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An Anthropological Approach to Art
By Eva Rocha
I grew up in a small town of only three streets in a rural area in the south of Brazil. My country is a place where many traditions from many kinds of people—free immigrants or groups brought by force—not just survived but merged, forming new traditions specific to Brazil. Many of these cross cultural traditions took place in my town, for example the Folia de Reis, a Catholic/pagan celebration for the Three Kings, was a group dressed up with masks and ragged textiles that would go door to door asking for food for the Kings’ party and, honestly, it would scare me to death.
I grew up fascinated by these popular festivities and helped with many of them. Later, I moved to Sao Paulo where I worked as a professional actress, a performance artist, an art educator, and a trapeze artist in a circus created by the government to keep homeless children out of streets. I worked with folklore dance groups, carnival blocos, and, years later, in the Andes of Peru, directed and created costumes for a few plays. The fact is that, in all circumstances, I was always aware of the anthropological aspect of the places I lived, and the groups with which I worked, and paid much attention to the cultural interactions and art created from that.
I once met Eugenio Barba—the Italian founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology. His theories greatly impacted me, and I ended up studying anthropology and art at VCU when I came to the U.S. The ties between art and anthropology captivate me. I like the rituals that are inherent in that kind of art; it has a condensed truth to it. I admire that art that comes from popular roots, that is impregnated with the place’s collective unconsciousness, and search to incorporate that in most of my creations. I include and contrast that art with many parts of my own experience. I refer to my installations as ‘memorial fragments’ and think of myself as a kind of Visual Anthropology Artist. Peter Brooke of London, another theater philosopher, once said “the destiny of theater is to the future in the direction of Shakespeare.” For me, the direction of the arts is to the future in the direction of primal art. And I use primal in the sense of prime, first, essential.
I see a great importance in preserving this sort of art. Since I co-founded the Virginia Center for Latin American Art, a non-profit to raise awareness of Latin American/Latino issues through art, I try to incorporate some of these traditions from my childhood to cultivate awareness of the richness of such ‘popular’ art. Unfortunately, the term ‘popular’ has become a pejorative classification in contrast to academically learned art. As a means of raising awareness, I ended up creating six twelve-foot-tall puppets in a traditional style: two Brazilian natives for the “Latin American Day: Brazil” event at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; a Pacha Mama Earth Mother for Earth Day for Enrichmond Foundation; a Frida Kahlo for the CultureWorks Xpo; and two Chancay puppets that I scaled up from the Chancay dolls in the VMFA Pre-Colombian Collection for their “Latin American Day: Peru.” These last two where challenging because I embroidered their clothes to recreate the symbols, signs and patterns originally woven in the Chancay Culture of Peru.
I like to scale things. I like that strange impact that an otherwise common object can cause due to its size. By scaling something like the Chancay dolls, I also call attention to the complexity of their art: the anthropological component which was underestimated in our society, where the ritualistic and human element end up being discharged to give place to the art created by the cult of personality, the overvalued diplomas and academic degrees and, especially, the linguistic construct—the worldly artist statement that justifies a piece of art. I believe art needs no justification other than that which comes from its own strength.