Jonathas de Andrade. Courtesy Galleria Continua.
Growing up in Maceió, Northeast Brazil, Jonathas de Andrade paid particular attention to the images around him, from photographs and magazines to television and graphic design, with a pointed interest in how they are leveraged to tell stories.
Currently showing at the Brazilian Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale (23 April–27 November 2022), de Andrade's work combines catalogue images, text, and personal narratives to speak to issues that affect him deeply; the stereotyped identities, fraught political histories, and loaded social and economic pressures across Northeast Brazil.
A severed tongue, knife-clenching teeth, and a decapitated head are only some of the things spread across the Brazilian Pavilion, hinting at the violent extraction of tensions so deeply embodied, they must be articulated as graphic symbolism, across chunks and pieces.
Curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, de Andrade's Venice project, Com o coração saindo pela boca—which translates to With the heart coming out of the mouth—refers to the suffocation within Brazil under its current government. The exhibition stages a scatter of body parts to form a site where acts of embodied translation situate the process of coming together as a way out. Outside the Pavilion, a giant ear urges onlookers to listen.
De Andrade's metaphors for resistance were presented in the 2020 exhibition Global(e) Resistance at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which addressed global strategies of resistance with a focus on South America and its colonial history—a continental unity the artist affirms is necessary and has investigated since his 2009 Documento Latinamérica project.
Overcome by 'a feeling of historical amnesia', caught at the intersection between geopolitics and personal identity, de Andrade travelled across six countries in Latin America on a 'journey of territorial recognition' to understand what makes the region at once 'whole' and 'interrupted'—a place Brazil appears to be a part of, without really belonging.
Expressions of fragmentation and disembodiment are characteristic of de Andrade's work, if not necessary, considering its self-directed task to reform the social and historical identity of Brazil's coastal region against not only present discrimination, but fraught colonial legacies.
Northeast Brazil, which is often the focus of de Andrade's work, had been the centre of the African slave trade and the sugar industry, and one of the first regions in Brazil to be colonised by the Portuguese.
Confronting such realities, projects like 40 nego bom é um real, or 40 black candies for R$ 1.00 (2013)—'nego bom' being a popular candy from the region, and a derogatory term for Black men and women, depending on the speaker—include instructions from a fictional candy factory, alongside an account table detailing the social relations offered in lieu of payment.
Sixteen silk-on-board prints detail work scenes in a banana plantation, one of the key ingredients for the candy. Rather serene-looking labourers are depicted immersed in work besides fragments of cooking instructions. A subsequent table calculates the cost of mobilising these bodies, recalling the culture of mass production and precarious employment today.
Since studying communications at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Recife, the artist, a former law student, took to contemporary art for the 'freedom' it allows to face crucial problems today, which de Andrade carries out across photography, video, and installations.
Alongside the Brazilian Pavilion, de Andrade is premiering Olho da Rua (2022)—Out Loud in English—as part of the group exhibition Penumbra (20 April–27 November 2022) at the Fondazione In Between Art Film. The work captures Recife's homeless populations performing a series of actions, one of them explicitly condemning the Bolsonaro government.
De Andrade's regional but universal interventions are being gathered together for a forthcoming retrospective at Estação Pinacoteca, Sāo Paulo, opening in September 2022. The exhibition will aggregate over 15 years of work driven by the 'hypnotic magnetism' of the Northeast region of Brazil—'a country so unequal, so full of social abysses' and yet 'could trigger so much invention'.
With a book publication organised by Jacopo Crivelli and publisher Silvana Editoriale in the making, and a current solo exhibition at CRAC Alsace in France (Eye Spark, 16 June–18 September 2022), de Andrade elaborates on the draw of Northeast Brazil, how community and collaboration shape his work, and the role of language in activating collective action.
—Introduction by Elaine YJ Zheng
AAI read in an interview that you studied law, followed by communications. How has this trajectory influenced your artistic process and your interests? How did you enter the world of contemporary art?
JdAI think I shuffled around a lot in my childhood to channel my desire to be an artist. I always liked the idea of telling stories with images, so I paid attention to magazines, photographs, newspapers, television, cinema, and graphic design. With letters, I conducted my gaze on the pages of books.
I ended up studying law under the influence of my sister, whom I used to see absorbed in films, books, newspapers, and poetry; things I didn't exactly have patience for, but became ingrained in me.
It was during my communications degree, when I moved to Recife 20 years ago, that several things began to interest me: my personal experiences and conflicts, my view of Brazil's Northeast, and the experience of growing up in Maceió.
Having always lived in the Northeast, there's a certain hypnotic magnetism about how a country that is so unequal and so full of social abysses, could trigger so much invention, culture, and creativity in people's lives. I was sensing my way through how to combine these interests in contemporary art and place myself as a character in the systems I set up, which have allowed for collaborations that not only move me through the world, but bring me closer to people—issues that mobilise me deeply.
AAThe Brazilian Northeast is a central character in many of your works. Could you comment on this aspect of your practice?
JdAI like to think that art offers a certain freedom—the freedom to combine different types of support and ways of articulating thoughts, and mobilise sensibilities about crucial issues of existence; where the local can converse with universal dilemmas.
Being born and raised in the Northeast brought me a deep experience of observing life and its contradictions, which brings me inspiration, even today.
This Northeast's influence became clear in projects such as Educação para Adultos [Education for Adults], the series around Cartazes Paro o Museu do Homem do Nordeste [Museum of the Northeast Man], and in La Corrida de Carroças do Centro do Recife – O Levante [Car Race], ABC da Cana [Sugarcane ABC], and O Peixe [The Fish].
Through those works, I began to intensify a series of collaborations with groups of people I observed. I was fascinated by how they lived through the hardships of life and work, and how these ways of living were passed down from generation to generation. I thought the projects I worked on could create these dynamics of approach—a way to rethink the identity of the Northeast through the stereotype of work, as a way of challenging how these images were made.
AACould you introduce your participation in the Venice Biennale?
JdAMy project for the Venice Biennale is called Com o coração saindo pela boca, or With the heart coming out of the mouth. The project is based on a set of metaphors for the body; expressions such as 'with a lump in the throat', 'going in through one ear and out the other', or 'costas quentes'—'to have powerful backing'.
Within their literalness, each of these expressions brings an absurdity that, for me, has a lot to do with the present we live in, both existentially and sociopolitically. From this collection of phrases, I created photographs, sculptures, and a video installation that reflects on them.
I was intrigued by the idea that the body can offer strong metaphors that express feelings hard to describe or translate, and many of them resonate with the political challenges of the present. So the works play with the idea of the absurdity and play with our senses. For example, the show's title manifests as a huge inflatable that starts growing out of a mouth on the ceiling and occupies the room, which pushes visitors to rearrange themselves in the space.
There's then a physical experience that creates a performance with the visitors in the show. The Brazilian Pavilion is an official building of the Brazilian State, and for me the works in the space speak of how symbolically we Brazilians are being compressed and expelled within our own territory, given the social challenges of the past years.
The idea of representing Brazil is an enormous challenge because it already starts from an impossibility—this is such a complex and polyphonic country, especially now when you look at the terrifying panorama of the present, with all the threats to human rights, the indigenous genocide, vaccine denials, et cetera. Brazil is going through a crucial moment right now, and to speak of the body as a source of questions and answers is a way of remembering how collectivity is the key to creating new ways out.
The theme of this year's Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, brings the idea of the oneiric, of fantasy, and I think that thinking about delirium is a powerful path in moments of great political pressure and subjectivity, like the one the world is going through.
AAIn 2020 you participated in the Global(e) Resistance exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, dedicated to investigating contemporary strategies of resistance. On this occasion, your work was presented in dialogue with other works by artists from Latin America and the Global South, that dealt with a present marked by histories of colonial exploitation.
What ties do you maintain with Latin America's artistic production, and how do you see the reception of this production in cultural centres across Europe and the United States?
JdAIt's not so obvious for a Brazilian to feel Latin American. This becomes very clear when I cross the line that divides the north and the south of the world. But I like to speak from the perspective of the Northeast of Brazil, and through this place, I can speak further abroad.
In 2009 I developed a project called Documento Latinamérica, in which I revisited the understanding of how being Brazilian involved a bit of a disconnect with Latin American history and its identities. I grew up learning to understand myself as Brazilian rather than Latin, which needed to be adjusted.
It was in this project that I assimilated the latinidad in myself and challenged myself to treat the history of other countries as my own, as if we were all in the process of amnesia of this Latin American unity. That's where important projects for me, like 4000 Disparos [400 Shots], Pacífico [Pacific], and HoyAyer [TodayYesterday] came from.
The year was 2009 when I made Documento Latinamérica and I had just finished Ressaca Tropical [Tropical Hangover]. Now, over ten years later, when I look back at the work, I can see how it explained where I was talking from geopolitically. Through discussions and conversations, I had the opportunity to establish my work around the world.
I imagine that this Venice Biennale will be no different when it comes to those conversations. It is a galvanising responsibility to think that the Brazilian Pavilion can somehow speak about and with Latin America, and then to the world.
I like to speak from the perspective of the Northeast of Brazil, and through this place, I can speak further abroad.
AAMany of your works emerge from encounters with different people and communities, as with the posters for the Museu do Homem do Nordeste, Suar a camisa (2014), among others. How does this process of conversation and negotiation take place? What are the challenges of producing work collectively?
JdAThese collaborative processes have intensified since the Educação para Adultos project, and have started to make a lot of sense to me. At the same time, they are very challenging.
Each project has a specific exchange; I've had very different experiences, from negotiating the exchange and purchase of uniforms and sweatshirts with men on Recife's streets, to portraying a community of deaf people in Piauí, in the municipality of Várzea Queimada, in the film Jogos Dirigidos [Directed Games].
More recently, in the project Fome de Resistência [Hunger for Resistance], I had the opportunity to look for a group of women of the Kayapo ethnic group, in the south of Pará, who were invited to paint a set of historical maps of their territory with their traditional graphics.
In such projects, where the actual work is incorporated into the artwork, where collaborators act as authors, I propose an equal division of profits. Over the years, I understood that when thinking about the identity of representation, it's not restricted to the symbolic; it extends to the making and circulation of an artwork and its material realities.
It has been a learning process from the beginning, and it has transformed me and changed the way I work. Ever since, I have sought out collaborations that are more ethically responsible. These complexities are inherent to understanding the times we are living in, which place me deeply in the present in relation to the transformations they bring.
Along with these complexities, there is something powerful and inspiring in seeing poetic resistance in social groups with social cohesion; with that idea of community. But I like to approach people that I work with using poetic devices, which makes each project a pretextual adventure to be lived together and experienced intensely.
I like it when the work resulting from these encounters leads to an experience that—between fantasy and documentary, all mixed up—requires viewers to decide what the work is talking about.
AAWhat is the role of language in your work? Thinking about works like Jogos Dirigidos and Procurando Jesus Looking for Jesus, how does this process of conversation and negotiation work when there is a language barrier with other participants during the work's production?
JdAIt's a funny question because the project for the Brazilian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is deeply connected to the idea of language and how it is alive and carries the idea of collectivity. Language is lived daily, and it is deeply transformed as it is used.
The film Jogos Dirigidos is a rehearsal for the first cataloguing of gestures of the deaf community from Várzea Queimada in Piauí, Brazil, who invented their own language.
It was absolutely fascinating to be able to do the project with a whole set of gestures that were not my language. In the project Procurando Jesus, which takes place in Jordan, I took photos in the streets as if I were looking for a new image for the figure of Jesus. I felt the repercussion of this task in my daily relations back then.
There is something powerful and inspiring in seeing poetic resistance in social groups with social cohesion; with that idea of community.
I think that, before the impossibility of translation, there is a path of poetry and power, where so much is revealed about the parts of an expression that talk and the perspectives from which they speak and look. I like to think that art can create subterfuges that, through language, entangle me in universes and characters I can approach in other ways.
AACould you tell us about ongoing projects for 2022, besides the Venice Biennale?
JdASeveral special things are happening. Parallel to the Venice Biennale, I am participating in an exhibition called Penumbra at the Fondazione In Between Art Film, where I'm premiering Olho da Rua, a new film of mine commissioned by the Fondazione, which also sponsored the film I am developing for the Brazilian Pavilion.
Olho da Rua is a film-theatrical and documental exercise with a group of 100 homeless people from Recife, the city where I live. The film presents eight acts around exercises of the gaze with the participants. We are challenged to see how we look at people that are so much part of our daily lives when crossing the city, but are pretty much made invisible.
In June, I opened a solo exhibition at CRAC Alsace, in France, with several of my works curated by João Mourão and Luís Silva, an incredible Portuguese duo with whom I have already collaborated. The exhibition joins together eight works of my career where a homoerotic gaze or thread can be seen. It's amazing to see works like O Peixe together with older pieces like O clube, and more recent pieces like Achados e Perdidos.
A book is also being prepared about my work, organised by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, and the Italian publisher Silvana Editoriale, and in September, I am opening a solo exhibition at the Estação Pinacoteca in Sāo Paolo, curated by Ana Maria Maia, which brings together several early projects along with works from the last 15 years, up to the most recent production.
After years as hard as these last ones, many things are shaking up. In 2022, we have elections coming in Brazil, and as a collective body I hope we will work on the necessary changes to create a new narrative, new paths, and new actions for this powerful country, which has suffered so much. —[O]