Paula do Prado

Paula do Prado’s works are compelling, multi-layered and rich with cultural references to her experience of migrating to Australia from Uruguay, and the surrounding concepts of identity, race and gender. Her practice draws on materials, sayings and imagery collected from many different sources including the generations of her family history. By sharing her own personal stories, her work creates a dialogue around issues of immigration and multiculturalism, which are just as relevant now as ever.

Your cultural identity is a major part of your work. Can you tell me a bit about your background and how it feeds into your practice?
Where do you want me to start!? A history of South America? I could go on for days. Culturally I am a mix of Afro-Uruguayan, European and Australian influences. I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and my parents and I migrated to Australia in September 1986 when I was seven years old.

My last solo show Mellorado (2012) explored my Afro-Uruguayan roots after spending three months living with my paternal grandmother in Montevideo. My experience of returning to Uruguay allowed me to connect several dots in terms of family/social history and self-identity. I learnt that I had ancestors who had been slaves, and that Montevideo was a major slave port during the Atlantic Slave Trade through to the 1840s and 50s. My dad was a well-known singer/songwriter during the late 70s and early 80s and it was firstly through music that I made a connection to history and culture. I feel I absorbed a lot of my parents’ memories of experiences through family stories, anecdotes and colloquial expressions. Their memories and experiences of having lived through a military dictatorship before we were able to migrate to Australia have left a lingering residue.

Art provides a vehicle for me to explore, scrutinise, decipher and tease out these interconnections between culture, race and identity. My work is fuelled by the ongoing tension between home and origin, foreign and citizen, the choice to stay and the complexity of return. As a migrant you’re stuck in this place of being grateful for everything you have in Australia, acutely aware of how amazingly lucky you are to be here and for the relative freedoms we enjoy but at the same time you also face the risk of becoming complacent, overly nostalgic and fearful.

Your work explores the tensions, anxiety and contradictory forces surrounding some very current political issues, such as immigration and asylum seekers. What do you think we can gain from making art about these issues?
That’s a very important question and it’s something I ask myself all the time. Dealing with some of these issues is hard. What kind of response am I hoping for? That’s something I’m still grappling with. I’m not an activist by any means – for me it’s such an introspective thing. So it’s never done with the intention of changing the masses or going out there and educating people. It’s more about seeing things differently – I think that’s sometimes as much as you can hope for, for myself as well as for others. It’s been so important and helpful seeing other artists’ work that are also from a mixed racial and cultural background, so I feel I have a responsibility to then put my story out there as well. So it’s more sort of a story telling than a political or social thing.

You often integrate text in your work in both English and Spanish phrases. How do you use language conceptually – going beyond its linguistic message?
The inclusion of Spanish text – without ready English translations – is deliberate as I am well aware that a mostly Australian audience are unlikely to be able to read the text. Often the phrases are drawn from colloquial Uruguayan and Australian sayings, clichés and sometimes song lyrics. How well you speak a language will often separate the native from the non-native speaker and this is something I like to toy with as part of being fluent in both Spanish and English. This tension between exclusion and inclusion is important. For a migrant, language is the first big barrier to get you into a society. First you can communicate, then you begin to understand cultural puns and jokes that help you become part of a group. So it reflects that feeling of when I first arrived. Obviously as a seven-year old I learnt English quicker than my parents and at some point I was teaching them. It’s those weird experiences that you have with language that I guess are the things that I draw on.

What sort of connections are there between the materials you use and the concepts of your work?
For me it’s crucial that the materials add to, expand and provide insight into the work, the process and its origin. Needless to say I am a collector, a sorter and archivist of materials such as buttons, beads, fabric, trimmings, wire, yarn and found bits and bobs. I am sure there is something more deeply psychological going on with my relationship to materials. Firstly it’s the concept of ‘making do’ with what is available and around you and related to that is the fear of loss, of needing something and not having it, or of provisioning for future need. Perhaps it’s the migrant in me, or the nostalgic keeper of family narratives that takes pleasure in preserving and reusing old tea towels, stained doilies and beads from an old dress. These are limited materials in a sense, specific to a time and place, so they take on this added significance and symbolism. Interestingly, though these materials are not so precious that they can’t be used, so often I will cut, unstitch, fray and deconstruct these collected materials. Every material has a story and for me they act like memory triggers, recalling a place, a loved friend or family member, or an event.

How and why do you use self-portraiture in your work?
It feels right to use my own image to explore different personas, characters and stereotypes. In particular it is a way to directly address the fact that I am a brown-skinned woman, and to explore where I fit in within the context of the themes of race, gender, belonging, authenticity and identity. With self-portraiture, there’s something that happens in the dialogue between the real me/who I’d like to be, the artist/performer and the reflection in the mirror.

And how does gender fit into this?
I see gender, like race, as another category that is socially constructed, that I don’t think anyone truly fits into neatly. I think it’s much more interesting to investigate where those lines are blurred or where slippages occur to jar with what might be accepted as the norm. I am specifically interested in the black female body as it›s what I identify with and through my work I am trying to answer a lot of my own questions about how I see my body versus how others might view it.

What are you making for your upcoming show?
For ‘Odalisque’ (2014), I have cut, reassembled, jumbled and re- positioned images taken from Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso that reference Orientalism and myth of the primitive female figure. It looks at representations of the brown female body, the mulatta or jezebel, the half-caste of ambiguous origin whose outward appearance defies easy ethnic classification. There are five unique state self- portrait prints that have been painted, stitched and adorned, and a collection of smaller collage paper works and an altered book – a German translated copy of Gauguin’s ‘Noa Noa’. I wanted to create a visual hand-cut mash-up of these Old Masters whose work is revered and highly respected to create a way to draw out new meanings.

EXHIBITION
Face to Face
27 September – 4 October, 2014
Chasm Gallery, Sydney

Paula do Prado is represented by Gallerysmith, Melbourne
www.gallerysmith.com.au
www.pauladoprado.net

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