Place, Race, and Gender: An Interview with Brazilian Artist Marcela Flórido

Marcela Flórido in studio. Photo by Leandro Viana (All images courtesy of Marcela Flórido)

Marcela Flórido in studio. Photo by Leandro Viana (All images courtesy of Marcela Flórido)

By Carly Dennis

In her paintings, artist Marcela Flórido explores the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and place. Much of her work layers solid-looking heart shapes or fields of color over representations of memories of her home country, Brazil. Her paintings invite us to consider “how we inhabit or imagine identity, and place, in our constant redefinition of home.”

Flórido was awarded the Cuevas Tilleard Art Residency this summer, which allowed her to spend a month and a half in Lamu, Kenya. We corresponded with her to learn about her experience and process during the residency.

View of artist’s work during Tilleard Art Residency

View of artist’s work during Tilleard Art Residency

In our first conversation you described how in Brazil, many cultural influences from Africa are still present in daily cuisine, music, clothing, religion, and dance. Were these influences present in the visual arts and are they still present in the work of contemporary Brazilian artists?

Brazil is intimately connected with Africain fact, many Brazilians feel as close to Africa as they do to Latin America. I believe this is mostly because the multilingual and multicultural landscape that existed in communities native to Brazil prior to colonization was nearly erased, and so our African roots were key to producing a new sense of national identity separate from that which was imposed by European colonialists. Because of this, our music, food, religion and modern art have been hugely influenced by African traditions. One of the most defining characteristics of early Brazilian modernism is the mixing of Afro-Brazilian history and European avant-garde. At that time, many artists used these various tools to take on issues of race, class, and gender in Brazil, while searching for their own personal cultural identities.

However, I find that our African roots are surprisingly absent in the work of many contemporary Brazilian artists. Whether in conversation with Brazilian peers or in wanderings through Brazilian art galleries, I perceive instead a lingering predominance of geometric abstraction, which was so prominent in the 50s and 60s (when Brazil was deeply invested in becoming “Modern” in the European way). I don’t think these more abstract vocabularies are necessarily separate from larger matters of nationalism, internationalism, primitivism and colonialism. However, by avoiding the portrayal of bodies and any references to the cultural histories of those bodies, these works avoid directly addressing the complexes and questions that those images still raise.

Onlooker observes Flórido’s work

Onlooker observes Flórido’s work

Has being in Lamu illuminated anything about those cultural exchanges?

Lamu is an island at the center of the Eastern African Slave Trade, which was also occupied by Portugal and therefore still contains some of that country’s customs. In just one month, I got a glimpse of the multiplicity of ethnic groups, languages, and customs that have constituted Lamu for over seven hundred years. My experience was that, in Kenya, the pre-colonial, colonial and global cultures coexist: sometimes harmoniously, and sometimes (for example, during election times) not so harmoniously.

It is clear that Brazil and Kenya have very different histories, and have processed the traumas of invasion, colonization, and the slave trade in different ways. Yet there is definitely a palpable cultural affinity between both places which have been shaped by the landscape, the weather, the food, the music. As soon as I got off the plane I felt as if I was returning to a familiar place. In Lamu, many boats carry the Brazilian flag, and the Brazilian national soccer team, known as Samba boys, is immensely popularas is the rhythm which the football power house is named after. But the potential to establish a more dynamic cultural dialogue between these two extremely creative societies is definitely not being explored as there are very few programs linking cultural and artistic production in the two countries.

What are, in your opinion, the socio-cultural bridges and gaps that stand between Brazil and Kenya?

Over the past century, West-centric economics have made it hard for Brazil and Africa to carry on the cultural relationship that’s historically been so strong between them. It was only recently, under former president Lula, that Brazil made a conscious decision to strengthen what they called South-to-South solidarity, doing things like launching direct flights between Nairobi and Brazil. Lula used to say that the relationship between Africa and Brazil, the country with the highest population of people of African descent outside of Africa, was more than just business. Nowadays, because arts and culture represent very strong economies in both countries, they provide a unique opportunity for restoring their relationship, without the approval of the North. And so it felt not only exciting, but extremely important to be in Nairobi as part of an effort to re-establish that dialogue.

View of artist’s work during Tilleard Art Residency

View of artist’s work during Tilleard Art Residency

In you practice you explore notions of  gender and race. How did your experience in Lamu inform your work?

The figures in my paintings have always been females: fictional characters, who I suppose are a hybrid of myself and other women my life. Previously, they were often found in moments where their bodies (and therefore, in the context of a painting, their entire selves) were overtaken by their contexts via drowning, disappearing, or even being forced out of the picture plane. I think that the sensations of being overwhelmed were the true subject of my work, rather than the figures. In fact, my figures, often had loosely defined features and never face the viewer.

I was allowing myself to portray my experience of womanhood without challenging that experience.

However, the first drawing I made in Kenya, just a couple of days after my arrival, depicts two female characters facing the viewer with a piercing gaze, as if posing for a photograph. Through this gaze, I imposed their position as viewer, and refused to let them be simply objects that were being acted upon. The landscape in these works does not overwhelm the figures, as in my previous paintings, but is instead domesticated by plants in pots. I think that being in Lamu, in a landscape that felt familiar to my body, allowed me the confidence to enter into a symbolic template that I didn’t feel comfortable using in NY.

My work is a product of contradictory feelings and confusing experiences. Having lived in such contrasting cities as Rio de Janeiro, London, New Haven, New York, and now Lamu, my body had to adapt, growing amidst the new prejudices of each place. If the characters I depict are an expression of who I became, then my goal is to give them agency as I obsessively repaint them again and again. 

Artwork by Marcela Flórido during artist residency

Artwork by Marcela Flórido during artist residency

What has been your daily practice during the residency? What did you do outside the studio in Lamu?

The mornings in Lamu were really important for me: I would wake up to see the sunrise every day and go for a run at the beach before the town woke up. My running outfit did not adhere to the local dress code (Lamu is a Muslim island), and so these early hours were rare moments when I could enjoy myself, swimming or walking around, without worrying about being disrespectful. It also meant that by 8am I had already had this very private experience with the landscape. I don’t remember having the opportunity to be in the ocean every day for a whole month since I was a child in Brazil. It felt extremely restorative and so important.

Some afternoons would be spent in the studio, and others in exploring the landscape. Studio days are studio days: painting, drawing, building, experimenting, trying new materials, making sketches. Exploring the landscape, on the other hand, was different from anything I’d ever experienced: my three peers and I went to the markets, took boat rides to nearby islands, saw the Takwa ruins, and made friends. These days provided the experiences – the sun, the light, the water, the heart – that marked my body, and that I’d later express and re-interpret in the studio.

Once the sun was down, there was not enough light to work in the studios, and the bugs and bats made it really hard for anyone to concentrate. So, the three of us would meet up, dine together, and share our experiences.

That Lamu is a Muslim island in a Christian country is another specific feature of the space that you mentioned. How did that affect your work and life there and how does that affect the woks of other women artists working in that region?

Lamu’s population is predominantly Muslim, and that meant I mostly only interacted with men while there. As an independent female working artist, this left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, I wanted to take advantage of the freedom and access I had in this new society to push against its accepted notions of authority, freedom, gender, and politics. On the other hand, I felt the need to quietly observe what I saw, without asserting my own beliefs (as certain as I was about them). I complain so much about my western female peers assuming that their notion of “woman” and therefore of “woman’s desires” are the same as mine, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake of erasing others’ experiences of womanhood. 

I feel the need, in my life and artistic practice, to make space for pluralized histories. I don’t know what it means for a woman from Lamu’s community to be working as an independent artist because I am not oneand I can’t guess on the topic because, unfortunately, I did not meet one. For the same reason, I don’t know the degree to which Islam would affect their work. However, through lengthy conversations with Nairobi-based artist Elias Mungora about the state of affairs for women artists working in Kenya, I understood that it was relatively bleak. It seems to me that, across the board, gender perceptions still have a negative impact on the careers of women. And that’s no surprise to me: it’s been true of every place I’ve lived.

One of the “weekly salons” where artists exchanged ideas during the residency

One of the “weekly salons” where artists exchanged ideas during the residency

You mentioned talking and dining with Kenyan artist Elias Mungora, who is doing the Saba Art Residency. How did you two meet? It is always helpful to other artists to hear about how an artist networks and builds artistic community.

Moran Munyuthe, the founder of Saba Art Residency, and Caroline Tilleard, the founder of Tilleard Projects (the project that brought me to Kenya), are friends working towards the same goals: bringing interesting artists to work in Lamu and building a stronger arts community there. They set up a breakfast at the beginning of the program where all the resident artists at Tilleard Projects met: myself, Elias Mungora, Leah Guadagnoli, and Emily Kiacz.

During our stay in Lamu, Emily, Leah and I decided to take advantage of our house to host what we jokingly called our “weekly salons”basically dinners to which we invited local friends and artists. That’s when we all could talk and exchange ideas.

You mentioned that in your discussion with Elias he talked about the significance of artist collectives in the contemporary art in scene in Kenya (particularly for younger female artists). Could you expand upon how collectives assist artists in this way?

According to Elias, Nairobi art galleries don’t show nearly as many female artists as male artists, and the same is true for printed ads, critical reviews and exhibition catalogues: the work produced by female artists is just not part of the conversation. This set-up is not unfamiliar to female artists at large, even for those working in art centers such as New York. But he explained that the situation is even more complicated for female artists working in African countries. According to Elias, it is common for international galleries and magazines such as Artforum to choose one of the very few established female Kenyan artist to “represent” female artists from that region. In that way, these common and often generalizing international surveys that usually carry titles such as “Contemporary Art from Africa” can fabricate the appearance of an equal art-scene—a simulation that exacerbates the problem by hiding/erasing it.

But artists themselves are trying to counteract these institutional failings. According to Elias, the young, all-female artist collectives in Kenya are making an effort to create safe and supportive spaces for the production and exposure of their work. In that way, they reclaim themselves and their position in Nairobi’s art world.

However, the consumers of culture are also responsible for making this change. It is vital that art audiences are aware of gender inequalities, regardless of which city they’re in, so that when they walk into an art gallery they can see beyond what’s on the walls. To truly understand the art they see, they must also understand the kinds of structures that enable/prevent that art’s existence. 

View of Flórido’s work during Tilleard Artist Residency

View of Flórido’s work during Tilleard Artist Residency

You described thinking about Grupo < > in relation to that conversation too. What ideas emerged for you in thinking about your own collective of Latin American women in New York?

I believe that, in terms of the gallery system, NY is very similar to Nairobi. There is a lot of talk about how the global expansion of the art world has created greater interest in Latin American art. Still, only a handful of galleries in NY represent contemporary Latin American artists as a majority of their roster, and well under half of the Latin American artists being shown in the city are female. And, as is true of female Kenyan artists, most of the female Latin American artists whose works are exhibited internationally have already been established for quite a few decades. There isn’t much interest in work being made today by younger female artists in or from Latin America.

In 2015, I founded the artist collective Grupo < > with four other female artists from Latin America based in NY. Our focus was to generate critical dialogue and awareness of subaltern histories: we wanted to be able to talk about the complexities of art-making while addressing issues of identity, migration, and diasporas. Through artist talks, exhibitions, publications, performances and gatherings, we were able to start a network of real friendships amongst Latin American female writers, artists, and curators living in NY. Grupo < > was for me the perfect proof of how important artist-led efforts are in creating a more supportive community. 

The body of work created and developed during Marcela Florido's time in Kenya will be exhibited this December, at NADA Miami Beach 2018, with Stems Gallery.