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Artists From The Edge

Anna Maria Maiolino is one of today’s most political women artists. She has always connected her art with life. 


Born in Italy during World War II,  she has lived in Brazil since 1960. Her work reflects her experience of exile, deprivation and survival under authoritarian governments.  Maiolino’s use of material such as paper and clay can be viewed as the product of ingesting culture and politics and expelling it in the form of visual art. 


Given Brazil’s recent lurch to the far-right under the Bolsonaro government, Maiolino's studies of censorship and social injustice continue to be as pertinent today as they were when she started to work under the Brazilian military of the 1960s and 1970s 

Making Love Revolutionary Exhibition Video, 2019/20. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London

A Maiolino exhibition is a multimedia experience igniting many of our senses.  It contains simple shapes made of clay such as balls, rolls and snakes. This work suggests baking, housework and ritual objects. A sense of fragility permeates the raw clay, as it dehydrates and changes colour during the course of an exhibition. 

Maiolino's work reflects the realities of the world she is living in. Her early works in the 60s and 70s were created under the radar of Brazil’s military regime when Maiolino’s moved her artwork from objects to performance. She made politically-charged films (often in Super 8) and photographs that explore repression and hunger. She used performance to avoid direct censorship.


The military dictatorship took power in Brazil in April 1964 and lasted until 1980. During those years cultural activities for many people meant resisting the political status quo through artistic production and tricking the censorship as far as possible. 


Some of her works have an obvious political content, others are implicit. Her artworks go beyond the political pamphlet. They were born from a real need and driven by ethical opposition to widespread torture and repression by the agencies of the dictatorship. 


She argues that when besieged, the artist invents ways in which to evade censorship and find new paths for art. She fashions and arranges the physical world to make it conform to a rational and eternal ideal. Her works exorcise the enemy: the enemy of human rights, of the right to freedom.

In 1981, Maiolino staged the performance BETWEEN LIVES on the street outside her studio, walking blindfolded among dozens of chicken eggs, an allusion to the everyday reality of ‘walking on eggshells’ in an authoritarian political landscape. The documentation from the performance is a black and white photographic triptych, in which we see her bare calves and soles of her feet navigating the cobbled pavement. She has described the use of the eggs as a metaphor for precariousness, referring to the work as a visual manifestation of living in a “minefield of … embryos, fragile lives”. Here is a recent  link to a performance of Between Lives

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The Hero, 1966/2000. Courtesy of the artist and Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo

Maiolino wasn’t afraid to satirise military rule directly in woodcuts that echo the early 20th-century graphic art of Mexico’s José Guadalupe Posada. The 1966 print The Hero depicts a black-uniformed general whose face is an empty-eyed skull. This is art made against an authoritarian regime that tortured and murdered dissidents.

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BETWEEN LIVES, 1981. Courtesy of the artist

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WHAT IS LEFT OVER, 1974. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In WHAT IS LEFT OVER (1974), a confrontational and masochistic photo-series, Maiolino uses her own body in order to speak to both the reality of torture and the subjugation of women, by threatening to cut off her nose, cut out her tongue, and gouge her eyes with pair of sewing scissors. The scissors will erase her identity reflecting the emotional impact of living under Brazil's authoritarian rule.

The short film ‘Y’ (1974).-  Super 8 film link here - depicts a screaming woman’s mouth. Audio and visuals are disconnected. Screeches are increasingly layered and sharp; unnerving to the ear of the viewer. Here, repression becomes an uncontainable force, breaking out in muffled and high-pitched screams as the eyes of the figure are blindfolded. The pertinence of the body—specifically the restricted female body—infers the domestic position of women in Brazil at the time, whose inferiority is reiterated by patriarchal structures as they infiltrate the personal realm.

Scarcity of food in her childhood and the social and cultural deficiencies of daily life shape the series Photopoemaction (1976–2000).


Brazil during the junta was a country of extremes -people without regular food and a rich privileged minority who supported the military junta for whom food was always plentiful.


In the graphic woodcut print GLU GLU GLU (1967), a figure is sat at a kitchen table, their mouth gaping open. The scene is paired with an image of a toilet, a doubling that functions as a diagram depicting the preparation, consumption, and expulsion of food, a motif that Maiolino would return to when working with clay.

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GLU GLU GLU, 1967. Pinacoteca de Sao Paul

The image of the mouth recurs throughout Maiolino’s work as a conduit for both sustenance and speech. Communication also provides a form of nourishment, for one’s sense of self. In another early woodcut, ANNA (1967), a cartoonish speech bubble hangs in the space between two bodies, as if it is a morsel to be shared, ingested. Maiolino has said of her early years in Rio de Janeiro that she found herself learning a new language in a regime that violently curtailed free speech. Her displacement should be seen within the historical context of the Brazilian military dictatorship, in which an environment of silence and harassment was endured.

ANNA, 1967. Courtesy the artist. Pinacoteca de Sao Paulo

In the late 1980s, Maiolino began working with clay, exploring the sensuality and potential of the material as a primordial and pre-verbal tool of expression. 


For the Whitechapel Gallery, London Exhibition ‘Making Love Revolutionary’ in 2019/20, she made a new installation with unfired terracotta, which cracks and discolours over the show’s duration. Long sausage-like shapes snake together and are piled up against walls, while multiple rolled, kneaded, stretched, squeezed, and stacked pieces are laid out on a table in groups. Maiolino alludes to labour through her use of repetition: the energy expended, the visible evidence of the hand, implicated through the proliferation and accumulation of these magnificent, raw, slowly dehydrating forms. The visual associations of the clay sculptures range from loaves of bread to excrement. An interview between Katy Hessel and Iwona Blaxwick Director of the Whitechapel Gallery on Maiolino is worth a listen.

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Noce Segmentos, 1998/2019. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery and the artist

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