Largo das Artes - Artist residency in Brazil
On a journey…...Catherine Davison details her experience of the Largo das Artes artist residency in Brazil.
This summer I received funding from the British Council International Residency Programme Award and set about pouring over the computer screen at the endless international residencies on offer. I searched through the pages of ResArtis (resartis.org) and settled on Brazil. My brother lives there, but aside from the family connection I felt that Rio de Janeiro would be perfect for my art. Rio is a city on the global stage and, following the success of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, is set to occupy the limelight when it plays host to next year’s 2016 Summer Olympic Games. For me, however, this city of passions has always held a vibrant attractiveness far removed from its sports stadium and sandy beaches. As it turned out my borther was on sabbatical back home in Ballymena so our paths never crossed in Brazil.
My work is predominantly large-scale acrylic paintings exploring the movement and geometry of nature through bold colours and rhythmic patterns. A city of samba and tropical rainforest seemed like a better fit for my work than the uninspiring grey of Belfast's dismal summer.
I applied for the residency in Brazil and was accepted by Largo das Artes on their International Residency Programme for the month of June 2015. This is a self-arranged residency with studio space. I chose to book accommodation through the art centre, but this can also be arranged independently. Artists are encouraged to create new work, which is displayed at the end of the residency through an open studio event.
The purpose of this residency was to absorb Brazilian culture and let it filter through my work. The Brazilians have an art movement called Tropicalism based on this very notion. It stems from the history of cannibalism, where you eat your enemy in order to absorb their values. I hoped to absorb my surroundings in a similar way – metaphorically speaking of course. The residency would act as an experiment, providing the opportunity for an authentic response to my immediate environment.
On the night I arrived in Rio I was greeted with seasonal Amazonian rain and I couldn’t help but feel at home. Thankfully it did not last and I awoke in a chalet in Cosme Velho surrounded by the Atlantic Forest. This is a traditional neighborhood adjacent to the Corcovado Mountain where the Christ the Redeemer statue resides. It was a wonderful experience to open the shutters each day and look into the jungle foliage, where I could see monkeys, toucans and humming birds on a daily basis. From Cosme Velho a 45-minute bus ride would bring me to Largo das Artes where I worked in the studio during the week.
The art centre is located in the historical city centre of Rio de Janeiro and comprises a gallery and permanent studio spaces for local and international artists. It is open five days a week from 10am – 7pm, though we were advised to leave at 5pm. The Centro area is run down and more dangerous after dark, but during the day it is a lively place, on the doorstep of the Sara markets where there are endless Chinese stores selling tourist souvenirs, every colour of Havaiana flip flops and endless supplies of fabric.
As part of the programme my fellow international residents – Marina Pagh (Denmark) and Hanae Mura (Sao Paulo) – and I were scheduled to have a ‘LargoLab’ each week coordinated by artist Felippe Moraes. These were meetings where we discussed our ideas and the development of our projects informally. We also had individual meetings with independent curator Alexandre Sá where we discussed our work in a more focused manner. Group visits to art venues such as the Modern Art Museum (MAM) and walking tours helped us orientate ourselves within the city.
Commuting on the Metro and on buses became second nature. I was frequently mistaken for a local by talkative grannies sitting beside me on the bus. They would chatter away in Portuguese until I explained that I didn’t understand. At this point they would switch to English and ask me if I was cold, as I wasn’t wearing enough clothes for winter!
Rio was everything I hoped for. As a city it is vibrant, bustling and beautiful. The natural elements are as overwhelming as the urban environment. It is a city of juxtapositions: skyscrapers sit next to Gothic churches; modern art is situated among boarded up buildings in run down squares and cars drive the cobbled streets next to a men pulling loaded carts of bricks. There is a constant clash between grandeur and poverty. One moment you’re in the Cultural Centre feeling like Cinderella surrounded by elegant Baroque architecture and the next your in the street aware of pick pockets and homelessness.
Having lived in Jerusalem as a child I have longed to be back in an exotic climate. For me Brazil felt like a home from home with its blue skies and towering palm trees. It reflects the exuberance and bold colours that already exist in my work.
On weekends I made a point of exploring: spending time in the botanical gardens with its array of tropical plants and giant banana leaves, walking the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana and taking in the views from Sugarloaf Mountain. From such heights and distance even the favelas looked pretty, but up close the grit of that reality is far from pleasant. Favelas – more respectfully known as communities – consist of houses built precariously on top of each other on the steep hills of Rio. I walked through one called Morro Santa Marta where sanitation and living conditions were minimal; yet within 20 minutes walk I found myself by the sea, in a wealthy residential neighborhood called Urca. This is typical of the contrasts in Rio.
After visiting the stunning cathedral of Saint Sebastian where the stained glass windows soar 65 metres high, I was inspired to create my own kaleidoscope of colour. Using line drawings of banana leaves from the botanical gardens I created an oval shape on an 8 x 5-foot canvas with the intention of cutting out the forms and placing fabric behind them. I wanted to incorporate the sense of pattern and craftsmanship I could see everywhere. However, time restraints demanded I find another tack. When I discovered plastic reproductions of lace table clothes I knew these would be perfect as stencils.
My work took on a new direction as fabric shops became my art store. Every imaginable colour of plastic could be bought at the local hardware shop. Conversations with curator Alexandre were particularly insightful; I always understood that the objects of my paintings were based on nature but the subject of my work was something else. Whilst chatting about art and life I came to understand that my paintings, like Rio, are built in layers. The colours are that of popular culture but the subject is not. As Alexandre explained: “It takes a certain amount of faith to talk about beauty”. The images I create explore this theme by reflecting the chaos, unity, beauty and brokenness I see in the environment around me. I recognise reality but focus on the good within it.
I feel that my time in Brazil has given me a boldness in my approach and a willingness to try new things. I am excited to try my hand at sculpture with all the materials I have brought home. It was a delight to work so freely in an environment that compliments the very essence of my work. The people of Brazil are friendly and the art centre and the staff were so supportive and engaging. So for those yet to experience a residency of this sort, I would heartily recommend it. The hardest part was getting there, but once you’re on the plane the adventure begins!