In 2010 it seemed that the São Paulo Biennial would never recover from a series of critical failures beginning in 2000. But that year it was resurrected at the Ibirapuera Pavilion and a lot the press went to Anna Maria Maiolino’s installation Arroz & Feijão (Rice and Beans).
First created in 1979, one of the ritual centers of the home— the dinner table— became a place of action and political commentary. In the middle of a room, Maiolino placed a long central table, overlaid it with a black cloth to resemble a bier, and set it with dishes containing germinating rice (the grain brought to Brazil by African slaves) and beans (a staple of Iberian cooking). At the four corners of the installation, like the four corners of Brazil, she then set tables with white cloths and empty tableware.
Writing for Galeria Virgilio Susan Fisher Sterling comments:
In this setting, sustenance, humankind’s basic need, confronts scarcity. Created at a time when Brazil was emerging from economic depression but was still ruled by a military regime whose plans for modernization exacerbated the conditions of the unlanded poor, the work mocked the idea that a country of supposedly inexhaustible riches cannot feed its people. However, as she suggests, despite the implications of scarcity, the plates germinating with the fruits of the soil, hold in themselves the promise of plenty. An assertion of life over death, the installation is a site of renewal, offering a space where humankind can construct or reconstruct its own history and culture.
Maiolino’s work is remarkable for its freshness even after 28 years. Often work with a political message has a short shelf life, rendered moot by its topical nature. But in this case, alas, even though the military dictatorship has been replaced by a democratic government, the have and have-not chasm in South America’s wealthiest nation remains as a wide as ever. The government’s willingness to cope with issues of poverty and starvation is sadly on the back burner. Poignant and painful, Rice and Beans remains the same indictment today it was in 1979. The empty plate is a powerful signifier.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Installation view at the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial 2010, of Anna María Maiolino’s Rice and Beans, 1979-2007. Installation with formic table, 20 black chairs, dishes, glasses; silverware, soil; rice and bean seeds; shelves and video on TV. 212 ½ x 47 1/5 in. (540 x 120 cm.)