At Art Basel, Sallisa Rosa Probes Memory Through Materiality

The rising Brazilian artist creates a fictional landscape instilled with generational knowledge and pre-industrial fabrication traditions for her first international solo exhibition.

"Topography of Memory;" credit (all images): courtesy of the artist and Audemars Piguet.

Ever since her debut at the Rio Art Museum’s “Dja Guata Porã: Indigenous Rio de Janeiro” exhibition on the Brazilian city’s Indigenous history, Sallisa Rosa has emerged as a name to watch on the global art scene. The past five years have seen the 37-year-old multimedia artist’s work included in group shows hosted everywhere from Geneva’s Théâtre de L’Usine to Shanghai’s SNAP Gallery and beyond. This year, during Miami Art week, she’s in the Magic City for Topography of Memory, her first international solo exhibition, which opens today with Audemars Piguet Contemporary. Over at Art Basel, and a new series of her watercolors and ceramics are on view with Rio and São Paulo–based gallery A Gentil Carioca

The scope of Rosa’s practice is vast, spanning performance, photography, installations, sculpture, and beyond, but memory, ancestral history, and Indigenous techniques are core to her work across mediums. Topography of Memory is her largest ceramic work to date and consists of more than 100 handmade components created from clay collected from the land surrounding Rio de Janeiro. The free-to-the public installation occupies the stone rotunda at Miami Beach’s Collins Park, where it immerses visitors in a world of liminal space. Ceramic stalagmites rise from the earth while orbs seem to float overhead and around the landscape. Low light cultivates a sense of mystery and prompts self-reflection: What does this remind me of? Have I been here before? One could linger for five minutes or 50.

That effect is very much intentional, according to Rosa. “I was inspired to work with memory by my grandma, whose name is América because she was born on October 12,” she tells Surface. “My grandma is a core figure in bringing together the threads that make up my family’s history, but her memory is fading, which inspired me to create extracorporeal ways of storing memory.” Taken literally, the title Topography of Memory and emphasis on hand-sourced clay connects back to the central theme of Rosa’s breakout exhibition as if to suggest that even as a city skyline changes overtime, the land remembers its past. 

Sallisa Rosa in her studio.

What’s more, her fabrication processes exclude the use of machinery. Instead, she used a traditional wood-fired kiln that takes three days to heat to 1472 degrees Fahrenheit, and worked with local ceramic artisans with ancestral knowledge of Rio’s clay topography, imbuing the work with increasingly rare practices and knowledge. With proper stewardship, which the installation is sure to receive as it journeys to Pinacoteca de São Paulo for an exhibition opening March 16, it will become an artifact of knowledge, pre-industrial techniques, and memories to outlast us all.

In the following interview, Rosa dives into what it means to be an artist, working with “trash materials,” and re-programming the earth. 

What’s exciting about your work is that you didn’t go to art school. You studied communications and in your practice, you make a point to collaborate with architects, producers, designers—not just artists. Do you embrace the title of artist—is that how you see yourself?

It’s important for me to say that I am an artist. A reply to this kind of question could be: Is an artist only somebody who studied art? I like the idea that everybody is an artist. I have a really open concept of what it means to be an artist. 

Sallisa Rosa in her studio.

Topography of Memory isn’t your only work in Miami this week. Your exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach incorporates ceramics as well as watercolors. Did either body of work inspire you to create the other?

I feel like I have intimacy with the earth. It’s easy to connect to the earth and work with clay. But at some point, it’s also important for my work with clay to go to the water, or to collect other kinds of materials. I have that intimacy with ceramics—connected, like it’s my material.

You’ve said that hand-sourced clay from Rio holds more information than the kind of clay you’d buy. What kind of information? 

When I collect clay in Brazil, we have a lot of different colors: there’s white, violet, or red, and then I mix them. But when I find clay with trash, plastics, or something like that, it’s information for me. Then, it’s not only about Rio or Brazil, it’s about the planet. This information is important. I realize I work with this kind of Earth, and also trash materials.

In talking about how you’ve made each ceramic work in the exhibition, you describe “re-programming” them. How do you do this? 

I made this kind of coiling movement, which I call re-programming the earth. When I started coiling the ceramic piece, I put an intention there and I started to remember facts about me, my family, and I “store” that in the clay. Then when I kiln the ceramic piece, the earth has the information. I put my memory there. It’s like when technology has storage. 

I started to think about the typography of memory two years ago when I started thinking about how it’s possible to store memory, how it’s possible to create a fictional landscape and how it affects my body and how extracorporeal memories make me remember. 

Your work often revisits memory, and here you address the “collective memory loss” of the Americas. 

When my grandma started losing her memory, I started thinking about the territory of America. In Brazil, my generation started this movement to know about our family [history]. I started to think about who deserves memory, who does not, and who has the rights to memory. Now I’m in Amsterdam, in residence at Rijksakademie. There, I see a lot of pictures of other families, grandparents. I thought about how in Brazil my generation started this movement to recover memories and know where we come from and who’s in our history. 

I don’t have many baby pictures, and in Europe everybody seems to have such ancient pictures and know a lot of history about their family. Then I think: I don’t know too much about my grandma, actually. I know where she comes from, but not many details. We need to recover our history. We deserve it.

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