The fall of the houses of Atafona

“The walls which saw men die,

which saw the gold go away,

which saw the kingdom come to an end,

which saw, resaw, saw anew, no longer see. 

They also die.” — Death of the houses of Ouro Preto - Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Perhaps it’s because her last name is Terra¹, perhaps it’s because the house where she spent her childhood years was torn down after the passing of her father, who sculpted figureheads out of wood and clay, perhaps it’s because, as a child, she used to be taken to Minas Gerais’ historic towns, whose sidewalks, houses and churches have a historic thickness, and there she was dazzled by altars and golden niches, the distant echoes of a wealth that she naively deemed solid, an impression that began to fade away as she noticed the signs of corrosion by time on everything: the wear and tear of the facades, the cracks in the joints where little plants sprout, small in the beginning, but, left unattended, growing on to take over everything, reclaiming the matter that had been taken from them, giving proof that any pact with nature, however imposing it is that we build out of it, is temporary. Could it be due to all of that, could it be due to some intimate reason, like being sure about what makes an artist do what they do? By the way, how do we know what drives us to do what we do, what motivates us to do it?

Be that as it may, this collection of works by Jeane Terra has to do with experiences rekindled by what she has seen in Atafona, a small seaside district that belongs to São João da Barra, in the northern region of Rio de Janeiro, which has been slowly encroached upon by the Atlantic Ocean. That tug-of-war (or maybe tug-of-water) started over 50 years ago and has already taken a toll of over 500 homes in Atafona. Who’s to blame? We are, naturally. We are the ones who devastated riparian forests along the course of the Paraíba do Sul River. With its silted bed and its flow becoming weaker by the year, the river can’t hold back the sea. So the latter, as sizeable and unrestrained as it is, comes in relentlessly destroying houses, sidewalks and streets. It starts with the combination of beats and intermittent infiltrations of the waves, alternating with short pauses of the tides. The sea has the gifts of time and strength. Thus it comes in, relentlessly, at the rate of 25 centimeters a year, charging from all sides and from below, hitting the foundations until the houses bend down, fall on their knees and drown; their broken walls, ripped apart by the hammering of the water, show the wretched bone structure of rusty rebar; their bricks dissolve, turning back into dirt and ground, while dyeing the water slightly red.

In the native Tupi language, Paraíba means a river or a see that is hard to invade. Atafona means grain mill. Paraíba is running dry, Atafona keeps being macerated and the artist’s name is Terra. How odd are those names that hint at destinations?

In her first solo exhibition at Simone Cadinelli Art Gallery, Jeane Terra shows works that are related, directly or indirectly, to the events in Atafona, that are about the ruins produced by the clash between the sea and the city; such events point to the fact that everything that was, is or will be built is going to turn into rubble. It’s just a matter of time, of the time that rules over all things, the materials that go into the production of our world and which ranges from the most ordinary utensils to cities, to everything that connects them: the dirt and asphalt roads, the power cables supported by iron towers, the airplanes gliding on imponderable flight routes, the satellites that collect and distribute information and that tomorrow, laid to waste, pulverized by their reentry into the atmosphere, will pass for falling stars.

The peculiar landscape displayed in the gallery’s window, a shattered view of the edge of a city battered by the sea, is meant to let visitors and passers-by know what to expect. Those who step inside will find, right at the entrance, on the wall to their left, a mural design that resulted from a linear excavation, a shallow gutter, as irregular as a path made by a termite, produced by the artist over many days of work, with hammer and chisel. One can imagine the hard masonry work done by the artist, the dry percussion of the instruments wielded by her hands, carving a channel into the compact and hard material, spraying the mixture of sand, cement and bricks and flouring up the room. The excavated design is interrupted here and there by fragments of ruined floors and walls superimposed on it, capturing one’s sight and leading it to examine the peculiarities of each one - one of them, a piece of hydraulic tile with a predictable geometric pattern, implying that it once belonged to one of the wet areas (kitchen or bathroom) of a house; another one, a piece of wall whose surface still shows the dark red paint with which it was covered, and so on. By itself, this overlapping game links the debris of old buildings to the gallery’s wall. But there is more: each of them has undergone the same excavation process as the wall. At last, even if gone unnoticed by the viewer, the design on the wall is not haphazard; it depicts what was once the Pontal de Afona, with its web-like set of streets now underwater.

The wall and the ruins’ fragments collected in the archipelago of debris are united by the artist’s action, a destructive, premonitory action on the future of the gallery space, a house that, as expected, has undergone many modifications. And what are we to think if we go back to the first construction done there, when Ipanema was a deserted beach? Taking another direction in this time-travelling train of thought, what will be the future of today’s houses, their fate, how long will these solid-looking walls last?

In front of this wall, slightly obstructing the passageway, there is a Totem, a sculpture placed on the floor, a piece of ruined buildings, bigger than the fragments attached to the walls: a vertical piece, the remnant of a column with parts of its rebar rusted, like nerves showing. It’s simultaneously sculpture and debris, a fragment of one of Atafona’s ruined houses, a piece of a vertical sill plate (?), with bricks, mortar and a coat of white paint. The piece also sports the same kind of intervention as the installation on the wall: a narrow geometric design, carved into the object’s body, shaped like the work done by tireless termites, who carry out their duties day and night, indifferent to our sleep; but perhaps it’s fairer to refer to them as the incisions that rubber tappers make into tree trunks, steering the flow of sap.

Having been excavated and having formed images of who knows what, they seem less like a reference to Atafona’s layout and more like a reminder that houses and cities are subject to the same logic. Despite being totems, these sculptures represent nothing but themselves, unburied remains of a city that has partially disappeared.

Jeane Terra proposes that all architecture is essentially self-destructive, that every construction brings along its dissolution, that everything we do is fleeting and that our gestures are distinguished by negativity, even if we insist on valuing the opposite. This may be the justification for the presence of gold, covering parts of the veins furrowed in the wall, in the small fragments, in the totems. As a token of the magnitude of Minas Gerais of the past, the gold carries the unsuspected greatness of our actions, in their own way linked to the times of things. The gold serves as a remnant of the pride of when they were built, of the lives and dreams that they once sheltered, which, like what vanished from them, are presently asleep or in the process of falling asleep, like the last gasp of a burning coal before it is extinguished by water. The presence of gold, a noble metal that doesn’t react with oxygen and doesn’t oxidize, contradicts the fact that everything that exists inevitably faces decay and death. Even though both are inescapable.


Aligned with this direction are the prints - technically speaking, the monotypes - made of silicone poured on the surfaces of floor and wall fragments, located on the gallery’s upper floor. I am referring to Lajeado 1 (Slab Construction 1) and Máscara Gold (Gold Mask), two negatives of fragments, two death masks that can be used to reproduce and delay the impetus towards self-dissolution. Máscara is a piece of concrete, left over from a tiled wall, onto which she applied a gold leaf, a reminiscence of the churches she had visited, such as Nossa Senhora do Ó, which was the first to awe her, as well as plenty others in the city of Tiradentes, where she gained insight into the use of gold in buildings destined for the atonements of souls. The use of molding is ancient, dating back to the magical foundation that guided the making of death masks. In an effort to keep the ancestors’ memory alive, to preserve their tutelary presence, masks of their faces have been produced, up to this day, as a sort of tangible, static and imposing bronze phantom, a reference to the incessant circulation of the living. It’s worth noticing the irony in the employment of this molding procedure in debris removed from the wall of a bathroom, a space for cleaning the bodies, of one of the houses.

The exhibition harks back to other losses, or hasn’t the mark left by the demolition of her father’s house been duly indicated? The other family losses are, all of them, female, to begin with the memory of the artist’s grandmother, the reminiscence of the cross-stitch that she did on rugs, towels, table runners, napkins, shirts, etc. They were made in check patterns, with a reticulum that could be uniform, wide and rigid or narrow and delicate, where colored threads were sewn in an X-shaped form, following a design, a scheme, a diagram or, in the embroiderers’ jargon, a “recipe”. Jeane employed this tiled pattern on her paintings, but instead of the usual abstract ornaments or the expected depiction of flowers, she turned to photos of Atafona’s destruction, seen from the houses at risk, and applied them onto these cross-stitch canvases. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it’s due to an urge to capture and to understand, through geometry, this debris-producing machine. Perhaps it’s because, by overlaying her grandmother’s gestures with ones of her own, the two of them are reunited and all is not lost.

Using a photo of the rear and side remains of a house suspended over a smoothed down beach as if nothing had happened until then, a portrait of calm violence, she has produced drawings, paintings and a movie, presented on the ground and upper floors.

The drawing has the shape of a cross-stitch recipe, that is, its grid has tighter spacing than the graph paper of a math notebook. It’s on a rectangular surface, with the black and white indications of the color of the lines to be applied. Although the drawing is the transposition of a clear and strong image of a ruin, it’s itself abstract, or almost abstract: its content may only be guessed when it’s next to the image that serves as a reference. The color indications are provided by means of hatching, the so-called graphic models, where the squares are filled with points, scratches, light circles with a black outline, black circles with a white outline, diagonal lines, etc., all of them small, detailed, producing patches more or less shaded, a confusing ensemble for anyone who is not a professional, who does not have a well-trained eye, especially when the drawing refers to construction, to the house torn apart at the top of the hill. There, the drawing breaks down into a myriad of dots, like the surface of an old painting, rife with microscopic cracks, having some flaws caused by loss of adhesion. Likewise, the drawing has its own flaws and losses, as if the mapping of a slow disaster like the one pictured was also affected by the same effects.

That brings us to Jeane’s painting. The memory of her grandmother, her daily involvement with cross-stitch, nets and recipes, her systematic and intensive calculations and revisions, in order not to deviate from what had been planned, led her to reinvent her painting. She started by taking advantage of the leftover paint spilled on the floor. The chromatic variations together with the pellicle’s plasticity, the skin of the painting, so to say, gave her the idea of cutting and pasting piece by piece onto the underlying recipe. Rather than embroidery, this procedure makes one think of the construction of a stained glass window, of a pointillist painting, of pixels on a computer monitor. Such a chain of events makes one think about how each of these steps played a part in reaching the other.

The research for the development of this painting, made of quadrilateral fragments of skin, was a matter that demanded a thorough examination, which led to a mixture of paint, binder and marble powder, crucial for its firmness and malleability. That same material, spread over the surface of a table, was used for cold foil printing, monotypes resulting from Atafona’s images. In the artist’s set at hand, another image of the same family generated such an impression, stamped on a soft, cartilaginous skin, a ruined landscape of houses’ bodies.

The top of the stairs leading to the upper floor was the site chosen for the projection of the film, drawing the viewers’ sight to the height beyond the steps. The fixed camera captures the image of the sea waxing and waning as it pounds mercilessly on a wall laid on the ground. The looping film enhances the feeling of a monotonous, obsessive punishment, while also conveying the idea of a rite of washing bodies, performed by multifarious communities all over the planet. But this washing rite, make no mistake, is far from superficial, as it will speed up the dissolution of the body, its transformation into sand. A process that runs through the life of everything that exists, even if we don’t notice it, even if we go about our daily lives with the nonchalance of those who climb a staircase, without realizing how much is involved in simple gestures like this.

by Agnaldo Farias
Mukanda | 16 May 2021 | art gallery, atafona, Exhibition, Jeane terra