The Freedom to Develop What Is Necessary: Maria Thereza Alves Interviewed by Richard William Hill

Documenting a cross-cultural politics and aesthetics.

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

A variety of potted plants collected in plywood boxes and set in a small white gallery with botany drawings on the walls

Installation view of Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change: New York—A Botany of Colonization at the Vera List Center/Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, The New School, November 2017. Photo by David Sundberg. Courtesy of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

Maria Thereza Alves has been creating art since the early 1980s that crosses disciplinary boundaries without a second thought, blending, as need be, a wide range of documentary and other representational practices with social engagement and participation. Her approach often melds sharp ideological critique with the marshaling of material evidence, as can be seen in her ongoing Seeds of Change project. Seeds of Change explores the migration of flora in the ballast of ships. When the ballast—often rocks and earth—was dumped in ports, it deposited seeds. Alves samples ballast soil at known ballast dumpsites and germinates the long-dormant seeds she finds. The plants become the living evidence of histories of colonization and the trade in enslaved persons. But there is much more to her oeuvre than this one project.

—Richard William Hill


Richard William Hill It took the art world some time to be able to recognize and value the approach you take to making art. Was your way of working something you saw clearly from the outset as a student at Cooper Union?

Maria Thereza Alves As a child I would make things: draw, write poetry and text, or create short films with a Super 8 camera. When I was sixteen, I began to think of what use could I be for the future of Brazil, although I grew up in New York. In 1978, just shortly before I turned seventeen, I joined the International Indian Treaty Council to learn how to make a national Indigenous organization in Brazil, which did not exist at the time. There was much repression from the military dictatorship. I had wanted to study documentary filmmaking and received a grant for New York University’s film school, I but realized that due to the cost of materials I would not be able to attend. I also realized that I needed to find a way that would include both art and social engagement. I began by making works influenced by the aesthetics of where my parents were from: naïve paintings and triptychs, but with contemporary political context. I then was able to enter Cooper Union, where I had some wonderful professors and colleagues such as the Puerto Rican painter Juan Sánchez, the photographers Larry Fink and Christine Osinski, and the writer Brian Swann.

I had first started out with documentary photography, and my book Recipes for Survival, based on a return in 1983 to my father’s village and places my mother grew up in, is an example of the methodology I was developing. It was finally published last year, I should add. At the same time, I was living in a squat in a Latinx section of Harlem and started to work with different local communities there. The idea of making installations was also beginning at Cooper Union, and I became interested. Leonardo Drew, a fellow student, was the best of us. At the same time, there was work I would see in galleries that was textual, but with high-tech production values, which seemed arrogantly needless to me. I began to make works that were handwritten on walls. I had learned early on to be skeptical of authority and status. I was reminded of a political, social, racial, economic situation in Brazil around the use of the word Doctor. When I was fourteen, I was introduced to Doctor João. I asked, What kind of a doctor was he? He conceded that his was an honorific title. Later I would discover that it was traditionally given to white men of a certain wealth. This helped me understand that titles and thus categories were made to maintain power within a limited social group whose primary function is exclusion—requiring knowledge or expertise and demanding deference. It is common among my father’s people to distrust authorities and experts. That has grounded me with the freedom to develop what is necessary.

As I mentioned, there was no national Indigenous organization in Brazil, and I was in the position to learn how to make one. There was no lobbying organization for Indigenous peoples, workers, and peasants, so I founded one in New York City, the Brazilian Information Center. Working with communities proved to be the best process for learning, especially because at the time there were no texts on this subject, nor artists I knew of who were doing this. In 1992, I made a work in Brazil in an isolated, hard-to-reach area by the Paraguay River in the state of Mato Grosso. The work was called Barra/Barre; I experimented for the first time with a cultural model that included active participation in a community beyond the documentary model. I invited the Canadian artist Lyne Lapointe to work with me. It is still an important work for me. In 2003, I did a residency in the area of Senegal called Joal-Fadiouth. During a period of three weeks I made three works, among them the seminal—for me—video Diothio Dhep. I felt useful to the community.

I think there is still unease with my work. At my 2014 solo exhibit at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), in Mexico City, some of the staff, dismayed with the popular aesthetics of the main work, remarked that they did not consider The Return of a Lake (2012) to be “art.”

RWH Most sixteen-year-olds are immersed in the concerns of their peers, but you were, as you say, already thinking “of what use could I be for the future of Brazil.” How did this political consciousness form in you at such an early age?

MTA For a while I tried to figure things out on my own after my family emigrated to the States. Racism and the resulting bullying, although I would not know to call it that, were my principal concerns at the time. I learned on my own how to deal with them around the age of ten. I would, myself, discover organizing as a tool. I had stumbled upon a book in the library, which I also independently discovered—my family did not know of the existence of such a wonderful place. I think it was after the “N” section. (I had been reading methodically from “A,” as I knew no other way to begin to enjoy a library.) It was a book of mean nursery rhymes. Some were quite funny. I chose two that expressed my anger at being bullied and humiliated daily at school. I had thought that the only way the non-white kids could avoid being bullied—especially during recess, when we were in the patio of the school and had no protection from adults—was to unite. I organized all the kids who were not Irish or Italian. On the day that we stood our ground, we formed a circle around one of my main tormentors and sang the two nursery rhymes, which we had all practiced before. We also agreed that if one of us was being bullied whoever was nearby would come to help. We were soon no longer tormented.

A little while later, when my family was able to return for short visits to Brazil, politicized relatives there guided me. Padrinho Chinica, for example. He did not have enough money for a newspaper, but had a relative who did, and he would pick up the newspaper after lunch. He then would go to the plaza to read it. After school let out, the youth who were interested in politics would find him there, and he would explain the events of the day and interpret what was going on. My cousin, Piu (Elpidio dos Santos, Jr.), a composer, taught me about music, culture, and resistance. Senhora Benedita, who sold coconuts and candy, and her mother, her husband, Senhor Pedro, who did backbreaking stonework on sidewalks, and their children Dolores, Marcio, Romulo, and Juliana were all militant activists against the dictatorship at every moment of living, and that was an important lesson. And my aunt Dioneia, who was a rural schoolteacher and would take me around the countryside where I learned to see the power structures that were used by the landowners to destroy the autonomy of those who were forced to work for them. And of course my parents: my mother who was dumped in the city of São Paulo by her mother, who never wanted the husband she had or any of his children. My mother went to work as a cleaning child at the age of nine for room and board and would continue to clean houses until she no longer could work. And my father, who is proud to have worked all his life since his teenage years, except for three days when he was unemployed. These lives happening around me enabled me to see the Brazil that was not part of the discourse of Brazil.

A piece of torn white fabric resting on grass in Minus One Dimension Zinneke Reflections an installation by artist Maria Thereza Alves

Maria Thereza Alves, Minus One Dimension: Zinneke Reflections, 1995, Brussels, site-specific installations and guided walks. (Image of a reflection of man and boat.) Photo courtesy of the artist.

RWH One of the things that interests me about your art is the way it takes seriously as sites of engagement the places where you live and work, so the crises you raise for your viewers is never simply “over there.” Often this means making visible the deep and complex ways in which the richer countries of Europe or the Americas are implicated in both the history and ongoing realities of poorer countries. As we move on we will look at some of these important issues, but I’m interested to first discuss a few early works that are not so widely known. I’m thinking about Minus One Dimension: Zinneke Reflections and Objective Channel Selection, both from 1995, and Back to the Water, from 1999. These works invited their specific European audiences into conversations about attitudes toward water, with you as a critical interlocutor, during your first decade living in Europe.

MTA This is a good segue, as I have made two new works for the Toronto Biennial, and a third is in progress. Each is about a different waterway in Toronto: Phantom Pain (2019) for the Don River, one for Garrison Creek, and a performative work in progress for Russell Creek. Of the three early works you mention, Objective Channel Selection was the first, just when I arrived in Europe and was trying to figure out how to engage in a discourse with the land. I was in Ghent and, as usual, taking long walks to situate myself. There was a large house that curved on Oude Houtlei Straat. Each time I would pass, my body would shift, because the curve changed the predetermined relationship of the distance between my body and the building. My body, realizing this, searched for a new balance between myself and the physicality of the building. I realized that it was not just this street, but several in Ghent that would cause unease. I began to research why that might be. I marked these areas on a contemporary map; then by comparing this with an older map I was able to see that these buildings and streets were following the curves of unseen canals that were now covered over. Despite being covered, they continue to exert upon us a relationship with “forgotten” water. I engraved the curvatures of the canals on cobblestones and replaced them in the street to mark places that continued to be in this active discussion between land and water and our bodies.

Minus One Dimension: Zinneke Reflections is the result of a study I made about what is lost when we cover over a river—in this case, the Zinneke, which crosses the city of Brussels—and remove it from our daily living in an urban context. I began first by looking at some other bodies of water. I found that water in cities contributes to letting our thinking process wander. I realized that the reflections on the water, of which there are so many different kinds of possibilities in cities (as compared to the countryside), changes our known visual definition of the object and opens up possibilities of perception. If a wind blows, the turbulence causes currents in the water, which can make the straightness of a construction crane meander and sway into coils, which in turn collide into the reflection of a doorway, whose hard rectangular edges have been transformed into arabesque spirals, which in turn collide into the reflection of a topiary that snakes its shape across to the other side of the banks. I photographed reflections of things like an airplane vapor trail, two refugees talking, a video surveillance camera, a brick wall, steps, a dog, among others. I then traced them onto material that is used to cover things in our homes—like carpets, curtains, tablecloths, sheets, etc., and then I cut out these shapes. During a month, I would place the shape of a reflection on a segment of the covered-over Zinneke River which still flowed underneath. These reflections stayed on site until they disappeared.

Toward the end of the research, I went to visit the Zinneke in the industrial area on the outskirts of Brussels. There I found an amazing event. An engineer was covering over a last portion of the Zinneke that was still visible and could react to land and us. I went to speak with him. He was young, this was his first major engineering project, and he was quite proud. I asked him if he would take my video camera and handhold it to film the Zinneke River for thirty minutes. He asked why, and I said because you will be the last human to have an interaction with this part of the river. And he did. There were two different elements of this work, which sought to see how our disruptions with other beings on the land remove possibilities and complexities of interaction and thinking.

Bench facing a fenced-in NATO building while the river is behind the benches in Back to the Water by artist Maria Thereza Alves

Maria Thereza Alves, Back to the Water, 1999, 8 performances, 1 book, 5 postcards. (Bench facing a fenced-in NATO building while the river is behind the benches.) Photo by the artist. Courtesy of the artist.

I made Back to the Water while an artist-in-residence at the Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. My walks around the city revealed that public benches never face the city’s rivers, except where there is a working quay. There was a complexity among residents of the city regarding their relationship to water, and I wanted to know why. For a month during weekends I made tours of five benches along the Maas and Jeker rivers that did not face the river. I would go to local cafés, pubs, and the train station and ask if people wanted to join in the tour. I asked the participants why they thought that the benches did not face the river. The responses were unexpected. One local resident thought that the benches did not face the river because, “maybe it’s about Catholicism, which taught people not to look at wide open spaces or to even think about them.” Others maintained that the reason might be casual and innocent accidents or failures of urban non-planning. This lack of criticality was criticized by one local after a visit to the last site, a bench built after the renovation of the area that had turned it into an idyllic spot with river grasses, flowers, stones, and ducks. But the bench refused, absolutely refused, to face the river, and instead faced the former NATO military barracks and its fence. At this point, one resident said, “There is a predilection to certain kinds of ugliness … a deliberate turning away. You are not supposed to enjoy anything.” Another participant was critical of the concept of “innocence” and “accidents” and said, “All the sites show a process of enclosure—a frightening picture of military narrow-mindedness.” The responses were collected into a small publication. I have been told that some time after Back to the Water an architect designed some benches that faced the water. At the time this work was made—as Sarat Maharaj pointed out to me a few years ago—the idea of research-based art hardly existed.

These three works were seminal for me in the development of later works that would question how a visitor or resident of a city could participate actively in being in a specific place. Within the context of Europe, this was important for me in order to challenge the belief system of academia. In the context of the colonization of the Americas this has caused much harm to discourse, which traditionally and continuously has excluded Indigenous peoples. How could a visitor or resident bring observations and questions into an open forum for discussion? How could you do this without necessarily depending on the infrastructure of institutions or the knowledge of experts?

RWH It seems to me that this challenge—which as you describe it, arises from a series of practical, strategic necessities—also strikes at the heart of one of the foundational acts of modernity, which is the disciplinary specialization that separates scientific from artistic and other forms of exploration and knowledge. What intrigues me is that you don’t seem to fall into a trap of relativizing scientific knowledge in relation to other systems, but insist on resetting the terms, so that more people can be involved in the process of gathering, sharing, and contesting evidence. It is a strategy of engagement, rather than a claim to a separate reality that can then be conveniently bracketed off.

MTA I think that part of the possibility of being able to do this is that these knowledge systems were so removed from our realities that they could then be seen not as untouchable tomes but as tools that could be hacked to work for the situations that we are in. From alienating, it became incredibly liberating. You see it in the work that was done by Juan Sánchez, Faith Ringgold, Jimmie Durham, Ana Mendieta, and David Hammons in the early ’80s.

A sheet of sky blue white and gray linen featuring ships that arrived to New York with invasive species of plants titled In Ballast To and From New York by artist Maria Thereza Alves

Maria Thereza Alves, In Ballast: To and From New York, 2017, linen, acrylic, ink, 115.25 × 61 inches. (Element in Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change: New York—A Botany of Colonization at the Vera List Center/Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, The New School, November 2017.) Photo by David Sundberg. Courtesy of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

RWH There is power in mounting a challenge that is simultaneously a discursive critique and a gathering of material evidence. Your Seeds of Change and Wake: Flights of Birds and People (2015) projects are good examples, since many people will be familiar with them, although this challenge would apply to many things you have done. These are both projects that involve researching the unintended movement of seeds as not simply a metaphor of human migrations, but also physical evidence of them.

MTA When I begin research for a new Seeds of Change project, I do not know where it will go. I am not interested in reproducing the same paths of knowledge acquired from a previous iteration of the work. I look forward to new possibilities of thinking that archives can guide us into. Throughout the early iterations of Seeds of Change, I did not understand why so much ballast that had been transported. Scientists and historians would be critical of my work on ballast, pointing out that it was economically unfeasible to transport ballast even when I presented reproductions of captain’s logs as evidence of the frequency and scale of the practice. It was not until I chanced upon a study by Guillaume Daudin entitled “Profitability of Slave and Long-Distance Trading in Context: The Case of Eighteenth-Century France” that I understood why. It reveals an astonishingly seldom mentioned economic detail: “Slave cargoes were more valuable than colonial goods cargo. A single slave cargo required four to six direct trade operations with the West Indies to remit its income in colonial goods.” It appears that the slave trade resulted in a great deal of ballast crossing the Atlantic to homeports in Europe. There was so much ballast coming into Liverpool, for example, that it was used as construction material, and ballast flora still grows in the streets and roads. This evidence positions ballast flora as witness to the slave trade.

The New York iteration, presented by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, involved the discovery that colossal amounts of solid ballast, and therefore ballast flora, were continuously brought to New York from Europe until the mid-twentieth century. The very earth of New York is colonized, and we step not on New York in New York. However, this complexity of contemporary colonization, which is necessary to address, has resulted in some art thinkers suggesting that since the earth of New York is not New York, then the ensuing ecological colonization is not colonization but actually a “natural” part of the new landscape! I posit instead that we not become complicit in further colonization in what has been referred as the second genocide of the Americas—the rapid and massive introduction of non-endemic flora and fauna by settlers—but instead think how we can address decolonizing the very earth of the Americas. 

Light blue object in mud detail of photo installation on the banks of the Paraguay River in Corumba Brazil for Barra Barre by artists Maria Thereza Alves and Lyne Lapointe

Maria Thereza Alves, Barra/Barre,1992, site-specific installation in collaboration with Lyne Lapointe. (Detail of photo installation by Alves on the banks of the Paraguay River, Corumba, Brazil, 1992). Photo by the artist. Courtesy of the artist.

RWH It seems important to discuss Brazil specifically in the context of power and evidence. From our discussions, I have a sense of an ongoing colonial situation for Indigenous peoples across the field of culture, including academia and the art world, that has been barely touched by the critique that has occurred elsewhere. And this was before Bolsonaro was elected president. What strategies have you found most effective in Brazil?

MTA I began, with the installation Barra/Barre, to attempt to move away from the São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro Euro-Brazilian possibilities of art discourse. The process of making the work and placing it in the swamp lands of Corumbá, in Mato Grosso—while at the same time working with the local rural and urban communities—was the beginning of possibilities to approach art from a different and urgent perspective. It was here that I met as young students Ieda Bortolotto and Geraldo Alves Damasceno Jr., both now botanists teaching at universities, and we are life-long friends. I would continue to develop this methodology in later installations in Mexico and again when I returned to Brazil. In the video Iracema (de Questembert) (2009), exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial in 2010, the protagonist finds the opportunity to be an Indigenous artist and scientist not in Brazil, due to racism, but in France.

Video still from Maria Thereza Alves Iracema de Questembert of a woman with a tattoo on her cheek with text that reads Thank you I am Tapirapé and French

Maria Thereza Alves, Iracema (de Questembert), 2009, video still. Courtesy of the artist.

A Possible Reversal of Missed Opportunities, my work for the São Paulo Biennial in 2016, sought to overstep racist academia by providing fictional evidence that Indigenous intellectuals were already part of mainstream academia in Brazil. I invented conferences where Indigenous intellectuals were speaking on subjects beyond Indigenous-related issues, which is unfortunately not a reality in Brazil. I wanted to give us the freedom to invent possibilities for Indigenous intellectuality by creating organizations such as the Guarani Kaiowá Association of Cultural Theorists, the Association of Physicists, and the Association for Indigenous Women Scientists. This “decolonizing of the imagination” was a liberating opportunity to speculate about possibilities of being that have been so denied as to be unimaginable in Brazil. I think that this is more necessary than ever, but at the same time the level of violence unleashed by Bolsonaro and his supporters against Indigenous communities is overwhelming us. We must make daily attempts to understand how to best respond to so many levels of strategic repression against so many communities throughout Brazil: against the land, against the people, against the theft of resources on Indigenous lands, against Indigenous health, against Indigenous education, against any possibility of sovereignty at any level. I also see that we are coming to think that the repression is so great and thorough that there is not much an individual can do. But to agree or to fall into the despair of not participating is frightening and needs to be resisted, as difficult as that is. We all need the energy of knowing that we are meaningful participants in daily life in the communities we move in.

Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change is an ongoing project. Alves was the recipient of the 2016–18 Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice presented by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School, and Seeds of Change was first exhibited in the United States as part of the prize celebrations. 

Richard William Hill is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver, Canada.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

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