in conversation with Paula Turmina
“Brazil comes from the Latin ‘brasa’ that means the colour of ember - red tone”
How did you first get interested in art and begin making works?
I grew up in the countryside in South Brazil, in a town that is as big as 7 thousand inhabitants. During my school years, I didn't really know what art was, apart from that weird lesson we had once a week, and that only meant we would have free time to doodle. I do remember drawing a lot, I would draw on my sister's dolls, on the walls of the house, on my hand, and all sorts of surfaces I could get my hands on. During my teenage years, I started to look more into images, discovering artists through the new thing called ‘the internet’ and being influenced by Punk culture. Since then I realised that was the path I wanted to follow but I didn't know very well how. My art career really started when I moved to London to study painting at the Wimbledon College of Arts.
“My practice is deeply connected to the experience of learning from other humans and non-human beings."
What attracted you to painting specifically?
From doing a lot of illustrations, I moved to brush. The idea of painting itself strikes me; despite it is a flat image, I can do so much with it. There's so much to experiment, a brush stroke and palette selection can give the whole painting a different narrative. The representation of something can be as absurd as I want it to be, so it really gives me the freedom to create anything my mind can imagine.
Your paintings are very intimate, the public become an ‘anthropological voyeur'. Is there a subtle or contained of spirituality, female-empowering themes? Can you talk about this choice and how you approach these themes in your works?
After my graduation in Wimbledon, my practice took a shift, and I decided to paint more intuitively. This naturally led to paintings of rituals performed by red women. I like to think of them as a parallel world, where matriarchy exists in sync with all kind of living beings. I have a sense of responsibility for the way I approach my environment, and I am aware of the entangled ways in which my actions can affect, not only other people but the Earth itself. I am inspired by mythology and how it distils life in an irrational way. Images and stories have a significant effect on the subconscious. I consider storytelling and visual culture as a source of knowledge and education. The idea of myths also allows me to play with history without having to represent it.
Where do your images come from and what is your process creating these paintings?
My images come from different sources. I create the final image intuitively and impulsively by combining historical references and images from my own imagination. I have an archive of images of travels and models - including my self - and historical drawings from the 15th to 17th-century done by Europeans on expeditions to Brazil. The historical prints are very relevant, they allow me to experience visually the idea of colonisation, and question about what they chose to portray in these images. Especially the engravings by Theodor de Bry strikes me with the approach to cannibalism.
How does autobiography enter into your work? How was growing up in Brazil?
Growing up in Brazil was really an amazing experience, especially looking back now and being able to compare it with life in the UK. Being from the countryside enabled me to spend a lot of time in nature, and that experience reflects on my paintings. Although when in Brazil, I had a lot of struggle to do with fear due to social and political issues, being born within a predominantly patriarchal and religious community made me want to experience another culture. All these episodes affected my work, that’s why I feel the need to resist the current political situation. Hearing the new Brazilian president saying that women, indigenous and Africans are inferior to him really gets on my nerves. As a Brazilian, and as a woman, right now, I am angry and frustrated.
The light and the red colour in your works are very powerful. How are you approaching and thinking about it?
I like to think of the red colour as a tool for my work. It makes me feel stronger and it speaks about the subjects I am interested in. First of all, I come from a land that is called red ("Brazil" comes from the Latin "brasa" that means the colour of ember - red tone), and the reason is to the fact that the Portuguese only started to colonise Brazil after discovering a tree that would give them a strong red dye. The tree almost went extinct, I wonder, what was the obsession with the red anyway?! I'm also attracted by the body painting with the urucum that some indigenous tribes use for rituals and identification, and the relation of the red colour to the female subject. I am thinking of how powerful the red can be, I hear people say it is aggressive, violent colour, while I see it as a colour full of energy that triggers very intense feelings; it is impressive how colours can cross so many issues at once.
What are you working on right now? What is informing your work right now?
"I would draw on my sister's dolls, on the walls of the house, on my hand, and all sorts of surfaces I could get my hands on”
At the moment I am spending a lot of time in the print workshop at Slade University. I am trying to understand how can I make printmaking and etching work for me; the technique itself is very old and used by the coloniser. My intent is to invert that language, in favour and reclaim of a new history. I like to mention the artist Adriana Varejão and the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiro de Castro as a big inspiration to my practice. Recently I have been looking a lot into William Kentridge's work, the way he deals with the personal and political issues is brilliant.
What are you looking to achieve in your works?
I mainly want to enjoy the process of learning and making. But my ‘Utopian goals’ would be: to propose a different way of living. To question one's relation to the earth. To trigger that sense of redness. To connect people and create discussions. In fact, if the artwork triggers any sort of curiosity to the viewer, it means that it can start a dialogue and that is already a success.
What is the next project?
I will continue making art. I have also two projects on hold: Plantaphilia and a residency with La Wayaka next April. The Plantaphilia project works in collaboration with my dear friend Iria Suarez, and it consists of a series of films on the ontology of plants. We create an audio-visual experience on the life of plants by recording it with an analogue film on Super 8 and 16mm camera and hand-paint the films afterwards. The sound design is done by Pig7 (Kevin Poulton and Stuart Fisher), who respond to the visuals with an experimental approach. With La Wayaka, I am planning to spend 3 weeks in Panama with the Guna Yala tribe to learn and share experiences with them. Last but not least, I also work on an Independent School in London with kids and teenagers who were disillusioned with the education system. The lessons are tailored to each one of the students, and our goal is to advance education, through creative means.
Why do you think art is important and what is it for you?
My practice is deeply connected to the experience of learning from other humans and non-human beings. I believe that art has the power to communicate and educate in many different ways, and I can't help but mentioning Joseph Beuys who I am really inspired by and believed in ''creativity as a revolutionary means existing in everyone'', which I definitely agree.
“To propose a different way of living. To question one's relation to the earth. To trigger that sense of redness."
Paula Turmina was born in 1991 in South Brazil, studied Graphic Design and moved to London in 2013 to study to study Fine Arts - Painting. She has exhibited her work in various places including the UK, Brazil and Chile and has collaborated with galleries in educational programs. Paula is currently doing an MA at the Slade School of Fine Art and teaches at an independent school.