Rosângela Rennó: the rescue subject’s memory through photography
In the book “A paixão segundo G.H”, Clarice Lispector wrote that “Photography is the portrait of a concave, of a lack, of an absence”. This might be considered a reflection on Rosângela Rennó’s photographs which record a presence that is no longer there.
In her work Immemorial, Rosângela Rennó articulates an artistic dialogue between reality, fiction, public, private, subject, and memory and creates a conceptual discourse through discarded photographs.
Immemorial is a photographic installation that features portraits of anonymous subjects contesting the dominant constructed social memory. .
Observing these photographs, we ask ourselves: who are these people? Where do they come from? To what extent is it possible to identify them and gather collective memories through these photographs?
In the installation “Immemorial”, the photos are divided into two parts: the lower part of the gallery’s floor have exhibited photographs of the dead, and the upper part of the gallery’s wall, of the living.
We can also observe how the places chosen for the portraits, whether on the wall or the floor, fit perfectly, connecting the two parts.
In the portraits we see men, women, and children: we do not know their dates, where they were taken, or even who was the photographer. The snapshot friezes that fragment of time, capturing the subject.
On this path towards the rescue of collective memories, the subject registered in the photograph becomes the representation of memories that are not only linked to him. This connection is shaped between the recorded fact of the subject and the representation of this fact as a vector for collective memories.
When others have access to this photo, a bridge is formed initiating the process of retrieving their memories.
The dichotomy between reality and fiction, that we have mentioned at the beginning of this essay, frames Rosângela Rennó’s artistic perspective
The other dimension that the artist explores in this dialogue is the boundary between public and private. Rosângela Rennó uses anonymous portraits that represent individual memories. These same records serve as a medium to rescue the collective memories of thousands of other subjects and thus become public records of collective memories.
According to Maurice Halbwachs, memory is the human capacity to record facts, actions, and moments in the conscious mind, which are constructed during life, mainly through contact with other people and collective moments, in addition to remarkable episodes, such as traumas, resentments, and disappointments.
For Rosângela Rennó, memory is not just the “innocent” capacity for recording and archiving. In fact, from the collection of photographs kept or forgotten in the drawers of companies, public agencies, and other institutions, the artist chooses to break several barriers of the photographic language.
One of these ruptures is made when the artist chooses discarded photographs, that is, the act of using photographs that no longer have or never had social value, thus subverting the traditional logic of photography, as an instrument for documentation or archiving.
The artist demonstrates the difficulty of demarcating the border between individual and collective memory, rescuing traces of anonymous individuals and simultaneously the memory of a certain historical moment.
Moreover, she combines collective identification with the individual formal character that each subject has in his/her portraits, by editing the photos in order to remove personal information.
By rescuing discarded photographs, the silenced images become a work of art, within a specific social and historical context.
According to Michael Pollak, this selection is usually carried out by majority groups that have the power to impose which memories will be chosen to represent a national historic moment.
The boundary between the sayable and the unspeakable, the confessable and the unspeakable, separates, in our examples, an underground collective memory of dominated civil society or specific groups, from an organized collective memory that summarizes the image that a majority society or the State they want to pass and impose (POLLAK, 1989, p. 6).
The artist makes it possible through her work to survey underground collective memories. These are unofficial memories, unframed and forgotten because they do not represent dominant views. Rennó recovers and exposes those memories that we can call “clandestine”.
By editing the brightness, exposure, lightening, darkening, and contrast of 3x4 photos, the artist extracts information, records, and references that are indexed for the construction of individual identifications, facilitating the creation of artistic and political narratives for her works.
Following a different path from other artist photographers reflecting on poetics linked to the present and the future, her raw material is in the past, and almost always buried in trays and closets where she carries out her research.
The artist collects the photographs in archives and investigates the connections between them and their political, social, historical, and artistic context.
In an interview, Rosângela Rennó underlines that the aim of Immemorial is to combat social amnesia, imposed forgetting, and social silencing of specific events, movements, or attitudes.
“Some of my works were specifically dedicated to the issue of social amnesias, such as “Attack on Power” and “Immemorial”, both from the 1990s. But most indeed treat the issue of amnesia in a more general, wider context. Memory depends on our ability to forget. It remains to be seen how what and why to forget. That’s what interests me”. (BOPPRÉ, 2007, p. 03)
The work deals mainly with non-memory, or with the memory that we socially choose to discard. With the poetic relationship between life and death of the subjects presented and bringing the title as an index of an aesthetically applied thought, which leads us to reflect on the non-memory of the subjects, it is possible to reflect on the silenced history behind these photographs.
Like other Latin American countries, Brazil has a history of revolutions and social conflicts. We could cite as examples the dictatorships in Brazil (1964), Argentina (1976), Chile (1973), and Uruguay (1973) and the repression of those resisting these regimes. These historical moments bring with them a silenced memory, since dominant groups attempt to erase from public history these periods. However, the social marks of these processes are still present in many citizens and families of these countries, as described by Michel Pollak :
The long silence about the past, far from leading to oblivion, is the resistance that an impotent civil society opposes to the excess of official discourses. At the same time, she carefully transmits dissident memories in family and friendship networks, waiting for the moment of truth and the redistribution of political and ideological cards (POLLAK, 1989, p. 3).
This historical silencing is part of a cover-up strategy about investigations and the legitimation of another memory of these historical moments, in addition to the attempt to discourage the search for the facts, the culprits, the victims of state abuses, and killings, and their families.
However, after more than 50 years, positive steps such as the National Truth Commission aimed at accessing formerly forbidden archival material and investigating crimes committed during the dictatorship in Brazil. The artistic exercise of presenting this historical memory constitutes a confrontation with some institutions and government agencies that insist on forgetting, erasing, and burying.
“This “forbidden” and therefore “clandestine” memory occupies the entire cultural scene, the publishing sector, the media, cinema, and painting, proving, if necessary, the gap that separates civil society and official ideology. of a party and a state that seeks hegemonic domination. Once the taboo is broken, once the underground memories manage to invade the public space, multiple and hardly predictable claims are coupled to this memory dispute, in this case, the claims of different nationalities.” (POLLAK, 1989, p.3).
This work is part of this aesthetic strategy of deconstructing the official memory and penetrating through the fissures created to claim this unofficial memory.
These photographic fragments, bring forth these memories and exhume an intentionally forgotten past.
The photograph is inserted here as the means of access to the subject’s memories, the bridge that connects him to the past. We know that when a subject approaches his photographic record, he has the chance to access his memories of traumas and affections.
However, more than that, she proposes rescuing memories of subjects once discarded as a possibility of rebuilding a collective memory. Is it possible to reconstruct a collective memory of Brazil based on discarded portraits of its citizens?
In addition, these photographs keep fragments of a memory that is activated in the presence of the subject, as Barthes explains the relationship between subject and image: when we look at a photograph, even if we do not have any direct relationship, it manages to capture our gaze because we identify ourselves differently somehow, and we create a relationship with our life and our memory.
“Ah, if only Photography could give me a neutral, anatomical body, a body that means nothing! Unfortunately, I am condemned by Photography, which thinks I am doing well, to always have a face: my body never finds its zero degrees.” (BARTHES, 2011, p.21).
From the moment in which the rescue of collective memories is initiated through the aesthetic process, we understand that this proposal presents a resignifying character, about the inability of other disciplines of knowledge to rescue the clandestine collective memories of a country.
“By privileging the analysis of the excluded, the marginalized, and minorities, oral history has highlighted the importance of subterranean memories that, as an integral part of a minority and dominated cultures, are opposed to “official memory”, in this case, “national memory”.” (POLLAK, 1989, p.2).
The process of reconfiguring the official memory is, mainly related to historical periods of revolts, conflicts, and confrontations, through the visual arts and using photography as a medium for the understanding this period. Artists unveil an underground memory that haunts many houses and families that lived through the (1964–1985) dictatorship.
With the possibility of accessing this artistic and historical material, this clandestine memory emerges as resistance, imposing itself visually as a registered heritage of these historical moments. Through art it is possible to break the border of the rescue of lost, discarded, silenced memories, performing this rescue in a contemporary proposal about the inability of other disciplines to carry out this action.
In addition, artists guide this process of immersion in these underground memories through the presentation of their work, in several museums, galleries, and cultural centers.
The space of social immersion of memory, recovered by the aesthetics of photography manipulated in this way, enables a network of debates and reconstructions serving as a means for the deconstruction of the official memory and the creation of alternative collective memories through photography.
The conceptual place where the artist develops her work presents itself as a space of deep reflection, in a dialogue with concepts from other disciplines, but it constitutes much more than an aesthetic and formalist exercise.
When we trace her effort behind each discarded photograph that she recovers, we also observe a political work in defense of an alternative position about an unofficial collective clandestine memory, and from this possibility emerges an array of historical and social developments.
Rosângela Rennó manages to articulate in her work, positions, and debates, from the artistic field. The artist has the tools and autonomy to deepen these same debates in an interdisciplinary and transversal way, thus obtaining in her artistic process a resignification of the collective memory that we define as official.
When I stare at the portraits in Immemorial, the first feeling that absorbs me is empathy, the human ability to identify with another person, to feel what they feel. I put myself for a few minutes in the place of each registered subject, trying to understand what it is like to be on the other side of the photograph.
Perhaps the great essence of Rosângela Rennó’s artistic work is the creation of this space of empathy, of exchange of gaze and place between the model and the spectator.
This ability breaks the first physical division between the portrait and our observation space and expands this visual conversation, through the immaterial presence that these photographs carry. This conversation between our first look and this photographic presence follows us beyond the exhibition spaces and visuals, in an exercise of affinity and intimacy between these portraits and our thoughts.
BARTHES, Roland; CLARA, A. Câmara. Nota sobre a fotografia. Rio de Janeiro: Nova, 1984.
HALBWACHS, Maurice. A memória coletiva. São Paulo: Ed. Centauro, 2006.
POLLAK, Michael. Memória, Esquecimento e Silêncio. In: Estudos Históricos, vol. 2, n. 3, Rio de Janeiro, 1989.
ROSÂNGELA, Rennó. O arquivo universal e outros arquivos. São Paulo, Editora. Cosac Naify, 2006.