Sunday, May 19, 2024

Hidden histories unveiled inside landscape paintings

Fazenda Santo Antonio by Henrique Manzo, 1870, from the Museu Paulista collection.


By Cinara Marquis

Landscape paintings throughout history have been admired from vast mountain peaks to cozy cottages on the river and gorgeous grassland plateaus. However, a beautiful painting can harbor an ugly history.

Art historian Caroline Gillespie visited SUNY Plattsburgh as a featured artist as a part of the Visual Artist Series, which brings artists of all mediums to speak in public lectures, workshops, demos and critiques.

The Visual Artist Series aims at bringing visual art to campus. Typically, seven to nine artists visit and speak every year. It is made possible by both the Student Association and the art department.

Gillespie discussed her dissertation, Delicious Libation: The Art of the Coffee Trade from Brazil to the United States, 1797-1888. Her exposition focused on the erasure of enslaved laborers in paintings of the time.

She is the assistant curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she stewards the collection of historic American art from the colonial period through 1960. She was the last featured artist lecture of the year.

In addition to her curatorial work, she has taught art history courses in the CUNY system and at the Pratt Institute.

Her May 25 talk was an examination of the paintings and culture of 19th century coffee harvesting primarily delving into the oppressive practices of Brazilian coffee plantations.

Historical paintings of these Brazilian coffee plantations, called fazendas, were commissioned by the plantation owners. Intended to represent the estates in a positive light, artists were tasked with making their paintings look to be productive, clean and ideal, Gillespie said in her lecture.

Artists could communicate these elements through clear weather conditions, vast mountainous landscapes and well-organized architecture. The pieces are reminiscent of naturalistic hudson river school pieces, popular American landscape paintings of the same era.

Alongside their beauty the hudson river school works convey themes of imperialism and Manifest Destiny, too.

Visual elements like this can be found in fazenda paintings, too.

Gillespie combined close examinations of fazenda paintings with the study of archival sources such as estate records to understand more about the individuals who were enslaved and their lived experiences.

She noted, however, that these documents were produced by white European artists, fazenda owners and government officials.

“They were not intended to preserve or uplift the individual experiences or even the humanity of the enslaved population,” Gillespie said.

Learning about marginalized individuals when historical resources were meant to diminish them is complicated. Scholars working in these fields often face the challenge of even finding information when the populations were purposefully obscured.

“Some art historians have noted that tropical plantation landscapes often suggest tranquility and prosperity, and that they omit allusions to colonial violence against the land and humans,” Gillespie said.

The detailed, geometric organization of the architecture not only makes the viewer believe that the estate is well-organized but it shows the truth of the rigorous surveillance of the fazenda, too, Gillespie interpreted.

The manor houses often had a 360-degree view of the whole estate, in which enslaved laborers could always be viewed.

In addition to constant surveillance, there are other suggestions of violence that still exist in these paintings, such as the presence of whipping posts. Often artists make the post inconspicuous, but even still it remains, Gillespie said.

Often the whipping post is in a public communal area.

“It’s a form of psychological torture and a reminder of physical punishment. It was a continual reminder and affirmation of the enslaver’s dominance,” Gillespie said.

The romanticized depictions also obscure the devastating impacts that the industry had on the environment. Because of the planting and harvesting practices of the fazenda, the soil deteriorated and a monoculture was created, which consequently led to deforestation and local climate change.

The common compositions of these pieces idealize the truth, showcasing the fazendas’ prestige through successful business.

“In other words, representing power was essential to reproducing domination,” Gillespie said.

Another issue with these works is that they do not depict the population correctly. Often hundreds of people were enslaved at these fazendas, but only a small percentage could be found in the paintings.

These individuals were also depicted in leisure, playing up the benevolence of the estate owner. With the hills remaining devoid of human presence, there is also a feeling of orderliness.

“There is a purposeful erasure of the instilled population from the hillside, divorcing their labor from a successful growing crop,” Gillespie said.

Children sometimes were included in these paintings, too.

“The artist’s inclusion of children in this painting, particularly in this area where people seem to be socializing — he instills this feeling that there is some happy community of laborers here and also a future growing labor force,” Gillespie said.

The children, too, remind the viewer that the reproduction of slavery benefited enslavers. After the abolition of the Brazilian slave trade in 1850, biological reproduction built even more benefit.

After enslaved people were no longer transported from Africa enslavers, relied on biological reproduction to maintain the labor population.

Children born after the 1871 Law of the Free Womb were granted freedom from slavery. There were ways to get around the law, though. Children were required to receive financial compensation, and one of the legal ways to provide that was through enslaved labor until the individual turned 21 years old.

“So it’s really kind of ambiguous in terms of freedom, right?” Gillespie said. “They’re technically free when they’re born after 1871, but they have to stay on the fazenda with their mother until they’re 21 years old.”

The abolition of slavery is slow in Brazil and across the globe.

As a sign of hope, and a marker for what work has been done, and what is yet to be done Gillespie highlighted contemporary Brazilian artist Tiago Gualberto during her lecture.

In 2005, Gualberto installed 100 woodcut prints, carvings in wood, printed on paper coffee filters, at the Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo.

Half of the filters were printed with unique portraits of Black people’s faces, the other half with racialized phrases. The portraits are embedded in the coffee filters with text, branding the faces with these common expressions.

“Welberto’s artistic practice often considers memory and historical erasure, particularly of Afro-Brazilian people,” Gillespie said.

Visitors to the Museu Afro Brasil were allowed to touch and move the coffee filters.

“One might slide the portraits in and out of the filters printed with textual phrases that are affixed to the wall, allowing for closer and more intimate connection with those represented,” Gillespie said. “The creation of detailed, specific, expressive, but yet still anonymous portraits of Black people that may be hidden away speaks to the omission or erasure of black individuals from historical memory, and the ongoing usage of language influenced by racialized and racist thought that contributes to the ongoing subjugation of Afro-Brazilians.”

The words printed on the coffee filters incorporate the words “black” or “white” to imply the dichotomy of good and bad. Phrases such as “gigi branco,” translating to “white day” were used, it means “busy day” or “productive day.” The opposite is “black day” meaning “lazy day.” 

“It connects black, the word black, with feelings of discomfort or even fear or dread,” Gillespie said. “Embedded within this language are constructed ideas about race, including negative connotations about Blackness as that.”

Through his work, Welberto called viewers to examine the implications racism has on society, especially through language.

Gillespie was inspired by his work.

“I was struck by the visual impact of these half-kitted portraits, and I learned more about the implications of systemic racism in Brazil that Welberto was asking the viewer to consider. But within the context of my own research on historic coffee plantations, I was also really compelled by the artist’s use of coffee filters as a medium,” Gillespie said.

The history of Brazilian coffee plantations, fazendas has always been exploitative — the only images left of them being picturesque omissions of what really happened there.

“Welberto’s work calls on viewers to reconsider that omission or erasure from historical memory,” Gillespie said.

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