Brazil is the center of the world

Stately but gently, the artist Anna Bella Geiger (89) walks towards her gallery, while her assistant in the distance shouts and gestures: “They are here already!” Geiger, a short slender older lady, dressed in shiny black fabric pants, soft sneakers and hair in a medium bob, gently bypasses the wet puddles of a short but very heavy downpour. “And where are the people from the Dutch newspaper?” she asks as it NRCcorrespondent and local photographer standing right in front of her and reaching out to get to know her. “Oh, it’s you! But you are South Americans, how wonderful!” she exclaims.

Her enthusiasm fits with a recurring theme in Geiger’s work, which right now has its first solo exhibition on Dutch soil at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. South America is in her heart, body, head and therefore in her art.

In her work, she often portrays her hometown of Rio de Janeiro as the center of the world. Although Geiger participated in a group exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in the 1970s, and also had exhibitions in various European cities, she was relatively unknown in the Netherlands until this solo exhibition in Haarlem. In Brazil, on the other hand, she is one of the most famous and beloved artists.

She has participated several times in the Sao Paulo Biennale, and her work is displayed in major museums such as MoMA in New York and the Center Pompidou in Paris. She studied art and worked briefly in New York in the mid-1950s, where she was part of the then budding abstract art scene, but in fact, she was always ahead of her time.

She was one of the first to start with video art in the late 1960s, when she bought her first video-8 camera and initially made family films. After being taught by a cameraman friend, she turned video into art.

Geiger’s work from the 1970s on themes such as identity, decolonization and the abolition or construction of borders is now very topical. And despite her advanced age – she’s in her late eighties – she still continues to make art and reinvent herself over and over again. “I’m not bored, thoughtful and therefore not trained,” she says between two showers with open office doors with a cup of black coffee in her lap. “In fact, I’m getting more and more productive. I used to be slower in my work, I sometimes suffered from depression and also took medication. But I feel good, I feel healthy and I feel good in my own skin. ”

Convinced Marxist

She lives near her gallery, which she opened earlier this year, with her 99-year-old husband, a former political scientist, university lecturer and convinced Marxist, who was arrested and imprisoned during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Two children and grandchildren abroad, in Frankfurt and New York, and a daughter and grandchildren in Rio.

She began drawing and painting at the age of fifteen. As a hobby, her father hoped, for he preferred to see her study. As a child of Polish-Jewish migrants who had come to Brazil in the late 1920s, the future lay in a university education, it was believed.

What was it like growing up here in Rio in the 1930s, 1940s?

Looking back, that time was very important for my further education, also in art. I grew up as a child of first-generation migrants who found a new home in Rio. We lived in the Catete neighborhood, now a middle-class neighborhood, then a working-class neighborhood with Brazilians from all sorts of backgrounds. Portuguese migrants lived next to us, behind us an Afro-Brazilian family whose grandmother had lived through slavery. Lebanese lived further away. I played with everyone around me. And tried to find my place. Who am I in this multifaceted spectrum, I wondered. At home we spoke Yiddish, my sister and I were the first in our family to speak Portuguese. We were not rich, but we were not poor either. As a cabinetmaker and handyman, my father tried to support the family. ”

If World War II breaks out in Europe, this will also have an impact in Rio, in the Geiger family. “My parents especially panicked. In Poland, almost the entire family was exterminated. My father was horrified because it was known that there were also German spies in Rio. Moreover, during the war, the Nazis fled to Brazil and other countries in South America. I remember my father crying with happiness when the war was finally over. “

Under light pressure from her parents, she eventually went to study. It became German. “But in the meantime, I started making more and more art and went beyond the university also to the art academy. There I came in contact with European greats like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet. Work I appreciated, but I do not know if it affected me. I felt free. I did what I felt was abstract, without examples. “

In 1953, when she was only twenty, Geiger had her first exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. She stood out and won awards, she says, as the conversation shifts to her gallery, where she breathes new life into an old installation of pyramids and places some sand and stones around the work.


How was the art scene in Rio in the 1950s? “It was an exciting time, even though it was mostly groundbreaking. My work was not understood, I was also a female artist and it was not easy in a macho world. And we hardly had money for material. Sometimes I worked with other than newspapers and materials like sand and what I found on the beach. But it was also an artistic time where a lot was happening. The great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector also appeared. I grew up with her in our Catete neighborhood. Her parents (also Jewish but from Ukraine) and my parents were friends. When I went to New York in the mid – fifties for an exhibition and lived there for a few years, I discovered that there was much more familiarity with abstract art, Andy Warhol’s pop art had already penetrated. “

In her gallery, a room with three floors, a selection of her works from the past sixty years is exhibited. When you enter, you see the large installation – older work she is now recreating, and a series of pyramids. In the background, a large screen shows video recordings of pharaohs in fast-edited motions. “I am very interested in the question of our origins as human beings, in which the Middle East, Egyptian culture, but also Mesopotamia play a role. In the 1970s, I immersed myself in the first inhabitants of Brazil, the indigenous peoples and us who came later. “

She made it work Brazil native / Brazilian alienigena (Native Brazil / Alien Brazil), where she was inspired by old government images of indigenous groups in the Amazon. “Do we remain the other, the aliens, as I call ourselves back then, or can we eventually become like real Brazilians, like the first inhabitants? Then the question arises as to how one relates to history and the place one occupies in it. ”

Further ahead are engravings and world maps. Cartography, which she also exhibits in Haarlem. South America and Africa make up the original continent of Pangea. Scientists say the two continents were once connected. There is a map where Rio de Janeiro is the cultural center of the world. On the next world map, Brazil has just been deleted, as if the country does not exist.

Military dictatorship

Why the fascination with world maps? “I want to show how a country like Brazil often does not matter. The world is still often viewed from a Eurocentric perspective. But for me, from my perspective, Brazil is the center of the world. Why these world maps are so popular now, while I already made them in the 1970s, is because, I think, the world is viewed much more from a decolonization process. There is more room for other perspectives. The fact that I now have solo exhibitions in Europe in the last phase of my life also shows that there is more need and space for the South American perspective. ”

In her oeuvre, which spans about sixty years, the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985) was an important period, she says. “It was a bloody time, there was oppression. As an artist, we were under a magnifying glass. “While many of her colleagues fled Brazil, Geiger was in a completely different situation. She had become a mother at a young age, her husband was openly against the military.” He was arrested and spent some time “In prison. He lost his job at the university. We barely made it.” Because of isolation, her perspective was mainly ‘turned inwards’. “My work at that time was more about the tangible oppression and hardship of the dictatorship. Body parts and organs in blood, as victims of freedom. It was the least abstract period of my work. I could not help but show the reality. “

She keeps reinventing herself. When she visited Haarlem for the opening, she took back a stack of Dutch newspapers. “I try to decipher some words with my German studies. But new work comes out, suddenly an idea comes up and I get started. ”

Also read the review of Geiger’s exhibition in Haarlem

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