Maureen Bisilliat: Poet of Fragile Realities

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Assis São José do Rio Pardo, São Paulo’ [detail] c. 1962 from the series ‘Pele Preta’ Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

The work appears to evoke a certain nostalgia for the past

arising from a disappointment and discontent with the present.

I think that this is a reaction against the corruption

that has suddenly shown its head,

provoking economic and social instability.


Brazil is the largest country in South America with one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Between 80% and 85% of the population now live in the cities that cluster along the eastern seaboard, while the western inland regions remain much more sparsely populated. These remote areas are home to many indigenous cultures which reach back long before the land was colonised by Europeans. Even today, Brazil is believed to have the largest number of so-called ‘uncontacted peoples’ who have no significant interaction with the industrialised world.

The artist, photographer and curator, Maureen Bisilliat, has done much to make known the rich heritage of these pre-Cabraline cultures. Born in England in 1931, her mother was an Irish painter and her father a Brazilian diplomat. Given her father’s occupation, Maureen’s childhood was essentially nomadic, as each diplomatic posting took the family from one location to another. As an adult, however, she came to settle in Brazil. It was here, during the 1960s and early 1970s, that she made many photographic series recording the lives of the peoples in the remotest parts of the country. These photographs were later collected into books and have become a significant part of the visual narrative of Brazil.

In 2003, her complete photographic oeuvre, consisting of some 16,000 colour and black-and-white images, was brought into the archive of the Instituto Moreira Salles, one of Brazil’s most respected cultural repositories. Since then a number of significant exhibitions of her work have been staged in Brazil and, further afield, at the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, the Casa de Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Brasilea Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

It is, perhaps, the eye of the outsider that sees the world from a fresh perspective. But while Maureen Bisilliat has brought considerable insight to her images of Brazil’s rural and indigenous peoples, she does not achieve this through the jarring juxtaposition of a culture represented through the alien aesthetics of an outsider. Quite the contrary: her images have the poet’s skill of bringing the people and places she photographs into a harmonious and totally persuasive whole that evokes a ‘memory’ of things we have yet to fully comprehend.

Alasdair Foster

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Andrequicé, Minas Gerais’ c. 1965
from the series ‘A João Guimarães Rosa’ Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles


Alasdair: How did you come to settle in Brazil?

Maureen: Simple question – simple answer: marriage! In 1952 I came direct from the mountains of Switzerland to São Paulo, which was at that time a fairly large but lethargic city. It was quite a shock! So much so that I left again, only to return for good in 1961.

What led you to become a photographer?

That feeling of lethargy was to be an essential factor in my development. From despair comes discovery and action. In my case, it was an opening up to art. I undertook short apprenticeships with André Lhote in Paris and Morris Kantor at the Art Students’ League in New York City. These introduced me to drawing and painting and brought me slowly to photography. As a child I had roamed the world – a chameleon accustomed and addicted to change. Standing behind a canvas or in front of a piece of paper, I began to feel stunted. I felt lost, not knowing how to fill in blank space. However, when I had a camera in my hand, I seemed to open out towards a world of reality; there to be captured and, at times, understood.

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Mother and son from a family of cotton planters of Japanese origin, living in the interior of the state of São Paulo.’ c. 1957
Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles
“I considered this to be my ‘first photo’, illustrating the type of light, intimacy and silent gestures of many of my images from there on.”

Is it easy for a woman to become a photographer in Brazil?

I don’t think it’s an issue. I think it’s a question of quality and what is desired within the multiplicity of photographic possibilities.

How did your career begin?

In the early Sixties, a friend gave me a novel called ‘Grande Sertão: Veredas’ (1956). It was written by João Guimarães Rosa, an extraordinary Brazilian author thought by many to be hermetic and difficult to understand, but I plunged into his writing and swam like a fish in the sea. There are ways of understanding aside from literal comprehension. I felt a deep familiarity with the sertão [the backlands] and decided to visit Guimarães. He received me with interest and, hearing of my wish to travel to his world, charted a route along which I could start my roaming. He said that, having Irish blood, I would surely understand the people of the sertão and the poetic potency of their words.

The result of my travels was my first book, which brought my photographs together with fragments from Guimarães’ ‘Grande Sertão Veredas’. This publication led to a film, which in turn caught the eye of an editor from ‘Realidade’ [Reality]. This was a new Brazilian publication in the style of the US pictorial magazines ‘Life’ and ‘Look’, and it had already become prominent.

I joined the staff of the magazine and at least once a month, I had an assignment that took me to little-known regions of the country. The editors knew us well – both writers and photographers – and would invariably choose the stories that best suited each of us. Consequently, they got the best results. I was almost always sent far away! Something I appreciate to this day.

The difficulties and the toughness of travel in the past were to be to our advantage, because, when our work was published, it would invariably cause astonishment or at least special interest, the territory being fairly unknown. Nowadays, of course, the challenge is that anywhere and everywhere you may go has already been photographed and visited innumerable times. Now, discovery must come by other means; hopefully not only the virtual!

What was the first body of work that brought you to wider public awareness?

‘Pele Preta’ (which roughly translates as ‘Black Skin’) were studies done at home with a beautifully sensitive black model called Conceição and her nephew, Assis. I photographed him for the first time as a seven-year-old ‘boy with wings’ and, most recently, filmed him … almost fifty years later! These images are the result of many hours of working with live models. Among the series is a portrait of Assis [below] in which he looks like an onyx sculpture by Brancusi: I would say it is the best known of all my photos.

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Assis São José do Rio Pardo, São Paulo’ c. 1962
from the series ‘Pele Preta’ Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

Another well-known series is ‘Caranguejeiras’ (The Crab Catchers).

I first learned about the crab catchers in a documentary film by Ipojuca Pontes called ‘O Homem do Carangueijo’ [The Crab Man], made in 1968. I was intrigued by old and young women and children, sculpted by the heavy sand of estuaries; figures alive with the vigour of survival.

© Maureen Bisilliat from the series ‘Caranguejeiras’ (the crab catchers) 1968
Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

I took the idea to the editors at ‘Realidade’ and suggested a story. The proposal was discussed at length. It was then a time of censorship in Brazil, and the official line was that the country should be portrayed as a modern, well-to-do nation. In this context, the world I wanted to portray was not appreciated. Nonetheless, the writer Audálio Dantas and I were commissioned to go to Livramento, a little fishing village in the state of Paraíba. Not only that, our article made the cover of ‘Realidade’; a rare occurrence, much commented upon!

© Maureen Bisilliat ‘Fishing Xaréu’ c.1963 from the series ‘Bahiaamadoamada’
Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

Years later, in 1985, I published these images in a book accompanied by a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto called ‘O Cão sem Plumas’ [The Dog without Feathers].

What is it in your work that people appreciate so much?

I seem to have captured something of the spirit of the people of this country as it was a few decades ago. This touches upon traits that are increasingly appreciated in the present day. The work appears to evoke a certain nostalgia for the past arising from a disappointment and discontent with the present. I think that this is a reaction against the corruption that has suddenly shown its head, provoking economic and social instability.

In 1979, William Collins in London published your book ‘Xingu/Tribal Territory’, with editions in English, French, German, Italian and Portuguese. Tell me about the making of this important series.

When I first visited the Xingu, in August 1973, my sole purpose was to make a few notes to supplement existing documentation about the Brazilian Indians. Almost as soon as I arrived, the futility of the task became increasingly apparent. Indeed, it proved impossible to capture even a hint of the rich complexity of indigenous society in so short a time. Were there but one tribe! But no, sixteen different tribes coexist, linked by the waterways and sandy plains of pre-Amazonian geography, to form a small community of nations.

Five years passed and each year I returned two or three times to these people, their rivers and their world. I did not do so in the hope of gradually constructing any definitive study or all-embracing chronicle. My aim was to trace the patterns of their delicately perceptive existence. I wanted to show the vigour of these tribal societies, which continue to believe in a way of life based on tradition, and resist the onslaughts of the ‘civilised’ world by dint of their very frailty.

Little in the Xingu Region appears to have changed; yet long absence makes it difficult for me to gauge the subtle shifts that have modified the attitude of the Xingu peoples towards the outside world. There is now wariness and an awareness of the conflicts inflicted upon the indigenous populations of Brazil. These silent wars of conquest make the title of this book – ‘Tribal Territory’ – seem now to be part of the past.

Do you think that photographs can change the world?

In a way they may, especially images taken by war photographers with the extreme sensitivity of people like W. Eugene Smith and James Nachtwey. And now, more recently, images by photographers from countries such as Africa and the Middle East. In many cases, because they are citizens of the nation that is at war, these photographers are at the same time both portrayers of, and protagonists in, the tragedies of war.

What is it about photographs of war that makes them so powerful?

The urgency of life and death.

Are there other types of photographs or subjects of photographs that have the potential to change the world?

No, not to change the world. But there are photographs that touch us as individuals; images whose silent revelations are the meaning, if not the sole intention, of art.

Photo: © Maureen Bisilliat [from left to right]
Jacques Bisilliat, Maureen Bisilliat and
Antônio Marcos Silva at O Bode Art Gallery
Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

In 1972 you established the Bode Art Gallery with your husband, Jacques Bisilliat, and the architect Antônio Marcos Silva. What motivated you to undertake this initiative?

A casual invitation to represent popular art in Brazil, first at the Galerie Lafayette in Paris, then at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, encouraged the three of us to open a gallery: O Bode – Galeria de Arte Popular Brasileira [Gallery of Brazilian Popular Art]. The gallery ran for twenty years and the quality of our research led, in 1988, to us being invited by Darcy Ribeiro – a writer, anthropologist and then Minister of Culture – to form a collection of Latin-American popular art. This would later be housed in the Pavilhão da Criatividade [creativity pavilion], an important section of the Fundação Memorial da América Latina [The Latin-American Memorial, a cultural, political and leisure complex, inaugurated in 1989 in São Paulo], with its significant and now rare collection of popular culture.

Photo: © Maureen Bisilliat
Maureen & Jacques Bisilliat
in the Pavilhão da Criatividade
of the Memorial da América Latina
Collection of the Instituto Moreira Salles

An interesting fact and very much to the point: our most consistent visitors are groups of Chinese travellers brought by an agency to visit the pavilion every day of the week!

I was the curator of this pavilion for more than twenty years, which involve me in building the collection and presenting exhibitions. During this time, I scarcely remembered that once I had been a photographer. In 2003, I retired from the Memorial. Through a stroke of destiny, I was selected by the Instituto Moreira Salles to have my work include in their photographic archive. Since then we have made some – if I may say so – quite significant exhibitions, which have been shown in Brazil and abroad as far as Switzerland and Portugal.

Do you think that being a woman brings any particular qualities or attitudes to the work as an artist?

No, I really don’t. Each individual is an independent case.

What is the most profound thing you have learned through making photographs?

That it has brought me closer to writing and made me more familiar with the written word!

My interest has been and continues to be an involvement with the works of Brazilian writers such as Euclides da Cunha, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, João Cabral de Melo Neto and Ariano Suassuna. This was a starting point from which I traced ‘photographic equivalents’ that resulted in a series of books linking each author to his geographic roots. Giving continuity to the process, I am now in the midst of a documentary – Equivalências/Aprender Vivendo (Equivalences / Learn by Living) – the title of which should clearly explain its intent!

Biographical Notes

Sheila Maureen Bisilliat was born in England in 1931, later becoming a naturalised Brazilian citizen. She studied painting in the 1950s with Andre Lhote in Paris and later at the Art Students League of New York, with Morris Kantor. In 1962, she abandoned painting to devote herself to photography, working as a photojournalist. She was a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1970; the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (1981–1987); the Foundation of the State of São Paulo Research (1984–1987); and the Japan Foundation (1987).

Photo: © Juan Esteves

This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.

First published in English at Talking Pictures in January 2020.