Noara Quintana, Belle Époque of the Tropics, 2021. FRESTAS Triennial of Arts SESC, ‘The River is a Serpent’, Sorocaba, Brazil

In March 2023, curator Diego Chocano met artist Noara Quintana for a studio visit during the her residency at Delfina Foundation. Emerging from that encounter, the conversation below explores Noara’s practice; her interest in the materiality of everyday objects and their intersections with the histories of the Global South.

Diego Chocano: When we first met, mid-way through your Delfina Foundation residency, you showed me a photograph of you as a child in a small museum that celebrated the hey-day of its city’s rubber economy; an industry that boomed in the Amazonian region of Brazil in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. Can you share how this photo and the context it captures relates to your practice today?

Noara Quintana: I work mainly with sculpture and installation, and this means that materials are fundamental to my practice. The photograph you refer to was taken in a museum situated in a defunct railway station, built by the British in the late 19th century. In this museum, taxidermy, animals, and indigenous artifacts were displayed side-by-side with century-old machinery intended to celebrate the memory of a prosperous era, that of the rubber economy. As an image, the photo brings together a complex series of worlds and in my practice today I investigate how the materiality of such everyday objects reveals silenced narratives of the Global South. As a child, I lived with my family in a truck, crossing the different regions of the Amazon rainforest to transport iron and cement. On the road we would pass through towns marked by the ruins of the commercial rubber extraction industry, among them Guarajá-Mirim, in the state of Rondônia, where this small museum was located. In this way, I grew up surrounded by these failed schemes of progress and their consequences and afterlives, which influence continue to this day. I see in that photo the narrative of modernity and the promises of progress, in which values were imposed on to a local culture and its indigenous peoples. And just like the railroad museum, for me, the city and its domestic objects, architecture, and design, reveal complex histories, temporalities, and erasures.

Diego: A common history in Latin America is that, as modern nation states were formed, the elites of these states looked to European modernity as a model, and the continuation of colonial racist, genocidal, and patriarchal violence was justified in its pursuit. What is interesting about your work is that you look at the aesthetic relationship between the Global South and the Global North as more of an exchange – although Western aesthetics were imposed upon the Global South, and were aspirational among certain people there, you focus on how tropical aesthetics, for example, influenced Europe. Can you tell us a little more about this aspect of your work?

Noara: For me, the word ‘exchange’ is complicated. In my work, I think of this exchange as one founded on an asymmetrical power relation. Indigenous knowledges have been systematically appropriated by Western culture and it is with reference to these spaces of erasure that I seek to work. Through materials, I think you can gain insight into the colonial mindset, that is, how it sought to dominate, rename, and then finally incorporate what it encountered into the trades, technologies and aesthetics of Europe. So, as I see it, design and architecture tell this story, but they also provide a possible way forward, in the sense they allow a certain freedom to the imagination. Working with rubber, silk, and other commodities from a Latin American perspective offers a glimpse into how things might be constructed otherwise. It’s important for me to imagine how an Amazonian Art Nouveau could come into being, and what the consequences of that might be.

In my installation Belle Époque of the Tropics (2021), I was thinking about the future as a revision of the past. The work focuses on the so-called ‘Paris of the Tropics’: the name given to Brazil’s Amazonian cities of Belém and Manaus in the late nineteenth century. Made famous by their Belle Époque architecture and spirit of modernity, these two cities boasted an advanced urban infrastructure made possible by the profits of the booming rubber economy. Again, we arrive at the question of ‘exchange’: these cities were laid out according to an imported aesthetic from France, while the wealth that made such extravagance possible was, for the large part, being exported back to Europe. There is an irony in how the botanical motifs of European Art Nouveau were celebrated, while the botany of the Amazon was disregarded and instrumentalised as a source of profit. The installation that I produced seeks to be beautiful, but it also endeavours to invert the aesthetic relationship between botanical motifs and French Art Nouveau architecture through inscribing industrial materials like rubber with motifs derived from the botany of the Amazon. It is common in Brazil to celebrate the wonder of a ‘Europe in the jungle’, and the Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo plays on this juxtaposition, but the reality is that the ‘Paris of the Tropics’ was built on the appropriation of the indigenous knowledge of rubber extraction and then was imprinted with a European aesthetic.

Noara Quintana, Belle Époque of the Tropics, 2021. FRESTAS Triennial of Arts SESC, ‘The River is a Serpent’, Sorocaba, Brazil.

Diego: In your work, you engage with the symbolic importance of everyday materials in a playful, subversive way that unveils and ultimately critiques the colonial imaginary which has imbued them with this importance. Your sculpture series On Emulated Soil (2018), where you look at concrete as a metaphor and symbol of Brazil’s rigid, patriarchal modernity, is a wonderful example of this. How does your interest in specific materials tend to begin? Which materials have you found to be particularly productive as areas for research in your practice?

Noara: In the first instance, my interest in materials lies in their everyday quality and their presence in my life. I grew up in what was left of a modernist project, and moving around Brazil as a child, the road was always present. As an artist, I experiment with materials and I’ve worked to innovate their use, for example, a cement which is flexible and mouldable. Concrete has been part of an on-going research process in this sense, and I have sought to understand its connotations in modernist architecture, creating work that interrogates concrete’s use as an index of 20th century social utopias. My experimentation with concrete’s flexibility in a way led me to rubber and I see the plasticity of these materials as a means to question the dislocation of identity between Brazil and Europe. This research unfolded in projects such as Concrete Mirror (2017), Form Under Duress (2017), and On Emulated Soil (2018), all of which were realised in collaboration with different communities, from Brazilian immigrants in France to waste pickers in São Paulo.

Noara Quintana, On Emulated Soil, 2018. Funarte, São Paulo, Brazil

Diego: When we met for a studio visit, you presented the project that you were planning to work on during your Delfina Foundation residency by showing me books you had collected. Thorough and diligent academic research appears to be a crucial part of your artistic practice. Is this how your projects tend to begin? Do you find that there is a negotiation or tension between the more research-driven processes and the aesthetic element of your work ?

Noara: I collect stories and I love to read academic research of all kinds, from anthropology to architecture and design. I look for books in local bookshops, I listen to local stories, and I talk to people while conducting my research. At the same time, working with particular materials means dealing with their materiality: the stories they carry, the gestures of the people who work with them, the technical manuals of how they are employed. Research can be thought of in an objective sense, as something that would lead a logical and final conclusion. I prefer though to think of it as a story, that branches and intertwines. I gather and store this information and at some point it manifests in work. Personally, I tend to think there is a healthy creative tension between a research-driven process and the aesthetic object, and I enjoy experimenting with the puzzle that this sometimes presents.

Diego: I hope through our conversation so far that we have touched on some important aspects of your practice. It would be great to see how these may have manifested themselves in the project you have been working on during your residency at Delfina. Could you introduce that project?

Noara: During my residency, I wanted to develop a project I had been working on called Evenings of Water. This takes the form of a hanging illuminated sculpture inspired by the Amazonian Vitoria Régia, the Giant Water Lily, and my research for this project had already brought up the connections between British Art Nouveau, and London’s Crystal Palace and Kew Gardens. Being in London, I was interested to further trace these connections, and I knew I wanted to work with the idea of a counter-colonial historiography: a re-reading of something familiar and everyday, thrown into a playful, but somewhat strange context. The Arts and Crafts movement was a means to reconsider the influence of tropical botanical motifs in British architecture and I focused primarily on William Morris’ famous design, Strawberry Thief.

Diego: Did this project feel like a logical continuation of your previous work? How did it differ from it?

Noara: Working in the space of the familiar and strange is interesting, and aesthetic inversion, or subversion, is something that people see in my work. At Delfina, I wanted to work with something everyday, and I noticed that the Delfina house, a Georgian building, had retained sections of a pre-existing patterned wallpaper in its 2014 redevelopment. In 19th century Britain, wallpaper became an obsession, its aspirational quality, its reproducibility, and of course, William Morris’ designs were part of that. My research project, Serpentine Traces, gave rise to a work called Rubber Thief (2023) that is ostensibly a wallpaper, but is suspended in space on an aluminium rail formed in the shape of a snake. The panel itself was made of silk with designs in graphite, inspired by those of Morris. The motif is botanical and features Amazonian plants that were dislocated and spread across the world by the British Empire, for example, the rubber tree (which was smuggled out of Brazil to Kew Gardens and then on to British plantations in Malaysia) and others, such as jambu, cassava and cinchona officinalis (better known as Quinine, a medicine with which the British Empire kept its soldiers alive in tropical climates). A layer of latex (the raw fluid, that is tapped from rubber trees) is applied over the work, which hangs and sways as people move past and around it.

Noara Quintana, Rubber Thief, of Serpentine Traces series, presented at Delfina Foundation, 2023.

Diego: We discussed how your practice examines the relationship of aesthetic exchange that occurs between both sides of the colonial difference – does your work or your processes differ when you are working in places thought of as hegemonic ‘centres’? Your work on Bauhaus, for instance, examined how the world influenced Bauhaus, rather than the other way around. You flip the narrative in a way that seems all the more powerful when working from within these hegemonic capitals.

Noara: I think there is a difference and a specific connotation when working from within places that have traditionally been considered ‘centres’. For me, it is a pleasure to present such work in London, or Berlin or Los Angeles. Perhaps the question of legibility provokes an interesting reaction, or perhaps the subversive, or playful quality of a work might spark an unexpected reaction. It is a translation which can become a provocation. Presenting work in Brazil is to come home. I will soon be presenting work at the Bienal das Amazônias in Belém and it is a privilege to present my work at its point of origin, to be close to that from which it is constituted, and to extrapolate from a position which is close to my heart.

Diego: We have touched upon the importance of the museum as a space that promotes and celebrates the narratives of modernity. In London you also undertook research at Kew Gardens. Botanical gardens were another site that played a significant role in the imposition of rigid categorisation and classification that is exemplary of modern, European thought. What do these spaces, particularly in a colonial city, mean to you? How did you engage with them in your project?

Noara: These spaces, the museum and the botanical garden, were an important part of the colonial expansion project. I find that they speak to the relationship between beauty and invisibility. And yet, they preserve documents, works and relations, and in their archives there is a huge amount of information from which alternative futures can be imagined. In my practice, these spaces have a power, undeniably, and yet sometimes it seems that there is an opportunity to reconsider what has been discarded or effaced. I would like to think that my work brings an affective quality to this negotiation, as complex as it is.

Diego Chocano is a curator, writer and researcher from Peru based in London. He is currently Assistant Curator at Barbican Centre.

Noara Quintana was an artist-in-residence at Delfina Foundation during winter 2023, supported by Instituto Inclusartiz.