On December 22, 1988, Chico Mendes, the leader of the struggle to preserve the Amazonian rainforest, stepped out of the back door of his house and was assassinated. Chico was a seringueiro, a rubber tapper who collects latex from the trees of the forest. He had a vision of the people of the rainforest living in balance with the natural world, supporting their communities through harvesting the natural, renewable forest products in a sustainable manner. It was for this vision that he was murdered by the powerful ranchers of the region, who wish to burn the forests and expand their vast estates. And it is also for this vision that he has become for many throughout the world a hero of the earth, a saint of ecology.
Each year since Chico's death, New Orleans artist Jacqueline Bishop has traveled to Chico's home town of Xapuri, in the state of Acre, Brazil, deep within the heart of Amazonia. There she has met with his widow Ilzamar and his friends, and spent time in communion with the rainforest itself, observing, listening, and learning from its diverse life forms. And each year she has painted a portrait of Chico as a tribute to this humble man and his inspiring vision. The public has heard a great deal over the years about the massive destruction done to the Amazonian rainforests. Yet the devastation has worsened, the struggle of the rubber tappers has languished, and a horrifying ecological holocaust has remained at best on the fringes of public consciousness. If the magnitude of this continuing ecological catastrophe is to register with the global public, the realities of nature will have to capture its collective imagination. Jacqueline Bishop's art is noteworthy not only as the expression of her own inspired and numinous vision, but also as a powerful defense of nature through its unique contribution to the creation of an ecological imaginary.
In Em Memória Chico Mendes Bishop includes her Chico Mendes works, along with some of the most captivating of her rainforest paintings. There are also photographs of a joyful Chico with Ilzamar, a pensive Chico with his young children, and Ilzamar with the artist in Xapuri. And finally, there is "Chico," the only portrait painted during his lifetime, done by his friend Jorge Pivasplata de la Cruz. The context of Chico's life and work is presented through informative texts by the artist herself, by Brazilian historian Maria Jose Bezerra, by Wade Davis of the New York Botanical Garden, and by writer and filmmaker Jonathan Maslow. And a deeper personal dimension is offered in moving "testimonies" from Ilzamar and three of Chico's companions from the rubber tappers' union.
Yet this extraordinary work is above all a book of Bishop's paintings and an expression of her marvelously creative ecological imagination. In Bishop's works, the rainforest speaks to us. Its plants and flowers, its fish, birds, and monkeys, even its earth and sky cry out to us. They testify to the infinite and sacred beauty that lie within the forest, and they express the agony of loss, of death and destruction. Bishop's magical brush transforms the pathetic fallacy, the speech of nature, into an exquisite expression of the pathos of truth. Her genius is to compress into single, overpowering, complex images the tragic, unfolding story of an enchanted garden of earthly delights transformed by human ingenuity and human greed into a terrifying landscape of destruction.
In "Chico" (1989) the colors of nature are transformed into a hauntingly garish beauty blending the grotesque and the sacred. Two eerie skeletal avian heads hold a small banner before a red and purple image of Chico, as purple tears fall from their hollow eyes. Leaves rain through a black void upon jagged green and yellow peaks, which themselves shed a tear. "Chico Mendes: Man of the Forest" (1990) is a rich icon depicting the benevolent Chico, saint of the forest, his head haloed by the curving beaks of jungle birds, as luminous forest flowers, birds, and furry animals nestle around him. Even fish drift through an animated aether. Yet skeletal trees tower over a pinkly ominous horizon and one barely notices that starkly bare bones protrude from a radiant form. In two of Bishop's oil-on-wood constructions, "A Casa do Chico Mendes" I and II (1991 and 1992), we are transported to Chico's "house." In both we meet a resurrected Chico, surrounded by vibrant life. In one image, a purple butterfly ascends like a spirit from his head. What at first might seem a scattering of bright red-petaled, yellow-throated flowers becomes the peak of the roof aflame (Bishop's intense reds continually symbolize both intensity of life and ferocity of destruction). In the other work, the spirit butterfly rises above a halo-beak, a simian peers out from the forest as if to question us, and again a fish drifts into view. In both works, we slowly become aware that amidst this lushness of life the beatific Chico's chest is riddled with holes and dripping with blood. Through Bishop's polysemous "house" we are at once "at home" with Chico, pilgrims to the tomb-house of the martyred saint, and voyagers in the greater household ("oikos") of his tropical-forest home. In "Chico Mendes, 1944-1988" (1993) the head of a mournful Chico emerges from a thick patchwork of rainforest leaves. He sheds tears of blood that are echoed by similar tears falling like raindrops. But the next year's "Chico" is ghostly white, drained of life. There are no colorful life forms in this image, and only a velvety red curtain backdrop accentuates the paleness of death. Perhaps this lifeless image of Chico symbolizes the fading of his dream, the loss of interest in his cause by the international media, and the accelerating destruction of the rainforests.
"Xapuri" (1992) is dominated by a haunting row of grotesque skeletal tree-forms, seemingly frozen in a terrifying dance of death. There is a bleak wasteland background in which a fire storm on the horizon fades first into a smoky gray, and then to deep purple infinity. The central backdrop is a ghostly purple lake, from which arch dolphins of the same unnatural hue. The foreground is invaded by rich vegetation, flowers and birds, and lianes--climbing forest vines-- creep up the dead limbs on which perch brightly colored birds. An unvanquished Eros fights back against an imperious Thanatos. But despite such evidence of a regenerative life-force, the exclusively female tree-figures with their spindly outstretched limbs convey an overpowering image of Nature Herself crucified. Our complacency is mocked by these figures' uncanny visages: one is a smiling human skull; others are empty, mute bird skulls; another is effaced by a bird perched on a branch; another is a large and cruelly ironic flame, at the precise center of the painting. An excellent example of Bishop's imaginative genius, the painting is reminiscent of of an altar piece, a nature-crucifixion that shocks one's sensibilities, perhaps even into recognition.
"Century of Silence" (1996) is one of the most strikingly emblematic of Bishop's many powerful images. Here, a mandala of monkeys intertwine with a charred, spindly, seemingly emaciated tree. The work is spatially dominated by an apocalyptic skyscape of fiery pink, yellow, and red-orange tones that fade into an ominous reddish-blackness in the distance. One monkey sits staring out at the observer. Forest growth emerges in the foreground, but the forces of destruction are clearly ascendant in this disturbing image. Diaphanous leaves, drained of life, float in the background, and one senses that the growing holocaust will soon engulf the remaining life in its fiery destruction. Bishop's "Century of Silence" is the silence of death, as the forest home of myriad life forms is reduced to a mute, lifeless wasteland. But it is also the silence of our social world, as we quietly and complacently turn away from this unspeakable tragedy. It is out of this silence that Bishop's haunting images cry out to us, asking us to remember.
Em Memória Chico Mendes is available from the New Orleans-based publisher, Lavender Ink, and at a number of local bookstores. The images are all impressively reproduced in 16 full-color prints, and the texts are presented in English, Portuguese and Spanish.