Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology

Barbican (London), Oct/23-Jan/24

RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology exhibition featuring 250 works by nearly 50 women and gender nonconforming artists. Photographs, films, installations exploring the relationship between gender and ecology, spanning decades, continents, and media, offering perspectives on our ongoing ecological crisis.

Re/Sisters navigates themes such as extraction politics, ecological care, and queer perspectives. This exhibition challenges traditional power structures, celebrates empowerment in the face of destruction, and invites visitors to reconsider their relationship with the Earth. A space where art becomes a tool for social and environmental change, fostering connections to our planet and advocating for justice and equality. Don’t miss the experience to engage with a diverse and inclusive exploration of ecofeminism at the Barbican.

Some of participating artists are: Barbara Kruger, Laura Aguilar, Mabe Bethônico, Carolina Caycedo , Judy Chicago, Minerva Cuevas, FLAR (Feminist Land Art Retreat), Ana Mendieta, Pamela Singh, Format Photography, Sim Chi Yin, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Francesca Woodman, Simryn Gill, Otobong Nkanga, Fern Shaffer

Re/Sisters: A Lens on Gender and Ecology, Installation view, Barbican Art Gallery, Jemima Yong

I asked the Brazilian artist Mabe Bethonico a few questions on her participation in the exhibition and artistic practice.

You are an artist, researcher, curator and professor. How did it all start?

Since the beginning of my practice, while studying visual arts at UFMG in Belo Horizonte, I wished to speak from and with images, to tell stories, and to write. Searching for a Master’s and later for a PhD corresponded with this practice, at a moment when this academic quest was not very well seen by the artistic milieu. Within the school where I was, continuing the studies was seen as abandoning art to become “academic,” in a pejorative way. It was a reductive view of art, understanding it as non-articulated image-making. Living in London during my studies at the Royal College of Art for a period of 7 years, I encountered the effervescence of the London art scene at that moment while accessing my subject matters through much research. This was an academic demand for writing a PhD while bringing me new frames for working with and about archives and libraries, while research methodologies became subject matter and form. When returning to Brazil, I had a scholarship at the university and began to be interested in teaching. At first it demanded an enormous effort to engage with this practice and students, but I gradually understood it as a place from which to work as an artist. It opened ways to collective experiences, and curating was part of that, as was event organisation, leading a research lab with financement for many participating students and guests, building publications, allowing collaboration, around and beyond pedagogy and transmission..

Judy Chicago, Immolation from Women and Smoke, 1972

Your work O colecionador(The collector) part of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo collection started in the late 90’s questioning museological structures, systems of acquisition, exhibition and conservation. It showed the potential of archival material to create narratives. I believe the project is alive with material still being archived by the Institution. Being the Collector a fictional character, what is the importance of storytelling in your work?

The collector was firstly a literary character, derived from a practice of fiction writing, while the collection described in the story was being constructed in the studio. They were born together but it took at least 5 years of collecting before the character became alive or somewhat tangible through the collection. Experimenting with fiction was part of my learning to write, and I still reach out for it, as in the latest piece, – “The Collective Dig: A paper theatre on the myths of extraction”, in 9 acting scenes. Narration is present in One Traveller After the Other, and all performed conferences, such as Extraordinary Mineral Stories, and notably, the video Betty Bloomsfield, a marionette-teacher who transmits and thinks aloud in a conference-like situation. These pieces carry stories, real and fictional ones, which allow conversation and proximity with public beyond exhibition situation, and they may be performed, printed, or filmed. Also when researching in archives for telling histories about institutions, narration is present, in form of mediation of contents in a way or another.

Speaking of Mud – 2019 work at RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology exhibition at the Barbican-London addresses the impact and environmental devastation provoked by international corporations. The memory of slavery associated with colonial extraction is absent. Memory is easily stored and forgotten. What is the engagement you hope from the viewer?

This piece is much about the difficulty of narrating, of comprehending the tragedies of loss and destruction caused by large mining corporations such as Vale, responsible for the rupture of the two dams in Minas Gerais. These events caused hundreds of deaths and they portray the nebulous definition of responsibility in such cases, and strange relations between the government and large extractive enterprises become obvious. Responsibility lies on both sides, and the community pays the price. What is seen in the pictures is the mud, the weight of soil covering waters, killing life and rivers, altering ecosystems. The pictures left in the cut newspaper are subtle traces of this story, and gathered side by side they may convey some of its dimension, suspended in the lack of answers. The disasters are not only Brazilian and localized, but they are global effects and they happen on different scales in many places of the globe. The invisibility of the worker and their disregard is a perpetuation of the history of slavery embedded in this industry in Minas Gerais. History and present realities remain intentionally invisible — there are no archives and little debate.

Pamela Singh, Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas #4, 1994

Your body of work explore memory, identity, cultural and environmental sustainability. How do you see the question of gender and ecology successfully proposed by Re/Sisters exhibition in relation to Brazil?

The role of women in mining is often overlooked in Brazil, whether in peripheral jobs or as main players conducting the heaviest machines of this industry in our days. Mines are still perceived as masculine workspaces, but women workers have transformed this context in some cases, by occupying functions and changing the human relations within in different levels. Although the place remains hostile—the jokes they hear, the pressure felt, the reminder that if they fail, a man takes over their jobs—women are proud of occupying this field and are praised for their courage by their communities. However, women often also bear the brunt of environmental degradation resulting from the same mining activities, experiencing the impact on daily life and on health. This way, they are at the forefront of environmental activism. The exhibition tackles these multiple relations beyond the specific frame of the mining industry, beyond Brazil, at a moment when humanity fails in ensuring the fate of the Earth and the security of women, igniting action and resistance across multiple layers.

Mabe Bethonico has been shown regularly across Brazil and Europe. Participated on the São Paulo Biennial (2006 and 2008), Venice Architecture Biennial (2021), World Matter international project (2010-2018). Currently, teaching at École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie in Arles and at HEAD- Geneva.

Maria Herminia for London Art Walk
December 2023