Wild wisdom: the woman artist and the political discourse of self-portrait in Oriana Duarte

16 May 2022 - no responses

The following text examines part of the analysis undertaken in my MA Thesis entitled Selvagem sabedoria: a mulher artista e o discurso político do autorretrato em Oriana Duarte [Wild wisdom: the woman artist and the political discourse of self-portrait in Oriana Duarte], published at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco’s [Federal University of Pernambuco] repository in 2020.

First, bearing in mind the “art and feminism” theme that guides the project, I would like to state that Oriana is not an openly feminist artist. However, when analyzing her body of work, themes, and approaches to artistic endeavors, it is possible to notice how relevant her work can be for feminist comprehensions of art.

Here, I would like to contextualize her life and artistic trajectory, which are closely related. Oriana Duarte was born in 1966 in Paraíba, a state in the northeast of Brazil, and a region usually associated with a lack of resources and opportunities. In Brazilian imagery and common perception, northeasterners are usually viewed as less intellectual and well-informed than their southeastern counterparts. It is also remarkable that when we analyze the main names of Brazilian art that are widely known, especially internationally, the vast majority come from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (southeastern states). Thus, my intention is to expand the national and international boundaries usually present for northeastern scholars and artists.

Being artistically active since the mid-1990s, Oriana has focused her artistic work on performances that place her body in the center of the narrative, usually subverting mainstream narratives over bodies, especially female ones. For example, in a performance from 1995 called Playground , a series of installations Oriana puts her body in dialogue with the city of Recife. In her own words:

And then, there were several readings of my body related to the city, and other bodies with the city (…) this one… it was a re-reading of the “Vitruvian Man”, but at the same time something witch-like, upside down, with arms wide open. It was Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and my idea was to hint at it while displaying the perfect measures of the imperfection that I was showing. In addition, there is all this circular “bullshit” and the androgyny of the body[1].

Although there isn’t intentional feminist discourse present in this work, I read it as an inversion of the masculine reference of perfection in a narrative that does not put the female as the center of perfection – as if the intention were to replace one by the other – but turns the idea of perfection “upside down and imperfect”. That is, messed up and disorganized.

Another work that fits into the “not intentionally feminist, but feminist” category is the series of performances and installations that formed the Os riscos de E.V.A [The risks of E.V.A], a few years later. In her own words, the name “feminist” did not come up because she did not feel comfortable enough to say it, as she puts it:

I thought of myself as a bit unprepared to take on any discourse, any confrontation in that sense, and I still do it somehow … I still consider myself a bit unprepared regarding the strength that a work can have when it really claims to be a [feminist] work … so I never wanted to mention it, as many women and many artists have done. Placing oneself before the force that a feminist discourse provokes involves speech, confrontation, and the taking on of a position, and all that surrounds women’s place in art (…) So … I worked with the subtleties, like this one [Wild Wisdom] with the appropriation of a work that is already there, like Man Ray’s Le violon d’Ingès, in that explicit misogyny that relegated women to be solely the muse, as it was in surrealism – not only surrealism, but all modernisms.[2]

However, in Selvagem Sabedoria [Wild Wisdom] (Image 1), she poses with a snake alluding to Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingrès, in a palimpsest that scrapes the muse’s meaning that was conveyed in his artwork and building her own. In this creative process, she constructs a narrative in which the muse and the artist are the same while at the same time destroying the idea of “muse” as it existed in the modernist movement canonized in Art History. Evoking elements of Christian culture – Eve and the snake – the provocative image seems to litter, once more, traditional meanings of things: the sinful female body, the eroticized female body, the “musefied” female body and turn them into a creative body, full of life, fear, and desire.

Finally, there is her research-performance-installation, Plus Ultra, a 4 year – more if we count previous performances that debouched in this one, like Os riscos de EVA [The risks of EVA] and Querer Viver [Will to live] – a process that was both performance and doctoral thesis. Inspired and informed by Foucauldian ideas of the aesthetics of existence, self-writing and self-technologies, Oriana prepares her body to face the arduous task of rowing through some of the main rivers of Brazil. Visiting a gym/garage, she encountered misogyny from her companions, who repeatedly disbelieved her physical capabilities and were always willing to mark the difference of her body from theirs:

I do not take long to understand that the constant surveillance over me is part of the uncomfortable experiences caused by a female presence during the workouts. Thus, for the first time, I admit to experiencing sex differentiation and sexism as an imperative of the places that I put myself. (…) Eight months after beginning the workouts, right before the first Plus Ultra exhibit, my coach states in an interview that he “took care” of me and that it was the reason why no one “disrespected” me in the garage.[1]

With the intention to explore deeply all possibilities of the body to the extreme, her body mingles with the rowing boat and its parts (corpobarco [bodyboat]) (Image 2), becomes bridges (corpoponte [bodybridge]) (Image 3), and dismembers itself only to form something entirely new, with no human resemblance (Image 4). The body undergoes transformations that overcome its human condition and limitations; by becoming a boat, she can flow along with the river; by becoming a bridge, she can mend and sow lands together. That is so because the body is a medium to cross limitations – within itself and beyond itself. In her own words: “my body of overcoming, apart from the elements attached to its form, can go well beyond”[2], in terms of not only imaging but also written narrative, constructing several identities for herself and her body:

I discovered my body always three times each time I rowed: when disrobing from my daily outfit and dressing myself as an artist-athlete, when undressing from the artist-athlete and recovering the daily outfit, and, lastly, in the images from the video recordings when uploading the backup files in the computer. In this transitioning of images, my nudity reported all the events – whether from the bruises on the skin from the strokes, cuts from minor accidents, or through the alteration of my forms from the weight gain of  dysfunctional eating behavior.[3]

The whole process of Plus Ultra, from the workouts at the garage up to the exhibits of the installations, is based upon and conducted by the efforts to understand her body in its limitations and build tools to overcome them. It shows intense research that will lead to the extrapolation of the body from normative discourses and perspectives: physical, gendered, and metaphorical.

With all this in mind, I have analyzed in the dissertation how those transformations of the body – whether upside down, injured from a bungee jump, posing with a snake, or boat-like and bridge-like – are ways of building new visuals and new possibilities for the female body in art. It shows different ways in which a female artist can explore and work her own image and with this enrich the imagery on femininity and cultural references. Despite not being openly a feminist artist, my reading – also informed by her timid interest in feminism – is that there are immense contributions in her body of work to art and feminism.


By: Carolina Salvi


[1] DUARTE, Oriana. Nós errantes 4. O rio do meu remar. A garagem e seus corpos… + carnificina. Recife: Editora Universitária, 2013.

[2] DUARTE, Oriana. Plus ultra: o corpo no limite da comunicação. (Tese de Doutorado). Pontifícia Universidade de São Paulo, 2012, p.52.

[3] Ibidem, p.50.

[1] Interview with me in 2019.

[2] Interview with me in 2019



DUARTE, Oriana. In: TEJO, Cristiana (Org.). Salto no Escuro: curadoria de arte como experimento. Recife: Funcultura, 2011.

______. Plus Ultra: o corpo no limite da comunicação. (Tese, Comunicação e Semiótica) – PUCSP, São Paulo, 2012.
______. Nós, errantes: as travessias plus ultra de uma Artista Atleta. Livro I. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 2013.
______. Nós, errantes: as travessias plus ultra de uma Artista Atleta. Livro II. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 2013.
______. Nós, errantes: as travessias plus ultra de uma Artista Atleta. Livro III. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 2013.
______. Nós, errantes: as travessias plus ultra de uma Artista Atleta. Livro IV. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 2013.
______. Nós, errantes: as travessias plus ultra de uma Artista Atleta. Livro V. Recife: Editora Universitária UFPE, 2013.

SALVI, A.C. Selvagem sabedoria: a mulher artista e o discurso político do autorretrato em Oriana Duarte. (Dissertação, Artes Visuais) – Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), 2020.

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