Hands, Spells and Papers, 2018
mixed-media, dimensions variable
photo credit : Gustavo Riviera
courtesy, galerie Emmanuel Hervé
Ana Mazzei is an artist who gets on with her trabalho. Here, though, the Portuguese word doesn’t translate in the usual way. Trabalho means “work” or “job”, but Mazzei’s work is of a different kind: it’s extramundane; it’s material because we see it take material form in space, but it is also of an extra-spatial, extra-terrestrial order. When we casually conjure up the notion of trabalho in Brazilian Portuguese we think of Afro-Brazilian religions like candomblé and umbanda, syncretistic animist cults sprung from different belief systems: African— from Benin, Angola, Congo and other central and west African countries; Christian-spiritualism and Catholicism; and local indigenous culture— the spirits of the forest. At the risk of oversimplifying it can be said that in these religious practices trabalho has a dual connotation: firstly as
the set of acts and gestures that constitutes and shapes the cult by coordinating the ceremony; and secondly as a magical act. This is the operation that enables access to the spiritual world, the invisible one, via various objects, actions, offerings, and invitations; it is a channel of communication. Ana Mazzei’s work can be looked at from this angle: as a set of acts providing us with spatial bearings and an entry into narratives situated elsewhere.
São Paulo has to be the world’s most cosmopolitan city: a place where all the planet’s nationalities mingle with all Brazil’s migrant peoples, where no one asks you where that “little trace of an accent” comes from and no one wants to know your family name. This is the world’s most welcoming city and sometimes, too, its most violent. In São Paulo, where Ana Mazzei lives and works, we eatsushi with churrasco and feijoada; we drink wine, beer and cachaça in the course of the same evening; and you start having fun after midnight, the hour of the exús.1 In São Paulo we listen to rap and we read Greek tragedy: this is a city where rap is Greek tragedy. No purity here: if you’re pure it’s bye bye, baby—you’re dead.
Purity doesn’t interest Ana Mazzei. She mixes in with everything: the architecture, the people, the mores, the social strata. Everything interests her, and she just gets down to her trabalho, organising her imaginary world like one of those popular 19th-century dioramas that created the illusion of actually entering a landscape. However, there’s nothing negative about the term “illusion” here: illusion in Ana Mazzei’s work is that of the theatre. Nor are we all disciples of Plato: we enjoy illusion! As the artist herself emphasises, “My constructions appropriate procedures used in the theatre, both aesthetically and conceptually. This theatrical quality, with things arranged like props, suggests a kind of unknown ritual in which the spectator is a participant. I create scenarios and groups of things—installations, stages, actors, playwrights, silences—allof which have been shifted away from their most obvious function.”
If I’m stressing this theatricality and São Paulo itself, it’s because the city is a vast stage where all sorts of characters constantly come
and go: the craqueiros nóias [crack addicts] who wander the streets
in cheap felt coats; the buildings covered with graffiti and tags; men pushing handmade trolleys full of recyclable junk; giant dumpsters overflowing with debris from endlessly renovated buildings; traffic noise and the unfailingly high-volume punk, rock and forró pouring out of bars and cafes; and the workmen, the ultra-chic ladies and the hipsters and so on. It’s no coincidence that Mazzei makes use of the same grey felt as the craqueiro nóia coat or that she constructs models of cities seen from the air, cities resembling the remains of Greek theatres, where “tudo parece que era ainda construção e já é ruina” 2 [it’s as if everything is still being built and is already in ruins]. The task is to bring order to chaos and extract a crazy image.
The stuff is there and the images too: a two-tone coat, gym rings next to a pair of black panties, drawings and backdrops on the walls, and so on. Props for some performance to come or leftovers from a stage just now abandoned by its actors? Theatre sets? Or maybe devices to be handled by
the public? Some of them also function like tools for observing our environment, like gunsights setting up vanishing lines. It’s as if the rear sight and the front sight on a pistol are just waiting for our gaze to line them up. But there are no definite targets here and no ammunition. Only bodies with their eyes fixed on freedom. These objects summon us to move through space in search of a right place, but one we can’t identify. Nonetheless, what Mazzei offers is a generous vision: if there’s no right place for the viewer it’s because his or her place is everywhere. We feel like an ethnographer, an actor, a Harlequin, or a crazy person, but never like an intruder. Will we dare touch them, these ritualistic-looking bits and pieces? Yes! Embedded in an animist logic, they expect something from us. They call for our unspoken resolve and express their sincere desire for our presence.
1. The exú is an orixá, an entity symbolising communication, patience, order and discipline. He is the protector of villages, cities, houses, things made by human beings, and people’s behaviour. In Yoruba èşù means “sphere”, so the exú is movement too. He must first receive offerings, to ensure that everything goes well and that his function as messenger between the Orun (the spirit world) and the Aiye (the material world) is fulfilled. During the colonisation of Africa Europeans mistakenly identified the exú with the Devil, because of his irreverent, provocative, indecent, crafty, sensual, and playful style and the way he was represented in African ritual. In terms of Yoruba theology this confusion with Satan was nonsensical: the exú was not in opposition to God and so could not be considered a personification of evil.
2. Caetano Veloso, “Fora da Ordem” (song), in Circuladô, 1991.