Born in 1933, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Geiger began her study of the arts, like Lygia Pape, at Fayga Ostrower’s studio. At that time, in the early 1950s, her work was very much linked to abstract informalism, but, throughout the following 60 years, her production has been characterized by constant internal ruptures.
Anna lived an important part of her life during the military dictatorship – which had a profound effect on her interests and positions. In 1965 comes the first of many ruptures in Anna Bella’s career: this is the year when she abandons abstract informalism and begins a series of engravings and drawings entitled “Viscerals.” After all, how can one be abstract when the world is so urgent? While the standard printing plates for engravings were traditionally rectangular, Anna started cutting them in the shape of human organs. Understanding that one’s body is constantly engraved by the world, Anna realized that we should look to the body itself for evidence of the marks left by reality.
Anna Bella Geiger: On Paper And In “Reel Time” @ Gallery Henrique Faria, New York. Text by Marek Bartelik
The mainstream narratives that define the history of 20th – century art, in which the visual arts have been compartmentalized according to the criteria of period, taste, medium, singularity, participation, etc., have largely been established and, therefore, piercing their monolithic and continuous aspects poses a challenge to a critic interested in writing about the artists not included in those privileged categories.
Anna Bella Geiger (born in 1933) has been exhibiting her art for almost six decades. During this long period, she has demonstrated a remarkable commitment both to making and teaching art, while knocking at the door of art history with great persistence. She is among the most versatile artists in Brazil, and was a Postmodernist sui generis before the term took on its specific meaning in the 1980s, but, ultimately, lost its significance by overexposure. Geiger has produced a large number of distinct bodies of work, executed in different mediums: prints, drawings, collages, paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos. Her art fluctuates among figuration, abstraction, and conceptualism. The heterogeneity in her art reflects an impressive range of interests, which includes art, literature, philosophy and the sciences. That diversity is additionally reinforced through the exploration of the ambiguity of Brazilianness, which
she has been examining in relation to her own biography and self and to the changing socio-political and cultural conditions around her—moving along, what she poetically calls, an “anthropological route.” Geiger’s Brazilianness—fragile, contradictive and “problematic” as it is —in fact activates the subjective, epistemological concerns central in her approach to art making.
Anna Bella Geiger, Little boys and girls – História do Brasil, 1975
In 1970, Anna managed to get some of the first photos of the moon’s craters directly from NASA. It’s important for us to recall that this was less than a year after man landed on the natural satellite for the first time. Anna Bella was (and still is) married to geographer Pedro Geiger, and they, like most of their friends, were involved in the left-wing political struggles in Rio de Janeiro. With four children, in a context of severe repression in which there was much fear in openly discussing the political situation in the country, Anna began printing lunar surfaces in order to create a neutral territory (the moon) where she could speak freely. Like those who stood atop soapboxes in the city squares of London. Anna Bella inserted polarities in this graphic-imaginary space, and here we see the first use of airbrush in her work.
Also during this time, Anna Bella began developing her illustrated “notebooks”– small artist books in which she explored issues that she considered pressing, such as the art system, the history of Brazil, Brazilian culture, the relations between the First and Third Worlds, etc. The choice of this format echoes a didactic tension, the consequence of her experiences as a teacher, but also as the mother of four children.
In the small book titled “Admission,” which parodies an ordinary school notebook, Anna Bella inserted expressions like “Hélio Oiticica” in a multiple-choice question about tropical products as part of an investigation on the formation of Brazilian identity. In one titled “The History of Brazil illustrated in chapters,” Anna Bella utilized a series of photo copies of Victor Meirelles’s painting “The First Mass in Brazil” to recount the history of the colonial period from a critical point of view and also comment on the recurring massacres of indigenous communities in the 1970s – hinting at the sociology of a heterogenous population whose characteristic features are internal domination and colonization. It is these notebooks that presented the original images of the famous “History of Brazil: Little Boys and Girls.” The notebook entitled “About Art” originated some important pieces which the artist would develop over the years in the form of drawings, engravings, paintings and videos like Bureaucracy, Ideology, Adventurism, Subjectivism, etc. In the notebooks, “New Atlas I” and “New Atlas II,” Anna Bella intensifies her subversive relationship with maps, something she continues to work on to this day.
At that time in the 1970s, Anna Bella Geiger came to understand maps as instruments utilized to determine one’s own location, as well as the location of others, and, that as such, they are efficient in maintaining dominance and cultural and political hegemonies. To investigate and act upon cartographic representation would then be taking direct action on the relationships of control. While still a child, Anna Bella inherited a precocious obsession with medieval art from Fayga Ostrower. She was especially intrigued by the hierarchy in the constructive dynamic of the scale of art from that period. Before the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance, the creation of images obeyed a series of codes that depended on the symbolic and the intentions of discourse. Using analogies in her work with maps, Anna Bella went on to distort and relativize geographical proportions through ideological questions. Representation, if you’ll forgive the pun, will always be a matter of point of view, but perspective is the imposition of a single individual’s vision on everyone else – and with the characteristic of the appearance of irrefutable truth. Modern maps, however, like any other kind of representation, and unlike images faithful to nature or truth, are simply descriptions of the world based on the relationships of power within a culture. There is no such thing as objectivity: it all depends on who is drawing and who is interpreting. And it is there that Anna Bella’s interest lies. Creating her own rules of representation and interpretation that are distinct from the Eurocentric and colonial, she conducts transformations precisely where a split from reality is negotiated. Perhaps a different map was necessary for a different world. And these pieces by Anna Bella are examples of cartography created by a marginalized individual “at the center” of the world, and no longer the dominant individual: an individual who landed on the moon inside an apartment in the neighborhood of Flamengo, rather than aboard one of the Apollo missions. In addition to reminding us that there is no artistic, scientific or academic creation that is not the fruit of imagination and subjectivity, her maps are utopian in two senses: that which is imaginable but impossible, and that which is imaginable as the ideal objective of a certain struggle.
Anna Bella Geiger, Burocracia, 1978
(click on the gif to watch the full video)
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 11, 1978
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 2, 1978
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 6, 1978
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 13, 1978
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 21, 1978
Anna Bella Geiger, Equations No 30, 1978
Our Daily Bread 1978 is comprised of six postcards and a brown paper bag with offset printing mounted on card. Each of the postcards reproduce black and white photographic images. The first depicts the lower section of a woman’s face, focusing on her mouth, in front of which she holds a slice of white bread. Two postcards show close-ups of slices of bread with the cartographic shape of Latin America and Brazil removed from the centres. Another postcard shows the two slices alongside one another and a further postcard shows the slices in a breadbasket. The last postcard shows the breadbasket with no bread but with the outline of Latin America and Brazil remaining where previously the slices with their voids had been. The brown paper bag is of a type that was typically used in Brazil for bread. The work documents a performance by Geiger in 1978 that addressed the subject of poverty within Brazil, but also more widely within Latin America.
The performance documented by Our Daily Bread, in which the artist ate bread and distributed postcards, was originally made in 1978, but was restaged at the thirty-ninth Venice Biennale in 1980, at which Geiger represented Brazil. Through the work, bread becomes identifiable with earth and with identity. By evoking the theme of consumption within the context of Brazilian art, it also makes reference to the persistent theme of anthropofagia (the ingestion of the other) and thus to forms of cultural resistance traceable to the avant-garde’s deployment of Brazil’s indigenous cultures. Such references to anthropofagia and their relation to the politics of Brazilian identity have been a regular feature of Geiger’s work.
Anna Bella Geiger, Passengens 1, 1974
(click on the picture to watch the full video)