Maureen Bisilliat: Brazil’s Camera Poet

ONE

Her name isn’t Brazilian. But for Brazilians she is as Brazil as samba; her instrument is her camera. At the beginning of a TV interview earlier this year on the program Provoçaões (Provocations), host Antônio Abujamra introduced his guest, the 79-year-old English photographer and filmmaker, Maureen Bissiliat, by noting that she has lived and worked in her adopted Brazil for fifty-three years. Born in the village of Englefield Green in Surrey on February 16, 1931 of an Irish mother and an Argentinean diplomat father, Bisilliat moved to Sao Paolo in 1957.

Maureen Bisilliat, photo by Esteves.

Her initial venture into the arts was as a painter. She studied in Paris with the Cubist Andre Lhote, then in New York City at the Art Students League.

“Escale” by Andre Lhote.

A few years after settling in Brazil she took up photography, becoming a photojournalist for the Abril Publishers and working for the magazine Realidade between 1964 and 1972. Near the end of this tenure she received a Guggenheim Grant (1970) to continue the photographic work she had begun four years earlier in her first book, A João Guimarães Rosa, a photo-essay using the writings of the eponymous author as accompanying text. In addition to the strong use of single source light in this work, the volumetric use of the frame in the three images below evokes the Cubist planes and structural design of her teacher, as in Escale, his painting shown above.

The approach of interlacing text and images in this first book is one that she has adopted in many subsequent ones, the most celebrated (both for the photos and writings) of which is Bahia Amada Amado.

Jorge Amado is the most famous of Brazilian novelists and he was a close friend of the photographer.

Jorge Amado and Maureen Bisilliat holding Jorge and Zelia’s pug Pickwick. Photo by Zelia.

The publication of this book in 1996 just a few years before Amado’s death was the fulfillment of a dream the two had had for many years, to define the magic and beauty of the Afro-Brazilian culture and people of the coastal state of Bahia. Using excerpts from a dozen of Amado’s novels, concluding with his most famous one, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Bisilliat portrays in deeply rich black and white and in intensely monochromatic color images, the physical beauty of Bahia’s people and magical landscapes.

From “Captains of the Sands.”  (A novel by Amado)
From “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” (A novel by Amado)

Her uncanny yet seemingly casual ability to blend people and their environment gets to the core of her unique vision. Many great photographers have witnessed ethnic and indigenous people in transition, crisis and conflict. But often their point of view is executed by using external, even formal, values.  As such, elements like composition can be a telling indicator of an outsider's distanced perspective. But Bisilliat’s perspective always seems to be from the inside, close. While she gives great attention to formal elements and while the images are intensely sensuous, the dominant effect comes from a powerful sense of immersive presence. This is all the more surprising because almost all her books are not free-standing photo essays with uninterrupted visual flow but are framed and enveloped by poetic and narrative text from Brazil’s greatest writers.

TWO

I was completely unfamiliar with Maureen Bisilliat’s name and work when I arrived a few weeks ago in Sao Paolo as a guest of the ABC, the Brazilian Society of Cinematographers, to participate in a weeklong series of workshops and encounters at the Cinemateca, a beautifully refurbished brick building complex that had been a former slaughterhouse.

My student guide and translator, Felipe Lorca, had been told by my host, friend and fellow cinematographer, Lauro Escorel, that I had an abiding interest in ethnography and photojournalism. Felipe suggested that I see the Bisilliat retrospective, and he joined me at the exhibition of over 200 of her images which was being held in Sao Paolo by the Instituto Moreira Salles, at SESI’s Galleria de Artes in the heart of downtown’s Avenida Paulista. You can see a high-resolution slideshow of many dimensions of Bisilliat’s work at the institute’s website. Please explore it as an introduction to her singular vision.

ims.uol.com.br—Maureen Bisilliat link

Prior to its installation in Sao Paolo, this retrospective had been shown by the same institute in Rio de Janiero. Once in the galleries, I walked slowly through each dramatically lit room, discovering at every corner images unlike anything I had ever seen. I could not help but reflect as I studied these exquisite prints what a contribution Bisilliat has made to her adopted country. For over forty some years she has been documenting the culture, even the soul, of a nation—and not a monolithic one at that. Brazil’s ethnic and racial diversity, its mix of Anglo, Latin, Japanese, Indigenous and African cultures, living side-by-side and intertwined, has been caught by Maureen Bisilliat’s camera and presented as a totally engaged and emotive experience. There is no way I can begin to convey this richness by reproducing her photographs here, but fortunately there is a two-part YouTube video that recreates the feel of a walkthrough of the exhibition. It captures some of the heady excitement of encountering this work for the first time. The only caveat I have is that the music may at times be too robotic. Feel free to mute it.

The first section covers six of the books that include text: A João Guimarães Rosa (b/w photos of farmers and villagers), O Cortejo Luminoso (Luminous Procession – in color, of carnival), O Vaqueiro (cowboys), also included in Sertões: Luz e Trevas (Light and Waves), As Caranguejeiros (the Clam Diggers, harvesting in the mud), Bahia Amada Amado (the people and land of the state of Bahia).

The second video begins with photos and a clip from a film Bisilliat made in 1979, Xingu Terra. This feature length documentary, centered on the life and rituals of the people of Mehineku Village on the Upper Xingu River deep in Amazonia, is one of the most important extant artistic and ethnographic records of a native people. The Xingu confederation consists of sixteen tribes that live along the river. They share many religious and cultural traits, much as the American Plains Indians did, but they are independent of one another.

In 1500, there were over four million indigenous people in Brazil. By the year 2000 there were only about 200,000. They had suffered much the same fate as the American Indians. But contact with outside culture came much slower and much later for the Xingu. Even at present, there are several Amazonian tribes that have yet to make contact with the world beyond.

Maureen Bisilliat’s introduction to the Xingu came in August of 1973, facilitated by three Brazilian brothers who had long lived with and studied them, Orlando, Leonardo, and Cláudio Villas-Bôas. A Wikipedia entry describes them like this:

“They were almost the first non-missionaries to live permanently with the Indians; and they treated them as their equals and friends. They persuaded tribes to end internecine feuds and unite to confront the encroaching settlement frontier. They were the first to empower indigenous people to run their own affairs. The Villas-Bôas were the first to appreciate the value of politics and the media in furthering the indigenous cause. They also devised a policy of change, but only at the speed the Indians want.”

en.wikipedia.org—Villas-Bôas brothers link

The brothers Villas-Boas.

The two surviving brothers, Orlando and Claudio (Leonardo had died in 1961),  teamed with Bisilliat, the director, and cinematographer Lucio Kodato, to shoot the documentary. The parallel imagery of Kodato’s motion and Bisilliat’s still images (the film and the book serving as complementary perspectives) photographing side by side, creates a fascinatingly detailed and intimate portrait of this indigenous people, as yet barely aware of  “civilization.” If you choose to explore Bisilliat’s work more deeply, this book, Xingu Território Tribal, is the one to search out. You might try here:

Amazon.com—Xingu: Tribal Territory link

Cover of “Xingu.”

In both documentary and stills, we are shown many rituals of the Xingu: harvesting and preparation of the lava-red urucum berries that are distilled into a concoction to make their full body paint, the washing and cooking of manioc tubers that are made into a flour to cook beiju pancakes (a diet staple), the weaving of the cache-sexe ulurí woman’s belt that denotes marital status. In short, this film and book are a closely observed document of their daily and ceremonial rituals.

The second video clip from the retrospective also includes sections on dark-skin Brazilians, Pele Preta, Mangueira (the samba culture), and sections on Bisilliat’s work outside Brazil—in Bolivia, China, and Japan.

Bolivian street scene, a kind of "all-over" portrait a la NY School.

Here is the second video that begins with an excerpt from Xingu Terra:

THREE

It is not unusual that the most incisive observers of a people and its culture are not that culture’s own citizens—but outsiders. The first great book about the American psyche, Democracy in America, was written in 1835 by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, and it is still relevant today. The Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, has given us a perspective into the history of American art as a window into our own character in his book and TV series, American Visions. The Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, laid bare darker strains in our national soul in his seminal work, The Americans.

The British photographer, Maureen Bisilliat, likewise, has examined her adopted country and looked intently into the Brazilian soul. This has been done not with any intention of social criticism or judgment, but with a celebration of the country’s energy and diversity. Nearly eighty years old now, her vitality seems inexhaustible, at least partly the heritage of her mother, Shelia, whose own artistry is also documented in the retrospective.

Bisilliat has been not only a witness for the indigenous people she photographs; she is also their champion. She continues to defend their rights at a time when they have come under siege. In an updated 1990 edition of Xingu she writes a prophetic introduction:

Almost 20 years have passed since my first encounter with the Xingu, the photographs in this book dating from the early to mid-nineteen seventies. Although in the Xingu Region little has, by comparison with other regions, changed, long absence makes it difficult to gauge the subtle alterations that have modified the Xinguanos’ attitude towards the outside world: a certain wariness and an awareness of the conflicts inflicted upon the indigenous populations of Brazil, of the losing battles and the silent wars of conquest….

Those “alterations” have not been subtle. Xingu land is under imminent threat. The government has been developing many parts of Amazonia relentlessly. The Xingu inhabit an area in the state of Pará that is the proposed site for a massive hydroelectric dam, the world’s third largest, Belo Monte.

Amazonwatch.org link

Ecologists and anthropologists worldwide have entered the fray, as has filmmaker/activist James Cameron who, according to some observers, sees the plight of the Xingu as a real life page out of his film Avatar. I found a very recent YouTube video that documents his visit to this beleaguered people. Aside from whatever interest you may or may not have in watching Mr. Cameron in face paint, and dancing at a Xingu ceremony, this video gives telling witness to the change in dress and ritual of the Xingu in the 30 years since Bisilliat's film and book were made.

In the short week that I was in Sao Paolo I wanted very much to meet with Maureen Bisilliat, to see original prints of her work and to discuss her life’s commitment to recording the cultural wealth of so many diverse people. It was not meant to be at this time.

If you do a Google search for Maureen Bisilliat, most of what you find will be in Portuguese, a measure of her value to the Brazilians and of her relatively low profile in much of the Western world, the exception of course being the Germans, those consummate ethnographers, who have published her work in German editions.

At the beginning of this essay I mentioned an interview Bisilliat had done for Brazilian TV. For those of you who understand Portuguese (good Spanish is also helpful) here is the YouTube link of Bisilliat discussing her working method.

I encourage you to seek out any of her books. They are out there on indie bookseller websites. The aesthetic pleasure imparted by the photos themselves are reward enough, but in her multi-layered portraits of the spirit of our southern neighbor, you will discover a poetic depiction that encompasses all mankind.

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