By Matilda Fleming-
In a triptych of black and white photographs, Anna Maria Maiolino captures her own face with a large pair of scissors poised to cut at her nose, tongue, and eyes. É o que sobra, (What is Left Over), is a chilling depiction of the artist silencing not only her voice, but her senses of sight, taste, and smell. Created during the military dictatorship in Brazil, Maiolino encapsulates the restrictions that an authoritarian regime enforces on both the individual body and the wider state. In the title, Maiolino questions what is left after such violence, yet the photographs and videos she created during this period expose the potential for modes of resistance, communication and connection in the face of such repression.
Maiolino was born in Calabria, Italy in 1947, at the peak of the post-war famine in Southern Italy. At the age of 12, she emigrated to Venezuela with her family, finally settling in Brazil when she was 18. In 1962, Maiolino enrolled in Rio de Janeiro’s National School for Fine Arts. Since the sixties, she has produced a vast array of art, working across multiple media and disciplines – including clay, photography, video, woodcut, installation, painting, and drawing. Her work is deeply rooted in bodily experiences, frequently investigating concepts of language, hunger and the internal/ external binary of the body. Maiolino is still living and working in Sao Paulo today.
Maiolino emerged as an artist in the political context of censorship and institutional violence during the Brazilian military dictatorship. On April 1st, 1964 armed forces seized power from the Brazilian government in a coup d’etat. Lasting for nearly twenty-one years, Brazil’s authoritarian regime violently repressed all opposition and silenced criticism through censorship. Networks of intelligence and surveillance produced a climate of fear and suspicion that forced civilians to guard their own and others’ words and actions. As such, everyday gestures became more politically charged and for Maiolino, and many other Brazilian artists working at the time, they became acts of resistance.
Censorship and Women: Fotopoemação - É o que sobra (What is left over), 1974 and Por Um Fio (By a Thread), 1976
Maiolino’s work with photography and video reflects the greater art historical moment of the seventies, which saw a move towards artists producing work that explored their own bodies and the performance of everyday gestures. For many women artists working at the time, the exploration of everyday experiences became a way to challenge their place in society and begin to depict female subjectivity on their own terms. With the core concept of second-wave feminism being ‘the personal is political’, the body was a perfect site with which to explore and document the day to day struggles of being a woman.
The triptych of photographs in É o que sobra convey the institutional violence of censorship on a personal level of Maiolino’s own body. The large scissors, which resemble those commonly found in a kitchen, contribute to the domestic tone. The nuanced quality of Maiolino’s images, intertwines personal and public experiences of being silenced both as a woman and by the state. Yet, the deadpan expression on Maiolino’s face, next to the size of the scissors, contributes a surreal and almost humorous twist to the series. With such a literal depiction of censorship, Maiolino ridicules the regime’s drive to silence all communication and expression. This dark and witty inflection of violence with hints of the ridiculous is what makes Maiolino’s art so powerful and challenging.
Maiolino’s photograph Por Um Fio (By a Thread), constructs the potential for alternative forms of communication. The artist sits in between her mother and daughter and all three women stare out at the viewer, as though posing for a family photo. Again, Maiolino captures an intimate scene and renders it surreal, by connecting their mouths with a thick piece of string. Through shared consumption, she physically constructs an interconnectedness that binds together three generations: the past through her mother and the future through her daughter. She grounds her identity in her connections with both women; externally through the familial resemblances that mark their faces and internally with the string that broaches the boundaries of their bodies. The string connecting their mouths evokes a more bodily communication, suggesting that the shared experiences of these women and their connected heritage binds them in a way that moves beyond spoken language. Yet, with their blank expressions and direct gazes, there is also an uneasy guardedness to these women, which draws this intimate familial scene back to the political climate of restriction and mistrust.
Communication and Cultural Hybridisation: In-Out (Antropofagia), 1974 and Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Manifesto Antropofago’ (Cannibalist Manifesto), 1928
In-Out (Antropofagia) is a frantically visceral, verging on orgiastic exploration of consumption, expulsion, and the boundaries of the body. As with Por Um Fio (By a Thread), Maiolino again explores bodily forms of communication that do not rely on language. Throughout the trajectory of the video, she maintains a tightly cropped focus on various mouths moving through different configurations. All potential for spoken language is removed, as the video is accompanied by eery and guttural, not quite human noises. The mouths explore the diverse possibilities of movement available to teeth, tongue, and lips. They move through a string of everyday gestures – opening, closing, chewing, consuming, yawning, pouting, smiling, grimacing, and speaking. Scattered throughout, Maiolino depicts uncanny instances – a mouth stretched around an egg, consuming, and expelling coloured thread and exhaling smoke. Again, Maiolino’s video is chilling and surreal. It’s horror film quality, with images of a mouth covered with tape, dark grainy visuals and eery background noises blend into comic and sometimes grotesque moments of the mouth in playful, exaggerated and mocking shapes, as though pulling faces at a child. Maiolino again mocks the authority that attempts to silence her, flaunting before us the versatility and unruliness of the frantic gestures available to a mouth.
In-Out (Antropofagia) depicts a body open to transformation, through the incorporation of otherness, which Maiolino highlights further by referencing Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Manifesto Antropofago’. The manifesto, which is regarded as one of the most important texts of the Brazilian modernist movement, metaphorically employs cannibalism as resistance against cultural colonisation. Andrade implies that the hybridity of Brazilian national identity is the result of incorporating diverse aspects of different cultures. Subjectivity is produced through a constant process of consuming, merging and evolving. Born in Italy, yet living most of her life in Brazil, Maiolino was familiar with the experience of being an outsider. Caught between national identities, Andrade’s writing about cultural hybridisation became a powerful way of understanding her identity as a vibrant mix of culture. As in Por Um Fio, Maiolino again depicts the importance of interconnectedness. She presents identity as constructed through relationships with others, interactions and communication that are eradicated by the violence and fear of censorship.
In Brazil’s current political landscape under the ex-military and far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, Maiolino’s dark and surreal pieces continue to be relevant. Bolsonaro, who has openly expressed his admiration for Brazil’s military past and other dictators in Latin America, has forcefully discouraged and prevented measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, killing almost 450,000 Brazilians (at the time of writing). This tragic and violent response to the pandemic exposes, once again, the silencing of Brazilian citizens by the state. In this climate of misinformation and mistrust, Maiolino’s art is a poignant reminder of the power of art to both represent repression and make space for resistance, however obscure or restricted.
Andrade, Oswald de. “Cannibalist Manifesto.” In 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, edited by Alex Danchev, 262-266. London: Penguin Classics, 2011.
Fajardo-Hill, Cecilia and Andrea Giunta. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960- 1985. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2017.
Molesworth, Helen and Bryan Barcena. Anna Maria Maiolino. Los Angeles: DelMonico Books/ Prestel, 2017.
Tatay, Helena. Anna Maria Maiolino. London: Koenig Books, 2010.
Zegher, Catherine de. Anna Maria Maiolino: Vida Afora/ A Life Line. New York: The Drawing Center, 2002.