Diaries and Stools
September last year I visited an exhibition at Chalton Gallery. I wrote a piece about it at the time which I didn't publish. It took me a while to write and by the time I had finished it the exhibition was already over. Visiting the exhibition and writing the piece were experiences that changed the way I perceive architecture and human interactions. And made me realise my own role in perpetuating practices that I despise. The beginning of the writing might put you off just like the first artwork of the exhibition put me off. But I was glad I persevered.
It was with the open mind of a mother potty training her son that I walked into the exhibition space after being greeted by two - very realistic - sculptures of poo in the window display of the gallery. Diaries was a show of four works including video and sculptural objects that explored issues of post-colonialism in Brazil while looking at the fundamental role that women played in perpetuating colonial practices.
Maria de Lima is a Brazilian artist intrigued by digestive imbalances. Her interests are not limited to the physiological functions of the digestive system. They expand to how the body reacts to experiences when language fails as well as the embodiment of history in architectural constructions and in the human body.
The first African slaves arrived in the coast of Pernambuco, Brazil around 1540 and it wasn’t until 1888 that slavery was abolished in the country. Remnants of it are still clear in the underprivileged lives of domestic workers. Until as recently as 2015 a domestic worker didn’t enjoy basic rights such as the right to overtime pay, a day off or a break during a workday. Domestic workers were legally classified as an entirely separate category with limited rights. While the law has changed the relationship between these workers and their employers remain charged with contradictory feelings. Maria de Lima uncovers the historical context and architectural structure that support this complex relationship.
The exhibition space was involved in floor-to-ceiling sheets of carpet underlay of an orange tone. The artist purposefully exposed something that is usually hidden beneath our feet. In the middle of the room two screens faced one another. The space between those screens hinted to the void between the coloniser and the colonised. Wooden seats reminiscent of ancient roman toilets – artworks ambiguously titled Stools – filled that void and invited the viewer to watch the 13-minute video. Throughout the length of the video the screens interacted with each other signalling to the viewer where to look.
The video installation - called EAO - was structured in three parts specified by the vowels in its title. E told the story of the journey across the Atlantic of the African people who were forced to come to Brazil to become slaves. The artist weaved into the story telling many untranslatable Portuguese words for the various racial mixtures of the Brazilian population: moreno, mulato, cafuzo, cabrocha, caburé, cariboca, sarará. The powerful role of language in conserving colonial behaviour was conspicuous. Words were juxtaposed with moving images of maquettes of shantytowns. There was something powerful and poetic about the way the story was told. It was not a general story. It was a personal story: a mother who slowly strokes her baby’s cheek, a baby who has never seen white people. It was an embodied story:
“You have to imagine bodies pressed.
Jolted by the engine.
How we swayed as field.”
Religious music opened section A of the video where consecutive cursive letters A shone bright in blue neon lights in a space that resembled a church. Pernambuco was placed in the historical colonial context of sugar mills and the slave trade. This contextualisation was done in a harmonious blend of Portuguese and English. The architectural components of a sixteenth century sugar mill were made evident: the owner’s house (casa grande), the slaves’ quarter (senzala), the mill (moenda), the sugar-cane farm (fazenda de cana-de-açúcar), the slave farm (fazenda de escravo). The generic was made personal again through the use of the voice of the artist’s mother in the telling of a person’s visceral experience of slavery: “…a body in protest chews and swallows this captive soil…” “Hookworm.” “Means of escape.” “Stomach Aches.” “Watery stools.”
The body protests.
The video culminated with the vowel O. O attempted to close the full circle of the power of colonialism and how it was so deeply rooted in Brazilian society today. De Lima exemplified this through the architecture of a middle class flat where a servant's quarter (área de serviço) and a servant's lift (elevador de serviço) are coveted amenities. Domestic workers in urban areas are mostly women and they interact mainly with the women of the house – the mother, the grandmother, the daughter. The artist digs into the complex relationship between these women and their role in softening while perpetuating the social and physical structures that divide them.
“As always we remain women closely apart
holding in place
o elevador de serviço…”
De Lima is clearly aware of her own position in the system she criticises. Her sister narrated several interactions between herself and the woman who works in her house exemplifying how their cohabiting and quotidian contact do not give space to a profound relationship. Relationships that superficially look familial are charged with awkwardness and repulsion. The awkwardness that comes with an inability to share the same table during a meal. The repulsion that comes with an inability to share the same bathroom.
And that’s where the poop comes in.
The faeces sculptures were not just attention grabbing pieces with a blurred connection to the rest of the exhibition. They convey a much deeper message of sentiments of abjection that permeate relationships remnant of colonial times – relationships between those who serve and those who are served. To quote Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” Just like poo in a window display, the shallow attempt to make domestic workers part of the family is out of place. From a sense of guilt and hope the women try to narrow the void between them by acting as if they are all part of a big family but this attempt is not fully embraced resulting in an inability to fully integrate.
Being from a middle class Brazilian family I was uncomfortably familiar with the issues raised by de Lima. As aware as I was, my first experience of the exhibition was one of confusion, even after watching EAO a couple of times. I couldn’t really understand the work. I wasn’t able to make many links. Why were racially descriptive words intercalated with some random phrases that I couldn’t make out what they referred to? What has the poop got to do with anything? However the video installation and the sculptures kept on working on me after I left the exhibition space and I felt an urge to go back. So I went back and watched the video a few more times. It turned out I needed time to digest.
 Kristeva, Julia (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia Press. p.4.