The stranger inside


Rilke once said that every work of art is good when it is born out of necessity. The present art project was created out of a need for emotional survival. As Merleau-Ponty stated “as if the painter´s calling there were some urgency above all other claims on him” (Ponty, 2009: 17), a physical need to create, to transform the challenges of everyday life in a positive way or, according to Deleuze, to use art as a form of resistance. 


Emigrating is always a challenge. It is not only the daily difficulties of adapting to a new reality and culture, the longing for friends and family, and the bureaucratic barriers inherent in the process of acquiring legal residency, but also the challenge of maintaining one’s own identity, united and strong, even in the face of opposition and adversity.


“You pay a high price for breaking free of your culture. That is why it is so important to have your own distinct identity, and a sense of your own strength, worth and maturity. Only then can you confidently face a different culture. Otherwise, you will withdraw into your own hiding place and timorously cut yourself off from others. All the more so because the Other is a mirror into which you peer, or in which you are observed, a mirror that unmasks and denudes, which we would prefer to avoid.” (Kapuscinski, 2009:92)


To change country and culture is almost a process of rebirth, since we have to rediscover ourselves in this new context. It´s impossible to not start a path of self-knowledge during the migratory journey. "The path is more important as each step brings us closer to the Other" (Kapuscinski, 2009:15)


When we emigrate, we carry along with us, an “extra suitcase” with our luggage, a heavy but invisible one, filled with the symbolic charge of our nationality. It’s something we don’t realize until we cross our borders and our world view is confronted by values and ways of being and living that are different from our own. To migrate is to deal with inevitable conflict between different cultures. It also means facing stereotypes and prejudices in mutual perceptions – stereotypes. All this has a profound impact on the lives of immigrants, where they are often the victims of prejudice, particularly in the workplace and in interpersonal relationships.


We consume stereotypes without questioning them, just like we consume products from a supermarket. We tend to mentally cast people into a mold, a one-size-fits-all “package”, regardless of the actual “product”.


These facts and my own experience as an immigrant led me to a desire, or better, a need to have my work reflect on issues like fragmented identity in the context of the diaspora; the frequent feeling of not fitting into the new culture, and a simultaneous desire to rediscover my own culture; to explore the phenomenon of social invisibility of immigrants and cultural stereotypes.


The initial association between bureaucracy and the stamps I used to build the drawings was inevitable. Throughout the research, the stamps proved to be the ideal visual metaphor to convey the idea of stereotype. I then have sought to understand the mechanisms that build and sustain stereotypes in order to find ‘weapons’ that could be used to deconstruct this distorted way of perceiving “the other”. Once we realize that a stereotype is a generalized way of describing a person or social group and not based on real and direct experience, we begin to understand that we filter the reality of others through our own cultural lens, which often implies a misperception in which the line between reality and illusion gets blurred.


From this dichotomy between reality and illusion I have sought to examine our ability to understand and interpret the world around us, to show that not everything is as it seems at first sight.


In the series of self-portraits made from my passport photograph, the viewer is confronted with a double illusion in a pictorial discourse that is deceptively conventional. Works have revealed the concepts underlying the image by creating ambiguities and dismantling the mechanisms we use to build our visual reality, by drawing an analogy to our natural tendency to judge others according pre-established notions. In the relationship between image and text that I have used in the drawings, the project also speaks to the question of identity and how language plays a role in defining an identity (even if that identity does not correspond to reality). And how a self-portrait can reach beyond being a simple embodiment to encompass the more collective aspects of immigration, and on our difficulty in understanding and accepting the other.


Letícia Barreto, fine artist