Art

An Artist’s Critique of Colonialism in Brazil

Centered on Brazil’s northeastern region, Jonathas de Andrade’s One to One dramatizes exchanges between the colonizer and colonized, between the haves and have-nots.

Installation view, Jonathas de Andrade: One to One, MCA Chicago April 13–August 25, 2019 (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

CHICAGO — Brazil is nothing if not a country of contradictions. One of the world’s most rapidly developing economies, it is also a society of extreme inequalities. As in the US, UK, and elsewhere, Brazil has also recently taken a hard turn to the right politically with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose presidency runs the risk of leaving cities like Recife further behind. Far from the southern metropolises of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Recife is the largest city of Brazil’s heavily stigmatized northeastern region, known as the “Nordeste.” It is the site of the first slave port of the Americas and the home of artist Jonathas de Andrade, whose One to One is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

The title is particularly apt, as the exhibition addresses and troubles concept of commensurability. For example, a large-scale installation, “Suar a camisa” (Working up a sweat) (2014), consists of 120 dirty t-shirts from Brazilian laborers displayed on wooden supports, creating the sense of a crowd of workers. To produce this work, de Andrade approached laborers on the street and asked them to trade their dirty and stained shirts for his clean one. De Andrade thus takes on the life cycle of the workers, whose vitality is gradually sapped by years entrapped in a capitalist system, earning a living by the sweat of their brows. By bringing these traces of Latin American labor to the museum-going public, Suar a camisa confronts viewers with the international reality of exploitation and capital flows all too often invisible in the US.

Installation view, Jonathas de Andrade: One to One, MCA Chicago April 13–August 25, 2019 (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

In another exchange, de Andrade collaborated with women of the Menkragnoti tribe known for their patterned body painting. For “Infindável Mapa de Fome” (Endless Hunger Map) (2019), these women reproduced their traditional imagery on Brazilian army maps of their ancestral lands in the Amazon, which the Brazilian state doesn’t officially recognize as indigenous territories. De Andrade pairs the maps with photographs of the women’s hands, an identification that resists subsuming them under hegemonic models of authorship. Infindável Mapa de Fome refuses to let its creators vanish into a western narrative of indigenous histories.

Commissioned by the MCA for the exhibition, de Andrade’s “Jogos dirigidos” (Directed games) (2019) plays with the conventions of educational films. The film documents a community with an unusually high prevalence of deafness in the isolated town of Várzea Queimada, in which people communicate through an unofficial form of sign language. De Andrade leaves many of these gestures untranslated, providing glosses of some afterwards, like so many video flashcards. Since only certain phrases are defined, it is difficult to follow the thread of the story, allowing the film’s subjects to hover between intelligibility and incomprehensibility in a way that underscores our shared humanity while acknowledging the very real barriers that divide us. Through “Jogos dirigidos” and its other works, One to One dramatizes exchanges between colonizer and colonized, between the global north and the global south, between the haves and the have-nots — exchanges that are anything but equal.

Jonathas de Andrade: One to One continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through August 25.

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