Rivane Neuenschwander was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, in 1967, where she currently lives. She arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on August 22, 1999, overlapping with Marepe, Vik Muniz, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Working with a group of children and teenagers from Modaxé and the educators Rui Vídero Caldas and Ana Paula Sadeu-Bispo, she developed, among other projects, one centered on the everyday activity of washing, using domestic objects, including sheets, wash basins, and soap. This project grew out of her interest in using mundane substances from the home, including foods, insects, and even household dust, as the basis for her sculptures. She transforms these materials by gluing, burning, scraping, and other processes. The resulting sculptures are fragile, delicate, ephemeral, and often barely visible. Many are charged with an almost ritualistic quality.
Neuenschwander asked each child to bring a set of old bed sheets from home; in exchange for the old sheets, she gave each child new ones to take back home. She was interested in working with sheets because of their associations with resting, sleeping, and dreaming, as well as the image of the body lying on a sheet, enclosed within its rectangular geometry, its delimited field. She and the children then prepared to wash the sheets: they would transform the act of washing into a ritual rooted in the traditional manner in which poor Afro-Brazilian women in Bahia used to wash clothes with white coconut soap and basins by the shores of rivers, streams, and other bodies of fresh water. In a classroom at Modaxé, she asked each child to write his or her first and last name with a condiment mixed with sunflower oil into blocks of coconut soap; in most cases, several blocks were required to spell out a name. The children then put the blocks together to form their names. For Neuenschwander, it was important that each child understood the importance of having a name, an identity, written with pride and care.
On a subsequent day, Neuenschwander took a group of children to a beach near the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, where they began to wash the sheets. The shift from river to sea signified the spatial displacement that invested the activity with new meaning. The children quickly discovered that the salt water inhibited the soap's foaming properties, and the waves kept drawing their basins into the sea. And while the ceaseless approach and retreat of the waves resonated with the repetitiveness of everyday domestic activities such as washing, what Neuenschwander and the children thought was going to be a solemn activity became an opportunity for play. After they finished washing the sheets, they laid them out in a grid on the shore to whiten in the sun, an ancestral practice in Brazil called quarar. When the children saw the grid of sheets, they remarked that it looked like a geometric painting, which sparked a conversation about what constitutes a painting. They concluded the day by gathering the sheets and folding them into different geometric shapes. On another day, Neuenschwander repeated this activity with a larger group of children on another beach near the museum.
The original intention of the project had been to dignify a mode of domestic work, traditionally the responsibility of women, whether they are mothers washing clothes for their families or maids washing clothes for their employers, by resignifying it as art. And while this was certainly an important dimension of the project, what was perhaps more interesting was the transformation of this domestic activity into play.
Neuenschwander conceived another project for the children that she asked Vídero Caldas to realize. It was based on a traditional game in Brazil, in which two players join themselves together into a rectangle by strapping an elastic cord around their ankles, knees, or waists, according to the stage of the game. One or more players enter this rectangular field by performing different operations with the elastic cord. In addition to the fact that this project reflected Neuenschwander's interest in the relationship of the body to geometry, one of the reasons that inspired her to work with sheets, it also manifested her interest in exploring the relationship between childhood/play and adulthood/work.