History Is a Living Organism: A Conversation with Rosângela Rennó
The Brazilian artist repurposes discarded photographs to fight “structural ignorance” and the willful erasure of history.
Rosângela Rennó is not a photographer, but photography is both her material and her subject. For over 30 years the Brazilian artist has drawn from forgotten archives and anonymous photos to create artworks that bring marginal histories into focus. Earlier this year, the Pinacoteca of the state of São Paulo hosted a major retrospective of the artist, who is based in Rio de Janeiro. Rennó’s work invites us to linger on the worn surfaces and frayed edges of technological modernity and poses important questions: Who has the right to visibility? Who has the right to opacity? How are historical narratives constructed through visual culture? And what forgotten stories might be salvaged?
We recently spoke to Rennó about the distinct origins of her five works in MoMA’s collection, her research methods, and her thoughts about Brazil’s reactionary regimes past and present. This conversation is part of Giving a Body to Time (Dando cuerpo al tiempo), a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work became part of MoMA’s collection in 2017 as part of 90 contemporary artworks donated by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. With a title that quotes from the Brazilian artist Jac Leirner, the series focuses on work from the 1980s and 1990s that center the body in experimental and conceptual practices, challenging the parameters of traditional artistic mediums. Giving a Body to Time is the third series of interviews that are part of a long-term investigation into the Cisneros gift to the museum.
Translated from Portuguese by Steve Berg.
Este artigo está disponível em português
Elise Y. Chagas: Rosângela, you work with found photographs, archives, albums, institutional collections, and a breadth of other formats and imaging technologies. How would you describe your approach to photography?
Rosângela Rennó: I usually say that my interest lies in the humanities, in history and its erasures, and in the history of photography itself, its social uses and functions. All of this begins with an immersion into the images themselves, in collections I find in Brazil and abroad. My work process resembles a researcher’s, because my involvement with a specific set of images requires investigating their origins, their fate, and the reasons for their existence. Mostly, I am interested in collections that were destined to oblivion or destruction, such as in badly classified or stored archives, or archives that come up for sale in flea markets or are found in the trash. The discarded image takes on an “anonymous” quality, though of course it was made by someone. Beyond this, the discarded image has much to reveal, perhaps even more than one that has been classified. In looking for the reasons these images have been abandoned, I believe I am better able to understand their existence and connect them to some form of humanity through their political, ethical, or aesthetic aspects.
Rosângela Rennó, 2020
Rosângela Rennó. Wedding Landscape. 1996
Madeline Murphy Turner: Wedding Landscape is one of the most intriguing of your works. It is a collection of negatives organized as a cascade of images shown between two panes of acrylic. What are the images we see? Where did you find them?
RR: In 1994 I went to Havana for the first time. There I acquired an entire box of negatives produced in a local studio. It must have weighed about seven kilos. The 120 and 35mm film negatives documented wedding ceremonies. The photographer who ran the studio took me to the attic and told me I could take whatever I wanted, because the studio was no longer interested in keeping them. Only small copies of those negatives had been given to the client. Since photographic material was very scarce in Cuba, the possibility of subsequently printing new copies was never considered. The negatives hadn’t been cataloged nor kept under the client’s name, thus becoming useless. I used them to create several series and two unique works, one of which was Wedding Landscape.
In general, all of the women in the negatives wear bridal gowns, although none of the ceremonies were held in churches. The documentation followed a protocol that was the same for all the couples: they were shot in traditional settings, on couches, before a mirror, etc., culminating with a shot of the couple waving goodbye from a car or a motorcycle. I no longer recall how many couples there were on each roll. What struck me was the fact that the sequence of images was identical for every couple involved.
EYC: How does the work engage with landscape—which is in the title—and portraiture?
RR: The repetition of the scenes and the monotony of the documentation in that collection of negatives was what interested me. I realized that the quantity of scenes that followed a pattern could function as a texture, and that the arrangement of these strips of negatives in between acrylic sheets would suggest the juxtaposition of planes, as in a landscape. The large format initially leads the spectator to see a mass of blacks, grays, and transparencies, made up of indistinct details. But upon closer examination, it is possible to see an infinity of “units” that repeat themselves. This uniformity was precisely what led me to think of a great landscape, in which the individual portrait is lost in the dark mass of the whole.
MMT: What do negatives, such as the ones shown in this work, reveal that developed photographs do not?
RR: In the beginning of analog photography, negatives and slides were records that seemed to most closely register the direct connection between the photographic image and the object or individual represented. This relationship is clearer and less equivocal than the many transformations digital images undergo today as they are converted into bytes and then pixels. My use of negatives represented a desire to maintain that connection with the wedding scenes reproduced on the film, and not to reproduce once more those documented moments. In deviating from the usual purpose of the negative, I could approach the idea of a frozen landscape, consisting of countless, quasi-indistinct units, confined between the acrylic sheets.
Rosângela Rennó. Untitled (red boy). 1996
MMT: In Untitled (red boy) (1996), a work from the Red Series (1996–2003), the boy in the title is barely discernible. Can you talk about your interest in the play between visibility and invisibility, and about how it operates in relation to the history of Brazil?
RR: In the 1990s, I engaged in a broader project to produce “opacities” in photographic images, mostly in portraits. When the image in a photograph is barely perceptible, it forces the spectator to draw closer to investigate its surface. In this process, I depend on the spectator’s ability to rely on their own memories in order to “complete” that which they cannot in fact “see” in that surface.
Some works from that decade were connected to the precarity of our archives here in Brazil, and to a certain “historical amnesia” that was aggravated by our 20-year-plus dictatorship (1964–85) and has recurred in the last few decades. The construction of history in our country relies heavily on weak evidence and imprecise documents, as well as entire archives deliberately destroyed or abandoned, because it doesn’t seem to matter whether the story is told truthfully. For example, we have very few records of colonial times. Archives about slavery were burned so that the birth of the Republic would be remembered as a bloodless event; entire archives and museums are abandoned until a fire or flood finishes them off. If destruction does not occur intentionally, it occurs through negligence. Nowadays I recognize the existence of a deliberate project of “structural ignorance,” which relies on misreading and even deliberate erasure of images and documents about specific historical facts. Today, more than ever before, this project has been energetically revived by the far right in its attempts to create and disseminate false narratives, exploiting the absence of a strong educational system.
Beyond catharsis and collective memory, accounts, narratives, and archives must exist so that future generations do not make the same mistakes.
Rosângela Rennó. Untitled (America e Cristo). c. 1996–98
EYC: The history of photography has long served the purposes of surveillance and incarceration. I’m thinking of the development of police photography in 19th-century France through the work of Alphonse Bertillon. Untitled (America e Cristo) and Double Crown are works from larger series (Cicatriz and Vulgo, respectively) that feature photographs drawn from the medical archive of a state prison in São Paulo. Can you tell us about your interest in these archives, and how you came to work with them?
RR: I learned about the existence of the São Paulo Penitentiary Museum’s photo collection through a newspaper article in 1995. My first visit there confirmed that the reality there was quite different from the collection of a real museum. Over 15,000 glass negatives were stored on the floor of a room in the São Paulo state penitentiary in cardboard boxes; some were partially destroyed. It took nine months to obtain authorization to organize and clean a portion of that material. The historical investigation I undertook led me to realize that the vast documentation was never accurate, as it was never prepared to be researched or even handled. The lack of a purpose for this enormous collection of negatives was something that seemed absurd to me, bordering on the surreal. This pointed me to a series of issues that became important in projects about the maintenance of public archives and the existence of “structural ignorance” in Brazil.
Among the negatives at the São Paulo Penitentiary Museum were images of tattoos, double mugshots (a model created by Bertillon), and other photographs of inmates. Clearly, the entire photographic documentation system developed in São Paulo state prisons served to identify repeat offenders. I selected some negatives of tattoos and inmates’ heads, pictured from behind. Here my project was to humanize the “photographic body.”
EYC: Can you say more about this idea?
RR: After having worked for some years with vernacular photography and ID photos, my investigation of the São Paulo Penitentiary Museum’s collection opened a new horizon for me. Not only because it was another photographic category—that of “criminal photography”—but also because of the novelty of the surveilling “gaze.” The careful framing of the images made in the São Paulo state prison suggested a certain degree of voyeurism and sensuality that was very different from the classic documentation of tattoos from the 19th century. The body as portrayed there, in that manner, inspired me to attempt to restore a humanity that had been taken from those incarcerated men in the series of works that came out of this archive.
Rosângela Rennó. Double Crown (from the series Vulgo). 1998
Rosângela Rennó. Vulgo/Texto. 1998
EYC: In Vulgo/Texto you use found words rather than photographic materials. A video projector on a tripod projects the nicknames of the incarcerated. The text cycles quickly on a small piece of plexiglass with the rhythm of a slot machine. How did this work come about?
RR: I spent over a year collecting the nicknames of wanted men, which I found in the police sections of Brazilian newspapers. The collection began as mere curiosity, as a way of thinking about the idea of anonymity in contrast to the idea of identification through portraiture, especially the criminal identification that I was working with in the photos from the Penitentiary Museum. Generally speaking, Brazilian Portuguese nicknames are quite suggestive because they evoke very particular features of individuals. But funnily enough I would sometimes encounter two nicknames attributed to the same person. The idea was to use a device that would suggest the generation of new nicknames by means of letters that might be continually replaced. So, I made a video, generated from animations of letters and words in After Effects. There are 500 nicknames that loop. The most portable video projector of the day was the Sony CPJ-200, which has a round shape, and I decided to place it on a tripod. The structure resembled a robot at human scale, a generator of “false identities.”
MMT: Referring to the role of memory, you have said that your work is not one that “turns back to the past, but one that protects public and private stories, small and great tragedies, both individual and collective, in the present and in the future.” How do you navigate the tension between memory and the archive, the personal and the institutional?
RR: Nowadays, more than ever before, we question the value of grand historical narratives, of great accomplishments; history is a living organism, perpetually reread and reassessed, recreated according to different biases in an attempt to lead societies to understand their own structural mistakes. Here I am leaving aside false narratives, which are extremely toxic, to consider new narratives that put long-neglected histories into new perspective. The image of a murder that took place in the United States went viral and ramped up the debate on “structural racism” that persists in countries such as the USA and Brazil. It seems that the murder also “awakened” the Brazilian population. Unfortunately, murders such as that of George Floyd are highly common in Brazil, occurring on an almost daily basis, but none of them have had the reach to provoke the necessary transformation. In our country, these recurrent episodes of individual tragedy have become invisible. Beyond catharsis and collective memory, accounts, narratives, and archives must exist so that future generations do not make the same mistakes.