On the second floor of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, one imagines a museum of cartography instead of art. World maps hang on all the walls, but the details reveal that it is not the world maps as we know them. With a card with title Local of action (“Place of Action”) a globe floating against a dark background. Brazil seems to have been wiped out: Like a white spot, the country stands out from the rest of the world. On another map, the largest country in South America, colored in red pencil, is located in the center of the globe. The title: ‘Rio de Janeiro as the World Cultural Center’.
“This is obviously meant to be ironic,” says Anna Bella Geiger, 89, the Brazilian artist who made these cards. “I’m a bit of a clown sometimes.” She flew in to the opening from Rio de Janeiro, where she lives. Sometimes she leans slightly against her walker, but otherwise you hardly notice her old age. She comments on her work energetically. It may be ironic at times, but the drawing touches on one of her main themes: what it means to be a (female) artist in Brazil. A country in the shelter of the art world, which was also isolated from the rest of the world due to years of military dictatorship.
This is her first solo exhibition in the Netherlands. Geiger first got her first solo at a later age: in 2019, when she was 86. Yet this is not a story about a female artist who is only ‘discovered’ at a later age. In Brazil, she has been one of the most beloved artists for years. She participated in the São Paulo Biennale six times, and prestigious museums such as Moma in New York and the Center Pompidou in Paris also purchased her works.
Yet she is an unknown name to the general public. In addition to the isolation she refers to on her world maps, it is probably related to the type of conceptual art she creates. Many works in Haarlem date from the 1970s, a period when the idea behind a work of art was often more important than form. You will therefore find no spectacular crowd pullers in the Frans Hals Museum. There are mostly modest works on paper: drawings, printed postcards, and small etchings. The photo collages appear to have been cut and pasted together using a copier, some drawings appear to have been torn from a school booklet.
There is also a practical reason for the cheap materials and small sizes. During the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985), Geiger and her young family of four had ‘a struggle to make ends meet’. Her husband, a Marxist intellectual, was arrested and lost his university job. Geiger continued to make art and learned a lot to support the family.
If you can see through the often sober workmanship, you will discover an original, groundbreaking artist. One who was often far ahead of his time in terms of topics and ideas. And besides: one that shows that one can keep making art with few resources, even in difficult times.
The urge to constantly reinvent oneself was there from an early age, Geiger says. In 1953, when she was 20 years old, she participated in the first exhibition of abstract painting in Rio. She belonged to a small, close-knit community of groundbreaking abstract artists and won awards for her paintings. After the military coup in 1964, Geiger’s work takes a drastic turn. It becomes, in her own words, “bloody.” She says goodbye to the tight abstract imagery and makes watercolor paintings full of torn bodies and twisted entrails.
‘I was highly valued as an abstract artist,’ says Geiger, ‘but because of what was happening around me, the language of abstraction no longer felt appropriate.’ It would be too great an honor for the military government to claim that her art has changed as a result, she believes: ‘A dictatorship does not change art.’ Her ‘visceral drawings’, however, are a metaphorical response to the violence during this period, when critics of the regime disappeared and were tortured.
The drawings and engravings with world maps that Geiger made from the 1970s onwards can also be seen as a form of implicit protest. In her new versions, she focuses on South America and Africa. A small but far-reaching gesture, with which she criticizes her Eurocentric view of the world and in some maps also of the art world.
The themes that Anna Bella Geiger addressed with her cartographic drawings 50 years ago are again extremely relevant in 2022. With maps such as ‘Rio de Janeiro as the cultural center of the world’ (1977), Geiger proves to be an early driving force for the postcolonial debate. , who in turn is fully engaged in the art world.
Anna Bella Geiger. Brazilian art pioneer† Frans Hals Museum, location Hal, Haarlem, until 21/8.