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.
Erin McFee, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development
Negotiators in Havana, Cuba ready their pens to sign a peace accord between the government of Colombia and the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which would end more than 50 years of war. More than 1,500 miles away, the Colombian department of Caquetá begins at the foot of the Western Andean mountains, where the jagged verdant peaks increasingly give way to rolling hills, vast expanses of cultivated land, and, eventually, dense Amazonian selva. Caquetá figures critically for post-conflict planners: it has suffered comparatively greater levels of violence and vulnerability than other areas of the country; it has a historically marginalized large rural population; it hosted part of the violently disastrous Zone of Distention between 1998–2002, in which the FARC took advantage of peace negotiations in order to regroup, terrorizing the civilian population in the process; and it will serve as one of seven Zones of Concentration for the eventual FARC demobilization.
Against the juxtaposed backdrop of dream-like landscapes and profound loss, a growing variety of community interventions attempt to make sense of suffering and contribute to sustainable peace over the long term. One such intervention includes a joint project between the Pastoral Social (community outreach team from the Catholic Church) and ACNUR (United Nations Refugee Agency), in which a team of five individuals—two psychologists, two anthropologists, and one lawyer—work with five communities displaced by conflict violence in Caquetá in order to realize collective reparations processes.
In early March, three members of the Pastoral Social set out to visit one of the participating communities: Roncesvalles.
Or was it Roncervalles?
No one is actually sure. Each person—including the community members themselves —remains more certain than the last that their spelling is, in fact, the correct one. The formal project proposal spells it with both the “r” and “s” throughout.
Orthographic concerns aside, Ronce/r/svalles comprises 55 families forcibly displaced by violence and relocated by the state to their current community, half of which floods in the event of heavy rains. The families did not know one another before they settled the partially soggy tract of land. This unfamiliarity, and the clear value differences between the two sections of the community, has resulted in significant tensions, which the project hopes to ameliorate through shared efforts to petition the state to repair the bridge leading to the community. This project was the order of the day for the Pastoral Social visit.
After half an hour on the main highway heading northeast out of Florencia (the department’s capital city, home to 140,000 persons), the branded ACNUR off-road vehicle turned into the entrance of Larandia military base. The army purchased the 3,375-hectare behemoth in 1965 in order to combat guerrilla threats in the region, and the massive training facility marked the beginning of the road to Ronce/r/svalles. In order to reach this community of many possible names, one must pass through the entirety of Larandia—including its three military checkpoints—enter the vehicle information in an Army registry, and return before six o’clock in the evening, when the checkpoint gates close for the day. Despite the official ACNUR vehicle status, branded with Agency logos and clear “No Weapons” decals, soldiers at each checkpoint questioned increasingly annoyed occupants as to their purpose, their number, and whether or not they were transporting weapons and/or hidden persons. Upon exiting the base, the pavement slowly deteriorated into the cratered single-lane roads shared with livestock, horses, and their owners, which mark most of the department’s more rural enclaves.
The team bounced along, silent due to difficulties maintaining conversation on such uneven terrain, and windows rolled up to avoid the dust swirling up from the little-used road. Half an hour later, the petite elderly woman who served as the group’s capable chauffeur, stretched up to look over the steering wheel as she slowed to veer around a group of three unexpected men: scouts for an international petroleum company running tests to look for oil. They rubbed the sweat off their faces with their branded denim long-sleeve shirts, and managed a wave, squinting out from under the shadows of their protective plastic helmets.
Closer to the community, the vehicle slowed in order to pass the children beginning the hour and a half walk home from the closest school, which just this year lost its budget for snacks, signifying a 8–9 hour stretch each day without food. One young boy, perhaps 12 years old, undertook the journey on the back of a cow whose skeleton stretched through the tufted hide. Judging by the passenger’s peals of laughter and teasing classmates, the transport was more for show than necessity.
The team arrived at the shared meeting space in the middle of the grass field, similar to those that mark the centers of most small rural communities in the region, and greeted one of the elderly community leaders.
“Another day with hunger,” he replied. “But we have to move forward,” he added in the silence that followed his initial response, filling in the transition with hearty laughter, and gesturing to the team with a smile and an outstretched arm to enter the meeting space.
After roughly an hour of calls to community leaders who had forgotten about the meeting—calls made by walking around the grass field until one bar of cell signal appeared—chit-chat about the state of relations between the two parts of the community, excuses given for absences, and the arrival of new unexpected faces, all present began to get down to business. Over the next two hours participants sketched out how they would mobilize to petition various government agencies to meet state obligations of collective reparations to the community as part of the long process of building peace after war.
While one community does not a country make, the road to Ronce/r/svalles certainly illustrates the many challenges that Colombia faces with building a post-peace accord society in the most conflict-affected regions of the country. First, re-victimization of those who have suffered greatly at the hands of all varieties of armed actors is not uncommon through poorly managed victims’ reparations processes (e.g., relocation to sites that flood). Second, competing and often urgent needs among different kinds of victims, as well as particularities in each case of victimization, undermine both large-scale collective action and small scale quotidian life (e.g., communities divided into factions, fighting over limited resources). Third, tense and, frankly, often bizarre relations with the state—e.g., having to pass through a military base to arrive at a community—stymie governmental attempts to build trust and provide services to those affected by the armed conflict. Rampant local corruption poisons whatever good-faith efforts emerge and land titling remains cripplingly contentious. Fourth, international oil and mining interests exploit the poorly-regulated lands and the often vulnerable—though by no means powerless—people who occupy them (e.g., speculators such as those encountered on the road). And fifth, organizing communities at the margins of sociopolitical, economic, and even geographic life is profoundly complicated for many reasons. These reasons include, though are certainly not limited to, long histories of exploitation at the hands of outsiders and damaging failures in basic domains of public life, such as education and public health. In the midst of it all, more and more domestic and international interventions have begun to crowd the landscape, navigating both the literal and metaphorical hostile terrain. And in the many inevitable successes and failures to follow, we will better understand the stakes of life in transition for those in regions such as Caquetá, Colombia.
The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.