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Anna Bella Geiger’s Meditations on Fragmented Identity and ‘Brazilianness’

At Zachęta, Warsaw, the artist argues that maps are essentially constructs: tools of knowledge production and identity politics

A small drawing depicts four similar shapes. Though not immediately discernible, each bears a caption: ‘Amuleto’, ‘A mulata’, ‘A muleta’, ‘Am. Latina’, or ‘An amulet’, ‘A mulatto woman’, ‘A crutch’, ‘Latin America’. Titled Am. Latina and drawn by Anna Bella Geiger in 1977, the images are each inscribed with the contours of South America, a poetic yet unflinching meditation on the fragmented identity of the artist’s native Brazil. The first amulet speaks to the religions of former African slaves, in a country with the largest African-descendent population, and is followed by a mixed-race ‘mulatto’ woman – an outdated and derogatory term for this sexually charged and no-less mythologized figure. With the third image, the crutch, Geiger triggers thoughts of support but also violence, while the final shape, that of the South American continent, acts as a full stop. This poignant rebus encapsulates Geiger’s working method, one informed by her study of linguistics and literature as well as an interest in geography that seeps into the title of her latest exhibition, ‘Maps under the Sky of Rio de Janeiro’.

Anna Bella Geiger, História do Brasil: Little Boys & Girls, 1975, photograph and collage. Courtesy: the artist

Geiger was born in 1933 in Rio de Janeiro to Polish-Jewish parents. In the mid-1960s, following an early fascination with abstraction, Geiger entered what the critic Mário Pedrosa termed her ‘visceral phase’, creating a string of works incorporating imagery of the human body and internal organs. During this period, Geiger briefly taught in New York, where her husband, a cartographer, was invited to teach at Columbia University. Upon returning to Brazil, she embarked on a collaborative plein air experiment with her students that culminated in the exhibition ‘Circumambulatio’ (Circumambulation) at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 1972. ‘The Earth, terra, the land’, Geiger remarked in a 2017 interview, ‘became for me the only authentic support for art.’ The six photographs that comprise Circumambulatio, the earliest work included in ‘Maps’, preserve just a fraction of that project.

For Geiger, this investigation into the land, from both an anthropological and geographical perspective, became a means through which to consider Brasilidade, or Brazilianness, a notion built upon oppositions that she thought were too rarely questioned nor problematized. This is foregrounded by Brasil nativo/Brasil alienígena, (Native Brazil/Alien Brazil, 1977), a set of photographic restagings of original postcards depicting indigenous Brazilians, which were popular under the military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. As Geiger explains: ‘I saw some postcards of Brazilian natives in beautiful, utopian scenes being sold in newsstands. The images were not false, but not true either … Where are the others? The Caucasian Brazilians like myself, the mulattoes, the caboclos, the mamelucos?’.

Leather handbag made by artist’s father. Courtesy: the artist

A significant number of works from the late 1970s and ’80s rely more directly on cartography but remain imbued with a metaphorical reading of politics and sociology. A case in point is Local da ação no. 10–11 (Trouble Spot No. 10–11, 1980), for which Geiger used photoetching and silkscreen printing to rework a negative image of a cloudy sky into a pattern of green shapes. Sharply contrasting with an off-white background, the sky morphs into a camouflage pattern, which, in turn, doubles as a map, teasing out considerations of military power and geopolitics in the process.

By exploring their potential, Geiger argues that maps are essentially constructs, tools of knowledge production and identity politics. It is an issue that is urgent, once again, in light of the recent election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the current political climate in Poland, heavy with debates on independence and ‘Polishness’. When the very existence of incongruous positions is under threat at the hands of narratives of nationalism, the artist’s perspective on Brasilidade feels both pertinent and in need of preservation. Asked if she felt Polish, Geiger replied: ‘In part, yes. But no more than Brazilian.’

Anna Bella Geiger, 'Maps under the Sky of Rio de Janeiro' runs at Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, until 24 February 2019.

Main image: Anna Bella Geiger. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paul Gerson

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Warsaw, Poland.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019
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