THE FALL OF THE HOUSES OF ATAFONA
which saw men die,
which saw the gold go away,
which saw the kingdom come to an end,
which saw, resaw, saw anew,
no longer see. They also die
Death of the houses of Ouro Preto - Carlos Drummond de Andrade
Perhaps it’s because her last name is Terra (the noun “Terra” can be translated either as Earth or land in Portuguese), perhaps it’s because the house where she spent her childhood years was torn down after the passing of her father, who sculpted figureheads out of wood and clay, perhaps it’s because, as a child, she used to be taken to Minas Gerais’ historic towns, whose sidewalks, houses and churches have a historic thickness, and there she was dazzled by altars and golden niches, the distant echoes of a wealth that she naively deemed solid, an impression that began to fade away as she noticed the signs of corrosion by time on everything: the wear and tear of the facades, the cracks in the joints where little plants sprout, small in the beginning, but, left unattended, growing on to take over everything, reclaiming the matter that had been taken from them, giving proof that any pact with nature, however imposing it is that we build out of it, is temporary. Could it be due to all of that, could it be due to some intimate reason, like being sure about what makes an artist do what they do? By the way, how do we know what drives us to do what we do, what motivates us to do it?
Be that as it may, this collection of works by Jeane Terra has to do with experiences rekindled by what she has seen in Atafona, a small seaside district that belongs to São João da Barra, in the northern region of Rio de Janeiro, which has been slowly encroached upon by the Atlantic Ocean. That tug-of-war (or maybe tug-of-water) started over 50 years ago and has already taken a toll of over 500 homes in Atafona. Who’s to blame? We are, naturally. We are the ones who devastated riparian forests along the course of the Paraíba do Sul River. With its silted bed and its flow becoming weaker by the year, the river can’t hold back the sea. So the latter, as sizeable and unrestrained as it is, comes in relentlessly destroying houses, sidewalks and streets. It starts with the combination of beats and intermittent infiltrations of the waves, alternating with short pauses of the tides. The sea has the gifts of time and strength. Thus it comes in, relentlessly, at the rate of 25 centimeters a year, charging from all sides and from below, hitting the foundations until the houses bend down, fall on their knees and drown; their broken walls, ripped apart by the hammering of the water, show the wretched bone structure of rusty rebar; their bricks dissolve, turning back into dirt and ground, while dyeing the water slightly red.
In the native Tupi language, Paraíba means a river or a see that is hard to invade. Atafona means grain mill. Paraíba is running dry, Atafona keeps being macerated and the artist’s name is Terra. How odd are those names that hint at destinations?
Other losses in the family, all of them women, led the artist to her grandmother, to the memory of the cross-stitch that she did on rugs, towels, table runners, napkins, shirts, etc. They were made in check patterns, with a reticulum that could be uniform, wide and rigid or narrow and delicate, where colored threads were sewn in an X-shaped form, following a drawing, a scheme, a diagram or, in the embroiderers’ jargon, a “recipe”. Jeane employed this tiled pattern on her paintings, but instead of the usual abstract ornaments or the expected depiction of flowers, she turned to photos of Atafona's destruction, seen from the houses at risk, and applied them onto these cross-stitch canvases. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it’s due to an urge to capture and to understand, through geometry, this debris-producing machine. Perhaps it’s because, by overlaying her grandmother's gestures with ones of her own, the two of them are reunited and all is not lost.
In this preview of the exhibition that will take place as soon as the pandemic allows it, Jeane Terra shows some of her works, all of them based on events in Atafona. Using a photo of the rear and side remains of a house suspended over a smoothed down beach as if nothing had happened until then, a portrait of calm violence, she made a drawing and a painting.
The drawing has the shape of a cross-stitch recipe, that is, its grid has tighter spacing than the graph paper of a math notebook. It’s on a rectangular surface, with the black and white indications of the color of the lines to be applied. Although the drawing is the transposition of a clear and strong image of a ruin, it’s itself abstract, or almost abstract: its content may only be guessed when it’s next to the image that serves as a reference. The color indications are provided by means of hatching, the so-called graphic models, where the squares are filled with points, scratches, light circles with a black outline, black circles with a white outline, diagonal lines, etc., all of them small, detailed, producing patches more or less shaded, a confusing ensemble for anyone who is not a professional, who does not have a well-trained eye, especially when the drawing refers to construction, to the house torn apart at the top of the hill. There, the drawing breaks down into a myriad of dots, like the surface of an old painting, rife with microscopic cracks, having some flaws caused by loss of adhesion. Likewise, the drawing has its own flaws and losses, as if the mapping of a slow disaster like the one pictured was also affected by the same effects.
That brings us to Jeane’s painting. The memory of her grandmother, her daily involvement with cross-stitch, nets and recipes, her systematic and intensive calculations and revisions, in order not to deviate from what had been planned, led her to reinvent her painting.
She started by taking advantage of the leftover paint spilled on the floor. The chromatic variations together with the pellicle’s plasticity, the skin of the painting, so to say, gave her the idea of cutting and pasting piece by piece onto the underlying recipe. Rather than embroidery, this procedure makes one think of the construction of a stained glass window, of a pointillist painting, of pixels on a computer monitor. Such a chain of events makes one think about how each of these steps played a part in reaching the other.
The research for the development of this painting, made of quadrilateral fragments of skin, was a matter that demanded a thorough examination, which led up to a mixture of paint, binder and marble powder, crucial for its firmness and malleability. That same material, spread over the surface of a table, was used for cold foil printing, monotypes resulting from Atafona’s images. In the artist’s set at hand, another image of the same family generated such an impression, stamped on a soft, cartilaginous skin, a ruined landscape of houses’ bodies.
Mask is the title of one of the two sculptures featured in this preview, a piece of concrete, remnant of a tiled wall, onto which she applied a gold leaf, a reminiscence of the churches she had visited, such as Nossa Senhora do Ó, which was the first to awe her, as well as plenty others in the city of Tiradentes, where she gained insight into the use of gold in buildings destined for the atonements of souls. The presence of gold, a noble metal that doesn’t react with oxygen and doesn’t oxidize, contradicts the fact that everything that exists inevitably faces decay and death. The irony is all the greater when it is applied to debris taken, by means of a molding process, from the bathroom wall of one of the houses, therefore, a room destined for cleaning the body. The use of molding is ancient, dating back to the magical foundation that guided the making of death masks. In an effort to keep the ancestors' memory alive, to preserve their tutelary presence, masks of their faces have been produced, as a sort of tangible, static and imposing bronze phantom, a reference to the incessant circulation of the living.
Totem is both sculpture and debris, a fragment of one of Atafona's ruined houses, a piece of vertical sill plate (?), with bricks, mortar and a coat of white paint. On it, two types of intervention have been done: a narrow geometric design, carved into the object's body, similar to those made by tireless termites, indifferent to our sleep, and also similar to what rubber tappers do on tree trunks, steering the flow of sap. Jeane covered part of this design with gold, a remnant of the pride of when they were built, of the lives and dreams that they once sheltered, which, like what vanished from them, are presently asleep or in the process of falling asleep, like the last gasp of a burning coal before it is extinguished by water.
Jeane Terra researches the subjectivities of memory, the nuances of the cities’ transience and the debris of a time, such as urban erasure and the unbridled growth of cities.
The artist's work unfolds in a variety of media such as painting, sculpture, photography and video art. Often self-referential, her work gravitates around the noisy power plant, whence her memory surfaces. Driven by the demolition of the house where she lived as a child and by her connection with Baroque art from Minas Gerais, the artist makes sculptures using rubble collected from all sorts of constructions, creating a kind of "relic" for those objects loaded with memories and dwellings.
In her works, Jeane uses debris and “paint skin”, a technique that she developed by mixing acrylic paint with binder and making thin layers out of that concoction, so that they resemble the human skin. The artist uses “paint skins” to make her paintings, which may be sewn – some with the cross-stitch technique - or may be cut and pasted directly on the canvas. It’s a kind of body-painting. Likewise, when she uses rubble from houses and buildings as work material and covers it with velvet skins, she creates new meanings for the body-home matter.
To quote Paulo Herkenhoff on her work with paint skins and cross-stitch: “…it is an enigma of the postmodern age and the pixel is a new paradigm of image logic. Jeane articulates two systems, knowing that the pixel is the fabric of contemporary times. At the same time, she avails herself of the long vernacular tradition of the cross-stitch. She plays with the viewer’s eyesight and its capacity to interpret signs.”
Jeane Terra was born in 1975, in Minas Gerais. She lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, she had the solo exhibition “Inventory” at Cidade das Artes, Rio de Janeiro.
Major group exhibitions: “Me Two,” “Brasil! Works of Ernesto Esposito’s collection,” at Ettore Fico Museum, Turin, Italy, in 2019; “The Egg and the Chicken,” at Simone Cadinelli Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro, in 2019; “Opening Wing,” at A Gentil Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, in 2019; “Montra Project,” in Lisbon, in 2013; “New Brazilian Sculpture - Heritage and Diversity,” at Caixa Cultural, Rio de Janeiro, in 2011; Biwako Biennale, Japan, in 2010.
Her artwork is in Museu de Arte do Rio’s collection.