Performance by Barbara Monteiro
Text by Danielle Cascaes and Barbara Monteiro
Translation by Danielle Cascaes
Under the November night sky, in the courtyard of Escola de Teatro e Dança da UFPA (School of Theater and Dance of UFPA) – ETDUFPA, the performance titled “Before I forget: weaving collective memories” by Barbara Monteiro began to unfold. Conceived as the result of the Performance course taught by Prof. Dr. Karine Jansen, the work delves into the complex dialogue between art and memory, capable of transforming the public space into a site for connection and preservation of personal narratives.
Barbara Monteiro occupied a bench at the edge of the school’s courtyard, almost in the parking lot, enveloped in a long piece of raw cotton fabric that extended over her body. In front of her, a roll of red thread rested on another bench, waiting to be unwound, like a subliminal invitation. In her hands, she held an embroidery needle and used the red thread to slowly embroider the fabric. Passersby were encouraged to join the artist by sitting on the bench in front of her and holding the roll of red thread in their own hands. Barbara would then lift her gaze from the embroidery in her hands and direct it toward the seated person in front of her, asking them a deeply personal question: “Which one of your memories do you not want to be forgotten?”
The question triggered a moment of intimacy between the artist and the passerby, who proceeded to share their most precious and vulnerable memories. What was interesting was that, despite other people being around the two individuals seated, their conversation remained inaudible. From the surroundings, it was possible to observe their lips moving, tears falling, and at times, it was possible to perceive that they were singing a song. All of this without intruding on the intimacy of those sharing something so personal, almost as if a dome had been created around the two, sharing a moment with each other and no one else. While they talked, Barbara continued to embroider the fabric. At the end of the stories, the artist would ask the participants to draw or write something related to that memory on the fabric. With skill and care, she immortalized these memories, embroidering them with red thread onto the raw cotton fabric, on top of what they had written or drawn. With each stitch of the needle, the stories took shape on the fabric, in an embroidery weaving interconnected and intertwined memories.
The inspiration for the performance emanated from Barbara’s grandmother, Mrs. Laura, who was battling Alzheimer’s and consequently losing the memories that made up her life. The family reports that Mrs. Laura’s memory problems began after an accident she had, where she was hit by a motorcycle while on her way to her granddaughter’s house. But Barbara believes that the problem worsened due to Mrs. Laura’s relationship with her husband, a man respected by his children and acquaintances but who was cruel to his wife, humiliating, abusing, and assaulting her. Regarding this relationship with her grandfather, the artist reports:
Today, I no longer view the illness that afflicted my grandmother as the worst punishment for her, as an injustice. Perhaps forgetting everything was a way for her to live the rest of her years with the lightness she deserved. However, I still carry the weight of shared wounded memories caused by that same man. (MONTEIRO, 2022)
While making the performance, Barbara wrote an inducing text titled “Of the Pains of Memory and the Lightness of Forgetting,” with the above-quoted passage, where she reflects on how painful it can be to live, in some cases, carrying memories of unhappy and heavy events in our lives. Erasing specific memories is still not a humanly possible option, and the condition imposed by Alzheimer’s disease is unfair, deleting most memories without any prior agreement between the parties. In the text, she also questions, without seeking an answer, whether the disease came to free Mrs. Laura from these pains and put her in a state of lightness that forgetfulness, for better or worse.
The act of embroidering, a practice historically associated with memory, history, and the craft skills of women, gained a new symbolic dimension in this performance. The interwoven red threads represented the stories that intersect and build the grand tapestry that is life, and by embroidering the memories of other people, Barbara honored not only her grandmother but also other narratives that shape our identity. These narratives are often only oral, existing nowhere else except in memory. Stories that are ours, from our families or ancestors, and are at risk of being lost in time.
The erasure of these narratives, especially those on the outskirts of big cities and those of women, is rooted in a context of social, gender, and symbolic inequality. Historically, we know that the stories of the men in families, especially white men, tend to be preserved, while those of their wives fade away with time. Through her performance, Barbara manages to fill in a gap in the collective imagination and emotional memory through art, embroidering lives that intersect through the fabric, passing through each other, altering them, and enhancing them. The narratives of the people intersect with her own, making it possible for people who had never met, like Mrs. Laura and Mr. Gabriel, the deceased father of Danielle, one of the authors of this text, to come together. Today, Mrs. Laura and Mr. Gabriel are united, immortalized through art.
“Before I Forget: weaving collective memories” is a work that transcends mere observation and invites us to reflect on what we want to leave as a memory in the world, so that we and our loved ones are not forgotten. More than that, the performance encourages us to share memories, whether they are significant moments in our lives or everyday events that become significant due to their simplicity, making it possible to pass on ancestral knowledge, perpetuating memory as a fundamental part of the human experience.
MONTEIRO, Bárbara. Relatório para a disciplina Performance. Unpublished. 2022.