Return to rurality

In 1995, Hal Foster wrote the article The artist as ethnographer1, questioning the problems arising from the positioning of certain artists on the side of “cultural otherness”2. In addition to identifying a set of problems that this attitude raises, this article also draws attention to art’s “turn towards the ethnographic” during different historical periods (one of the precedents, for example, being the dissident surrealism of Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris), a theme to which it is always pertinent to return whenever the worlds of art and ethnography overlap.

This arises in the most recent work of Nelson Miranda (1979), EIRA. An architect by training, since 2013 Miranda has been developing a body of photographic work that has consolidated over the years, and he, like other contemporary photographers, traverses the artistic and documentary fields. Having previously dedicated himself to photographing spaces that have lost their original function, his most recent project focuses on threshing floors, constructions essential to agricultural cycles and the rural way of life. Threshing floors (in Portuguese, ‘eira’, taken from the Latin area) are, presumably, as old as the practice of agriculture, constituting, in their primordial form, wide, flat spaces in the open air that fulfilled a particular function, namely the drying and threshing of different types of cereal. In the Portuguese context, threshing floors are more common in the north of the country, and are made from slabs of granite, shale or, more recently, concrete, this last often covering previously existing threshing floors. In addition to their use in performing agricultural work, these spaces often became places of sociability, as they were the stage for various recreational activities, such as masses, dances or other celebrations. The de-leafing3, for example, took place on threshing floors, showing how vernacular forms of organizing agricultural work were capable of simultaneously performing a technical and a social function, through the materialization of the collective body. The same happened with the processes of threshing4 the cereals or tilling the land, actions often accompanied by chants (the so-called worker’s chants) that helped the effective fulfilment of the task since the movements of the peasants were made to the rhythm of the intonations of the chant. Amongst those who worked in the field, several testimonies stand out, the joys of certain tasks, accompanied by music, dancing, and wine, a lot of wine. It was social life bringing about the development of community relations: the strength of one’s arms was a precious commodity, which involved requests for service and loans, in a logic of reciprocity.

Like so many other elements that once served Portuguese rurality, most threshing floors have fallen into disuse, becoming obsolete. These days, the threshing floor usually refers to a past temporality – and in that respect, interestingly, this project broaches the previous themes that have interested Nelson Miranda. It is this approach to the threshing floor as the remains or reminiscence that we can detect in this work, that makes of it an interstitial place – between what it once was in its primordial function, and what it is or could be today. In this sense, his work embodies an interrogation of these spaces, inviting us to confront them and reflect on them, in their past, present and future dimension.

Of particular interest in this work is its biographical nature: the project emerged from the threshing floor of Nelson Miranda’s parents, located in Laundos, Póvoa de Varzim, when he started photographing the threshing floor itself and the series of objects “that were found there”. This set of images of objects, perhaps the most significant nucleus of the project, places inventory photography in a museum context, once again alluding to the character of these elements as detritus that is important to be addressed and interpreted. However, and in contrast to more conventional inventory photography, which uses neutral backgrounds, we see how the objects are photographed on the threshing floor itself, connected to and integrated into their contexts of use and dissemination. And if we dwell on the very objects that Nelson Miranda decided to photograph, we identify the importance of biographical tendency: we are not faced with the most usual set of objects of Portuguese rurality that so much marked the visual and ethnographic representations of the rural world throughout the 20th century, for example, tools, baskets, clay pottery, portrayed in their utmost finery. Some of the objects photographed are worn or broken, and others are presented in their formal uniqueness, since they were made by Miranda’s father to perform a particular task. They are unique, idiosyncratic objects, not model objects or museum specimens. In this sense, as I have written elsewhere5, this work aids in elaborating and complexifying the visual representation of Portuguese rurality, breaking with the romanticized forms of construing rurality that have been in circulation throughout 20th century Portugal.

What started as a fortuitous recording, motivated by a circumstantial curiosity, gradually gained the form of an artistic project. In recording objects, other discoveries followed, which led to a quasi-anthropology of threshing floors. Miranda’s parents were photographed performing some agricultural tasks, and their gestures were recorded; they also partook in a series of conversations about the role of the threshing floor and the tasks that were carried out there, in the past and in the present day, which Miranda recorded and edited. He also felt the need to conduct research in photographic archives of the threshing floor, coming across, among other documents, recordings of Michel Giacometti in the series Povo Que Canta6, which ended up becoming part of his project. What did he like about this well-known ethnographer’s work, which is composed of visual records recorded mainly in the 1970s? Probably, I venture to say, what they show of life on the threshing floors, that is, the “subject of his research” when it was in its full functionality. The vivacity of Giacometti’s images (the sound, the liveliness of the movements) contrasts with some of the photographs that Nelson Miranda takes of “his” threshing floor, represented with a certain rawness (also detected in his photographs of the objects) that the use of black and white reinforces. In this context, we question his position in relation to the universe he focuses on, since the project simultaneously reveals the author familiar with, yet a stranger to, the threshing floor and its objects: he grew up in this environment but early on distanced himself from it, becoming unfamiliar with these elements, which he “rediscovers” now, from his urban perspective, during the prolonged encounter with his rural origins that the pandemic ended up providing.

Resorting to these different dimensions or developments in his project (condensed into images and montages of high plastic quality, to which we are already accustomed in seeing from him) allows us to resume the reflection on the possible relationships between art and ethnography, which the text by Hal Foster, mentioned above, invites to the art world. In contrast to the examples that Hal Foster flags, however, Nelson Miranda does not mean to place himself on the side of otherness, since he is dealing with his own cultural heritage – although, as we have already said, he addresses this past with a certain ‘foreignness’. It is the inquisitive viewpoint of this project that brings it closer to an ethnographic or anthropological perspective, along with the underlying and transversal documentary impulse, visible both in its inventory photographs, in its archival research, and in the recording of oral testimonies.

But this “ethnographic inclination” in his work becomes even more accentuated when we recognize that Portuguese ethnography has focused, for practically its entire existence, on the rural world, producing images that have greatly contributed to a particular idea of rurality, and where we can clearly see the collection-type work that Giacometti carried out and that Nelson Miranda chose to include here. By “quoting” Giacometti, the author recognizes the weight of construing historiographically the images of the Portuguese rural world, dialoguing with that construction, perhaps challenging it.

In fact, if we put together a hypothetical history of images in the Portuguese 20th century, we would see how the rural world would occupy a prominent place in it, through representations of the Estado Novo7, through neo-realism and through the recent obsession with national heritage – movements that, despite their heterogeneity, compete with each other to represent “true” rurality. Interestingly, contemporary art (if we except cinema) has paid little attention to the rural world, perhaps because it emerged during a period of internationalisation and cosmopolitanism, where it was precisely those traces of rurality that were the elements being sought to be overcome. This work by Nelson Miranda thus occupies a space that, apart from a few exceptions, is only now beginning to be addressed in the Portuguese context – and not by chance by a younger generation, based on a quest for our rural heritage and its spoils. How to confront these elements? What to do with them? Like any pertinent work, this project does not provide us with an answer, but manages to pose and intensify these questions, opening the door to the consideration of our relationship with the contemporary rural world.

Maria Manuela Restivo

1 Published in 1996 in the book The return of the real, October Books.

2 The meaning of “alteridade cultural” given by Foster refers to the ethnic or cultural other.

3 The task of removing the leaves from the corn cobs, normally a group activity, was known as the desfolhada or esfolhada.

4 Beating the cereal so as to separate the grain from the chaff.

5 Restivo, Maria Manuela. 2022. “O Imaginário Rural na Criação Artística Contemporânea”. Brotéria Magazine, Vol. 194-5/6.

6 Giacometti, Michel, 1973. “Povo Que Canta – Cantos de Trabalho na Malha” (People who Sing – Working Songs for Threshing), RTP1, b&w, sound, 28’44’’.

7 The Estado Novo was an authoritarian, nationalist regime, inspired by fascism that existed in Portugal between 1933 and 1974; one of the longest surviving European dictatorships in the 20th century.

Maria Manuela Restivo (1985, PT) is an anthropologist and researcher in the field of vernacular artistic practices. She holds a degree in Anthropology from the University of Coimbra, a Masters in Museology from the University of Porto and a PhD in Heritage Studies/Art History from the same university, with the support of the Science and Technology Foundation (FCT). In 2018 she founded Estúdio do alhures, whose aim is to cross the fields of academic research and cultural production.