Selected artists takeover 2021: with Marcela Bonfim

Welcome to PIPA 2021 Selected Artists Takeover! Until October 16th, the artists “open the doors of their studios” to the virtual audience of PIPA Prize, with videos, photos, and texts exclusively prepared for the takeover. Each week, one artist presents their work. From September 27h to October 2nd, Marcela Bonfim talks about his trajectory in the artistic world, what he has produced, in addition to presenting recent works. At the end of the takeover, a talk with the PIPA Institute curator, Luiz Camillo Osorio, is scheduled to happen at Preview platform (whose creator is the critical and curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) to discuss the recent changes in PIPA Prize and present the Selected artists, as part of the takeover month.

In this 12th edition, PIPA Prize brings a new format. It is aimed to gather artists who had their first exhibition no more than ten years ago. The focus of PIPA 2021 is to encourage artists at the beginning of their careers who develop a differentiated production. The material below is available in a reduced version also on the Prize’s social networks. Keep an eye out and follow us on the InstagramTwitter and Facebook platforms.

And remember that the Selected Artists are also being presented in the exhibition on display at Paço Imperial, in Rio de Janeiro, alongside the PIPA Prize 2020 Winners. The exhibition is open until November 20th. It will be a pleasure to receive you there!

Day 01:

Marcela Bonfim
Porto Velho, Brazil, 1983.
Lives and works in Porto Velho, Brazil.

PIPA 2021 nominee.
PIPA 2021 Selected Artist.

Do we really know who we are? How many times do we look in the mirror and identify our ancestral features there? Some people create an image that does not represent them, but that is accepted by society or sometimes they simply prefer to break the mirror and not face themselves. This mirror was often broken by photographer Marcela Bonfim, 38 years old from the city of Jaú, São Paulo state, today recognized as a black woman and resident in the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia, for 11 years.

Video produced by Do Rio Filmes exclusively for PIPA 2021:

Day 02:

“Graduated in economics from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, the activist for the cause of black people and traditional peoples were another Marcela until she was 25 years old. She considered herself a whitened black, believed in the discourse of meritocracy. She heard from her parents that if she studied, she would be able to have a good job and be happy. Also based on this discourse, she criticized affirmative action policies, such as racial quotas, and said that they were more a demonstration of prejudice and racism, a word that she did not see in her reality.

Marcela wore some disguises over her skin to be accepted. In the high school group, she was given the title of funniest, she was the clown in the classroom, the most laughing, and by this way, the economist lived her life. She believed in a possible world, with open doors and free movement, without any obstacle. But she was wrong and it was during the search for her first job that her world fell apart and the disguises didn’t work anymore, her skin color was now coming through.

Once in Rondônia, in order to face her blackness, Marcela bought a camera in 2012 and began photographing black people, men, women, children, young and old, in the Amazon Quilombola communities (traditional communities of black resistance), in rituals of Candomblé “terreiros” (meeting yard), religious festivities, penitentiaries. The records also sought to portray black people in their employment, mostly in domestic activities.

The lenses also captured the resistance to the preservation of culture and customs and the beauty of black aesthetics. The photograph was a rescue of Marcela’s own identity as a black woman and it was in the Amazon that she “faced” the color of her skin”, says Marcela in her biography.

See the “Re(conhecendo a Amazônia Negra”, “(Re)cognizing Black Amazon” series of photographs:

Day 03:

For the takeover, Marcela Bonfim produced this exclusive video in which she shows the Madeira river, in Rondonia, where she lives. Watch the complete video below:

Day 04:

Another series of photographs by Marcela is “Madeira de Dentro, Madeira de fora” (Wood from inside, wood from outside), in which she records typical constructions of riverside cities in the North of the country, fragments of the Amazon rainforest, as well as everyday images. See below:

Day 05:

Conversation between Luiz Camillo Osorio and Marcela Bonfim

1 – You graduated in Economics in São Paulo. And then you went to Rondônia. How did you decide to become an artist?

I believe it wasn’t a decision per se. But moving to Porto Velho, in 2010, was. It was the only decision I was able to make in that moment – finally getting away from São Paulo’s lights and the violent shocks between my head and the grounds of that city. The year of 2009 was marked as a season of painful and continuous headbutts, that were even followed by many close friends and distant acquaintances, from several angles; some from the inside, others not so much; others from the outside, and even some from nowhere, just watching the headbutts of a black woman blackening her sense of reality, as if she were waking up in the middle of a shipwreck. 

Proceeding with the places and senses of that matter, I could assume that the artist came from the moments in which the head jumped in between oscillations that almost drove me insane; while bearing up under trials, at the edge of my own limits. For example, during an interview with my “future boss”, still in São Paulo, I was led to the kitchen after an obvious change of the host’s plans, which was announced in the exact click of our encounter. I’ve turned my experience into images, a repository of heavy weights and distresses; today, touched and reflected under our care, in the field of Photography, with the dignification of our bodies-limits – now expanded to the faculties of reason.

2 – Years ago, in the early 2000s – I believe it was 2004 –, I went to Porto Velho for a project by Funarte. I visited local artists, accompanied by two artists from Rio de Janeiro (Cabelo and Paulo Paes). We promoted workshops and participated in the award ceremony of a local art gallery. The winner was a transgender female artist who made these very interesting drawings. It apparently generated much controversy, since that was a very conservative scene. The city was still marked by mining, with visible traces of extractivism: a few big cars in the streets and no infra-structure; an exponential inequality. How was your arrival and adapting into that context?

I can say that process was a dive with my eyes opened – into all these contradictions: mine, the place, and contradictions in the Amazonian perspectives. Converging to my imagination, pronounced detachments and empty spaces awakened with fright, every time I would feel trespassed by the sense of reality, having as mirrors time, space and relationships, and the so-called development; now felt from the inside of the many places that make up the Amazon.

To paint a picture, I compare my arrival to Porto Velho to a bang. Only now, unlike a shock against the ground, what crushed my head was the weight of the distortions pressed against my senses. It took me a while to settle the imbalances, so I could notice the dimensions of a time that presented itself closer to my body.

Here, I started my life over, without imagining that embracing the shadows would turn out to be so special, as well as figuring out my contradictions, so flimsy to my powers, emerging, little by little, from the confines of my ignorance, reflected here, in Rondônia, in this time. Beyond relationships, I’ve engaged in beautiful and truly affectionate attachments and began to see myself as a fruit of this place.

3 – The Black Amazon is unknown to Brazilians and to people worldwide. Tell me more about your project (Re)Conhecendo a Amazônia Negra (Re)Acknowledging the Black Amazon. How is it going so far, this dive into such a thin – and, based on what we’ve seen of your work, so powerful – memory? What role does the failed railroad project Madeira-Mamoré play in this black migration you’re researching?

If I think of this power as the fruit of memory, and memory, on the other hand, to be somehow the fruit of a picture, I set myself more vigorously inside those spaces; exercising my own images among all these contexts, from the sounds that come to me every single morning – communicating the image of the weather in the frequency of birds – to the absence of their chanting, warning us against undesirable soy stains and air-borne soot; suggesting that maybe the real failure in this story was the very perpetuity of these projects spread in the image of development.

In that aspect, having Madeira-Mamoré present in this visual reflection is to have the conscious of failure, of genocide, as well as of the forces allied to earth. They remain to this day a part of the culture, customs and influences that flow like the stream of a river – with its inner memories to the waters that come and go –, but stiff as a fruit-root.

So I felt the strength of local imagery, upon being identified as a Barbadian, ascending under my skin the curiosity about pictures often brought by the city. As I associated myself with the families ‘Johnson’;Maloney’ and ‘Shockness’; it would grow in me the need to think about those pictures and the desire to see what they would look like.

The first click of that process wasn’t mine. The credits go to Porto Velho.

That is, the pictures pointed by the city slowly opened me to the multiplicity of black bodies embedded here, coming from all corners of Brazil, and other countries as well, like those landed families from the old British Caribbean islands. They represent to me both the entrance door to Black Amazon and the beginning of the search for a consciousness of the images I live by, think of, feel inside, and come to be. 

4 – The photography in your work has a documentary dimension and, at the same time, a strong visual power. How do you deal with these two directions? How much do you have to fabricate and fictionalize in order to be true to such a concealed memory?

I believe the documentary dimension and visual power are both the pictures themselves. The only thing that is up to me is to position myself before the context I’m inserted in, the closest I can be, operating my lenses as another layer of that image that already exists. Then the questions emerge: Which layer am I in with this composition? Who am I? What am I photographing? How do I relate to this picture?

Therefore, I find that aesthetic, politics and geography embody the place itself; that is, they are the very composition of the picture. What about me? What do I represent before all this? These questions are constantly present in the way I undertake photography, inside a world of future relations: body-space-time.

In that aspect, I perceive fiction as humanity, and the world emerging from this gigantic imagetic fable – where I find myself whenever I think about the past, the present and the future. It happens every time I take a walk within what I perceive to exist in those symbols, combined with what I absorb as a black image. It’s a real tile board with more consistent pieces, allowing me to better deal with my impulses, now reflected – instead of squeezed –, accommodating and comforting my shards; with me taking care of my mental health.

5 – You have also been working with poetry, performance, theatre. How have these unfoldings been like? Please tell us about the project “Madeira de dentro, Madeira de fora” (Inside wood, outside wood). How is it being developed and how is the community integrated in your projects?

Image is doubt, context, smell, desire, occasion, triumph, culture, tenderness, freedom. But also the groundwork of theatre, performance and music – which cruise the night, turning that dark idea into a possible peace scenario just by being played. Why not be the night a true image of peace?

This way of thinking leads me to believe that what we see is born in the air, not in the eyes, being the lungs responsible for receiving all this information within every breath, every sigh and every inspiration; having in view always the opposite. Freedom only exists for they invented prison. And all of this happens inside and outside the picture.

 “Madeira de Dentro. Madeira de Fora” is like the arms of Black Amazon. It’s about getting in touch with varied contexts and places, roots and cultures; multiplicities. At the end, could they be politically reduced to a name? What about the wood and their uncountable species and origins, wiped out in favor of the utilitarian idea of support? We can rethink all that from a picture over time, space and future relations.

This process brings the safety of acknowledging the community inside the lenses of the camera, joining me in the visual exercise of the construction of the photograph, which solely depends on my position, and most of all, on the imagery I carry. Within the ephemeral click, when the matter is what is created before the photograph, always at the surface of the picture, the community is this core where energies converge. While I reshape the notion of property, being my body the basis for this discussion, sometimes I still recognize I don’t have domain over what I would like to expose regarding my sensations. This leads me to acknowledge the community that is present in the authorship of those creations, opening myself to the possibility of images which can, at last, set free my very own idea of black images; because it’s all about relations…

6 – How has the pandemic affected you and your work? What will not remain the same?

I tend to think everything is changing all the time. Therefore, nothing will ever be the same, especially in times like these, in which it’s very hard to measure and to communicate even what we can see with the naked eye. Not to mention the restricted angles – like the ones that marked my position as a black woman –, living this moment of chaos inside a house, located at a community on the banks of the Madeira River, in Porto Velho, Rondônia. Although aware of those limits, I already understand that I do not occupy the same space I did yesterday – consequence my daily pursuits. Due to the constant reshapement of ideas, body and senses the pandemic has triggered, here I am, on the inside and the outside, rearranging myself…

Day 06:

On the last day of the Takeover, read the critical text by Alessandra Simões about Marcela Bonfim’s work.

The body-photography of Marcela Bonfim

In the book Critique of Black Reason, the philosopher Achille Mbembe states that one of the functions of art has been to “maintain the hope of escaping the world as it has been and as it is, to be reborn into life, to lead the festival once again” (n-1 edições, 2018, p. 299). In his view, the primary function of art has never been simply to represent, illustrate or narrate reality; its job is to simultaneously muddle and mimic original forms and appearances. And this is how the work of the artist Marcela Bonfim is composed since she migrated from her home town of São Paulo, over ten years ago, to the capital of the state of Rondônia, Porto Velho, where she has developed an expressive iconography of black presence in the Amazon. Making forays into the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará, Maranhão, and Acre and the borders with Bolivia and Peru, she has followed the fate of a lady of the waysides, a divinity of her own crossroads who has come to interweave life and art, thereby fulfilling the relational dimension cited by Mbembe. 

The trajectory of this existence, transformed by the recognition of the potency of her black body and marked by an imagetic ethnography of expressive poetic strength, took shape when Bonfim, living in Porto Velho, purchased a camera, heralding a new cosmovision for her. At the time, she was still a recent graduate in economics who dreamed of buying stuff and believed in meritocracy. As she gradually lifted the veil that blinded her to the pains and pleasures of being a black woman and the possibility of gaining a more in-depth world view, she began to discover an Amazon that matched her own skin color. And so, in possession of her politics-body in her quest to construct a body-photography, she began to record black Amazonian iconography shaped by the enslavement of black bodies and, later, by the many waves of black diasporas as of the eighteenth century, evident today in the memory and the features of the descendants of  maroon communities in Vale do Guaporé, people of African-Caribbean descent, migrants from the north and northeast of Brazil, and newly arrived Haitians and Venezuelans. 

The child Bonfim who questioned her father about the origins of her surname – the name of a farm, he told her – has now earned the worthy designation of an artist at the height of her ethical and aesthetic powers and consciousness of her work and herself. This is how she was represented in a painting that hangs on the wall of her house on the banks of the Madeira river, a river that has choppy waters and brings fluidity to the life of this urban riverside-dweller. The work, entitled Moça do Bonfim [Girl from Bonfim], by an artist friend of hers, Margot Paiva, crowns Bonfim’s beauty with brushstrokes that lengthen the expressiveness of her neck to represent the regality of a Barbadian. “That’s how you should go about, like a Barbadian,” says her friend. “Barbadian” is what the people from Rondônia call the descendants of the Caribbean migrants living there, especially the ones who arrived to build the Madeira-Marmoré railroad. Most are black and bear an intense beauty that reflects the dignity of their personalities. Like a very welcome image, Bonfim has never again felt alone. 

Her portraits printed on wood reveal the souls of men, women, and children (she is always surrounded by lots of children!) humanly present in the images, inverting the Western duality of subject versus object. In the Amazon, Bonfim swapped the rapid time of the city for a different kind of time, the time of affect. With each new person photographed, a new conversation of exchanged confessions that weave together the history of the black people of the Amazon. Rather than image-representation, her photographs are image-life and pose the abiding question: How should we look at he who is looking at us? After all, it is not us who look at Bonfim’s photographs; it is they that spy on us, revealing that the place of the utterance (photographer and photographed, in permanent dialogical relationship) composes the locus that catalyzes the transformative agency of art. This is more than clear in her portraits, in the gaze of each person photographed. Which means that the fruition of her images goes beyond information or content to become experience, drawing in the viewer with experiential and affective power. As Roland Barthes wrote in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Martins Fontes, 2003), love is a kind of gaze, it is seeing oneself in the other’s eyes. In Bonfim’s work, the gazes exchanged between artist, portrayed, and observer become recognition, reflection, love.

Her method includes immersing herself deep in experience, the decision to live in the place of her poetic, to engage with her “models,” intimacy, self-transformation, and ultimately communication. Bonfim makes art by remaking herself. And in this remaking she has turned back to music, to piano (set aside for seven years after the trauma of the conservatoire), to song, to writing, to composition. Her own discourse, her own words, set her imaginal potency in motion. After so much transformation, she has started to embark on long periods of speech, unlike the mute silence that shrouded her previously, as she herself once recalled. It is healing to hear her words in speeches, exhibition vernissages, interviews, song. 

In this constant interplay between life and art, Bonfim brings forth an Amazon that is just as unfamiliar to the Brazilian people as Africa itself. Her discovery of different Amazons is in no way beholden to the age-old disputes over this exoticized region over which the interests of capitalist destruction roam. For her, the Amazon has ceased to be this “idea-place,” as she calls it, to become an Amazon of the color of her own skin. And so she pays a great service to Brazilian history, recording the remnants of the many and unrecorded black diasporas to the region, like the mass displacement, in the eighteenth century, of populations from Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade to Vale do Guaporé, cradle of Amazonian blackness, back at a time when the area that is now Rondônia was split between the provinces of Mato Grosso and Amazonas.

Her images reveal that coexistence is a mechanism for ongoing exchange between the artist-proponent and the people she portrays. In her search for alterities, she does not take the vertical stance of a producer of artistic matter, but bases her work on recognition, participation, co-creation. It is from her self-recognition, her subjectivities and reminiscences, that images emerge in an eternally dialectic movement: the inward-and-outward nature of art. After all, as Hal Foster points out in the classic essay The Artist as Ethnographer, what it outside is not “other” in any simple sense. In Bonfim’s work, there is no confronting of the other, no capturing of their image; there is image as life and experience. The Amazon is Bonfim; Bonfim is the Amazon. 

If there is anything ethnographic in her process, it stems from the conjunction of photography as a means of historical, geographical, socio-cultural recognition, but the result is art in all its depth. Bonfim’s art traverses the anthropological zone of the production of the gaze, human patterns, Amazonian meanings, but its ultimate goal is the expression of photographic language per se. She works to assure the poetic stature of photography as art. Her click is dry, hard, using an entry-level Canon, with images that are just digitally tempered to mark the contrast between the lights and shades of the day. Her system selects portraits, cropped images, single compositions, hands, feet, many gazes, landscapes, identities, memories, iconic codes, chromatic systems, plays of light and shade. As she puts it, “photography is not just a click. Before we photograph, we have to have the image in our mind, an imagined image. I arrive before the image,” recalling that her own body is what comes out in her defense. It is a black body that is behind the camera.

In her debut series-project-activism “Recognizing Black Amazonia: black peoples, customs, and influences in the forest,” all these tools are brought into play to strengthen her poetic. On the website, in catalogues, and in interviews, Bonfim always leaves the marks of each person photographed: the child-mother, the black Madonna, the noble Bubu Johnson, children made of water, the window-eyes of Dona Catarina, the woman Socorro caring for the world, the reverence of so many broad smiles, the dignity of the Barbadians. What all these people have in common is the material solidity of faces that tell and retell stories, the lines on the expressively marked skin that harbors reminiscences and details of every memory, the leaden color of skins that throb to the material visibility of black ancestry and presence, the persistent, metallic luster on the surface of the body with its long-accumulated stories. The ramifications of this work became the series “Madeira de dentro, madeira de fora” [Wood from Within, Wood from Without], which demarcates new reflections on time/space through the potential of wood, serving as the support for the work and the topic of the image, represented by means of the brightly chromatic interior of the riverside households and the density of so much wood in the forest.

Marcela Bonfim recalls that it was the camera that revealed dignity, light for darkened vision, and liberation from stigmas. As a child, back in her whitened past, she found the Amazon as an encounter with her inverse, triggering a darkening lost in her deepest reminiscences. Singing, telling and writing images, she says that the highest flight was that of her ancestors. Photography, through which she arranged her African Brazilian body in the time, space, and interior of her imaginary, came to represent the potency of her own history as the history and identity of so many other black people. She speaks of herself to speak of the world. The expressive features of the Amazonian people who have so marked her have come to translate her own diaspora, reflected in so many faces that today compose the mirror of her understanding. They are portraits transformed into one long self-portrait, reflecting the symbolic African-Indigenous source of the Amazon and the reconfiguration of the artist’s own existence, turned re-existence.

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