a black, female artist. How do you give voice to this pain beyond mere denunciation?

Brazil, as a country with a strongly sadistic tendency, has a whole culture of exploitation from the slavocratic period, whether it be telenovela productions, or the ornaments that people have in their living rooms, of black people carrying baskets, breastfeeding nurse-maids, or even the normalization of people coexisting with establishments called “Senzala” (“Slave Quarters”), to cite only a few aberrations of our racist sociability. This normalization obviously hurts because it permeates the lives of black people in Brazil. It is not us who are always talking about racism, it’s the whites who are always showing us and reminding us of it, putting ourselves back in places of the past without being able to understand the need for a new social ethics between different people, that is more than explicit, such as the urgent need for us not to be killed by hatred. I have tried to go beyond the pain and allow myself to imagine places of welcome, recognition and affection. One of my last works “AMOR-Tecimento” (“LOVE-weaving”), 2019 is about this, about how we black people can confront everyday racism. This confrontation occurs through self-care, affection and herbal healing. On the team we have a historian, musician, yogi and masseuse, Marcos Felinto, a doula and pedagogue, Edite Neves, a social scientist, cultural producer, feminist and human rights activist Lúcia Chiyere Ijeoma Udemezue. We have brought together a group of people aged between 18 and 80 years to talk about racism, to look into each other’s eyes, to provide affection, massages and caresses to other people who inhabit black bodies with the mediation of the power of herbs such as rosemary, basil and rue, among others. It is a work of recognition of our humanities, among us, among equals, sharing what the writer Vilma Piedade calls “dorority” (“suffrority”) as opposed to “sorority”. I extend the concept to black people beyond gender, in the sense that the trajectories are different, including the experiences of racism, but the feeling is similar and the care for the other, by the other, can also be so. It’s a long, multimedia work; there are people in this process of touching, the three ladies who knit the golden line, the images that demand the barbarism of the transatlantic slave-trade and how the descendants of these people are treated by the state and society, which is us, me and you, all with music being constructed in that moment. It is an immersion that brings elements of spirituality and ritualization; caring as a rite.

5 – I read an interesting article by Djamila Ribeiro about the controversy prompted by Lilia Schwarcz’s criticism of Beyoncé’s film. She wrote: “as the visual artist Renata Felinto said, art is about imagination and ‘Beyoncé is an artist maturing as a person, woman and mother’”. Could you talk a little bit about the role of imagination in art and how you viewed this controversy?

We could say the attitude of superiority that Euro-Western society has ascribed to itself, as if it were its duty to “guide” and “lead” other populations around the world, especially in the “New World”, says a lot about what can be imagined in the field of art. The production of white people’s art is subject to the reverence of their own narratives, be they historical, religious or social, and this is already all very explicit in the classical period, with the representations of goddesses and gods, or even with the busts of emperors with heroic facial expressions. And following the timeline of the history of Euro-Western art we find this reiteration of a historical, religious and social importance, albeit with transformations in relation to the theme represented and on which it is created. After these cycles of realistic representation, we have the tearing up of the figure at the beginning of the 20th century, and many new experiences that take place based on other connections between artistic languages and in a more direct confrontation with the society that was engendered. When Lilia Schwarcz criticizes, in little depth, the production of a pop culture artist who precisely activates African history, religiosities and societies that have barely been visible in the context of this society that is said to be plural but which, however, is clinically Euro-Western, she says that other peoples cannot imagine it. She confines her understanding of imagination to what she knows and reveals the confinement of her mind to the limits of the fantastical read through the lens of Europe and the West. Not that she does this to vilify black people, but she shouldn’t feel so free to talk about everything; she should take time to understand what has no prior record in her broad repertoire in order that it be read through other lenses.  And maybe she herself, as an anthropologist, needs to update these readings because we, black people, in our creative processes, in the field of human knowledge and not just the arts, are using reference sources that were denied to us within a process of territorial invasion, of oppression as a power struggle, of genocide, of epistemicide, of extreme violence against our existences, including erasures, so that we might understand ourselves based on the apocalyptic tragedy of the transatlantic slave-trade.  In these movements of our re-seeing ourselves through our own lenses, as people who are part of other stories, from other places, from other times, from other cultures and, therefore, from other imaginaries, fantasies and mythologies. Aside from all this, please, “Black Is King” is from Disney, the largest fantasy and imagination industry of the 20th and 21st century, so everything is possible and all this need not be so rationalized. Beyoncé, like many Afro-diasporic people, is doing her reconnection. I feel honored to live in this time and to be able to watch this work.

6 – In the late 1960s, the American artist Mierle Ukeles wrote the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, which questioned the poetic and productive dimension of care. Anticipating the later feminist discourse, she ascribed value to invisible, despised household work in the context of a patriarchal society. Nothing could be more current. How has this influenced your vision of art as a female artist, mother and teacher?

Luiz Camillo, what incredible questions! I’m learning from this exchange. This is very valuable. Regarding your question, our society is one of maladjustment, of paradox, of violence so normalized that it has become the rule. Everybody has already been in this situation or in both: we were either children and thus needed a mother, or we were children and mothers. And it seems to me, that as grown-ups we forget the countless needs to raise a child in a healthy way. Just as, like women with adult, autonomous offspring, we forget what it was like to be a mother and how, even when one has some support, being a mother is an experience that leaves us naked before our frailties, disabilities, anxieties and anguishes. How much more difficult have we made this experience for women in a capitalist and patriarchal context. How much does the “macho-ization” of labor relations require women to present themselves as autonomous and to hide their needs as mothers and, consequently, those of their children, who need them. I think of ways of making professional work more flexible and how we should focus on improving the structure of formal education which is the great support of most families with women exercising their right/need to have a profession, to pursue a paid activity. As an art educator I have read numerous wonderful texts about bringing together school and society, formal and informal education. But, in practice this only occurs in very elitist, very expensive schools. Being a woman, black, single mother, professional, artist, in that order and at the same time, has been a huge challenge and it is imperative that we deal with this issue as seriously as possible in a country that prohibits abortion, but that does not criminalize and properly hold negligent men responsible for their role as fathers. At the same time, we, society, need to understand the importance of the community that surrounds these women and their children within the social project that we say we dream of. What is the role played by an uncle, brother or grandfather, thinking specifically of men, since women, aunts, sisters, grandparents already provide this assistance to mothers? Indigenous societies are not being reevaluated at this time in vain. To look at these groups that have been animalized and rendered savages by the historical process of expropriation, is to restore to our society a broader notion of family and the responsibilities shared with men. Men no longer go hunting, they are no longer the only providers, they are not the ones who have more education, so all these responsibilities that were previously assigned to women urgently need to be redivided. Art was predominantly made by men because that was the assumption, that men had the freedom to create, imagine and produce. If art is about existing too, it is through it that I will share my ideas about existence based on my experience in this time-place.

7 – What do you imagine and wish for the future of your work? After all, as Tunga used to say, we must live up to our dreams.

Basically, I’m someone who dreams, and I have dreams written down on paper from when I was 13 years old. I have every project traced in some diary. I dream that my work talks about what it was like to be a woman, black, Brazilian, single mother, professional and artist between 1978 and, the moment I pass, that this provides help in understanding the society in which I lived and the struggles I invented in order to survive as best I could in it. I also dream that my art will provide a sense of how I allowed myself to live, create and imagine, understanding that this creative practice, that goes beyond thinking about the processes of marketing my work (though I want them to be in some collections in order to be accessed, enjoyed, understood and reflected on), is the reward and thanks I would like to offer to the men and women of my people who came before me and who allowed me to be who I am, especially the black women of the Benedito Nascimento and Felinto dos Santos family. Doing everything I do the best way I can is my grateful thanks!


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