ENTRE LES PLIS
APRIL 27th to MAY 28th
In Castilian, costales designate bags, normally used for the storage and transportation of food. “Costal”, in Portuguese, refers to a person’s back, and the word is often used to refer to agricultural sprayers, which are used in the fields like a backpack. Raphia, in its turn, is a genus that includes about a dozen palm trees, native to tropical regions of Africa and, to a lesser extent, Central and South America, which fiber is traditionally used for making mats, bags, ropes, basketry, etc.
In the late 1950s, an Italian company — Commissionaria Vendita Macchine, Covema — started to develop synthetic polypropylene raffia, which since then has been widely used for the manufacture of bags and costales on an industrial scale for the transport of grains, fruits, spices, food in general (or “dry and wet goods”, in the jargon of the market) and even rubble. One could say that displacement is the essence of these woven objects. Words, objects, their meanings and uses are also intertwined in Mano Penalva’s work, through the displacement of their uses and meanings.
Synthetic raffia bags are the central elements of a series of works entitled Origins (2016—in-progress). To find them, the artist also moves through several fields, and then transforms them into pleated fabric paintings attached to a chassis. The movement is multi-layered: the global transit of goods, for which the bags were originally made; the transit of the artist, who often needs to be physically in a place to acquire certain fabrics; the conceptual displacement of those objects, between a commercial commodity food system and the (also commercial, but highly symbolic) art system. The raffia fold, which no longer carries anything, creates abstract landscapes, autonomous compositions.
If we take into account that the bags carry commodities or, in the words of Indian philosopher, physicist, and activist Vandana Shiva, that “Corporations do not grow food; they grow profits”, it is as if Origins seeks to restore the cultural characteristic of food — that is, of local cultures and crops that have been lost as the global transit of food production and distribution has been monopolized, creating desolate landscapes of monoculture, destruction, and hunger.
In fact, this is not a recent devastation; Latin America (the artist’s home territory) has been, since its foundation, an exporter of commodities to supply profit and satisfy the desire of others. In the words of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano,
This sad routine of centuries began with gold and silver, and continued with sugar, tobacco, guano, saltpeter, copper, tin, rubber, cocoa, bananas, coffee, oil… What did these splendors bequeath us? Neither inheritance nor bonanza. Gardens turned into deserts, abandoned fields, hollowed-out mountains, stagnant waters, long caravans of unfortunates condemned to early death and empty palaces where the ghosts roam.
Penalva’s Costales are made up of a potentially limitless array of products, such as refined sugar, brown sugar “from Brazil”, basil, coconut, manioc, corn, flour, fertilizers. Some resemble agricultural fields seen from above, with isolated blocks of color equivalent to cultivated areas: yellows, ochres, greens, browns, blues, and to a lesser extent, pinks and reds. The “borders” are evident as fences, but the forms hesitate, as if the rationality of the division into lots has failed.
In fact, recent studies have been demonstrating what traditional communities have long known: there is nothing more irrational than a monoculture that, besides functioning as a nutrient mining that exhausts the land, depends on chemical inputs that, instead of controlling “pests”, serve to select the most resistant ones, intoxicating soils, water tables, animals, and people. Also in Shiva’s words, “the paradigm of industrial agriculture is rooted in war: it very literally uses the same chemicals that were once used to exterminate people to [now] destroy nature”.
Other works in the same series bring fragments of words, legible in Fertilizer, Brown Sugar or Coconut; and illegible as a cacophony in the bags of popcorn and caster sugar. Moose Jaw resembles a marine, with cut phrases that seem to represent the foams of the sea. At the top, there is the vague indication “Product of Canada”, but it is not known what this product would be. If the bags have lost their original function of transportation, the text has also lost its communicative quality. All that remains are fragments of words in the costales transformed into paintings.
The artist, while addressing the issue of global food-commodities transportation networks, also establishes a dialogue with the Western tradition of landscape, the second lowest genre in the hierarchy of painting as established by the academies of fine arts in the 17th century. In 1690, the “universal” Dictionary by the Frenchman Antoine Furetière already had the well-known definition of landscape: “the territory that extends as far as the eye can see”. The second definition the dictionary brings has an even more explicit cultural meaning: “Landscape is also stated about the pictures in which some views of houses or fields are represented”.
In the hierarchy of pictorial genres, the highest was historical and/or mythological painting, whose theme, according to European-colonial epistemology, would be the most relevant for artistic representation, nature being a mere background. Although it seems circumscribed to a specific period in the history of art, it is a very persistent cultural paradigm, which is reflected, for example, in the practice of agribusiness: the earth and its resources are perceived not only as inert, but also as inexhaustible and available to satisfy (some) human desires and whims. Still in the realm of art, the influential French critic Charles Baudelaire would state in a review of the 1859 salon: “If a composition of trees, mountains, waterways, and houses, which we call landscape, is beautiful, it is so not by itself, but by me, by my own grace, by the idea or feeling with which I associate it”.
Mano Penalva’s landscapes are artificial, constructed, carefully folded. They suggest that monoculture produces sterile, unnatural fields, just like the idea of landscape in the West, which would exist only because of humans’ “own grace”. In fact, according to the thinker Ailton Krenak, “This thing they call nature should be the interaction of our body with its surroundings, where we would know where what we eat comes from, where the air we breathe out goes”. By taking the costales out of their usual circuit, Penalva interweaves the various meanings of culture — cultivation of the land, artistic traditions, and social values — suggesting that art, this highly valued commodity sometimes transformed into a colonial monoculture, also has the potential to create new landscapes.
Mano Penalva’s Costales, landscapes in transit