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Ensaio (Rehearsal)


April 1, 2011

The maracatu festival becomes an allegory of life itself, in which young and old follow the inevitable rhythm of the dance and the game.

The northeast of Brazil is strongly associated with maracatu. Since this cultural phenomenon was discovered by the mass media, its image has become the leitmotif of most tourist campaigns in the region. Posters and tourist guides are full of images of the caboclos of rural maracatu, with their colorful headdresses and costumes, dark glasses, and flowers in their mouths. These images are reproduced endlessly and end up reducing traditional customs to a cultural product. Even the best ethnographic photography thus runs the risk of becoming an appealing invitation to a spectacle intended to be consumed by way of mass-produced images and tourist packages.

Bárbara Wagner’s “Ensaio (Rehearsal)” was born of an awareness of the commonplace ethnographic image and the desire to measure an artistic work with the tradition of photojournalism. The artist has turned to the world of rural maracatu in the squares of Nazaré da Mata and other country towns in the state of Pernambuco during the rehearsals that precede Carnival, when the revelers do not use the traditional fancy dress. Wagner directed her lens at moments that are rarely celebrated: her vertical shots show caboclos hanging around waiting before the music begins and everyone joins in the dance. The waiting and the night compose a timeless space; attention is concentrated on the involuntary poses of these men, their expressions, details of their clothes, small gestures. The series alternates between the static nature of August Sander and the stark harshness of Weegee, and reveals an irony missed by the stereotypes of many documentary taxonomies, which narrow photographic art to the cold application of a concept.

The horizontal series begins when the music starts up: the group gets into the spirit of things and the performers react to the frenetic rhythms of the wind instruments and drums. The singing of the master puts a stop to the commotion. Lying down, crouching, or kneeling, the caboclos respect the terms of a truce conceded in the form of improvised rhymes. It is during this interval that Wagner takes her horizontal portraits. The same men are now isolated in a space that is limited to the pavement, the beaten ground. The maracatu is dismembered and its men are now individuals confined to a horizon abstracted from realism, verging on pure portraiture.

The maracatu festival becomes an allegory of life itself, in which young and old follow the inevitable rhythm of the dance and the game. Bárbara Wagner’s photography forgoes merely bearing witness, and builds up a playful personal mythology made of pride and ingenuity, exhibitionism, and ferocity, in which each image lays bare the incommunicability which takes us beyond the colors of folklore. The caboclos in “Ensaio” know that they are being photographed and accept this gesture, which is not helping to build the image of the maracatu, which asks no questions and promises nothing in return. The photographs become a nocturnal mirror, in which the eye, enticed by that ineffable suspension, amazes itself.

Bárbara Wagner was born in Brasília (DF) in 1980. In 2005 she developed the photo essay “Brasília Teimosa” (Stubborn Brasília), which was published in book format in 2007 and presented in solo exhibitions in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília. In 2008, the series was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and at the gallery Extraspazio in Rome. In the same year she was comissioned by Made in Mirrors Foundation to be an artist in residence at the Vitamin Creative Space (China) and at Museum Het Domein and (Holland), for which she published the monograph “That what is beautiful must be seen.” In 2009 she was the youngest Brazilian photographer to be part of the Pirelli / MASP photo collection and was selected by the institute Itaú Cultural for the biennial exhibition “Rumos Artes Visuais,” with the 40 most promising young Brazilian artists of that year. In 2010, she participated in group shows at the galleries Luisa Strina and A Gentil Carioca (Brazil), Wyspa (Poland) and FotoTrier in Trier (Germany). Her most recent work, “Estrela Brilhante,” was shown at the Instituto Cultural Banco Real and released as a book entitled “Ensaio (Rehearsal).” She is currently a researcher at the Dutch Art Institute (the Netherlands) and lives in Berlin.

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