When you come face to face with Regina Parra’s work, it reminds you how powerful a painting can be
Regina Parra has firmly stood her ground as one of Brazil’s most exciting artists. Having studied theatre with the iconic São Paulo director Antunes Filho, her work presents clear bridges between performance and visual arts – this is particularly evident in her works that revisit Greek tragedies through a female lens.
The body is constantly at the forefront of her practice, and not by coincidence. She spent five years trying to find the cure for a disease that left her almost paralysed, searching for alternative ways to work. During this time, she met a Haitian refugee in Brazil and together they created A GRANDE CHANCE – a large neon work which can now be found at the museum Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.
Parra is also always questioning the current issues of the world with originality, making it difficult to not see Parra’s work as a practice of resistance. I would dare anyone to go past her impactful series Tenho Medo que Sim (I am afraid so) without a second glance.
Working over a decade, Parra’s remarkable work has been displayed in museums across the globe. As the artist currently works on a new project in New York, I spoke with her about the portrayal of female experience, and the artists’ role in contemporary society.
You worked for a while with theatre. Why and how did the transition to the visual arts take place?
Regina Parra: I worked with Antunes Filho for a few years and it was a very important time for my training. Although Antunes' focus was theatre, the creative process involved visual arts, literature, film, and philosophy. So, even in those early years, I was already looking to blur those boundaries.
When I left Antunes's group, I spent some time living in Rio de Janeiro and took some courses at Parque Lage. I think it was there that interest in the Visual Arts began to grow. Soon after, I went to Paris for a painting course at Ecole des Beaux Arts and wupon my return decided to study Visual Arts at FAAP (Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation).
“I always start from a nuisance, a disturbance that seems very abstract at the time of describing but that hits me in a very violent way” – Regina Parra
Knowing your background in the theatre, I noticed the scenic elements in your works and the fluidity in which you move between video, installations, performance and paintings. How do you ‘define’ the techniques you use each time?
Regina Parra: I think this fluency between different techniques and languages do happen because of my training, but also because of my work process. I always start from a nuisance, a disturbance that seems very abstract at the time of describing but that hits me in a very violent way. Hence, one of the ways I have found to get close to this nuisance - not to get rid of it but to understand it better - is through research and reading.
I am always surrounded by wonderful authors and I am really obsessed with some issues. From these readings, the first ideas for the work emerges. And from there I feel that every job calls for a language. I feel that it is not me who chooses, but the work. Each idea asks for a specific formalization, which can be video, performance, painting... I try to understand the needs of each idea or each project to think about the language that will shelter it.
And, yes, I also like to think about all the work within the exhibition. And I think there is a lot of scenic in it, I always try to think of a rhythm and a kind of narrative - which is not exactly a narrative because it is not linear and does not tell a story - but where elements are added together and in that sum the meaning of the whole is deepened.
I feel that every language has its potency and its limitations, so it's nice to see different languages in the same space because one complements the other, really. In Bacante, we presented two performances in the exhibition space and it was lovely to see how, during the performance, everything gained another meaning.
What would be an ideal place to exhibit your work?
Regina Parra: I never really thought about that much. I always try to think of the place as part of the work as well, to understand what the place informs and from that to propose a relationship. It is always a challenge to work and understand different exhibition spaces.
Your work has countless female characters, as in A Libidinosa and A Bacante. How important is it to portray the female experience and how have these series developed?
Regina Parra: I am greatly troubled by the fact that much of our imagery was built by men and for men. This is extremely limiting – we see we are staging roles and characters that we never chose. We never had the chance to choose because we did not even have the chance to invent our own roles, our own imagery.
I like to think of female characters in my work because I understand that it is a chance to create new layers, nuances and complexities that are usually ignored. Perhaps these series have come from my own experience – a need to bring a female character that is not the cliché of the ‘feminine’ but to think of this being as ambiguous, paradoxical, complex – which scares and fascinates. Facing all this not to understand, but to make room for these and other characters.
A Libidinosa arose much from this annoyance with categorization. I was researching Dr. Charcot's studies in the nineteenth century that tried to categorise, pathologise, and treat women he considered ‘hysterical’. The idea of hysteria is an immense and terribly prejudiced and frightening category. Within this larger category, he used other subcategories to describe the main ‘symptom’ of women: ‘libidinous’, ‘lascivious’, ‘febrile’, ‘deformed’. In the series of paintings I produced, these words are graphed on the image in an attempt to assume these characteristics and in order to subvert them.
The series Bacante came next and also relates to this series because female sexuality permeates it all. It is still taboo to talk about female sexuality and female desire. I have the feeling that we were raised and educated to hide any type of desire or sexuality. To this day, it seems that the manifestation of female desire comes charged with shame. The Bacante would be this women’s utopia: a free being which manifests and exercises its desires freely. Exactly by understanding how unreal this women would be in an extremely conservative society – as Brazil today – in this painting series this bacchante appears simultaneously as a person which desires but that is restrained by political, social, and subjective limitations.
“I have always understood art as a place of resistance and freedom” – Regina Parra
What is the artist’s role in Brazil, today?
I have always understood art as a place of resistance and freedom. A place to create loopholes, spaces where it is possible to question or put in check certain certainties that go on without ever being questioned. We are living a truly scary moment in Brazil today. And not by chance, the area of culture is an area that is being dismantled by politicians. Faced with this scenario, one has to be filled with strength to find new ways to resist. And to resist for me is not to beat ahead but to understand that we can invent new possibilities, new freedoms, new propositions, and configurations, new realities.
Art destabilizes par excellence. So, in this moment when you are trying to freeze everything with an extremely conservative and limited thought, art has to make the ground tremble, create noises, little breaks.
Can an image change the world?
Regina Parra: Yes. I believe in the subtle but extremely transformative power of art.