FAPESP and the Sustainable Development Goals

The art of Rosana Paulino lays bare the trauma of slavery in Brazil

The art of Rosana Paulino lays bare the trauma of slavery in Brazil

A visual artist and researcher with a PhD in plastic arts from the University of São Paulo, Rosana Paulino delivered the last of the 2023 FAPESP Lectures (photo: Daniel Antonio/Agência FAPESP)

Published on 12/11/2023

By José Tadeu Arantes  |  Agência FAPESP – “Brazil is a country that doesn’t see itself,” Rosana Paulino asserted during the eighth and last 2023 FAPESP Lecture, delivered on November 24. A visual artist and researcher with a PhD in plastic arts from the University of São Paulo’s School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP), she has shown her work in Brazil and abroad, most recently at the 35th Bienal de São Paulo, which ended on December 10. Her talk was entitled “Roots that emerge: interweavings of art and science” and included a survey of her vast artistic output in the last 30 years.

The assertion was far from being merely rhetorical. As Black woman in a country where racism and patriarchy persist, Paulino said she wants her work to foster self-examination by Brazil and aims to “put the country on the table”, discussing and surmounting past traits that survive in the present, and paving the way to the future. These traits configure a massive trauma: the trauma of slavery. “Until we’re able to look slavery in the face and discuss it in depth, we won’t be able to realize our huge potential,” she said.

For Paulino, slavery is not just about numbers – more than 5 million people counting both Africans and their descendants: as an artist, she sees every enslaved man and woman as a totality: a body, a soul, a culture, a story. Her work entails telling this story and what lies behind it, uncovering the history the dominant culture still insists on hiding.

A sculpture entitled Aracnes is part of this visual narrative. It compares women to spiders, which weave webs out of their own bodies to assure the survival of their offspring. These spiders are not the imprisoning, devouring mothers sculpted by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), but weavers inspired by Paulino’s mother, whose livelihood as a seamstress and embroiderer sustained her family.

Aracnes* (1996)

A strong image with which Paulino has interacted for years is a photographic triptych produced in 1865 by French photographer Augusto Stahl (1828-1877), showing a naked enslaved woman from the front, side and back. To Paulino, with her acute sensibility, this photographic record conveys all the violence of slavery. It also points to the violence of post-slavery official policy based on pseudo-science and a plan to eliminate the Black presence in Brazil, via poverty-driven death or an imagined whitening due to miscegenation.

Transforming pain into strength and shame into seeds, Paulino made this image the starting point for Assentamento, a series that explores the multiple meanings of this connotation-rich word, translatable as “settlement” — the act of going to live in a new place; a place where women, men and children are settled against their will; a place for worship of Afro-Brazilian deities, where sacred energy or Àṣẹ (in Yoruba) is now anchored; a victorious effort to implement a set of practices and cultural know-how in the context of land reform; and so on.

As “a daughter of Ogum with Iansã”, and hence a warrior, Paulino sees the energy “settled” here as the force that has kept slavery, the enslaved and their descendants connected to their roots and has given them the wherewithal to keep going in the context of the diaspora.

Strong women, whether proprietors of dance halls, candomblé priestesses or both, have channeled this energy, and Paulino pays homage to them in the series Jatobá, associating such women with the jatobá (Hymenaea courbaril) a giant tree found in all Brazilian biomes, from the Amazon to the Cerrado, Caatinga, Atlantic Rainforest and Pantanal. A specimen that may be more than 500 years old can be seen near where she lives and has her studio, in the Jaraguá neighborhood of São Paulo city, she said.

Image from the series Jatobá * (2019)

Digging still deeper, Paulino arrived at the women of the series Mangue, as avós das avós das Jatobás. The title refers to mangroves and says they are the great-grandmothers of the jatobás. Wet or dry depending on the rise and fall of the tides, rooted in mud and with arms raised to the sky, the mangroves are ancestors, and Nanã (Nana Buluku in Dahomey mythology, mother of the gods and creator of the universe) is their perfect archetype. They are providers of deep-seated nutrients that keep us alive.

Paulino was introduced by Professor Marco Antonio Zago, President of FAPESP, who referred to her lecture’s emphasis on the convergence between the arts and sciences and highlighted the importance of having such an outstanding artist deliver one of the 2023 FAPESP Lectures. The moderator was Esther Império Hamburger, a professor at ECA-USP and a member of FAPESP’s Area Panel for Human and Social Sciences (CHS II). Hamburger closed the meeting by praising diversity, a huge treasure for this country of Black, white and Indigenous people. “Our diversity is tense, violent and riven by inequality, but offers a unique window through which the world can see us as an alternative,” she said.

A complete recording of the Eighth 2023 FAPESP Lecture is at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmRgdNM6EDU.

*Images reproduced from: rosanapaulino.com.br/.

Source: https://agencia.fapesp.br/50452