Maggie Borowitz, PhD Student, Art History
What is it about fruit that offers such striking comparisons to flesh? The apples of cheeks, peach fuzz, the comparison of breasts to mangos or melons. Soft innards protected by skins that are prone to bruising and easy to puncture.
I walked into the LAXART gallery last fall during the run of an exhibition called Video Art in Latin America. It featured three main screens that each ran through a loop of about 20 short films, in addition to several longer videos that looped on stand-alone monitors. In other words, it would have taken a whole day to see the entirety of what was screening in the gallery. Nevertheless, I was prepared to devote several hours to it.
And yet, I barely lasted an hour.
In the center of the gallery space was a work by the Colombian artist José Alejandro Restrepo titled Musa paradisiaca. Originally installed at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá in 1996, Restrepo recreated his video installation for LAXART in 2017. It consisted of bunches of bananas hanging from the ceiling that the viewer could walk between and amongst. At the bottom of the bunches were small screens that faced downward, towards small, round mirrors that reflected the video back up to the viewer. “Over the course of the exhibition, the bananas rot and fall, leaving the stems bare,” the gallery guide commented.
Figure 1. José Alejandro Restrepo, Musa paradisiaca, 1996/2017. Installation view at LAXART. Photo by John Kiffe for the L.A. times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-jose-alejandro-restropo-review-20171015-story.html
I was there about two months in to the three-month run of the show, and indeed, the bananas were rotting. The smell was subtle at first, kind of sweet and powdery. I couldn’t quite locate it when I first walked into the darkened space out of the LA afternoon sunshine, but its sickly sweetness soon became overpowering. Fruit flies buzzed lazily around the galleries, and as I watched the other screens, I tried to breathe through my mouth, then covered my nose with my hand, and then my shirt.
Restrepo’s piece was powerful in its physical affect and the way it shaped my experience of the exhibition in its entirety. And it brought my thoughts again and again to a series of paintings by the artist Antônio Henrique Amaral, produced in an entirely different context.
Figure 2. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Penca com 2 bananas (Stem with 2 Bananas), 1967. Oil on Duratex. Installation view at Oca do Ibirapuera.
Beginning his artistic career in the 1950s, Amaral was born and lived much of his life in São Paulo, Brazil. He is best known for a series of paintings that span from about 1967 to 1977 that depict bananas—single bananas or several, occasionally a whole bunch, but always large scale oil paintings that are filled to the edges with the fruit (e.g., figure 1). As the Brazilian military dictatorship increased in severity over the course of the years he was making this series, Amaral’s banana paintings became darker and more sinister. The bananas began to rot and to bruise, to be wrapped in constricting ropes, to be cut with knives and speared with forks. The viewer is forced closer and closer to the flesh of the banana, no longer able to avoid the association between bodies and the vulnerable fleshy fruit.
Figure 3. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Bananas e cordas 3 (Bananas and Ropes 3), 1973. Oil on Canvas. Installation view at Museu de Arte de São Paulo.
The comparison between Restrepo’s video installation and Amaral’s painting series is, on the one hand, superficial. But I wonder if there is something productive in thinking through my inability to prevail against my gag reflex induced by the sickly sweet rotting banana flesh of Musa paradisiaca and Amaral’s paintings that make my nose scrunch and my skin crawl. Perhaps it is simply organic matter in general that produces such a visceral reaction in the viewer. But perhaps there is something more specific in terms of fruit.
Bananas in particular bear the burden of a specific set of metaphoric meanings, especially in the context of Latin America; e.g., the somewhat disparaging term “banana republic” and its gesture towards the problems of underdevelopment that are tied to a single-export economy and US imperialism, which cannot be completely separated from the lighter-hearted tropical kitsch of Carmen Miranda and her films of the 1940s, considering that her image was quickly appropriated by the United Fruit Company for their Chiquita Banana logo in 1944.
Both Restrepo and Amaral are highly attuned to those meanings. Restrepo’s downward-facing monitors in Musa paradisiaca show archival footage of a massacre that occurred in the Colombian town of Ciénaga in 1928 when a group of workers went on strike at a United Fruit Company banana plantation. Amaral, with respect to his series of banana paintings, comments, “What did the military dictatorship do in Brazil? In 1964 Brazil was an optimistic place with the building of Brasília, for instance, and a vital automobile industry. We had a kind of a future, and suddenly the military transformed us into a big banana republic!” Amaral continues, “It was something I wanted to show sardonically. It was subtle. I was not going to jail—forget about that. Because it was ridiculous to censor bananas!” Yet, there is something powerfully discomfiting about his paintings and their metaphoric potential that reaches far beyond critique of economic policy and the notion of a “banana republic.” There is a way in which I cannot un-see bodies once I see them––the way the rope digs into the soft flesh in Bananas e cordas 3 (figure 2), the way it chafes against the bruised skin.
Amaral’s paintings are far from innocuous in their subject matter; there is a long history of comparison between fruit flesh and human flesh that points to the very vulnerability of the human body, especially in its most tender form (the fruit of the womb, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). So while Amaral might claim that “it was ridiculous to censor bananas,” there is a way in which his paintings offer a cutting move in their use of fruit that, like Restrepo’s installation, mobilizes physical affect in order to induce empathy. It is a move that takes a step from object toward subject, a step from still life toward portraiture, but that exists in between those categories. For a portrait is a portrait of someone, and the power of these bananas is the combination of their soft, yielding flesh and their unyielding anonymity—their ability to evoke bodies that are any body and every body that has suffered, but no body in particular.
 “Video Art in Latin America,” Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A.: Latin American and Latino Art in L.A. (The Getty Foundation, 2017), 10.
 Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 2000), 222–23.
 Jennifer Burris, “José Alejandro Restrepo: FLORA Ars + Natura, Bogotá, Colombia,” Frieze 183, Nov-Dec 2016, https://frieze.com/article/jose-alejandro-restrepo.
 Bartholomew Ryan, “Homage to the 21st Century,” Sightlines, April 30, 2015, https://walkerart.org/magazine/brazil-pop-art-antonio-henrique-amaral.