Channeling the Trauma and Thrill of Immigration, a Brazilian-Italian Artist Peers into the Void
In the century that followed Italy’s unification, waves of southern Italians left their homeland for the Americas. Their reasons were varied—civil war, earthquakes, poverty, organized crime—as were their destinations. Anna Maria Maiolino’s family, for instance, chose a new home in South America.
Maiolino (b. 1942) was just 12 years old when her family left Calabria for Venezuela. A few years later, when she was 18, they picked up once more, this time moving to Rio de Janeiro in politically unstable Brazil. The experience was, in a word, traumatic. As Maiolino later said, “I found myself being an immigrant again, without speaking Portuguese. I felt as though I was on shifting sands, permanently anxious; what kept me going was my obstinate search for a language, my obsession to become an artist.”
Become an artist she did. Today, Maiolino is one of Brazil’s most important and prolific artists, with a practice that spans drawing, sculpture, installation, printmaking, poetry, film, and performance. “Tudo Isso (All That),” now on view at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, marks her first solo show in Switzerland.
The wide-ranging exhibition includes new drawings, new sculptures, and a room dedicated to video works. From a geographic perspective, the show is meaningful in another way: It’s a return to Europe, her homeland. That’s no small matter, considering how Maiolino’s identity as an immigrant was such a powerful shaping force in her creative life. Now, as before, she is deeply engaged with questions of the self, of childhood experience, and of the immigrant’s dual cultural identities.
One piece in the show, for example, is a white cement sculpture that looks something like an old fossil or part of a coral reef. Here, in Untitled, from Entre o Dentro e o For a (Between Inside and Outside) (2014), we catch a glimpse of Maiolino’s ongoing fascination with the void, with negative space and shadow.
“I think we all have a strange and undefined nostalgia for the void,” she has said, likening the void to the memory of a mother’s womb. “I remember the nostalgia I felt as a child, an incomprehensible desire to return, the nostalgia for a place.”
“Moreover,” she says, “life is renewed in containers such as the holes in the earth, the uterus, and so we learn that these two realities, empty and full, are one and the same.”
An exploration of the self is evident in her recent drawings, too, particularly the three series presented here: “Aguadas (Watery)” (2016), “Filogenéticos (Phylogenetics)” (2015), and “Conta-Gotas (Dropper)” (2016). Each involves separate processes and inspirations, but the “Filogenéticos” works, with their dense systems of dots and lines, evoke an organism under a microscope, a living thing that is changing and moving, as if in a state of constant metamorphosis.
The forms could be symbolic of Maiolino herself: a woman and an artist who’s not quite Italian, not quite Brazilian, always shifting, always moving.