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Destruction of Brazil told through photography and fire

Online photography exhibition exposes the destruction of Brazilian land and cultural symbols

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OPEN FIRE (FOGO ABERTO), the latest online multimedia work by photographic activist Marilene Ribeiro, details her perspective on the fires that have decimated Brazilian biological, social, and cultural heritage, reminding us of historical acts of burning in the Amazon and the Pantanal, as well as in the National Museum, the Brazilian Film Library and the Museum of Portuguese Language.


In natural areas of Brazil classified as ‘priorities for environmental conservation’, Marilene Ribeiro went out with her analogue camera to capture trees, leaves, rocks, streams, and waterfalls. She then systematically burnt the developed photos by hand with a lighter.

In the online multimedia platform where these scarred photographs are displayed, the viewer is also provided with the artist’s spoken subjective narration alongside each image, an impactful experience that connects the material with the emotional. 

Marilene’s goal through OPEN FIRE is to encourage discussion around the recent fires that have violated natural and cultural spaces in Brazil. The exhibition provides a powerful message about ‘the pain of aggression’ and ‘the pain of irreversibility [of fire]’, as the artist puts it, and posits fire as an untameable weapon with the capacity to destroy that which is frail and vulnerable.

As Marilene described in an interview with LAB, ‘Human civilization insists on differentiating itself from nature, as a superior being not dependent on natural cycles for its own existence. This false sense of power leads, in some way, to the violent acts we see (…). And because art is my form of speaking to the other, I end up absorbing, incorporating, and reflecting on these issues in my work.’  What better metaphor than OPEN FIRE, when Brazil’s historical, social, and biological heritage has become more frail and more vulnerable; and what sharper weapon than fire to turn them to ash?

What better metaphor than OPEN FIRE, when Brazil’s historical, social, and biological heritage has become more frail and more vulnerable; and what sharper weapon than fire to turn them to ash?

Fires in Brazil

The Amazon holds one of the most diverse and largest biomes in the world, one of the most vital natural resources on the globe, and, until recently, the world’s largest carbon sink. On August 10, 2019, also known as the ‘Day of Fire’, landowners and farmers systematically set fire to the biggest rainforest in the world. The damage was so drastic that even Sao Paulo, 2000 km away from the source, saw the smoke turn its day into night. There has been no shortage of news reports in recent years denouncing the fires that are destroying the most renowned forest in the world. However, we haven’t seen a similar spotlight on the other tragic fires that have occurred in the past years in Brazil.

In December 2015, the Museum of Portuguese Language caught fire, killing a firefighter and destroying most of the architectural integrity of the building. Three years later, in September 2018, a similar situation devastated The National Museum, burning over 20 million pieces of history, including the oldest human fossil found in Brazil (which, with the work of professionals, was 80 percent reconstituted from fragments that were found in the rubble). In July 2021, the Brazilian Film Library lost over one million archival documents to a fire including film rolls, scripts, and filming equipment, some of which were over 100 years old. The investigations into these three fires all found the same source: wiring malfunction; the latter two relating to the air-conditioning. However, what is not publicised is how the staff of these three public buildings had been denouncing the negligence, lack of funding, and disregard for cultural value for years before the incidents, all tied to the process of scrapping funds for public services thanks to harmful privatization policies in Brazil. 

Besides these horrifying fires that have burned a hole in Brazilian history, in 2021 alone, the country saw five important prayer houses belonging to the Indigenous Guarani Kaiowá community set on fire. This was a demonstration of religious intolerance and ethnic cleansing that comes as no surprise in the context of Indigenous persecution by Bolsonaro and his allies in Congress. 

Finally, the Pantanal wetlands, which encompass areas of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, has not remained unscathed from the ongoing fires. In 2020 alone, over a third of the world’s largest tropical wetland area was destroyed, and more than 17 million animals were carbonized, all thanks to an official agribusiness expansion plan. Despite receiving some international coverage in the news in 2020, the following year saw another fire devastate the region, with no repercussions. 

Bolsonaro and agribusiness

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Despite hurtling towards what scientists call a ‘point of no return’ regarding the preservation of the Amazon and the Pantanal, Bolsonaro meticulously disregarded the fires in Brazil’s two major natural biomes. He even minimized both the origin and impact of the fires, associating them with natural causes. However, despite what the president and his supporters want us to believe, these fires are caused by livestock ranchers, large landowners, illegal miners, loggers, and speculators. And to make matters worse, the orchestrators have passed the last four years of destruction with almost total impunity.

Bolsonaro is the strongest agribusiness ally the presidency of Brazil has seen since its redemocratization in 1985, and these events are not unrelated to a pragmatic political plan to transform Brazil into a raw commodity production machine that displaces Indigenous communities, murders endangered species of plants and animals, and wreaks havoc on natural biomes.

Under the guise of patriotism and economic development, Bolsonaro and his Ministers of Environment Ricardo Salles (January 2019 to June 2021) and Joaquim Leite (June 2021 to present) have pushed forward a pro-agribusiness agenda that benefits cattle and monoculture producers to the detriment of Indigenous communities and the environment. Within Congress, there are three main political alliance groups that support Bolsonaro, pejoratively called the ‘BBB Caucus’, standing for Bible, Bullet and Beef (Bancada da Bíblia, Boi e Bala). 

The Beef Caucus, with a strong interest in Brazil’s vast lands and resources, has been historically associated with the ‘Arc of deforestation’, a trail of cattle, monoculture, and most importantly, destruction, that extends from the centre of Brazil to the retracting border of the Amazon forest in the Northwest. Marilene points out that ‘Fire is used as a weapon to ‘shroud’ the criminal and, at the same time, it has a gigantic destructive power to suddenly and cruelly kill animals, ecosystems, archives, cultures, people’. 

The future of Brazil

In the presidential elections, to be held on October 2, Brazil will decide the next four years of its history – either by reelecting Bolsonaro, who has not committed to preserving the Amazon, the Pantanal, Indigenous lands, or anything vital to keep Earth alive; or by bringing back ‘Lula’ da Silva, who, despite a number of political slips, managed to reduce deforestation and increase protected Indigenous areas in both his terms as president in 2003 and 2007 and in his successor’s (Dilma Rousseff) in 2011 and 2015.

However, regardless of who is elected president, Marilene says that ‘It will be a difficult four years. We as a population and an organized civil society must be up close pressuring [the government].’ She asks, ‘Will it be possible that, after this ‘sample’ of four years of barbarism, the population will confirm that it is this future of blood, ashes, thirst, and hunger that it wants for its own home?’

Marilene Ribeiro

Open Fire is provocative. It taps into our national and international anguish and outrage through a socio-environmental, historical, and political debate on natural and human-caused fires that have turned our national heritage to ashes. Marilene Ribeiro had the courage to burn her own filmic originals in order to send this message, knowing that we must be protagonists, and not mere spectators in fighting this planned destruction. As the artist accurately points out, ’We must show the perpetrators, not just the victims’, and by denouncing the ongoing attacks through a beautiful dialogue between photography and fire, we can pierce the veil to show how environmental destruction and cultural depreciation is neither inevitable nor unplanned. The question Ribeiro leaves us with is: ‘How can I, as a citizen, act to avoid these open fires from happening?’ 

One answer Marilene provides is through Amerindian Cosmologies, which cherish wisdom and respect to all forms of life and being. She says, ‘If we do not wish to suffer from thirst and hunger in a near future, we must understand that another system must urgently be put in place, and this will involve a revolution (in many aspects), and will require us to leave our comfort zone. (It concerns countries, corporations, national and international relations, millionaires, and us ‘city folk’). There is no other option.’ 


View the online multimedia show Open Fire at www.openfireart.com