National Identity and Dress: Thinking about Brazil

I’ve been thinking recently about the ways in which dress and fashion connect to ideas about national identity. It all began when I started to question what ‘Brazilian dress’ might be. Is there any such thing as a national form of dress within Brazil? Simplistic outsider reactions might suggest the bikini or Havaiana flip-flops, possibly even carnival costume, but this probably tells us a lot more about foreign perceptions of Brazil – which tend to treat Rio de Janeiro as a synecdoche for the entire country – than of the lived experience of dress for most Brazilians. Nevertheless, in a country as enormous as Brazil, there is perhaps a greater need to construct a coherent national identity and embodied sense of belonging through the body surface.

Maybe ‘Brazilian dress’ could refer to indigenous forms of clothing? Such as the handmade jewellery and body tattoos, in combination with Western-style shorts and T-shirts, that are worn by the Kayapo, who live alongside the Xingu river in the eastern Amazon. Or perhaps it is the white lace ensembles worn by Afro-Brazilian women in Salvador? Baianas, as they are called, adhere to the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, and wear a hybrid fusion of sartorial elements that originate from Europe (the full-length gathered skirt with crinoline and petticoat) and West Africa (the headwrap, called an ôja, and beaded necklaces)? But these two examples seem to suggest that different clothing cultures within Brazil are geographically tied to region and ethnic identity, when even the vicarious armchair traveller knows that it is far more messy and complicated than that.

A baiana dress, displayed on a white model, at the Mercardo do Madureira in Rio de Janeiro. (Author’s own)

My difficulty in coming to a conclusive answer ultimately reflected the incredible flexibility of dress styles within Brazil. In all its variety, Brazilian dress tells multiple stories about its wearers – personal, local, national and transnational – as well as revealing the global flows of ideas, objects and people that characterize the interconnected world we live in. Cross-cultural exchange and influence is far from exclusive to Brazil. But it does come into much sharper focus within this heterogeneous world culture region, which sits so ambiguously (and not just in geographical terms) between the Western and the non-Western. The development of Brazilian dress and fashion reveals a long and chequered history of cross-cultural contact, slavery and immigration. It is a complex and fluid process by which Brazil, since it was first colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, has absorbed but also re-interpreted diverse influences that stem from its indigenous populations, as well as from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. From North to South, huge variables in culture and climate necessarily impact directly upon the clothing choices made by Brazilians.

Any attempt to define ‘Brazilian dress’ is a tangible reminder that national identity, like clothing itself, is not an intangible essence, but a material construct – an ongoing process of articulation and negotiation that depends upon where we are, and who we are with. As such, using geographical borders to analyse dress in national frameworks will always burst out of the standardized shapes delineated on the world map.

Near and Far: Connecting Clothing, Body, Image & Object in Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil

A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting the lives of workers on the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.

During the MA study trip to New York that I co-ordinated in December, I was able to sneak away one afternoon to work on some of my own research in the conservation facility of the New York Public Library, which is located in Queens. I wanted to take a closer look at a bound photographic travel album that I had read about, entitled Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazi , which documented the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil (1907-1912). Designed between 1909 and 1912 by Dana B. Merrill, an American photographer, and containing over 250 photographs and 16 poems, the album documents the tropical flora and fauna, diverse architectural and industrial structures in varying stages of completion, as well as the multifarious clothing of the various individuals who are subject to Merrill’s roaming gaze: U.S. engineers; Brazilian officials; workers on the track who had travelled from all over the world; and diverse indigenous groups within Brazil. Between 1909 and 1912, Merrill was governmentally employed to document the construction of the 367-kilometre Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil. The project, which cost $33,000,000, would aid the worldwide exportation of rubber from landlocked Bolivia by providing an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. It was overseen by the U.S. engineer and businessman Percival Farquhar, who was contracted by the Brazilian government to construct a line from Porto Velho, a shipping point on the Madeira River in the State of Amazonas, to Guajara-Mirim on the Mamoré River in the state of Mato Grosso, situated at the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Such transnational contracts were not uncommon in the early decades of the 20th century, a period of increased Pan-Americanism as North America actively sought to expand its commercial, social, political, economic and military ties with South America, exploiting the commercial opportunities that existed in Brazil, whilst assisting Brazilian aspirations to be recognised as a regional power. The railway became known in the U.S. and Brazilian press as the ‘Devil’s Railroad’, due to the thousands of workers who died from tropical diseases and disaster during its construction. Through detailed examination of the album as a visual and material object, I’m interested in how images of clothing communicated these interconnected narratives of distance between North and South America in the early 20th century.

A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.

A page taken from Merrill’s travel album documenting U.S. businessmen on the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil, 1909-1912.

I’m concerned primarily with the centrality of materiality as a formative element in understanding images of clothing within the photographic travel album. I want to develop a more nuanced understanding of U.S. and Brazilian modernity at the start of the 20th century, by recognising the distinctiveness of particular modes of dressing, as well as the complexities of the relations between local, regional, national and global influences that are embodied within clothing as well as the material qualities of the album. In order to achieve this, I’m interested not only in the different modes of dressing that are captured by the camera, but also the new meanings that are generated through the arrangement of images on the album page, their display in a particular sequence, and the interpretative possibilities that arise from the synthesis of image and text (in the form of Merrill’s handwritten captions). I plan to evaluate the connections to be made between clothing, body, object and image, as well as the collaborative processes of looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing – on the part of the subject, photographer and viewer – that are entangled within the album and evident only through careful and close-up analysis. By acknowledging the centrality of materiality, images become active and reciprocal objects, operating across time and through space in altogether more complex ways than as merely passive documentations of authority and control. This is what particularly fascinates me about Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil.

An unknown indigenous subject tries on different poses for Merrill’s camera.

 

U.S. and Brazilian doctors Lovelace, Cruz and Pena photographed by Merrill in Porto Velho, Brazil.

 

U.S. and Brazilian officials celebrate the inauguration of the railway at San Antonio on 31 October 1910. A man, fourth from the left, wears checked trousers and gazes directly at the camera. He strikes a pose that suggests he is overtly aware of himself as image before the camera, and performs accordingly

An Auto-Ethnographic Text: Cara Delevigne for Vogue Brasil, February 2014

Cara Delevigne dominated the front cover of the February 2014 edition of Vogue Brasil, which was shot by the internationally-acclaimed Brazilian fashion photographer Jacques Dequeker. Dressed in a sparkly blue minidress by the Brazilian brand Bo.Bo., and accessorised with heavy gold jewellery designed by Lanvin and Dior, she is framed, hands on her hips, against the colourful backdrop of the Santa Marta favela. The Santa Marta favela (commonly referred to in Brazil using the more politically correct term ‘morro’, which translates literally as hill) occupies the Botafogo and Laranjeiras region of the Dona Marta hill in Rio de Janeiro. It received global media attention in 2010, when Dutch artists Jeroean Koolhas and Dre Urhahn (known as Hass & Hahn) collaborated with local residents to paint 7,000 square metres of the morro’s façade in contrasting shades of the rainbow. A symbol of pride for the local community, the Santa Marta art project featured throughout the 12-page Vogue Brasil editorial, which was entitled ‘Face to Face with the Favela: the Santa Marta hill serves as the scenario for Cara Delevigne to wear statement pieces of the season, showing that streetwear couture is the trend of the moment’.

It is not difficult to point out the strikingly asymmetrical dynamics of power in operation between the British supermodel – posing in a combination of mid to high-end Western and Brazilian fashion labels that include Prada, Chanel, Adidas Originals, Bo.Bo., Starter, Valention and John John – and the socioeconomic realities of local residents, whose own creative sartorial expressions were noticeably absent from the frame. Furthermore, it is certainly not uncommon, within ‘Western’ fashion magazines, to come face to face with similar stereotypically ‘exotic’ fashion shoots, which replace the immaculate studio for various ‘non-Western’ backdrops and cityscapes that provide an edgy and endlessly intriguing locale to display Western fashion for the curious Western viewer. Sarah Cheang discusses this at length in her fantastic article, entitled ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’, wherein she comments that Western fashion frequently constructs its ‘other and self-defining conceptual opposite’ through shoots in, for example, ‘dusty Palestine, rural India, or mountainous Peru’.

But what are we to think when Vogue Brasil, with forward thinking Editor-in-Chief Daniela Falcão at the helm, turns that curious Western gaze upon itself, using the morro Santa Marta as an exotic and colourful backdrop to spice up the pages of the magazine? Certainly, there is a considerable distance between the Brazilian viewer (predominantly white European-descended women with cultural and economic capital), whose social and material reality is far divorced from that of inhabitants of the colourful morro Santa Marta, a setting which is sure to have had a cheerful aesthetic appeal for a Vogue Brasil readership. Nevertheless, it is important to situate the magazine within the cross-cultural context from which it emerged in 1975 and has since developed. Brazil is a country that sits intriguingly in between the West and the so-called non-West. In geographical terms Brazil is certainly a Western nation. Moreover, it is affiliated with the West in terms of its developing free-market economy, its large export supplies of raw materials and manufactured goods, its transition to a democratic constitution following the end of the authoritarian military regime in 1985, its high cultural institutions, and its adoption of Christianity and the Portuguese language. Yet Brazil might still be considered a non-Western nation with regard to its incomplete infrastructure, socioeconomic disparities, unequal distribution of wealth and land, poor standards of public health, and its popular and material culture which constitutes, as David Hess and Robert DaMatta have succinctly articulated, a unique site in which ‘Western culture has mixed and mingled with non-Western cultures for centuries’.

So taking this cross-cultural context into account, is it possible to discern any critical engagement in Vogue Brasil with Western and non-Western academic debates that have used the term ‘auto-ethnographic’ text or ‘auto-exotic’ gaze to refer to the way that non-Western cultures often look at themselves with Western eyes, turning their culture into an exotic product that they then offer back to the West? Mary Louise Pratt coined the term ‘auto-ethnography’ or ‘auto-ethnographic’ and used it to describe ‘text[s] in which people undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them’. These auto-ethnographic texts involve ‘a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis and conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to various degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding’. There are numerous tropes to draw upon to demonstrate how the West has produced an exoticised image of Brazil as a site of cultural difference, usually centered on Rio de Janeiro, and on the themes of sun, sea, Caipirinhas, Copacabana beach, skimpy bikinis, and the drugs and violence associated with the favelas. So in placing this fashion shoot within the morro Santa Marta, Vogue Brasil was engaging with a well-established stereotype of Brazil that is frequently seen in the Western media; the only difference is that the violence and gun crime has been eclipsed by the dazzling beauty of the rainbow coloured buildings. Pratt writes that ‘auto-ethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speaker’s own community’ and deduces that ‘their reception is thus highly indeterminate. In using Cara Delevigne as the model, Vogue Brasil knew that this shoot would attract the attention of the Western media, which it did, appearing in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, to cite but one example, in an article by Louise Sanders entitled ‘Favela funk! Cara Delevingne rocks her signature edgy style in vivid neon brights as she works her magic in street shoot for Vogue Brazil’. Although the title suggests the Daily Mail struggled to pick up on the critical message of the shoot it nevertheless constituted, as Pratt has pointed out, ‘a marginalised groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture’.

Therefore, whilst it might be easy to either dismiss this fashion shoot as an instance of Vogue Brasil following in the footsteps of Western fashion magazines, which marginalises the everyday experiences of local residents of the morro Santa Marta or, conversely, to celebrate it for its eye-catching images that frame Cara Delevigne against an intriguing backdrop, I would argue that something altogether more complicated is taking place. If understood as an auto-ethnographic text, then this shoot mobilises a far more interesting dynamic of cross-cultural contact between Brazil and the West that warrants further examination, in which Brazil is perhaps no longer subordinate to the West, but instead uses its own cultural productions to subtly fight back.

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil

Cara Delevigne on the cover of the February 2014 issue of Vogue Brasil. Image: Liz Kutesko

 

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

The first page of the Cara photo spread Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 3

Image: Liz Kutesko

photo 2

Image: Liz Kutesko

References

[1] Anon., ‘De Cara com a Rua: o morro Dona Marta serve de Cenario para Cara Delevigne vestir peças statement da temporada que, usadas com outras de dna Atletico, imprimem o streetwear couture que e tendencia da vez’, Vogue Brasil, February 2014, pp. 140-151.

[2] S. Cheang, ‘’To the Ends of the Earth’: Fashion and Ethnicity in the Vogue Fashion Shoot’ in Fashion Media: Past and Present, ed. By D. Bartlett, S. Cole, and A. Rocamora (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 35-45 (p. 35).

[3] D. J. Hess and R. A. DaMatta, ‘Introduction’ in Brazilian Puzzle: Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World, ed. By Hess and DaMatta (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 2.

[4] M. L. Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 8.

[5] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 8.

[6] Ibid.

50 YEARS OF HISTORY OF DRESS AT THE COURTAULD Alumni Interviews Part Six: Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), PhD (expected September 2015)

Each month in 2015, we will post an interview with one of our alumni, as part of our celebrations of this year’s auspicious anniversary. The Courtauld’s History of Dress students have gone on to forge careers in a diverse and exciting range of areas.  We hope you enjoy reading about their work, and their memories of studying here.

Liz

Liz (C) shown here at her BA graduation in 2011, with Elisabetta Pietrostefani (L) and Jonathan Vickers (R)

Elizabeth Kutesko, MA (2011), Current PhD

Elizabeth Kutesko is a third year PHD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently writing her thesis, entitled ‘Fashioning Brazil: Globalisation and the Representation of Brazilian Dress in National Geographic since 1988’. Liz has previously co-taught the BA3 course ’Fashion and Photography: Viewing and Reviewing Global Images of Dress’, and will teach it again next year, along with the BA2 course, the first that she ever studied at the Courtauld, entitled ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’.

Where did you study and how did you become interested in the history of dress?

I studied my BA, MA and am currently in my third year of my PHD at the Courtauld. I was in my second year when History of Dress popped up on the syllabus. At first I was a bit sceptical…I’d studied fashion and textiles at college and dropped out to complete A-Levels at Sixth Form instead. I remember that my mum encouraged me to choose the special option, ‘Re-Presenting the Past: Uses of History in Dress, Fashion and Art’. It remains one of my best decisions yet. Rebecca is such a brilliant teacher, so enthusiastic about the subject.

So, was it really the construction side of dress and textiles, or the sociological context of dress that you were interested in? 

Both are important in understanding dress as image, object, text and idea intertwined, but studying the more theoretical side of such a multifaceted subject, with all of its allied ambiguities, fascinates me.

Your research draws heavily upon the representation of dress, and really how dress presents citizens bodies in ‘non-western’ cultures including Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. How did you find your niche? 

I travelled to Brazil in 2008 and arrived with little idea of what to expect, beyond an oversimplified awareness of urban violence pervasive in internationally acclaimed Brazilian films such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. By the time I departed, six months later, I was struck by the internal subtleties of its racial, religious, social, cultural, geographical and sartorial diversity. I was fascinated by how Brazilian identities had been asserted, negotiated and re-negotiated through their representation by the ‘West’. What kinds of problems and tensions did representation engender? Was the photographer always the one in control of Brazilian subjects, or did this dynamic shift as subjects’ self-fashioned and self-presented before the camera’s gaze?

I became interested in the Sapeurs, young men from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) who fashion their own identities using Western designer labels, when Rebecca showed us the photobook in class by Danielle Tamagni, The Gentleman of Bacongo. Even though her specialism was Western European and North American fashion, Rebecca constantly broadened our horizons with images of dress from all around the world.

What methodologies guide your research approach to non-western representations of dress?

Despite a growing number of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural examinations of ‘non-Western’ dress and fashion since the early 1990s, there still seems to be a scholarly tendency to privilege enquiries into ‘Western’ high fashion. Although I’m well aware of the pitfalls of employing these generalised and ambiguous terms! I decided that I wanted my research to try and bridge that perceived gap between the Western and non-Western. I particularly like the work of Margaret Maynard, she is an alumna of the Courtauld, and she has considered what dress and fashion choices can tell us about individual subjects and their interactions with global culture. She refuses to understand globalisation as a synonym for standardisation, Westernisation or Americanisation, but examines all the interesting nuances and complexities that are woven into dress.

Your research crucially posits Brazil on the periphery of the West. In terms of the contemporary Brazilian fashion industry, has it evolved independently of North America and European influence, or towards it? 

Brazil is an interesting example. In the 1930s, inspired by Hollywood, upper-class Brazilian women wore furs in the tropical climate. They had to pay extortionate fees to keep the garments refrigerated. It was madness! In the 1980s, this penchant for copying resulted in Brazilian designers being refused entry to Paris fashion week, as they plagiarised the designs too heavily. But in the 1990s imports of luxury goods were allowed into Brazil without heavy taxes. Brazilian designers who had previously copied American and European fashion couldn’t anymore, because for a cheaper price, Brazilian consumers could simply buy the originals. Brazilian designers had to step up their game! It resulted in this interesting intersection of foreign fashion ideas and more local modes of dressing. Sometimes Brazilian designers really play on the exotic stereotypes of Brazil, with tropical prints and exaggerated representations of beach culture.

Do you visit Brazil regularly, and does your approach to dressing and perception of the body differ when you are there?

I’ve been to Brazil on two occasions but hope to return soon. I went on a research trip last year. Cariocas (Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro), have an interesting beach aesthetic, with lots of bright prints and colourful items. They wear a lot less on the street, with short shorts and little tops. It’s the antithesis of the more formal dressing habits of Paulistas (Sao Paulo residents), with their frantic pace of life! I packed a wardrobe with summer clothes that I would wear in London, but when I arrived in Rio I felt very ‘stuffy’ by comparison to everyone else. So I quickly found this shop, Farm Rio (http://www.farmrio.com.br/), which had some amazing patterned pieces and interesting designs. I bought lots of things, but when I returned home these clothes then seemed very wrong for British summertime. It’s interesting how we are subconsciously influenced by the way that people around us dress.

Who is your favourite designer, past or present and why?

That’s tricky! I particularly like this label called ‘Shrimps’. It’s by a designer called Hannah Weiland, who studied at Central St. Martins. Everything is made from faux fur in loads of outlandish colours and I absolutely love it: fluffy clutches, heels, jackets, stoles. Although I’m not sure how sustainable a fashion label based on faux fur is during summer time…

By the time this interview is published the academic year will be finished, what advice would you give to any future MA students?

You have to try very hard not to get bored, and to remind yourself why you like the subject so much. When I allow stress to take over, I often end up feeling completely unmotivated and unenthused, which is the worst state to be in when you’re trying to be creative! It’s really important to have a few days off to do something that you really enjoy. Even if it’s simply flicking through a magazine or newspaper, it will re-ignite your enthusiasm for the subject. Someone once said to me that if you have writer’s block it’s because you haven’t read enough, or you haven’t thought about it enough, so just read anything that inspires you or go for a long walk! (Ed note: I can attest to this tip, thanks Liz!)

Zuzu Angel

Zuzu Angel, the mother of Brazilian fashion, Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo

Zuzu Angel, the mother of Brazilian fashion, Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo

The Pepsi Ladies, 1965

The Pepsi Ladies, 1965

Pink organza dress of pure silk, no date

Pink organza dress of pure silk, no date

I’m currently researching a paper that I plan to give at the conference we are holding on the 16th May, ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Makes Women’. My paper is entitled ‘Zuzu Angel: Fashioning Resistance to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship, New York, 13th September, 1971’ and concerns the Brazilian fashion designer Zuzu Angel, who earned the title ‘Woman of the Year’ in 1969, awarded by the National Council of Women in Brazil.

On 14th May 1971, Zuzu’s son, twenty-six year old Brazilian student Stuart Edgar Angel Jones, was ‘forcibly disappeared’ in Rio de Janeiro by the intelligence agents of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). This was because Stuart was a leader of the left-wing guerrilla organisation, MR-8, who opposed the right-wing regime, which was covertly supported as a result of Cold War tactics by the U.S. government.

Prior to Stuart’s disappearance, Zuzu was celebrated for her exotic and colourful designs that drew on folkloric images of Brazil, such as Carmen Miranda and tropical flora and fauna. Yet following 13th September 1971, when Zuzu held a fashion show at the general consul of Brazil’s residence in New York, her designs initiated a radical change in tone. As she explained: ‘Four months ago, when I began to think about [the show], I was inspired by my country’s colourful flowers and the beautiful birds. But, then, suddenly this nightmare entered my life and the flowers lost their colour and the birds went crazy and I produced a collection with a political theme’.

Some of Zuzu's fabric prints

Some of Zuzu’s fabric prints

I began my research last year in Sao Paulo, whilst on a study trip researching my PhD at National Geographic Brasil headquarters. My time spent in Sao Paulo coincided with a fashion exhibition about Zuzu, held at the Itau Cultural Centre (1 April 2014 – 11 May 2014). It was curated by her daughter Hildegard Angel, a journalist and founder of the Instituto Zuzu Angel, with Valdy Lopes Jn, Itau Cultural’s art director, and entitled ‘Occupation Zuzu: Mother of Brazilian Fashion’.

The exhibition presented dresses, documents, objects, sketches, photographs and letters, some of which Zuzu wrote to famous Brazilian and foreign intellectuals, politicians, such as Henry Kissinger, and celebrities, such as Brazilian singer Chico Buarque, all connected to her attempt to draw international attention to her son’s assassination. Most notable in the collections displayed was the drastic change in Zuzu’s designs after 1971, which were much darker and more solemn, as can be seen in a long black silk gown printed with gold detail. Designs such as this one marked a stark contrast from earlier collections, which were exuberant and colourful, as can be seen in Pepsi Ladies (ca. 1965), and in her print designs, which used embroidered tropical birds.

My paper will examine the coverage of Zuzu’s sobering collection in the United States fashion press to consider the representation of women and maternal femininity. This will be contextualised within the broader news coverage of systematic torture in Brazil that was reported under the military regime. I’ve already done some research at the National Library in Rio de Janeiro, but I’ll be visiting the British Library to look at American papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Zuzu’s story is a chilling one in Brazilian fashion history, namely because she died in 1976, in a car crash whilst traveling late at night through one of the tunnels in Rio de Janeiro. It was discovered later that her car had been doctored by the Brazilian political police and her early death, like Stuart’s, was not coincidental.

Photo of Zuzu with a model

Photo of Zuzu with a model, date unknown, probably mid 1960s

Mourning of Zuzu, ca 1971-76, a mix of pure silk and muslin

Mourning of Zuzu, ca 1971-76, a mix of pure silk and muslin

‘Women Make Fashion/ Fashion Make Women’, a conference celebrating fifty years of history of dress at the Courtauld, will take place on 16 May at the Courtauld Institute of Art. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/researchforum/events/2015/summer/may16_WomenMakeFashion.shtml

 

‘Meninas do Brasil’ by Mari Stockler

liz-kutesko-mari-stockler

Image from Meninas do Brasil

Image from Meninas do Brasil

Image from Meninas do Brasil

Faces and feet are out of focus or cropped out of the frame, whereas breasts and bottoms are emphasised and given a literal and psychological sexual charge that both objectifies and abstracts bodies of all shapes, shades and sizes. Such deliberate technical shortcomings, combined with the gaudy colours of cheap Kodak Instamatic film, inject a gritty realism into these confessional photographs that draw the viewer in with a highly developed aesthetic sensibility. They have the appearance of spontaneous observation and form part of a project entitled Meninas do Brasil [Girls of Brazil], which was started by the Rio de Janeiro-based Brazilian documentary and fashion photographer Mari Stockler in 1996.

Stockler was inspired by a song, written by the Brazilian composer and singer Dorival Caymmi, ‘Um Vestido de Bolero’ [A Bolero Dress], which she heard whilst on holiday in Salvador da Bahia. It describes an awkward young woman who dresses in an eclectic ensemble combining a burgundy jacket with a green, blue and white skirt.  Whilst shooting a short film in the poorer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro a few months later, Stockler was reminded of Caymmi’s song when she witnessed an interesting fashion phenomenon unfold before her eyes: ‘I realised that something very powerful was happening. It was a kind of “haute couture” made by anonymous designers. The interesting thing is that these anonymous designers were very influenced by Azzedine Alaia. They used to buy old fashion magazines from the 1980s. This was before Jennifer Lopez or Salma Hayek became successful in Hollywood for their Latin American sexiness’. Alaia’s designs, as customised and reinterpreted, resulted in spandex trousers, tops, shorts and body suits in a variety of colours, shapes, structures and sizes with different patterns, holes, transparencies and details. Stockler enthused: ‘The girls were wearing them day and night. All kinds of bodies with a funky second skin’.

She became captivated and began to photograph girls in the streets, discos, samba halls and shopping malls throughout Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Belem do Para and Salvador. Dancing, chatting and laughing with them, she understood her role as a recorder of their activities, but not a choreographer of their actions: ‘None of them saw me as a “professional photographer” and this was a big condition for the image. I was with them with no critical distance.’ The tilted camera angle and blur seen in the resulting images shows that Stockler worked unobtrusively. She is never represented in the photographs, but her presence is felt in the varied ways that the subjects react to her and her camera. Stockler developed a technique that she had been taught by the Brazilian artist Regina Case, whom she describes as ‘the master of intimacy’, to get ‘very very close to them in seconds’. When asked if she posed her subjects in a certain way, Stockler recalled a scenario that produced one of her favourite images in Meninas do Brasil: ‘I never asked them to pose for the camera. There were cases of provocation as in the example of a group of three women. When I arrived they started to make fun of me. Meanwhile, I was photographing them. One asked me what kind of dress I was wearing (my clothes were different from theirs) and if I was wearing panties. I remember this as that I was wearing my husband’s underwear (I don’t know why!) and I decided to show them this. I lifted up my dress and they laughed a lot. I considered that one of my best shots’.