Artist Profile: Vanessa Rosa
Written by Jenny Begun
Curly-haired Brazilian artist Vanessa Rosa is buzzing with energy and excitement when she speaks about the multitude of ideas she is working on: many are collaborations, others are solo projects. A history and science enthusiast, Vanessa notes: ”Leonardo Da Vinci said, ‘Painting is a mental activity.’ What I like to do is translate into an image an array of concepts, being it social activism, history, science, or whatever else.”
Vanessa began studying art in Brazil. From early on, her drawings, paintings and murals were focused on people. A beautiful example of that period is a portrait of a homeless man with a dog, painted in 2007. Portraits and full-figured compositions continued to dominate her subject matter for several years. A later series of paintings (2014-2015) picturing life in the slums of the Port Zone of Rio de Janeiro is a very sincere and personal interpretation of photographs by her studio-mate at the time, Maurício Hora, a lifelong resident of the area, activist, and a community leader.
Working with the people within the community of the Port Zone, Vanessa created several murals, making sure that the images are relevant to their stories–reflecting their history and strengthening their identity and ties within their group. One of such projects was Visible Memories, started in 2010 as part of Vanessa’s undergraduate research scholarship. “I produced imaginary figures of people from other times, in a lifelike scale, as if there had been a mix between the everyday life of the past with the present one.” The figures were suggested by the locals who also shared old family photographs with the artist.
Another very interesting mural, very telling of Vanessa’s love for experimenting, was Caminho. The artist used another photograph from the Port Zone taken by Angela Rolim. By digitally distorting the image, she played with the illusion created by perspective. With spray paint and acrylics, Vanessa transferred the image to a wall in the Morro da Conceicao neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro “creating characters that looked like the area inhabitants. Intrigued by the illusive effect produced by the work, I decided to reassemble it in other contexts. I always try to adapt the paintings/collage to their new surroundings, creating characters and painted architectures that refer to local specificities.”
Vanessa Rosa, Caminho 2012 Rio de Janeiro; Photo credit Paulo Barros
Vanessa first got curious about patterns, when she started developing ideas for backgrounds for her portraits. She thought about using Portuguese tiles as a background. “I also did patterns on their own, flat. Never liked them. I only liked them in perspective. When I discovered what a laser cut was, in 2013, and what it could do, I realized it was a perfect thing to do my Portuguese tiles project. But I only really started working with laser cut in 2015. Then I went crazy about it. But I was still doing street art and thinking more about optical effects.”
When the artist was showing her Portuguese tile in New York in 2015, most people commented on the “beautiful Moroccan designs.” She protested. “But it made sense that they would find it Moroccan. I decided to take a look at Islamic art. Then I thought, ‘Why blue and white?’, which actually came from the influence of Chinese artisans who used the oxide of cobalt that makes the blue pigment to get sharp lines because it has a more stable pigmentation effect on ceramics than other traditional pigments.” Chinese porcelain was brought into Europe for sale, while Islamic art was introduced by the Ottoman Empire. “Portugal didn’t do it on their own. First they were buying tiles from Spain, Italy and Holland. Holland was the first one to develop more of the Blue and White style in Europe and then Portuguese copied it and sent all over the colonies.”
As she started to do more laser cutting, Vanessa spent most of her time at the computer doing the designs and “then I decided to go deeper into fabrication and learn everything that was related to logic behind the patterns. I started checking out some workshops on algorithm designs. I started reading more and I got completely hooked.” Research on patterns got her to the crossroads of mathematics, history, and art. Vanessa realized it was an amazing fit for her insatiably curious mind. She continued her studies and was amazed upon her many discoveries, one of which was that in Islamic art patterns are considered to be the underlying logic of nature. “It stands higher as image in art than figurative painting. The idea is that the world is an illusion and the mathematics has a way of understanding this divine harmony. That is breathtaking.”
Vanessa always carries in her purse a portable watercolor kit and drawing books, of which she now has quite a collection. They are her personal journals documenting many travels, quotidian observations and her thoughts. “I’ve always been drawing. In order to draw well, you have to be constantly doing it. It’s not necessarily to inspire bigger work. I just love doing it. It’s a practice and a way of being.” It’s also a way of being present and noticing special sides of things.
Because she pays attention, the artist has an aptitude for seeing how a space can change, become more relevant to its locale and its visitors. “I like working in large formats because I really enjoy the idea of creating a space or changing the whole space into your work. Since the beginning, it wasn’t just a drawing or a painting on the street, it was the connection of the painting with the surrounding area. And that gave a completely different meaning to it. I find that fascinating. And the whole social practice around it. I love all of it.”
In 2017, Vanessa collaborated with artist and architect Veronica Natividade and creative coder Wenqi Li to transmogrify the inside of the Babycastles Gallery in New York. Vanessa’s paintings covered the walls; however, the images were not static. Gallery visitors had to participate in the Infinity Game exhibition by looking for codes hidden inside the infinity boxes to activate different moving patterns projected onto the paintings. “When I do a show in a gallery, I find it more interesting if I can make something big, like an immersive environment. The white cube is a perfect space to be transformed completely because on its own it doesn’t say much.”
One of Vanessa’s most recent collaborations culminated in an installation for the Museum of Image and Sound of São Paulo in February of 2019. She worked with Verônica Natividade and Same Putumi. The latter belongs to Huni Kuin ethnic group, a Brazilian/Peruvian indigenous group from the Amazonian forest. She is a shaman, a craftswoman and an artist who shares Vanessa’s love for patterns. After meeting Same Putumi in 2018 at an event in São Paulo, Vanessa went to Same’s region with the objective of exchanging knowledge and designing projects together. Geometric designs are part of indigenous sacred symbology and thus are interwoven into the fabric of their daily activities. Working together, the artists used stencils to do body painting with traditional pigments and also did photographic and video-mapping experimentations.
They have been invited to participate in The Smithsonian Folklife Festival next year. As part of the festival, they plan to create an interactive space that will bring together many visual and performance aspects of their long collaboration. “I’ll be working more on the painting with the shaman, developing the aesthetic. I’m doing a lot of projection mapping. I need to develop ways in which the projection will follow a person’s movements and respond to sound. I want to follow the rhythm of a music. The idea is to create environments with it.”
Vanessa is driven to bring awareness to the knowledge of indigenous people. She wants to share with us their views and believes about what they know is sacred, like the land, the water, the air. By recognizing their deep understanding of ecosystem and sustainability and by adopting better ways of co-existing with nature, we can still save our environment. Vanessa believes in the urgency of her message–we have to work together, support their efforts and strive along with them to make changes.
Vanessa’s artistic inspiration comes from many different sources. A voracious reader hailing from a family of publishers and writers, she believes reading is essential: “Books on theory or just literature. And then there is the part of being in the studio or on the street, experimenting with techniques, which I do constantly. Now I have a new tool–a drawing machine. Very excited about it.”
Using this mechanical aid, the artist produced an unexpected new series of work on paper during her recent residency at NYC Resistor in Brooklyn. She combined images from a book by a 16th century Italian artist Serlio on linear perspective with patterns, mostly Islamic, inserting into the mix several characters crated by the 17th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Bracelli. “They look like mechanical humans, but in a very humorous way. I also started adding some non-Euclidian geometric shapes into it.” According to Vanessa, it’s mostly about mathematical interpretation of the world “but in a surrealistic manner. “