Laila Melchior: You are launching two unlimited editions with Kiosk this month. Both are hand-tufted tapestries that incorporate text. What do the sayings Vai piorar and Zand erover convey?
Elen Braga: In Portuguese, Vai piorar means “it will get worse.” This has a lot to do with the political moment that Brazil is going through. At some point I noticed that everyone in my circles in Brazil was repeating this as a mantra, as a meme. The work comes from that warning which became a general feedback loop, but with which nobody could do anything concrete. Zand erover (to put sand on top of something) is the Dutch equivalent of “water under the bridge.” In Portuguese, it would be águas passadas. Using water in one expression and sand in the other made me think about how one case is an alert about the future, and the other suggests something forgotten of the past. It made me think of these sayings’ relationships with their places of origin—Brazil, where I come from, and Rotterdam, more specifically, the island of Van Brienenoord, where I developed this work while in a residency program.
LM: The residency focused on water as its main subject of interest.
EB: The theme was water, and I decided to think of it as a subject related to the migration of goods, people, and stories. It was not by chance that I went in that direction. My family is scattered around the globe and overseas. My sister was the first to leave the country with the promise to come back as a rich person. She went to the US and never returned. My father still lives in Brazil, my mother lives in Portugal, and I live in Belgium. We know that this is the situation of many families who live in poor or emerging countries, and countries with internal conflicts and war. Sometimes migration happens by choice, but for many families it is the only way to survive.
Europe today is facing a situation in which it needs to deal with its past. Zand erover talks about the stories we don’t want to tell anymore—stories that are, in that sense, water under the bridge. But according to the Dutch version of the expression, we fill in difficult holes with new sand, new stories. We make new buildings on top of something that is already done or damaged to try to fix it.
LM: Vai piorar is also new work. It was made for the solo exhibition that you and I organized in Brussels in December 2020. On that occasion, you presented Vai piorar together with Profecias, a hand-tufted textile that could be read as a timeline and brought together idioms, sayings, and language as a meme.
EB: In Profecias I try to ask myself about the autonomy I have to build my own future. The work appropriates a scheme by Clarence Larkin, a pastor and illustrator of the nineteenth century, to make an image of the future. Larkin created visual systems for the faithful to envision the apocalypse. I started from the same idea of a timeline, but I tried to reveal the present and show the past because I couldn’t see the future: it was a frustrating exercise to look ahead in time. To imagine the future is not something that can be done alone. In the absence of an oracle to predict the future, I researched female prophets from the past. There are references from Brazilian TV shows and even medieval witches: Mãe Dináh, Mãe Jacira, Mother Shipton, Madame Blavatsky. I tufted their sayings together with Daniel’s prophecy about the apocalypse, which is said to be the most complex of the biblical prophecies: time, times, and half a time.
LM: How is it to work with the tufting technique?
EB: I was a painter first, before my experiences with performance. When I started working with tapestries, I realized I was trying to work as if my hand gestures remained on the same side as the painter’s. Working on one side of the textile to see the image appear on the other side allows for a surprise, a certain loss of control in the final effect. I need to ask the work: “what do you want to be”? When painting, I try to stay in control. But tapestry is somehow a little uncontrolled; it is a notepad, like a musical score on which I put some notes more freely. With tapestry, I can use a more ironic and humorous touch to treat some subjects. The jute that gives structure to the tufting imposes some technical limits. I can change my mind only once or twice. My thinking needs to be quick, and I have to believe in my thoughts; otherwise, it creates a hole in the work.
LM: When did you start hand-tufting textiles?
EB: I wanted to think about the laborious process of building an image. And about work that required a process of “devotion.” I started tufting with Elen ou Hubris, which I finished in 2020, but which took me about two years to make. Hubris is the Greek word for arrogance. It was used to refer to mortals or demigods who took themselves as greater than gods. One of the references I worked with is the story of Athena and Arachne. Arachne challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a competition to find out which was the best weaver. In the competition, not only was Arachne’s drawing technically better, but it also denounced the gods’ abuse of mortals. Athena was so angry that she decided to punish Arachne by turning her into a spider. She would demote her rival, but still allow her to continue producing.
LM: Did she also admire Arachne’s skills?
EB: I think so! What is interesting to me is that hubris is normally a negative word, charged with the connotation of arrogance. But I started to think of hubris as meaning a questioning of the present authority. In the mythical past, gods were the authorities. Today, for me, hubris would be giving myself the same stature as a god in the city, in the sphere of government. I wondered: could I dare? Could other narratives be told? That is why I proposed a tapestry work, like that of Arachne, forming an image of abuse of authority. But Elen ou Hubris is also an abuse in itself, in the sense that it is an image that affirms itself as more important than others because of its monumental size, in addition to repeating the patriarchal gesture of imposing itself. It becomes bigger than other images that could potentially be there; it does not represent other people but itself.
LM: The woman we see standing vertically in Elen ou Hubris is a version of your own image. It is the same icon that appears horizontally in the lower part of Profecias. What about that decision to depict yourself?
EB: This image comes from before, from a work titled The Great Honor to Merit. To make that work, I traveled with my father through northeastern Brazil. We would stop at bars and restaurants in big or tiny cities, asking if people had trophies and if they could give them to me. Many people said they didn’t have one, that they were losers, but they would take me to acquaintances who were champions of something. Sometimes people would feature the trophies under a spotlight in their homes, sometimes they were treated as garbage. I would ask for the trophies, and some people gave them to me under a contract, which was also a whole discussion. Some people wanted to sell their trophies, and I bought them.
I became interested in the image of the Greek goddess Nike, who was depicted in many of the trophies. It’s a figure carrying laurels, the figure of victory. At the same time I started researching Nebuchadnezzar. The biblical story tells how he builds his own image in gold to be worshipped. God punishes him because he has hubris. The issue of self-image interests me because it is a privileged image that persists even when other problems are considered more urgent. Somehow, we all arduously build our image every day. Sometimes this is an image constructed by others, sometimes by ourselves. But for how long can you sustain an image of victory? A few years ago, I made a performance based on that question and on the image of Nike. This performance gave rise to the image that is in these two works. In the performance I assumed the winner’s pose and held a gym weight of ten pounds over my head for as long as I could.
LM: You already used the blue Lycra jumpsuit then.
EB: It was a blue jumpsuit that could be used for gymnastics, but that I actually bought at a store of outfits for sex workers in São Paulo. There is a layer of this body that is erotic. For me, blue was aseptic, synthetic. It reminded me of poison, of hospitals—a clean, plastic, industrialized body. In Elen ou Hubris, blue was also the color of the European flag. I stretched the picture to make myself thinner, taller, exaggerating the exploitation of this feminine image. I asked myself to what extent this image could be in public space. And I like to work with doubt, with the logic of not knowing what will happen.
LM: About the significance of color, could you talk about how white has appeared in some of your works lately? It is present in the Zand erover tapestry and is a key element for White palm-tree reforestation, an installation you presented in Rotterdam in March 2021.
EB: Like blue, I thought of white as an aseptic color. It corresponds to the aestheticization of an idea of tropicality that comes from whiteness, not from the tropics. During my residency at Van Brienenoord, I perceived a certain pattern in the local vegetation. Populus and willows were the most common trees because the island’s “original” or “primitive” forest had been devastated during World War II. The current vegetation is the result of reforestation. Zand erover brought me this notion of reforestation rather than restoration. During the residency, I realized that my process of “discovering” the island was very close to the typical form of apprehension in colonization. As a Brazilian artist, and the only non-resident in the Netherlands, I brought some tropicality to my references. However, for several reasons, I am no longer tropical myself. Even if it was a tempting formula, dealing directly with the subject of decolonization would imply choosing a format already assimilated in the art system. And it would put me in the place of the oppressed. It can be too much of an aestheticized or crystallized discourse. For several reasons, and because of the development of a social conscience that needs to be exercised more and more in our time, there is no argument against this discourse. I do not disregard or devalue its importance. On the contrary, my concern was to bring up the matter in other possible ways and make sure it did not fall under a fallacy. I wanted to get into the pit of my own contradictions and think about the complexities involved. That is also why I felt uneasy about perceiving in myself a desire to colonize. That’s how I decided on the reforestation of white palm trees. The place was an island without palm trees! So I decided to turn a Dutch island into a tropical island. It was the reverse path of colonization. But a reverse path was not possible, just as tropicality was not in me. Hence the refinement process, in which the palm stiffens up, crystalizes, becomes a work of art.
LM: The idea of refinement conveys the sense of sophistication as much as the processing of sugar, the commodity the Dutch were seeking in their attempts to establish a colony in Brazil’s northeast in the seventeenth century. A third meaning of the word is subtlety, which might refer to nuance or even ambiguity. All of those are ideas that you entertain in your position towards this work.
EB: For me, there is always a risk in that which I am creating. I get butterflies in my stomach thinking that a work might be problematic or misunderstood. In this case, this happens mainly through color. White has this historical and identitarian weight, although I am not talking about specifically white itself, but rather about a series of crystallizations.
LM: You have used that word before in some of our conversations about these works. What do you mean when you say “crystallizations”?
EB: I mean a poetic idea of the refinement of the tropical—which is raw and rough at its base, but gets aestheticized, stiffened, in some discourses. Discourses which can only be used in one particular way are crystallized.
To reforest and care for nature are very important things. Reforestation is a human attempt to repair something that has been damaged; it is a good thing, but as humans we are still groping for how to solve these problems, and the process is frustrating. There is an ambiguity in a proposal for reforestation with white palm trees that has to do with a past in which a lot has been deforested. The gesture is beautiful and noble now, but it can also become an end in itself rather than actually being restorative. This is seen in politics too, as quick solutions often do not solve problems. It is a human issue. For these reasons, reforesting made more sense to me than planting a single palm tree. On the one hand, I mass-produced these white trees, using a kind of business logistics. On the other, a key aspect of making this work was the collaboration of about thirty people who volunteered to help, even during the difficult period of pandemic restrictions. Thanks to these people, it was possible to build approximately one thousand leaves, resulting in sixteen palm trees. I was very impressed with the potential of the collective. If this was possible in such a short time, imagine what else we could do so that our future as a society is not “vai piorar” and that the “zand erover” mode is not used to forget the pasts we must discuss.