Jonathas de Andrade: Subverting Cheap Labor and Racism in Brazil
Jonathas de Andrade: recent works at Alexander and Bonin
February 28 through April 11, 2015
132 Tenth Avenue (between 19th and 18th streets)
New York, 212 367 7474
The first New York solo exhibition by Brazilian Jonathas de Andrade recently closed at Alexander and Bonin. De Andrade works mainly with installation, video and photography, and is a rising star in Brazil’s contemporary art scene. Based in Recife, on Brazil’s northeast coast, de Andrade has shown his art throughout Europe and the United States. Last summer in New York, the Guggenheim’s survey on contemporary art from Latin America, “Under the Same Sun,” featured de Andrade’s Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast (2013).
At Alexander and Bonin, de Andrade re-installed Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast, and included other works that expand it. In the ground floor’s main gallery, the first piece was 40 nego bom é um real (“40 Black Candies for 1 Real,” 2013), a two-wall installation in which illustrations and text provided a recipe for a banana candy produced in a fictional factory. One could follow the story as if it were a comic book on the wall, with montages of digital images og the production line of Nego Bom, a real banana candy popular in the region. In Brazil, nego is often a “warm” way of calling someone black, although it also contains deep-rooted racist connotations.
There is humor in the fact that one follows a recipe and a production line in the form of comics, with directions on which ingredients to use, how to let the mixture rest, or when to add sugar. The workers are focused, often smiling. But as one’s eyes moved along to the installation on the right wall, irony started to replace comedy. Two prints depict another illustration from the fictional factory and the plantation: arrayed on two plywood sheets are 40 small notes printed on paper, and 40 small portraits of workers. Each note has a short description about each worker and their monthly pay, and after assembling the pieces of de Andrade’s inventory one realizes those men were part of a system of cheap labor.
In Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast, in the rear gallery, a similar semi-fictional account continued. Photographs hung from the ceiling, suspended at the viewer’s height by monofilament threads; many more pictures were mounted on the walls, their distribution and position varied. These photographs were color portraits of men from northeastern Brazil, printed on wooden posters, all sized equally. While in 40 Black Candies for 1 Real the pictures of workers seem to be taken from history books, in Museum the photographs show ad-like faces and bodies enlarged, bleeding to the posters’ frames.
The installation had a strong anthropological tone, as if de Andrade were studying these people. On one wall, he reproduced two newspaper sheets with classified ads. One reads, “I’m looking for a strong, brown-skinned man — ugly or handsome — for a photograph of the poster of the Museum of the Man of the Northeast.” Another said, “I’m looking for a man over 30 years old, who works with his hands and knows of local craftsmanship for a photograph poster of the Museum of the Man of the Northeast.” In 2012, de Andrade advertised in local newspapers and documented his encounters through photographs and notes. The project for the artist’s Museum is a comment on a real institution of the same name, in Recife. Founded in 1979, the mission of the actual Museum is to preserve customs and crafts from the northeast of Brazil. It takes its inspiration from the writings on “racial democracy” by Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre (1900 – 1985), who wrote on the emergence of the Brazilian mulato, a brown-skinned ethnicity from the northeast, the children of indigenous peoples, blacks, and Europeans.
In de Andrade’s works, though, the traces of Brazil’s colonial origins of color prejudices and stereotyping are recounted. Brown-skinned northeastern farm workers are one of the most neglected classes in Brazil, whose struggle with racism mingles with labor exploitation. One could spend hours reading and comparing the excerpts from these stories, and could fill the fiction’s gaps with one’s own imagination about these characters. The portraits are also stunning, funny. When these men take over de Andrade’s Museum, they become models. As they strike a pose, they look incredibly sexy, sometimes feminized, working against the stereotypical idea of the macho northeastern man. Some of them reveal to the camera their bare, muscular chest — forged by labor rather than a gym — while they hold objects like hammers or plumbing tools.
De Andrade provided that group of workers with a temporary empowerment, which may have survived at least the span of a camera’s shutter release: the piece consolidates the artist’s attempt to break with stereotypes, even though one could question what happens with that subversion when an installation with portraits of minorities goes for sale in a gallery. The flip side of that question, though, is de Andrade’s continuing concern with labor and exploitation, which is part of a broader project on reviewing his own position as an artist: he stands on a contradictory threshold between being implicated within exploitation and enacting the role of a pseudo-anthropologist. And it is through humor and fiction that de Andrade sustains this contradiction, as when he adopts the supposedly friendly word “nego” to reveal prejudice. As a Brazilian myself, I am also interested in what we, as spectators, do when these stories pass on to our hands. To select the best portraits of the Museum, or to scavenge information among classified ads often makes us smile, but it may also make us think about the position we occupy: of those who exploit, of those who observe in silence, of those who commiserate, or of those who take action.