Go and Return Nécessaire

Marepe was born in Santo Antônio de Jesus, Bahia, Brazil, in 1970, and now lives in Salvador, Brazil. His project overlapped with the stays of Vik Muniz, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Working with a group of twenty-four children and teenagers from a Capoiera class at Casa de Cultura, he developed a series of activities that emerged out of his previous work. Often using objects he finds on the streets, Marepe creates sculptures and sculptural installations in which he evokes the beauty and inventiveness of the popular culture of the Brazilian Northeast. His installation Os ambulantes (The Itinerant Merchants, 1996), which engages with the innumerable ways in which Bahian merchants display their goods on the streets and in the markets, would emerge as a particularly crucial work during his collaborations with the children.

Marepe first presented images of his work to the children. He then showed them images of the work of Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), a French artist who lived in Brazil from 1816 to 1831. Debret produced a series of paintings and drawings that recorded everyday Brazilian life with a combination of documentary fidelity and exoticism; these images were published as lithographs in the three-volume book, Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil (1834-39). Many of them convey the low social and economic status of African Brazilians: men and women sell goods in the street, take care of the children of their white masters, and receive beatings from overseers. After looking at images of his own work and that of Debret, Marepe took the children on walks throughout their neighborhoods and asked them to draw subjects from everyday life, focusing on the life of the street. They drew a variety of street scenes, which included popcorn sellers, shoe shiners, cafezinho pushcart vendors, and Capoeira practitioners, among others. The purpose of this aspect of the project was not only to give the children a deeper historical perspective on their daily lives and to help them see their own environments from a new perspective, but to empower them to act as agents of their own transformation, rather than live as the objects of a colonialist gaze.

During his time with the children, Marepe also organized three related activities that shared the purpose of helping the children to see that their culture was full of beauty and dignity. They made sandals out of cardboard—an activity that suggested that even if one comes from a modest background, one always has the resources within oneself to survive challenges. They also made music with instruments created by Marepe out of metal wash basins and chicken roasters—an activity that suggested that the sources of art could be found in the realm of everyday life.

But their most important activity was their experimentation with two máquinas de algodãos (cotton candy machines). Marepe wanted to work with these machines because he knew that they would appeal to the children, but also because they opened up broader social, political, and economic issues: cotton candy is made of sugar, a product that was the foundation of Brazil's colonial economy and society. After an extensive search, Marepe found two old-fashioned machines, which he and the children disassembled and then reassembled (unfortunately, they were not able to make the machines work). This activity was designed not only to help the children understand that the sources of contemporary art lie in the objects from their own everyday life, but also to give them hands-on experience in understanding how things work and to impress upon them the care and inventiveness that the makers put into these ordinary objects, revealing them to be extraordinary.

For the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, Marepe presented two machines that made cotton candy, one of which actually worked. He also presented plaques of watercolor on paper that the children made, in which they wrote the itinerary of their bus stops from their houses to Projeto Axé, in imitation of the route signs one sees on busses.