IN CONVERSATION WITH ANA ABRIL
Kneeling on the paved sidewalk and wearing a precarious dress made out of poor quality fabric, the Brazilian performer and visual artist Priscila Rezende (Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1985) rubs a series of metal pots and lids used for cooking. The scene is already striking for the particularity of bringing a domestic action to the public space of the street. However, what astonishes the viewer the most is to see the artist using her own hair to wash the dishes. It would still be eye-catching if the artist was white and using her straight hair to perform the action, but the action acquires specific meaning because she is a black woman who, with her afro-textured hair, washes the dishes. The artistic performance, which has also been launched as a photographic series, is called Bombril. In Brazil, Bombril is a well-known brand of products for cleaning, but also a pejorative way to refer to a characteristic of black hair. Specifically, bombril refers to a scourer as a racist metaphor for the aspect of black hair. In the context of this country, the racist expression “s(he)/they has/have bombril hair” is widely and thoughtless used. Using this performance as a case study and with the support of additional videos and texts, I am going to expose how new relationships between form/matter and aesthetics/politics are possible, which contradicts the modernist idea that an innovative form must be delinked from any political and subjective positionality.
The performance Bombril was originally held in 2010 for a period of approximately one hour. In the following years, Priscila Rezende has performed it in several occasions in different Brazilian and international artistic institutions. Her most recent performance was in November 2018, in Juazeiro do Norte in Brazil. In her trajectory, Rezende is known for dedicating most of her artworks to the historical, social, economic and political situations of black people in Brazil. In her social media, Rezende denounces how the elitized art system and its institutions privilege white male artists while making impossible the economic survival of black artists and their entry in the art circuit. In an interview I conducted with Rezende over e-mail, she referred to how Brazilian institutions and collectors are reluctant to buy art from black artists:
I wonder why so many black artists are producing extremely powerful works with discussions so pertinent to our times and they are not occupying spaces in galleries, exhibitions, collections, museums, etc. […] It is not an unanimity, […], but most of the black artists I know in Brazil deal with very strong issues related with racism rooted in Brazilian society and the truth is that most of those who concentrate power and dominance in this market do not want to deal with this theme. […]
This statement can be read as a symptom of how the politics of modernism are still influencing the contemporary art scene. Here, I use modernism* to refer to several artistic movements taking formal experimentation as the critical measure for considering an artwork or an artist innovative and valuable, and therefore, accepted by the modernist canon. According to literary modernist studies, the separation between the political and the aesthetics is a crucial criterion for achieving creativity. One of the visions of modernism, according to Nikos Papastergiadis, is to consider the formal innovation a new and pure universal language of art. This statement, first of all, elevates the form of the artwork upon its matter. And second, it is believed that a “pure formal expression” exists, that, in fact, is not neutral at all, but a gendered and racialized language converted in the universal, pure and unbiased one. As Rezende’s quotation proves, the art market valorizes the artworks understood as non-political or with pure and universal forms (i.e. made by white male artists), which is a terribly violent and distorted policy, reinforced by modernism. On the other hand, the art of Rezende is deeply influenced by the historical and current context of black people as well as her subjectivity and identity as a black female artist in Brazil. I read Rezende’s conceptualization of her artistic practice in close relation to her political positioning and to the consideration of the art circuit as a system of economic production and exploitation. For having a strong matter informing the form, Rezende’s art is undervalued in the Brazilian hegemonic universe of art.
Why Picasso is Considered a Genius and Rezende is Not?
As mentioned before, the relation between aesthetics (form) and politics (matter) in modernism has been conceptualized in a favoring of form over matter. The reason is that matter has been “associated with passivity and receptivity” (i.e. the feminine) in contrast to the “active and intelligible principle of form” (i.e. the masculine). This binary has a relevant genealogy in philosophy and feminist theory and it is related with the idea of feminine passivity in the heterosexual intercourse, which is extrapolated to several cultural, political and social power relations between women/men. Therefore, the forms (the masculine) that have been valuable for being experimental have been emptied of content (the feminine) and considered neutral and universal. However, the supposed universality of formal innovation in the modernist canon is indeed very gendered (male) and racialized (white). I subscribe myself to Donna Jonas’ idea that all formal abstraction has a grammar:
… an artist takes up the materials and particularities of his or her environment, or epoch, and extracts a formal lexicon accessible to all, the distillation of the elements of what went into making it.
Many canonical modernist artists have been influenced by their environment and they had a strong content, but they have succeeded in the subsuming of the formality from the materiality and in the universalization of certain violence. Let us consider Pablo Picasso* for example. First, he whitened the African forms of his paintings into the seemingly neutral and formalistic universal aesthetics of cubism; and second, he dealt with feelings and situations that were already widely comprehensive (universal) like the pain and the condemnation of war. The whitening of the African forms is not merely an enormous violence against African art, but also maintains the modernist canon that profits tremendously, while leaving the art of the Other(s) (black, indigenous, women artists) in the lower place of the crafts. Contrary to the possibility of universalizing violence such as war, it is incongruous to claim the universality of a bodily specific violence, such as racism or sexism. While the work of artists as Rezende is undervalue for not being considered formally innovative and universal, diverse white male artists have benefited from “whitening” and “universalization” to proclaim the formal experimentation of art as the great state of aesthetics. On the other hand, women and black people have been marked as extremely influenced by matter and unable to perform any formal experimentation for being materially connected with certain types of life experiences, as racism and sexism. This type of experiences would not leave room for the possibility of abstracting and, then, making formal experimentations. In that process, “the aesthetic contribution of women and women of color [is] stripped of their aesthetic function.”
Close Encounters Between Aesthetics and Politics
Literature scholar Ewa Ziarek makes a feminist reading of philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno’s “heteronomous autonomy”* of art, which denies a pure and universal formality. The heteronomous autonomy of Ziarek claims both the dependency and the independency of art from its social material conditions, including gender and race issues. When Priscila Rezende chooses the performance as the form of art, she is pointing to both an aesthetic election and a political choice related with the materiality of her experience. First, by choosing the medium of performance, Rezende is elevating the body as fundamental material for making art. Second, by electing a realm of art that is ephemeral in time and very difficult to buy, she is opposing the art market that values hegemonic art (painting and sculpture) and its exorbitant prices. Finally, by performing Bombril in the street, Rezende is claiming the importance of taking art out of the elitist space of the museum and putting it where everyone can see it. Moreover, to perform in the street references the takeover of public space as an important political conquest. All these aesthetics choices cannot be said as independent from Rezende material and social positionality. By choosing the performance as the artistic procedure of Bombril, Rezende opposes to modernism and complicates the limits between what is an artistic practice and what is a political action. This blurring cannot be seen as the contamination of the formal innovation, but as a new proposition for rethinking the relationship between form and matter. I argue that Bombril is an example of an intimate connection between the artistic practice of marginalized subjects (in this case a Brazilian black female artist) and political action. And despite this, an aesthetic innovation is still possible. In other words, it still exists certain independency for creating new formal possibilities and potentialities in art.
The Destruction of the Metaphor as a Formal Innovation in Bombril
By engaging with the racist discourse of comparing black hair with a scourer and giving to it the raw materiality of visual representation, Priscila Rezende’s art could be seen as an obvious move. However, the action of taking the thematic of the racist language (the content) and giving to it an aesthetic representation (the form) is indeed a very innovative formalism. When Rezende applies to black hair the literal function of rubbing pots that does not correspond to the hair, but instead to the scourer, she is materializing the impossibility of the metaphor. The metaphor – as a figure of speech in which a word is applied to something to which it cannot be literally applicable – ceases to exist. And here, in Bombril, an aesthetic innovation takes place: the destruction of the metaphor through the performance. In other words, “Rezende is doing a (theoretical), political and artistic act of destroying the metaphor that supports the racist discourse.” Watching Priscila Rezende strongly rubbing the pots by objectifying her hair into a scourer is a brutal vision that is inescapably reminiscent of slavery. The comparison of a body characteristic with a scourer is a process of objectification that reflects the process of animalization and dehumanization made by the colonizers toward indigenous people and black people. The audience is able to watch how a seemingly harmless speech, such as comparing the black hair with a scourer, is full of violence. This action stirs with the sensitivity of the viewer in a way that makes them rethink their speech. The powerful formal innovation of making a metaphor literal, which destroys the metaphor itself, is also a political intervention. And here, again, politics and aesthetics get entangled and intertwined. This is the “noninstrumental relation between feminist artistic practices and feminist politics” that Ziarek claims as the product of the relation of art to its material conditions.
The choice of the performance as medium, the historical and political context and the artist’s subjectivity are fundamental to the possibility of thinking about the visual destruction of the metaphor as aesthetic innovation. This, in turn, becomes a political intervention. By materializing the discourse, Rezende is also challenging the modernist status of art in which matter and form must be separated to generate a valuable artwork. In doing so, Bombril presents new, innovative and valuable forms of relation between form (aesthetics) and matter (politics). To sum up, through the analysis above, it can be said that the formal experimentation in Bombril complies with Ziarek’s argument in her book Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism:
[…] formal experimentation in women’s [art] has to be considered a critical response to the operations of form and violence inflicted on women’s bodies in political life and as an aesthetic invention of a new interaction between form and materiality.
In Rezende´s performance, the form and matter, aesthetics and politics, inform each other, have a dynamic interaction and are impossible to disconnect. Bombril appears as an artistic example of how interactions between form and matter are convoluted and potential in opening the possibilities of each sphere. Bombril, besides bringing an interesting aesthetic innovation, contests the hegemonic art circuit that excludes artists like Rezende. And this is the kind of art that is needed: an art contesting a canon located as pure but that is in fact extremely sexist, racist and violent.
Ana Abril (Jaén, Spain, 1992) is a researcher in gender studies, philosophy and arts. Currently, she is a Master’s student in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies in Europe (GEMMA). Ana’s research focuses on the concept of “cannibal feminism” which critically approaches the figurations of the cannibal starting from the Brazilian intellectual movement of Antropofagia. She also studies the material-discursive relations of the biological processes of ingesting, digesting and excreting. Her research areas are critical studies, decolonial, queer and feminist theory.
 Priscila Rezende, March 2018, own translation from an interview in Portuguese.
 Jones, “Thoughts on Modernism”, 131.
 Jones, 132.
 Papastergiadis, “Modernism and contemporary art”, 466.
 Ziarek, “Transformative practice”,109.
 Ziarek, “Transformative practice”, 110.
 Ziarek, Feminist aesthetics, 124.
 Jones, 131.
 Jones, 134.
 The term “whitened” is used by the author of this article to refer to what Jones called a subsuming of the “Africanness” and of the ritualistic function of the Dahomian masks that “inspired” Picasso (Jones, 134). In other words, to whiten an artwork would be to abstract it from its very specific (black) cultural origin.
 Jones 134-135.
 Ziarek in Jones, 133.
 Ziarek, Feminist aesthetics, 12.
 Cristina Morales Saro and Ana Abril at the Conference “Brazil Week at Harvard – Tropicália: Movements in Society”, March 2018.
 Ziarek, “Transformative practice”, 102-103.
 Ziarek, Feminist aesthetics, 124.
 Ziarek, “Transformative practice”, 111.
Buikema, Rosemarie. “Political transitions and the arts; The performance of (post-)colonial Leadership in Philip Miller’s Cantata Rewind and in Wim Botha’s Portrait Busts”. in Gender, globalization and violence. Postcolonial conflict zones, edited by Sandra Ponzanesi, 195-213. London & New York: Routledge, 2014.
Jones, Donna. “Thoughts on Modernism and ‘Feminist aesthetics of potentiality’ in
Ziarek’s feminist aesthetics and the politics of Modernism.” differences 25, no. 2 (2014): 130-137.
Morales Saro, Cristina, and Ana Abril. “Cannibal feminism as dissident practice against the spectacularization of censorship.” Paper presented at Brazil Week at Harvard – Tropicália: Movements in Society, Cambridge, MA, March 2018.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. “Modernism and contemporary art.” Theory, Culture &
Society 23, no. 2-3 (2006): 466-469.
Rezende, Priscila. “Trabalhos.” (Artworks). Accessed January 4, 2019. http://priscilarezendeart.com
Rezende, Priscila. (Brazilian performer and visual artist), in e-mail interview by the author. March 21, 2018.
Ziarek, Ewa. Feminist aesthetics and the politics of Modernism. New York: Columbia
University Press, 2012.
———. “Feminist aesthetics: Transformative practice, Neoliberalism, and the
violence of formalism.” differences 25, no. 2, (2014): 101-115.
* The additional Youtube videos and articles offer general information that expands and complements some concepts of the article and helps to understand it better, but the author of this article does not subscribe to the arguments, opinions and ideas of the videos