The Power of Play
within the work of
Jonathas de Andrade
Do you remember the childlike satisfaction of turning through a flipbook? By rapidly releasing its pages from one’s thumb, the passing sequence of individual photographs appears as a unified moving image. It was this magical combination of play, optics and muscle memory that sprang to mind when working with Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade on his solo exhibition Staging Resistance at Foam. The exhibition is comprised of a cinematographic sequence of stories, all sourced from his native Brazil. Through a series of playfully staged gestures performed by local communities, De Andrade presents an alternative story of life in Brazil. One that is lived daily and in modesty, and has failed, as of yet, to make it into the official Brazilian histories.
Focusing on local stories of identity and belonging, De Andrade challenges the skewed global power dynamics (of wealth, social mobility and representation) that affect communities on the margin in Brazil, and the world at large. For the works in this exhibition, the artist collaborated with labourers from a sugar refinery, a community of deaf people in rural Brazil, and indigenous women from the highly contested Kayapó Menkragnoti territory in South Pará, a state which is traversed by the lower Amazon River. For his latest work, which was commissioned by Foam, he invited the women of Tejucupapo, a village in the Nordeste region of Brazil, to reenact a battle against Dutch colonisers that took place in their village in 1646. Through staged performances, games and storytelling sessions, their voices are amplified and their stories quite literally take centre stage.
The artist invokes the power of play to investigate how we understand race, gender, and other constructs that inspire social and economic exclusion. These forms of exclusion are sometimes obvious and overt, but mostly they simmer beneath the surface. This makes them hard to identify, and even harder to oppose. De Andrade is concerned with how small gestures and everyday human interactions reveal larger patterns in society. In his work, issues of inequality and exclusion are embodied rather than explained. They are internalised by our (inter)actions and perpetuated by our own behaviour. By staging loosely-scripted performances in places where such politics are at play, De Andrade addresses major social issues through the act of play.
Though somewhat dated, a helpful concept with which to understand the power of play in exposing such internalised social constructions is that of Homo Ludens, or ‘playing man’, conceptualised by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) in 1938. At the heart of his argument is the observation that all of society is in fact ‘played out’; that ‘civilization arises and unfolds in and as play’ (Huizinga 1938, foreword). It forges kinship and thrives on creativity, but it also sparks competition and even violence. For Huizinga, the line between play and politics is very thin. Play, then, is not the lack of earnest. It can in fact be a most serious matter.
If play is indeed the pillar of civilization, and all of society is performed, then it is vital to determine how the rules are defined. For De Andrade, it is essential to unearth how social conceptions, traditions and norms are internalised. ‘The main subject of my projects is how human interactions deal with power relations and naturalise the idea of privilege and non-privilege. This absurd idea is completely naturalised in capitalism. So through the local we can speak of universal issues that are present pretty much everywhere’ (De Andrade, Foam video interview, 2022).
An example of how De Andrade uses play to observe and undermine how global power structures are experienced on a local level is his photo series ABC da Cana (Sugarcane ABC, 2014). The artist visited labourers on their lunchbreak at the TABU sugar refinery in Condado, Pernambuco, where he invited them to spell the alphabet in sugarcane; the raw material for refined sugar. Sugar has been an important Brazilian export product since colonial times, and is entwined with a dark history of slavery, destructive land reclamation, and the unequal distribution of natural resources. Besides acknowledging the politics inherent in food, the act also references the high degree of illiteracy in rural Brazil. Appropriating the time, land and resources of their employer, the workers’ intervention becomes a gesture of empowerment and light-hearted disobedience.
Like an ethnographer, De Andrade stages social experiments and uses the camera to isolate small gestures, which suddenly become heavy with meaning. Yet unlike those of the ethnographer, De Andrade’s narratives are semi-fictional and imaginative rather than scientific. As well as observant, his works often present alternatives to the socio-economic status quo. One case in point is the docu-fiction O Levante (The Uprising, 2012-2013), for which De Andrade organised a horse-drawn cart race in the port city of Recife. Here, the law prohibits farm animals from entering the city centre; since the horse is a primary means of transport for many farmers, this demographic are quite literally exiled to the socio-economic periphery. Under the auspices of high art, De Andrade arranged an official exemption from the law in order to organise his races. For one glorious day the farmers took over the city, filmed and photographed by De Andrade and his team. The performance is both playful and anarchic, and symptomatic of De Andrade’s practice of fighting injustice through playful action.
The photographs and video of the races transcend the realm of pure documentation. Rather, they were the very prerequisite for the act of rebellion to take place. The resulting footage is neither fact nor fiction, yet it manages to skew some very real forms of social exclusion, albeit temporarily. The action unearths and undermines the marginal existence that is experienced by large parts of the population. Though photography has been a crucial means of exposing social inequality from the outset, the way De Andrade employs the medium to address such issues is entirely original. Instead of grim social documentary images of suffering in the margins of society, De Andrade uses the medium as an imaginative device, amplifying the voices of those less heard.
The Uprising (excerpt)
A forgotten history
When dealing with issues of inequality and social exclusion there is the imminent danger of becoming didactic and moralistic. This risk is averted by the creative introduction of
The work Heroínas de Tejucupapo (Tejucupapo Heroins, 2022) presents a photographic re-enactment of a historic colonial battle between the Dutch army and the village women of Tejucupapo that took place in 1646. From 1630 to 1654, North-Eastern Brazil was controlled by the Dutch Republic under the rule of Johan Maurits. Recife was then called Mauritsstad. Although this period evades the historical awareness of most people, the memory of ‘Dutch Brazil’ is still being relived in Recife and parts of Pernambuco. Every year for the past 30 years, the Associação Heroínas de Tejucupapo (Heroins of Tejucupapo Association), founded by Luzia Maria da Silva, organises a reenactment of the Battle of Tejucupapo on the last Sunday of April.
De Andrade invited the association and villagers to perform the historic battle in the here and now. Rather than a historically accurate account of the event, with appropriate costumes and props, the women wear contemporary dress and fight with everyday household appliances. The props present a contemporary armoury in the ongoing struggle for their livelihoods. Set in a deeply unequal society, the work speaks to a history of colonial power structures that continue
Changing the conversation
De Andrade’s staged performance is reminiscent of the revolutionary interactive teaching and storytelling methods developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and theatre practitioner Augusto Boal in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Freire’s book Pedagogia do Oprimido (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968) departs from the idea that the traditional hierarchical power relation between teacher and student is inherently oppressive, and that learning should instead be a mutual process of co-creation of knowledge. In Boal’s Teatro do Oprimido (Theatre of the Oppressed), the spectators are involved in the performance and become active narrators (or “spect-actors”). By giving everyone in the room a voice, Boal dismissed the power of the narrator over the narrated, and transformed the passive act of listening into an active one. The method has since been developed into a plethora of different formats, and its variations have been widely adopted even beyond the world of theatre.
For De Andrade, it is essential to determine who is speaking and who is listening – and to subsequently invert that role. He uses play and performance to extract stories that are excluded from official narratives, and that emerge in the safety and free association that are inherent to fiction and play. ‘The interaction between fantasy and the official history is fascinating, because it speaks on how fluent memory is. How amnesia plays a role in the official writing of history. The writing of history is about editing. It’s about choosing a way. About taking one point of view. How it underlines one political perspective, and how it diminishes another one. How the personal stories can rewrite history through the power of images. Through the power of video and film photography. This for me is a sort of playground’ (Jonathas de Andrade, Foam video interview, 2022). This approach dismisses the persistent distinction that is made between fact and fiction in photography, and celebrates its role as both a realistic and imaginative medium.
The power of play
Photography has always been at the intersection of scientific observation, art and entertainment. Its realism and ability to capture detail and motion lend itself perfectly for presenting the world in all its ugliness. And yet, photography has also been regarded as a magical tool for conjuring different worlds. Daguerre, the first to patent his photographic process in 1839, was initially known as a producer of dioramas and other optical spectacles. The technique that lies at the heart of cinema--and the flipbook--was initially based on scientific photographic experiments by Eadweard Muybridge, the master of motion studies. These are but two examples of how the history of (photographic) invention is fundamentally playful. It is the same inventiveness, curiosity and free spirit that inspire the oeuvre of De Andrade.
When does play become power? Despite his dismissal of the arts as inherently unplayful, Huizinga also acknowledged the power of the image to imagine. He writes in his opening statement: ‘If we find that play is based on the manipulation of certain images, on a certain "imagination" of reality (i.e. its conversion into images), then our main concern will be to grasp the value and significance of these images and their "imagination"’ (Huizinga 1938, p. 4). It is here that we can identify the medium of photography as the missing link between politics and play. Granted, the photograph itself is static and incapable of playful action. It is, however, capable of inciting action, and has been an important catalyst for performance and playful protest since its inception.
About the exhibition at Foam
Foam presents the 6th edition of the series Next Level with artist Jonathas de Andrade (Maceió, Brazil, 1982). Andrade’s work is visually attractive yet highly critical. It creates a space for communities who are less visible in the socio-economic landscape, and less heard in the contemporary social debate. De Andrade is able to playfully draw attention to major themes such as social and economic inequality and unbalanced power relations. Issues that are deeply rooted in his native Brazil, but are also at play in the world at large.
This exhibition is made possible by Ammodo and the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds.
Foam is supported by the VriendenLoterij, Foam Members, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, the VandenEnde Foundation and Gemeente Amsterdam.