Women Charging Ahead: Female Renovation in Brazilian Contemporary Photography

21 Oct 2019, 4:20 pm



In the field of art, very few discussions have been more fruitful than the discussion around the place of voice: the voices of women, Black and Indigenous people, and the lgbt community. The debate has unveiled a rigid, impermeable and perverse system that, despite resisting the diversity of voices, has been forced to review itself, most often by social pressure rather than its own initiative. It is not about defending the idea that only certain groups should enjoy the right to have a voice, but it is a matter of acknowledging that these voices cannot remain outside discussions that concern them and, in fact, should be included in discussions concerning all collective matters.

The three artists presented here are just a few examples of the current vitality in the photographic field and its ongoing renovation, both in terms of form, with the use of social media and audiovisual installations, and theme, with emphasis on racial and gender issues.

Since 2015, Aleta Valente (1986) has taken social media by storm with her Instagram profile. Under the alias @ ex_miss_febem, the artist and actress from Bangu — a working class neighborhood in the eastern part of Rio de Janeiro — posted photos, many of them selfies, which unabashedly exposed her everyday private life. Behind the daily voyeuristic obsession that is the bread and butter of social media, Valente offered images that bluntly deal with her condition as a woman, single mother, resident of a poor neighborhood in Rio, and artist at the margins of the elitist art scene.

‘My name is Aleta Valente; I am a visual artist, Instagrammer, single mother, feminist, suburban. Ex- Miss-Febem is a character, a performer, a performance; we share the same body. Ex-Miss-Febem has never been to febem (former Brazilian Foundation for Child Welfare, which is notorious for its role as a juvenile detention center). The nickname comes from the song ‘Kátia Flávia’, Fausto Fawcett’s hit from late 1980s’, Valente explains.

Glued to her mobile phone day and night, Valente exposed herself in every imaginable way: dressed, semi- naked, in the kitchen, on the roof terrace, on the bus, at a night-out. Her provocative images — typically followed by a brief comment written in an open and often uncomfortable way — deal with themes such as abortion, sex, class, motherhood, and sexism. Each post brought a new surprise or slap in the face to her followers, showcasing Valente’s clear understanding of the desires and drives behind social media: a combination of eroticism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, sincerity, banter, and brashness.

The coded nickname and the chameleonic versatility with which she explored her own image — with short, shaven, dyed or curly hair — were part of her game of mystery and deceit. It was often unclear if her posts were self-portraits or featured different people each time. The controversial nature of her images also mobilized hundreds of comments, either in support or repudiation.

The contentious picture of the artist on her balcony, wearing white trousers and exposing a red stain in the middle of her open leg, uncovered the difficulty in talking openly about menstruation. Removed from her Instagram page and published by an anti-feminist group, the post turned Valente into the target of an unprecedented virtual lynching, a demonstration of brutal violence that almost made her give up her career.

Later, a series of images showing her breast next to a slice of pizza led Instagram to block and exclude her profile. However, Valente did not surrender. Fortunately, she then created @ex_miss_febem2 and @ex_miss_febem3.

From a profusion of selfies and pictures with a selfie-stick, Valente moved on to memes, which featured witty commentary on current events, the art world and everyday life. More recently, she has been posting images and videos made by other people, as if digitally curating someone else’s intimacy. Here, she uses her sharp talent to sum up in a single image and a few words a full treaty on behavioral sociology.

Very few contemporary artists have understood so effectively the new forms of image circulation and production. The visual intelligence, summarizing skills and informality that Aleta Valente uses to treat her images, in high or low resolution, is something no art diploma would be able to offer. Behind the appearance of a raw flower, we have an artist who uses her obsession and intuition to masterfully manipulate images and their meanings, as well as spectators and their expectations.

Born in Niterói, Aline Motta accumulated vast experience before dedicating herself exclusively to being an artist. Having graduated in social communication from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, with a postgraduate degree in cinema from the New School in New York, Motta worked as a cinema script supervisor for many years.

Her maturity and diverse experience are visible in her current production, which combines photography, video and other media to narrate family histories, which are often marked by violence and oppression.

Motta is part of a rising generation of Black artists who have been slowly bringing down the obstacles presented by contemporary art, fearlessly facing up to the system so their voices can be heard. Motta’s works often build bridges between past and present in order to show that some historical issues have been perpetuated with time, whether we see it or not.

Her most recent works emerge from her desire to understand her own background. Motta delves deeply into the history of her family. Her main themes — such as the current echoes of slavery, racism and sexism — stem from a profound and detailed revision of the past.

In her video-installation Pontes sobre abismos [Bridges Over the Abyss] (2017), Motta investigates her family genealogy. The research was triggered by the revelation of a secret kept by her grandmother Doralice. In an effort to understand her own history, she embarked on a journey that covered not only Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, but also Portugal and Sierra Leone, collecting oral accounts, public and private archive documents, and even dna tests. The artist took with her the picture of her grandmother, who re-emerges as a haunted memory in the images recorded in the journey.

The investigation of family roots is also the motif behind Filha natural [Natural Daughter] (2018-2019). Here, Motta led a search to find out more about the history of her great-great-grandmother Francisca, who was an enslaved worker in a coffee plantation in the region of Vassouras in Rio de Janeiro. Once again, her collection of oral history, documents, books, notebooks, new and old photographs, is an attempt to deal with an incomplete narrative, replete with insurmountable gaps. The death certificate of someone named Francisca and the photographs of Revert Henrique Klumb are amongst the limited available clues.

It is precisely from these clues that Motta builds her complex web of meanings and reveals how her own history contains universal and a-temporal themes.

‘I would like my work to reverberate the message that we are all implicated, that we should all be part of the anti-racist struggle, not only Black people. What I have found out about myself is that in order to work with collective issues I have to take a very personal and intimate plunge. Even when I felt scared, I had to continue. Even when I barely knew where to start, I could not afford to give up. Even though the reach of art is restricted, it is still a way of resisting and saying that we refuse to forget’, the artist explains.

Camila Falcão graduated in visual arts from faap (Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado) in São Paulo and worked as assistant photographer for eminent photographers such as Bob Wolfenson and David Armstrong. However, it was during a period of voluntary work at the crd (Center of Reference and Defense of Diversity) in 2016, that she found her favorite subject: transvestites and trans women.

‘I began to review the totally misconstrued aesthetic idea I had of them’, confessed Falcão, revealing with a great level of sincerity that an art project is also a process of learning and transformation. Since then, she has dedicated her practice to producing sensitive and delicate portraits, which challenge the strict categories often attached to these communities. Her portraits also offer a more nuanced viewpoint on what we consider sexy or feminine.

To gain the trust of these women was not an easy task. Falcão met her first subjects via the crd, and subsequently through friends and social media. Her first photo-shoot invitations were met with suspicion, but gradually the product of her work became a hook to attract new models.

The portraits are taken at the subject’s home or at a friend’s, using only the background and light available, which confer a natural feel onto the images. A tiny room, an old mattress and a small window are amongst the ordinary elements that reinforce the atmosphere of intimacy and complicity. Poses and clothes are also decided in collaboration.

Falcão photographs all kinds of women, expanding the repertoire of physical and visual standards that we are used to recognizing. Photos of transvestites and trans women are commonly seen in newspaper pages dedicated to crime and carnival. However, by offering them a typical, intimate, and even banal portrait, the artist erases the social and visual stigma that insists on treating these women as second-class citizens.

Since 2017, Falcão has been following the everyday life of Onika. This series of portraits is a rare, less stereotyped depiction of the challenges and obstacles faced by people going through gender reassignment. Transitioning and transitioned people are often seen as marginal, sexualized characters, or worse still, as individuals connected to prostitution and violence.

In her most recent project, Falcão has documented people who do not identify with male or female codes. The photos challenge binary divides and expand our repertoire even further, as well as contributing to the self-acceptance of this community.

About the author

Thyago Nogueira is a curator and editor. He leads the department of Contemporary Photography at Instituto Moreira Salles and is chief-editor of ZUM, a biannual publication dedicated to photography.

“Women Charging Ahead: Female Renovation in Brazilian Contemporary Photography” was originally published in the second edition of Traço— magazine, released on occasion of the 13rd SP-Foto. 

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