Anna Maria Maiolino

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

We, Brazilian artists, did not use the term pop art, we talked about new figuration. Even so, our work was parallel to international pop art and we shared in common the same interests of retrieving the figure and developing an artistic perspective with mass culture and without separating high art from popular art.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

No, I have never considered myself to be a pop artist.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

The military dictatorship took power in Brazil in April 1964 and lasted until 1980. During those years cultural activities for many people meant resisting the political status quo through artistic production and tricking the censorship as far as possible. Therefore, some of my works from the 1960s and 1970s have an obvious political content. This work goes beyond the political pamphlet because it is born from a real need, and driven by an ethical need for conduct in the face of torture and repression by the agencies of the dictatorship. When besieged, the artist invents ways in which to evade censorship and find new paths for art. He becomes a demiurge and through his works exorcises the enemy: the enemy of human rights, of the right to freedom.

In the 1970s, my work moved towards experimentation with the use of new media: photography and Super 8 film. Making use of my own body, I created some of these works as metaphors for reality, they are reflections of the truth, since at a time of repression and truth, all bodies become one.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

I arrived in Brazil in 1960, at the age of 18, and started to attend classes at the engraving studio at the Rio de Janeiro National Art School in 1961. Discovering wood engraving and particularly the cordel wood-engraving illustrations from the north-east of Brazil, would steer my art to a new destination, influenced by the most direct characteristic of cordel: narrative constructed with aspects of everyday life and social criticisms. This would draw me towards the popular values so closely related to the repertoires of artists such as Antonio Dias, Rubens Gerchman and Roberto Magalhaes, who would come to form the ‘new figuration’, a movement that took hold at fever pitch in the art world of Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro. The artists were committed to that historic socio-political moment and developed works with an interest in the values and critical issues of specifically Brazilian characteristics.

Striving to understand the new territory in which I found myself and the environment in which I was living, as an immigrant who had just arrived I found in wood engraving the chance to convey in high-contrast black and white my everyday life as a woman and to be political. I also created wall objects using various different materials: wood, textiles, upholstery and the written word, as artwork: these include O Herói (The Hero) of 1966. Some of these objects and wood engravings featured in the exhibition New Brazilian Objectivity at the Modern Art Museum (MAM) of Rio de Janeiro. I signed the Declaration of Basic Principles of the Avant-Garde in 1967.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

The imagery works with the objectification of the modern man, with the more specific concern with the issue of women in their everyday life and their relationship with society.

In several works I approach an ostensibly socially disqualified theme: the feminine. The prosaic, banal and obvious aspect of women’s everyday lives in big cities is represented in the wood engravings O Açougue (The Butcher), 1966; O Cabelereiro (The Hairdresser), 1966; Ecce Homo, 1966; O Quarto (The Bedroom), 1966; O Bebê (The Baby), 1967. These works were called ‘prosaics’ by some critics. In the dictionary, prosaic is a synonym for obvious, which simply means what happens; what is present. In summary: working with the evident, these works are motivated by familiar situations and experiences.

On the other hand, the everyday life oppressed by military repression gave rise to my works with a greater political and social tone, such as O Herói (The Hero), Glu … Glu … Glu …, both from 1966 and Kehm from 1967.

The written word was also part of my works from that period. The word is a sign that comes to enhance the discourse of the work. Not leaving any doubt in sight about that which is being represented and indicated in the narrative, like a handbook for children. That same word would also serve as the title for the work.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Yes, I knew about it through conversations with groups of artist friends and from seeing some works in publications.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

No, slogan and commercial symbols of objects, products and food did not affect my work, my concerns were different. However, there are some artists of the 1960s and 1970s working with this subject, such as the artist Cildo Meireles in his Coca-Cola Project, 1970.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

When you’re young you have the advantage of an enthusiasm for building your own alphabet, your own language. This flourishes into a wonderful adventure of creation, full of previously unknown flavours. It is a constant and gradual discovery of ourselves and of what we are capable. Living in Rio de Janeiro, at such a stimulating and effervescent time in Brazilian life, with art tracing new paths over Brazilian roots and a large portion of society proposing major social changes to build a new future, I certainly felt like I was part of this process and consequently was building something new.  

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

I know that my involvement and participation in cultural life and in the art scene of Brazil were practically immediate. But I don’t know if my work triggered any interest in the public back then, but yes, I can say that my work was observed by the critics. I was invited to take part in important exhibitions in the 1960s, such as Opinion 1966; New Brazilian Objectivity and the VIII São Paulo Biennial. In the 1970s I also enjoyed a relatively significant role in various collective exhibitions in Brazil and abroad. However, public visitation of art museums and galleries at that time was very scarce, I’d say almost nonexistent. For us artists there was just a very small public, the experts.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

Examining my oeuvre from the beginning to now, I think that the works produced with a figurative narrative in the 1960s and those produced after abandoning figuration in the 1970s have remained strong and vivid over time, because they carry certain seminal aspects that remain active to this day in my work. These include: food, digestion, the body, the inside and the outside, the development and appropriation of aspects of the quotidian, life as art, the word as sign, and finally the political. These questions indicate my inner needs, of my soul and my mind. These points, where my imagery, my seemingly non-linear work, returns and, in spiral movements, is fed and born again in cycles.

September 2015