Some Exercise Of Power: Artist In-Conversation With Ana Maria Pacheco

Some Exercise Of Power: Artist In-Conversation With Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco is a Brazilian sculptor, painter, and printmaker. Her work is influenced by her Brazilian heritage, drawing on ‘magico-religious’ practices and ‘supernatural’ themes, which she incorporates into unfolding narratives. She often explores the issues of control and the exercise of power, particularly with regards to tensions between the old world of Europe and the new world of her Brazilian birth.

A bloodthirsty close-up of a hooded torso restrained and pierced by arrows, flashes up across the screen of the The Benjamin West Lecture Theatre at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

“Transport for London wouldn’t accept this, can you believe it.” Curator, art historian and artist Collin Wiggins, is sitting in conversation with Ana Maria Pacheco, closing a day-long symposium on cross-cultural exchange. “We submitted it a few times. Apparently it’s not appropriate!” He continues.

Collin met Ana back when he ‘used to be an art historian’, as curator at the National Gallery until 2016; and the warmth of their friendship surrounds the subject matter with a humorous glow. The figure in question is a monumental sculpture entitled Dark Night of the Soul, inspired by the work of the 16th century Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross.

Ana’s work is given greater gravitas in its exhibitionist context, being exhibited mostly in dimly-lit Cathedrals around the UK. “It reminds me of my time in Brazil, and the processions we made through the dark.” Ana’s life is filled with explicit contradictions. Although she has lived in England since 1973, she was raised in Goias, central Brazil – a “particularly violent area”, where she was educated in fine art, sculpture and music.

“I would like to add to my introduction by saying that, unlike many of today’s speakers, I am no academic.” Her deliciously distinctive accent further emphasises that she comes “from a family of outsiders”, explaining “my parents were very protective of us.” Today, she is best known for her dramatic, larger than life, polychrome wooden sculptures, which she sets free with axes, chisels and chainsaws.

Her approach to health and safety is best summed up by Collin: “obviously the gallery patrol would come around with a little tape measure, pointing out where we could and couldn’t place things… And as soon as they were gone we would move it all back.” Especially given the weight of the sculptures, this act of rebellion served a greater purpose – as key to Ana’s work is the position of the gaze, both of subject and object.

“Yes we would nail it all down though.” She interjects, glancing sideways. “It’s just a piece of wood at the end of the day. If it falls over or gets worn out, I make a new one. The people are much more important.” Proof of this ethos is the fact that unlike many other artists, Ana considers being able to touch the pieces as central to the experience – opening up windows of opportunity inclusive of the visually impaired. As Collin recounts: “it was rather amusing watching one such visitor feel all the way down the torso, and end up delightfully surprised by what she found.” As with their laughter – very little is held back.

For a woman whose work depicts so much darkness, death and violence, her radiant disposition is testiment to the “good fortune in [her] life.” And a “guardian angel” that works overtime. Although you don’t get the impression that it’s a ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ situation, it is clear that she counts her blessings amidst the brutality of it all.

This is most evident in the way that she cackles at the series of suffering faces burning in hell, designed by Caspicara with the intent to scare the sinners into submission – “oh so magnificent”, her eyes narrow in glee, “it’s always the devil that gets the best features – look at him!”

By contrast, Ana grew up on a diet featuring the likes of Rembrandt, because “that’s colonialism for you.” Collin ponders whether “people left Brazil for Europe, in order to escape the European influence.” It certainly gave it a more relevant context. Ana’s move to Britain was sponsored by a scholarship from the British Council, and she “wasn’t quite as aware of it at the time, but it was really something back in the day.” Here she was appointed as Head of Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art, where she stayed for 5 years.

This was the launchpad from which her work began its extensive tour of Britain. Among the more well-known titles are: Women’s Images of Men (1980) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; Some Exercise of Power (1991) at the Camden Arts Centre in London and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and The Longest Journey (1994) in the Gas Hall, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.



As part of Some Exercise of Power, the nineteen-figure installation Dark Night of the Soul, was the result of her position as Associate Artist at the National Gallery in London from 1997 to 2000. Her brief, had been to produce a work for exhibition, inspired in some way by the National Gallery collection.

Apart from its immense scale and variety of poses, the piece is unusual for its radial structure. The focus is a central group where a kneeling, naked and hooded figure, pierced by arrows, is hedged by four huge enforcers. This figure and a young child are the only naked figures in the piece and they are linked by a sightline. Other small groups look on in dismay or compassion at the central event, while hoodlums on the outskirts are engrossed in their own feuding.

Pacheco has long admired the National Gallery’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, and her sculpture clearly takes as its starting point, the Romans’ punishment of Sebastian for his conversion to Christianity. Had she given her work a title referring to that event in particular, Pacheco felt she would close the reading of the piece, and viewers would not then take the time to explore its wider implications.

The title does in fact have a religious origin. It is the title of a poem and commentary by St John of the Cross, which describes the journey of his soul towards unity with God. The wider implications of the sculpture became evident when photographs of atrocities in Abu Ghraib prison appeared in newspapers, featuring horrifyingly similar scenes.

Pacheco’s work commonly focuses on travel, geographically – but also spiritually, mentally and emotionally; adding further dimensions to an experience with the use of Brazilian legends, Mythology, Christian mysticism, and Medieval satire. Her artworks depict narratives that are discovered by the viewer through their experience of looking – playing on their curiosity, to arouse their interest and imagination. On this deeper level, it is a humanising reflection of humanity, highlighting how vulnerable we are.

Norfolk Contemporary Art Society curator Keith Roberts, has said of her works: “Ana’s art encompasses large and enduring themes; violence, journeys, death, love, transformation and metamorphosis reflect her high seriousness, but at the same time her work is neither pompous nor devoid of humour.” And of her piece Dispersing the Night exhibited at Salisbury Cathedral, curator Jacquiline Creswell shared that the themes were “hope, an optimistic attitude, and a firm belief in the positive side of human nature, along with its power to drive the darkness from our lives… It allows us to reflect on the way we frail, brave humans deal with our journey of life, its many contradictions and dimensions of reality – the imperfectability of existence.”

Ana draws inspiration from sculptors such as O Aleijadinho, an architect of Colonial Brazil, noted for his works on and in various churches. For some scholars, he is a household name of Baroque in the Americas, although his biography contains few certainties, and remains shrouded in legend and controversy.

With a cast of characters that are betrayed, tortured, ecstatic, seductive, grotesque, bestial or divine; Ana’s work can arouse extreme emotions, a process that as some have concluded, art no longer has the power to elicit. Yet there is certainly appetite for it. In The Banquet (1985), enormous seated black figures, taller than the standing viewers, compel them to join in, complicit in completing the circle around the defenceless human offering lying on the table. With their sharp teeth and without necks, these are formidable, dark and menacing forces. And yet there is still a playfulness and a dry sense of humour about the work, that reflects on the need for distance.

Ana left Brazil in 1973, some while after the military regime had taken power in 1964, and many years before democracy was restored in the late ‘80s. The totalitarian repression affected artists, journalists and other civilian occupations. Pacheco had initially made a small bronze study of a banquet scene while still in Brazil, but she was not satisfied with it. Some twenty years later she felt ready to tackle the subject again. In the next version which became the third piece of the triptych, Some Exercise of Power, the teeth are dental artefacts, individually inserted. But as she sits besides Collin, a world away from it all, he fondly reflects on her past attempts to “collect teeth from children” at a nursery school.


The Banquet figures have been equipped with a set of real teeth which are sharp and jut out from under the lips in a bestial manner. This virtual coming-to-life of the figure blurs the boundary between art and life and renders the vision of human relationships as a mutual devouring particularly disturbing. Cannibalism as a metaphor for human relationships is a central theme in Brazilian cultural history. It was originally developed in the ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’ in the 1920s by the Modernist poet Oswald de Andrade. Using the image of the ‘cannibalist’ Indian as a metaphor for the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, it proposed that Brazil overcame its perennial cultural dependence on Europe by ‘devouring’ what Europe had to offer, but in the process adapting to its local conditions.” – Vivian Schelling


Pacheco had The Banquet installed in her Norfolk studio for some time, and observed people closely as they looked at it. They always went to the same spot opposite the large figure that looks out across the table, and into the victims eyes. In doing so, the viewer takes his or her place as a fifth guest at the table – or next item on the menu. Pratt Contemporary, who have a unique relationship with Ana based on mutual trust, highlight that this piece is suggestive of both pagan and Christian ritual.

Shadows Of The Wanderer (2008), which is part of the same series on Some Exercise of Power, brings a forward motion to these static scenes. The young man’s dogged advance and the old man’s gaze into the distance, create a sense that these ‘wanderers’ are fleeing from their world and about to enter ours. Behind them loom the ‘shadows’, ten larger than life-size figures who observe the men’s plight with a variety of emotions, and one or two who look away and seem to engage us as we pass by. Like a Greek chorus they observe the event with mixed moods, watchful but seemingly unable to intervene.

We encounter such images daily in the media, but are often not confronted by them in the same way. The image of a young man carrying an old man on his shoulders came into Ana’s mind while working on her previous sculpture, Land of No Return. She was familiar with scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid, where the Trojan Prince Aeneas leads a band of refugees from the ruins of Troy, carrying his father on his back. This, together with the contemporary images of todays suffering, led to the two front figures, sculpted from the same block of wood.

Given that Land of No Return features women casting golden cowrie shells in a form of ritual divination, evoking the magico-religious aspects inherent in so much of Ana’s work, the piece is for me reminiscent of the Santo Daime – a syncretic religion founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre, and its links to Ayahuasca use. Santo Daime incorporates elements of several religious or spiritual traditions such as Folk Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism, African animism and indigenous South American shamanism, including vegetalismo.

In this practice, ceremonies – trabalhos (Portuguese for ‘works’) – are typically several hours long and are undertaken sitting in silent concentration, or sung collectively, dancing according to simple steps in geometric formation. Ayahuasca, referred to as Daime within the practice, which contains several psychoactive compounds, is drunk as part of the ceremony. The drinking of Daime can induce a strong emetic effect, which is embraced as both emotional and physical purging. Santo Daime churches promote a wholesome lifestyle in conformity with the motto ‘harmony, love, truth and justice’, as well as other key doctrinal values such as strength, humility, fraternity and purity of heart.

“I don’t describe myself as a feminist” says Pacheco. “I’m far more ‘radical’ than the feminists I know.” Her statement brings to mind the ‘demon’ Lilith as a psychological and cultural liberator of women, and ties in nicely with an earlier conversation from Cambridge researcher Dr Adjoa Osei, exploring the role of the ‘Mulatta‘ in Avant-Garde art.

In spite of the racial and misogynistic overtones of the historical context (which are turned on their head in Portuguese), Adjoa admits to loving these pop-jazz images of the ‘dark feminine’ – exoticised and dramatic. Leaving us with the question: what changes when we swap the male gaze, for the female one? And how do women choose to represent themselves?

The day closes satisfyingly, with a final question from the audience – “Ana, what do you want us to see?”

“No.” Replies Ana compassionately, “it’s not what I want you to see, the question is – what do you see? You are a person endowed with your own personal human experience, and that will inform you of how you see it yourself.”