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Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet

Rigo 23

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Installation view of works by Rigo 23 at BAM. Top to bottom: Sapukay—Cry for Help, 2008; woven taquara, banana trunk fibers, feathers, wire, fishing line, caxeta; 60 x 137 x 60 in. Teko Mbarate—Struggle for Life, 2008; taquara, bamboo, wire, Styrofoam, plywood, banana trunk fibers, feathers, sisal, mud, water, car battery, lights, MP3 players, and headphones; 40 x 350 x 241/2 in. Both works assembled in Cananéia, Brazil, with members of the local Quilombola, Guaraní, and Caiçara communities; courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco. Photo: Ben Blackwell.


Rigo 23: Sapukay—Cry for Help, 2008 (detail). Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.


Rigo 23: Teko Mbarate—Struggle for Life, 2008 (detail). Installation view, MCASD, photo: Pablo Mason.


Rigo 23 in the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves, Brazil, 2007. Photo: Laurel Braitman.

Among the large-scale works on view in Human/Nature is a pair of sculptures by Portuguese-born, San Francisco-based artist Rigo 23. Rigo’s past projects have often been concerned with environmental, cultural, social, and political justice. Around the Bay Area, the artist is well known for his large public murals in the style of street signs, such as One Tree (1995), located near the Highway 101 on-ramp at 10th and Bryant streets in San Francisco.

From the list of sites presented to the Human/Nature artists, Rigo chose the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves in Brazil. Over the course of six trips to what is known locally as the Mata Atlântica (“Atlantic Forest” in Portuguese), Rigo engaged individuals from three separate indigenous communities to collaborate with him on the Human/Nature project: a family from the Caiçara Community of Itacuruca, a fishing village near São Paulo; leaders and craftspeople from the Guaraní village of Pindoty; and residents of Quilombos Ivaporunduva and Sapatú (villages settled by freed and escaped African slaves in the seventeenth century). Under the aegis of Human/Nature, Rigo was able to bring together three communities that previously had minimal contact with one another.

From the start, Rigo planned to learn about the local materials and traditional skills used in the crafts of Mata Atlântica communities, and about ceremonies that demonstrated the communities’ relationship to nature. Following his first visit, Rigo created a working plan to use the techniques and materials of the region to build replicas of contemporary weapons. As Rigo explained in 2005, “the idea behind using the traditional crafts of the Mata Atlântica is to create something completely alien to (their) culture, that is, weapons of mass destruction. In this way, I hope to highlight the contradiction between the usual practice of encouraging native populations to preserve their environment (and the fact that) developed countries exploit the world’s natural resources to sustain their own, often destructive, lifestyle.”

Rigo’s original idea grew and changed in response to his collaborators’ involvement and input. Each community contributed materials, craft methods, and objects to the final works, and in the end more than a hundred community members were directly involved in the creation of the two sculptures, Sapukay—Cry for Help, a representation of a cluster bomb, and Teko Mbarate—Struggle for Life, a replica of a nuclear submarine. In the process, instruments of death were transformed into celebrations of life and its diversity. The submarine holds a crew of carved, brightly clothed submariners that include women and children as well as men, an idea proposed by one of the community members. In place of destructive bomblets, spilling out from the cluster bomb are wooden figurines carved in the likeness of rainforest animals.

Just as Rigo and the indigenous communities were able to transform weapons into art, the ambition of Human/Nature is to transform attitudes, practices, and ultimately, the state of the planet. Reflecting on the journey, Rigo remarked, “This project . . . has grown so much in (the) scope of what it is creating that the final work’s role, rather than being the ultimate site for all our efforts, is becoming the bearer of experiences, the evidence that something larger went on around it, and it is here to testify to that. Exactly how (the full impact) of the project will manifest itself is still to be determined.”

On May 3, Rigo and three of his Brazilian collaborators will be present at BAM/PFA to discuss their work. Read more about this event here.

Frances Wocicki
Grants Officer

Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet is co-organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, in partnership with the international conservation organization Rare. The Berkeley presentation is supported by The Christensen Fund; the Columbia Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; Bank of America; the Walter & Elise Haas Fund; the East Bay Community Foundation; the Baum Foundation; the Rotasa Foundation; Christina Desser; Nancy and Joachim Bechtle; and many other generous donors. The project’s website (http://artistsrespond.org/) is made possible through the efforts of the Studio for Social Sculpture and the Annenberg Foundation.