Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Melissa Geppert (by Rory N. Finney)
Melissa Geppert wasn’t a typical teen. Her idea of a good time was savoring the contemporary artworks lining the walls of Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, which she visited incessantly. Later, as an adult, she became a docent lecturer at the center that had played such an influential role in her years growing up as an artsy kid who loved to create and study art—as reflected in the BFA in studio art and BA in art history she simultaneously earned at the University of Minnesota. She followed her dual bachelor’s degrees with a master of arts in performance studies from New York University, topped off by a PhD in art history from the University of Minnesota.
Geppert’s dissertation—“Favela Effects: Brazilian Art at the Intersection of Community Development and Global Markets”—examines representations of Rio de Janeiro’s informal housing settlements (favelas) and their crucial role in Brazilian art and visual culture. Her research spans the 1960s to today, covering a range of genres that includes performance, installation, film, web-based, and participatory art. As she describes in her research statement, Geppert traces “the networks through which contemporary art incorporates marginalized peoples and places into global cultural markets and, in turn, the means through which artists and community activists re-route these networks to bolster local struggles for rights and resources.” In other words, she documents how art is literally changing local communities and, consequently, the world.
Recipient of the Dwight Conquergood Award at last year’s Performance Studies International conference, Geppert has collected a broad range of fellowships over the course of her career, from the Harold Leonard Memorial Fellowship for Film Studies to the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to the Tisch School of the Arts Academic Fellowship. She was also awarded multiple grants to fund her graduate research and dissertation.
With a queue of conference presentations stretching into next spring, Geppert has or will present on topics as widely varied as “Cannibals and Funkeiros: Dias and Reidweg’s Politics of Collaboration,” “From One Screen to Many Cameras: Models of Participation in Community Development,” and “Reciprocal Views: Community-Based Art and Urban Heritage in Rio de Janeiro.” If you’re lucky enough to have her as one of your professors, you might just find out what cannibals have to do with the contemporary art world—although you can probably hazard a guess.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in September 2011
(left to right) Walker Art Center (by T.loewen) and the Center’s Cargill Lounge (by Wac-pr)
MM: When did you first become interested in the world of art, and what initially sparked that interest?
MG: I suppose I was always an “artsy” kid, and my parents were good enough to really encourage those interests—they both had a little bohemian streak in them. So between them and other family members and family friends who were artists, I got exposed to a variety of different aspects of the world of art, ranging from local festivals to galleries and museums to design. I found it all very exciting and really wanted to be a part of it in one way or another. By the time I was in high school, I was constantly visiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (where I grew up), which is a world-class contemporary art museum. I get nostalgic when I go back there because it was just such a fabulous early education in modern and contemporary art, film, dance, et cetera and a huge part of why I wanted to pursue it in college.
MM: In addition to your PhD in art history, you’ve earned a master’s in performance studies, a BA in art history, and a BFA in studio art. That’s quite a rich spectrum! It means you understand art from both the artist’s and the historian’s perspectives. How has your art-making background informed your scholarship, and vice versa?
MG: I think that it probably gives me a greater degree of sensitivity to the processes, materials, and technical aspects. Maybe more importantly, it gives me some insight regarding the pragmatic concerns of being an artist. So much about studying modern and contemporary art has to do with tracing some very grandiose yet contradictory claims, an aspect of the art of these periods that some people find alienating (or at least annoying). There have been occasions in which I’ve had very grandiose ideas about my art, but I’ve also faced pragmatic limitations that stand in the way of those ambitions, ranging from a piece falling flat to an audience not reacting in the desired way to having to make rent. These kinds of frustrations undergird so many of the debates about art of the past century. So I have a lot of empathy. I should also add that the performance studies background (which is very oriented to the relationship of theory and practice) and my own involvement with social activism support a more “generous” understanding of past efforts at enacting change. In the end, it’s about individuals, in all their idiosyncrasies, trying to bring about change in their societies, often against impossible odds and in totally unpredictable ways.
Casting a backward glance (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What mediums do you work in, and how would you describe your own artworks?
MG: My stock response to this question is that “I no longer make art, I just write about people who do.” It’s sad but mostly true. In my past life as an artist, I was primarily a painter, and I did very large oil paintings of hyper-realistic women, girls, and infants. I was really interested in bodies and time and flux. Media like performance, video, and interactive digital were not yet integrated into the undergraduate program, and I probably would have taken a very different path if they were, but I tried to get at some of these issues through the very static media of oil paint, for better or worse.
(left to right) Miguel Borges, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos Diegues, Marcos Farias, and Leon Hirszman, Cinco Vezes Favela (Five Times Favela), 1962; Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio 40 Graus (Rio 40 Degrees), 1955 (courtesy of Melissa Geppert)
MM: Film studies is another one of your areas of expertise. What are some of the films that most excite you?
MG: Too many to list! I guess from a scholarly perspective, I find mid-twentieth century Latin American and especially Brazilian film endlessly fascinating. Directors associated with a movement in Brazil called Cinema Novo (New Cinema) such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Carlos Diegues, and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade were working in the 1950s and 1960s to produce a uniquely Brazilian style of experimental cinema that was based in the realities of poverty. They had to confront a largely indifferent Brazilian elite as well as spectators from Europe and the US who had been conditioned to think about Brazil as beginning and ending with palm trees and Carmen Miranda. So these directors made films that are pretty difficult to watch, both formally and thematically, and they tried to transpose social inequality and the experience of hunger to film.
I’m pretty much a sucker for any kind of experimental documentary from any period but especially the sixties (I like most straightforward documentaries, too).
(top to bottom, left to right) Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé capes worn by performers in the Mangueira favela, from Ivan Cardoso’s film H.O. 1979; JR, Women Are Heroes, 2008; Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Samba, 1925; Candido Portinari, Morro (Hill), 1933; Tarsila do Amaral, Madureira, 1924; inside a Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, 2010 (all images courtesy of Melissa Geppert, except for the last image, by chensiyuan)
MM: Your dissertation explores artistic representations of favelas, informal housing settlements in Rio de Janeiro. Can you talk about how Brazilian artists function as intercessors between the dispossessed and the global community? What are some specific examples of how art has literally impacted the political and socioeconomic landscape of the impoverished villages represented in their artworks?
MG: Well, I’ll try to be as concise as possible. Brazilian favelas are an aspect of Brazil’s development as a modern nation and, because of this, artists have turned to them repeatedly throughout the twentieth century as a space through which to negotiate what it means to be Brazilian and what an authentically Brazilian art might look like. So, in the early twentieth century, modernists tend to depict favelas as one of several uniquely Brazilian themes, and they serve as a space of aesthetic experimentation. Later in the thirties, due to a host of shifts in the political landscape as well as a new enthusiasm for Afro-Brazilian culture on the part of intellectuals and the state promotion of samba, favelas begin to be understood as the origin of “authentic” Brazilian popular culture and are taken up as subject matter in regional and nationalist art making. Favela imagery gets more explicitly politicized in the forties to sixties by left-leaning artists who hoped to transform the popular culture of the favelas into a kind of revolutionary consciousness. They have also served as they basis for experimental film and conceptual artworks examining the nature of poverty and social marginality (Cinema Novo, or the Tropicália movement).
In terms of the global community, almost all of these efforts in one way or another are trying to simultaneously grapple with social realities on the domestic front while also articulating an image of Brazil to foreigners (Europe is typically the big concern, though the US becomes important later in the twentieth century).
And for specific impacts? That’s hard to measure, as is often the case with art. For most artists working in the earlier part of the twentieth century, they were primarily concerned with simply depicting Brazil’s social reality, for better and worse. For many, the favelas were troubling, and they might have hoped their art would address that and have some diffuse impact in terms of formal or thematic critique, but it wasn’t about direct action. For others, the favelas were believed to be the soul of the nation and were celebrated, not necessarily because they were poor but because that poverty was, paradoxically, the thing that guaranteed their authenticity and enabled them to be symbols of national identity. It was not really the intent for artists to make any direct interventions into favela communities until the 1960s, when leftist artists and student groups used art (visual art as well as every other type) to engage in consciousness-raising. Both high and popular culture became the tool to organize, instruct, and “uplift” communities. These kinds of activities are largely repressed (to put it kindly) during the military dictatorship (1964–1985) and don’t really start to spring up again until the 1990s. And here, it’s a whole different story because favela communities have, by this point, been devastated by the narcotics traffic and government neglect. There is a huge presence of local grassroots groups and international nongovernmental organizations in favela communities today (especially in Rio), and they have become really important arbiters of contemporary artists’ work, facilitating collaborations between artists and residents or, in some cases, providing the resources for particular projects and/or receiving resources from the display of an artist’s work.
One brief example is a group called Projeto Morrinho, and it is a model of a favela made out of bricks and trash by kids (now adults) who live in the favela community. Through a set of chance circumstances, this model—which began as a pastime—was featured in a small documentary and some local exhibitions. Then an artist named Paula Trope finds out about the group and collaborates with the kids in a photography project, which she exhibits around Brazil and splits any money she earns with the kids. The kids then start an NGO around the model, and Trope introduces them to the curator of the Venice Biennale, a very prestigious international exhibition, and he invites them to display their project at the show. This then opens up to all kinds of other exhibition opportunities all over the world.
Due to this exposure (which, by the way, pays very little beyond per diem expenses and a plane ticket), they start a small tourism operation in their neighborhood where people who maybe saw or heard about the model from art world sources want to see it in its natural environment. Tourists pay a fee, and proceeds go to various community projects. The increased tourism is good for the city, so now they have received municipal funds for community upgrades and to maintain the project.
Tracing the impacts is never very straightforward and usually involves a complex network of agents and agendas. The hope is that there is some equity in the compensation of various kinds of cultural work, which is not always the case.
(left to right) Preparatory drawing for Discovery of the Land mural (by Candido Portinari), Del porfirismo a la Revolución (by David Siqueiros), Rivera the Arsenal (by Diego Rivera), and the storefront window of a Japanese-American business owner in San Francisco on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor (by Dorothea Lange)
MM: Do you see parallels between Brazilian artists and WPA artists such as David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, whose social realism helped bring national attention to issues of social justice in their communities? Or Dorothea Lange, whose poignant photographs put faces on the victims of the Great Depression?
MG: Yes. There were parallels in terms of how art was mobilized to create a sense of national unity around the nation’s most disenfranchised groups (the Indigenous Mexican in the case of the Mexican muralists and the rural and urban poor of Depression-era US).
Brazil has its own cast of national character types that fulfill similar roles, and some of the most important ones are irreducibly linked to the favelas. Some Brazilians, like the artist Candido Portinari, received state sponsorship in the thirties and produced very populist imagery and public murals that were often likened to Rivera by US critics (though Portinari would have much preferred to be compared to Picasso). One thing I think is a bit different about Brazilian artists of the past century, and this is to really generalize, is they tend to be quite concerned to simultaneously deal with national themes/problems and with international artistic currents of modernism. There was not the same division between social realism and high modernism in Brazil as there was in the US. However populist they may have become, there was typically a line between depicting “the people” as a learned modernist and being merely “folkloric.”
Art Workers’ Coalition demonstration in front of Picasso’s Guernica, 1970 (courtesy of Melissa Geppert); My Lai Massacre aftermath, March 16, 1968 (by Ronald L. Haeberle); Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 (by Robert Motherwell)
MM: Films like The Cradle Will Rock and the 2007 Alice Neel documentary reference the political agenda behind de-funding works of social realism in favor of less-threatening abstract expressionism. Although I personally adore abstract expressionist works and feel they have the capacity to address sociopolitical issues—take Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, for example—I recognize they lack the emotional directness often required to call people to action. What are your feelings on abstract artworks and their potential for effecting change in comparison with more realistic artworks?
MG: Well, that’s a tough question. I guess I’d start by saying that I don’t think art “does” anything by itself and that people make art political regardless of what it looks like. As a historian, I am interested in tracing what people do with art, what kinds of investments they make in it and how they make it do different things at different times. A US art collective called the Art Workers’ Coalition that was active in the 1970s was promised sponsorship by the Museum of Modern Art to produce a poster that was critical of the Vietnam war. The museum retracted its funding upon seeing the poster, which was a large-scale reproduction Ronald Haeberle’s photo of the My Lai Massacre with a quote from a Mike Wallace interview with a soldier who participated in the massacre (“Q: And babies? A: And babies.”) printed across the image. MoMA’s claim was that it was not the place of the museum to deal with politics, and so the next day, members of the collective staged a protest in front of Picasso’s Guernica image, one of the most condemning images of war ever produced. The point was that the museum, like art, is always involved with politics, even if those politics are obscured by individual or institutional claims to the contrary. One endlessly fascinating thing about art is that its politics are always being made anew, and works that were made thousands of years ago still continue to be embroiled in all kinds of contemporary political disputes.
Illustration of the 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair (courtesy of Melissa Geppert)
MM: Your master’s thesis examined performing public culture at the 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. How did the performers of that fair compare with today’s postmodern performance artists?
MG: Well, I have never though about that, but it’s an interesting question. On the surface of things, they have very little in common. Sanitary fairs were these massive fundraising fairs that were held in nearly every northern US city between 1862 and 1965 to raise funds for the “sanitary” needs (e.g., soap) of Union soldiers during the Civil War. They were organized almost exclusively by women from a wide range of class and ethnic backgrounds, and they would display and sell all kinds of handcrafted items (baked goods, doilies, quilts, etc.) and just about anything else they could think of (they typically raffled off locks of hair that people like Lincoln or Grant would donate!). They were very popular, raised A TON of money (the one I looked at from 1863 in New York raised $3 million in two and a half weeks), and were a space for women across class and ethnic boundaries to exercise public autonomy at a time before there was a space for it. A few of the lead women had cut their teeth with abolitionist work before the war, and many more went on to be involved in the suffrage movement. So it’s this weird little blip in the history of women’s political history that, due to its inherent ephemerality (they traded in tiny, largely consumable or disposable items, and the fairs only lasted a few weeks for those few years), had not really been registered.
And so, since you mention it, it DOES have a lot of overlap with feminist performance art that was also concerned with carving out a space for women in an art world that was indifferent or hostile to them. These performances were also often intentionally set within the public sphere, had an element of display to them, and left very little physical trace after they were completed. Similar to the “Fair ladies” (as they were called), the politics of much feminist performance is based in social interactions, communication, organization of events, and exchange. And it has also served to consolidate political movements.
Chatting with fellow Assistant Professor of Art and Art History David Bithell (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What are some of the classes you’re going to be teaching at SOU this coming year?
MG: In the fall, I will be teaching an introductory survey as well as a course on the history of alternative media (performance, video, digital art). Then in the spring, I will be teaching the Early Modern survey and possibly a course called Art and Politics. In the spring, I will be teaching the modern and contemporary survey and possibly a class on Art and Technology. Going forward, I am hoping to develop courses on twentieth century Latin American art, Art and Technology, and Art and Globalization.
MM: How do you help students make the connection between the visual and cultural impact of art?
MG: I tend to be “less is more” with my discussion of images. I know the cliché of the art history professor is that they just endlessly keep clicking through the slides of images (I don’t know very many art historians who actually do this but somehow we’ve gotten a bad rep), but I like to spend the time to really situate a particular artist or image historically and then have students pick out all of the visual details of the piece. Students are master “readers” of images since they’re bombarded with them every waking second of the day, so it’s about helping them developing a vocabulary with which to discuss image critically and carefully and then relating the formal elements of a given work to the history of which it is a part. Even when talking about the most minimal piece or maybe a performance that only lasted a second and all that is left is some old blurry photograph, I think it’s really important to spend time thinking about how an artwork is put together before rushing to the big interpretations. I also try to always emphasize that art does not merely represent or reflect history but rather that it is an active agent, and I think this is especially important for studio majors to help them be more conscious and conscientious about their work.
(left to right) Strolling through the Center for the Visual Arts; at the whiteboard (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What is your favorite aspect of teaching?
Sounds trite, but I love that I get to talk to people about the things that I care about, and I get to tell all of these wild stories about people and places who are often historically or geographically distant from us. It’s a lot of fun! I also think it’s important to think about history, how it gets produced, and who is entitled to produce it—and art’s a great object through which to think about those questions because artists tend to cause historical friction.
October 11, 2011 | Filed under Art, Art History, Economics, History, International Studies, Painting, Political Science, Social Sciences, Sociology, Visual Arts and tagged with art and politics, art and poverty, art history, Brazilian art, Candido Portinari, Cinema Novo, David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Dorothea Lange, favelas, global impact of art, Guernica, Melissa Geppert, MoMA, My Lai Massacre, performance art, Projeto Morrinho, Sanity Fairs.
Tags: art and politics, art and poverty, art history, Brazilian art, Candido Portinari, Cinema Novo, David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Dorothea Lange, favelas, global impact of art, Guernica, Melissa Geppert, MoMA, My Lai Massacre, performance art, Projeto Morrinho, Sanity Fairs