Roda Viva (Wheel of Life), 2019

Peter Howells, Roda Viva (Wheel of Life), 2019, Installation view. Charcoal, acrylic paint, cardboard, paper, glue, tape, tacks, 90 x 360 in (2.28 x 9.14 m)

My new work, Roda Viva (Wheel of Life), is a large mixed media installation, with four vignettes inspired by the song Roda Viva by Chico Buarque. The song, written in the 1960s in Brazil, describes the how the wheel of life turns, creates turmoil and carries life’s destiny and accomplishments away.

I was only recently introduced to the music of Chico Buarque and became enamored of his music and his legacy. Many of his songs from the 1960s includes social, economic and cultural commentary on Brazil. Roda Viva struck me in particular because of its elaborate harmonies and dark melody. As much as I loved the song, as I learned the lyrics, I realized that the song was much more than I thought, a fatalistic song about impermanence.

Buarque composed the song as commentary on the dictatorship in Brazil at the time, acting as the “wheel of life” that carried the dreams of working class Brazilians about freedom and democracy. The themes in the song are deeply relative to the current political turmoil of Brazil and throughout the world, as the planet features a growing crisis of freedom and environmental crisis. For those reasons, I chose it as a theme for newest work.

Four themes

The mural, which is over 30 long and constructed of cardboard, features four vignettes that are inspired by themes from the verses of the song: Destino (Destiny), A Baiana, A Roseira (The Rosebush) and Saudades (Longing).

Destino (Destiny)

Tem dias que a gente se sente
Como quem partiu ou morreu
A gente estancou de repente
Ou foi o mundo então que cresceu?

A gente quer ter voz ativa
No nosso destino mandar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega o destino pra lá
There are days that we feel
Like those who went away or died
Did we suddenly stop
Or was it the world that grew?

We want to have a say
Make our own destiny
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries destiny away
Destino, 2019

In the first verse, Buarque sings about the human desire to control our destiny and create change, but the world changes and grows and our destiny is lost.

In this frame of the work, the figure pulls against a force that is out of view, making it unclear if progress is possible and what is to be gained. On the ground are notebooks representing a life documented but underfoot, easily forgotten.

A Baiana

A roda da saia, a mulata
Não quer mais rodar, não senhor
Não posso fazer serenata
A roda de samba acabou
The turn of the skirt, the mulata
Doesn’t want to turn any more, no sir
I am not able to serenade
The samba circle has ended
A Baiana, 2019.

This verse speaks of the dancer and musicians silenced, the samba ended. Under the dictatorship, speech was restricted and dissidents jailed and tortured. Throughout Roda Viva, Buarque uses metaphors and allusions to Brazilian culture to express his views and subvert the limits on self-expression.

In this vignette, the Baiana (literally, a woman from the Brazilian state of Baia) wears the traditional dress, featuring a hooped skirt, a shirt embellished with lace and embroidery, a shawl, and an oja, a cloth tied around the head. The clothes have spiritual significance and the skirt, or axó, represents the woman’s status in Bahian culture. A contingent of dancing Baianas are a main feature in parades during carnaval, with the traditional white clothing transformed into elaborate costumes in brilliant colors.

A Roseira (The Rosebush)

Faz tempo que a gente cultiva
A mais linda roseira que há
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a roseira pra lá
For such a long time we cultivate
The most beautiful rose bush there is
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the rosebush away
A Roseira, 2019

In this verse, Buarque sings about cultivating a rose bush, but with the passage of time, even the most beautiful bush will burn and and be carried away. No matter what we accomplish in life, it too passes.

In this frame of the mural, two rose bushes are intertwined, one alive with blooms and the other dry and dead, representing the interconnectedness and natural progression of life and death. 

Saudades (Longing)

No peito a saudade cativa
Faz força pro tempo parar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a saudade pra lá
In our hearts our longing is captured
Pushing hard to stop time
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the longing away

In the final verse, Buarque sings about saudades, a longing we have for all that has past in our lives. We cling to our past, trying to stop time, but once again life turns and our longing too is lost.

At the end of the mural, the figure looks back while continuing to walk forward, nearing the end of rope, representing a lifetime that ties the four vignettes together. A bee eater pursuing its’ prey, representing my own personal longing for nature and my fear that nature as we know it is passing in front of our eyes.

The Wheel of Life

Taking Inspiration from Roda Viva

Chico Buarque singing Roda Viva with the group MPB-4 at the 1967 Third Festival of Brazilian Popular Music (III Festival da Música Popular Brasileira).

For my 2019 Open Studios, I am creating a mural in my studio inspired by the song Roda Viva by Brazilian artist Chico Buarque. Recorded in 1967, the song is about how the “wheel of life” can suddenly turn and carry our world away. Roda Viva is considered one of the greatest Brazilian Popular Music songs of all time and, at the time it was recorded, was a subversive protest against the military dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in the 1960s in a coup against the democratically elected government.

The title of the song, Roda Viva, can be translated as “wheel of life” or “living wheel” but is also an expression in Portuguese meaning restless movement and turmoil. In the song, “roda-viva” is understood as a reference to the Brazilian dictatorship and the lyrics describe the impact the “wheel of life” had on the democratic destiny of Brazilians, freedom of expression and socialist ideals.

The verses contain many metaphors and Brazilian cultural references, making direct translation challenging, but below is my translation after various other translations I found on the internet

Lyrics of Roda Viva by Chico Buarque

Tem dias que a gente se sente
Como quem partiu ou morreu
A gente estancou de repente
Ou foi o mundo então que cresceu?

A gente quer ter voz ativa
No nosso destino mandar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega o destino pra lá

Roda mundo, roda-gigante
Rodamoinho, roda pião
O tempo rodou num instante
Nas voltas do meu coração

A gente vai contra a corrente
Até não poder resistir
Na volta do barco é que sente
O quanto deixou de cumprir

Faz tempo que a gente cultiva
A mais linda roseira que há
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a roseira pra lá

Roda mundo, roda-gigante
Rodamoinho, roda pião
O tempo rodou num instante
Nas voltas do meu coração

A roda da saia, a mulata
Não quer mais rodar, não senhor
Não posso fazer serenata
A roda de samba acabou

A gente toma a iniciativa
Viola na rua, a cantar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a viola pra lá

Roda mundo, roda-gigante
Rodamoinho, roda pião
O tempo rodou num instante
Nas voltas do meu coração

O samba, a viola, a roseira
Um dia a fogueira queimou
Foi tudo ilusão passageira
Que a brisa primeira levou

No peito a saudade cativa
Faz força pro tempo parar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a saudade pra lá

Roda mundo, roda-gigante
Rodamoinho, roda pião
O tempo rodou num instante
Nas voltas do meu coração
There are days that we feel
Like those who went away or died
Did we suddenly stop
Or was it the world that grew?

We want to have a say
Make our own destiny
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries destiny away

Spinning world, ferris wheel
Whirlwind, spinning top
Time turned in an instant
In the turns of my heart

We go against the tide
Until we cannot resist
In the turn of the boat, we feel
How much we have left to do

For such a long time we cultivate
The most beautiful rose bush there is
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the rosebush away

Spinning world, ferris wheel
Whirlwind, spinning top
Time turned in an instant
In the turns of my heart

The turn of the skirt, the mulata
Doesn’t want to turn any more, no sir
I am not able to serenade
The samba circle has ended

We take the initiative
Guitar in the street, singing
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the guitar away

Spinning world, ferris wheel
Whirlwind, spinning top
Time turned in an instant
In the turns of my heart

The samba, the guitar, the rosebush
One day the fire burned
It was all a passing illusion
That the first breeze carried away

In our hearts our longing is captured
Pushing hard to stop time
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the longing away

Spinning world, ferris wheel
Whirlwind, spinning top
Time turned in an instant
In the turns of my heart

My theme for Open Studios: Roda Viva

For this year’s SF Open Studios, I’m creating a mural in my studio inspired by the song Roda Viva by Brazilian artist Chico Buarque. The song was recorded in 1967 and is about the “wheel of life” that can suddenly change our fate, with lyrics that contain many metaphors and allusions to Brazilian culture. At the time it was recorded, “roda viva” was also understood as a reference to the Brazilian military dictatorship and the political turmoil at the time.

This video features Chico Buarque performing the song at the 1967 Festival of Brazilian Popular Music. This version includes English subtitles that I don’t really love but gives you the general idea and covers some of the themes I include in my work. I love this video, especially the views of the audience members singing along, especially considering the intended meaning of the song.

Peter Howells 2019 Open Studios

Roda Viva: Destino, 2019. Mixed media, 90 x 90 in.

I’ll be participating in this year’s San Francisco Open Studios at Arc Gallery at 1246 Folsom Street in SF. For the weekend event, I am creating a 8 x 30 foot mural on my studio wall inspired by the song Roda Viva by Brazilian artist Chico Buarque. It is probably the most ambitious installation I’ve ever done and I’m looking forward to sharing it with everyone.  

Peter Howells Studio
Arc Gallery & Studios
1246 Folsom St
Studio 205
San Francisco, CA 94103
Opening Reception
Friday, November 1, 7-9pm

Open Studio Hours
Saturday, Nov 2, 11am – 5pm
Sunday, Nov 3, 11am – 5pm

Redacted group show at ReachArts

They Have an Advantage, 2019

SWAMPSCOTT, MA, July 30, 2019— ReachArts, Swampscott’s Community Arts Center hosts Unredacted, a mixed-media exhibition featuring 7 artists who, over the last two decades, have studied with the collaborative duo rosenclaire, Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky, artists and educators who run workshops and residencies principally in Italy and South Africa.

The exhibition features work by Tereza Swanda, Peter Howells, Diane Jacobs, Angela Rose Voulgarelis, Dorota Mytych, Michael Miller, Melissa Morris

“As a group, we are working with the following themes: gender and economic inequality, violence against women and children, migration as a means of potential political asylum, destructive thoughts that perpetuate social and political division, as well as the collapse of hierarchical cultural structures. 

Acknowledging the political post-truth world we now live in, as artists and activists, we aim to shine a light on sustained inequities and offer more humane alternatives.”

On View: September 7- October 19th

ReachArts is a volunteer-led community arts and humanities center in Swampscott, MA. Our mission is to provide a home for a diverse community to unite through artistic expression.

Rio Doce

Rio Doce, 2019

Through my work I reflect on the impact humanity has had on our planet and how our beliefs, our values and our actions have progressively and irreversibly transformed the world around us. As much as possible, I work with repurposed and recycled materials and found images in different scales and combinations in temporary arrangements; the materials themselves represent acts of ongoing transformation.

For my 2018 work, I installed over 500 pieces of cardboard, with a river of earth color pieces running from one edge to another representing the Rio Doce in Brazil, which was impacted by a 2015 mining accident. Also represented is a member of an indigenous tribe heavily impacted by the disaster, the names of some of the people killed in the town that was overrun with mud from the dam, and quotes from Shirley Krenak, a leader of the Krenak indigenous people.

Rio Doce, 2018 (detail)..

On 5 November 2015, a mine dam holding back waste from an iron mine in the southeast of Brazil collapsed, releasing 62 million cubic meters of mining waste. The toxic mud destroyed hundreds of houses, took the lives of 19 people, and left hundred without shelter in the city of Mariana.

“For many people, it was just water running there, but for my People, it was Krenak, a brother who took care of our health, our religion, our culture. And Vale, this evil company, killed it. What saddens me the most is that my people, for several years, had been warning the society about the atrocities being done to our river, but no one listened to us.” 

Shirley Krenak, a leader of the Krenak indigenous people in Minas Gerais, Brazil

Two hours after the collapse of the dam, the waste reached Rio Doce, an important river which thousands of people in the region depend on for their livelihood. The waste was dragged by the river for several days, finally reaching the ocean on October 22, 2015 where it spread out for more than 20 kilometers. 

Installing Rio Doce

“I learned how to swim with my father, in the Doce river. Today, my children have to swim in a water tank. But this company will not put an end to my people, no. As time goes by, we become more resistant.” 

Shirley Krenak, a leader of the Krenak indigenous people in Minas Gerais, Brazil
Rio Doce, 2018 (detail)

From the 80 species of fish that existed in the river, 12 were endangered, and other 11 existed only in that region and may be extinct. The toxic waste also affected the only regular place where the leatherback sea turtle goes to lay eggs in the Brazilian coast. The effects of the tragedy on the region’s ecosystem are still unraveling, and environmentalists believe that the toxic waste will affect the region for at least 100 years.

Artist Statement

As an artist, I explore themes of creation and destruction,  the illusion of permanence and the inevitability of change. Just as nature transformed the earth over millennia resulting in the world as we know it, including us, so too does humanity both destroy and recreate our planet with an outcome that is both profound and uncertain.

My works serve as an analogy to the powerful forces of both nature and humanity. Using found objects, impermanent media and imagery whose original purpose has become obsolete, I have rearranged their parts to create new and unexpected forms. My work also often contains multiple levels of visual interest, withs pieces having abstract and geometrical structures at a distance, colors and tones with, with closer inspection, reveal remnants of information and additional layers of patterns, forms and materials.

Cartography series

Cartography, 2010-2016. Mixed media, 96″ x 300″ in. more or less

When I conceived of Cartography series piece, I wanted to work large but was not in a location where I could purchase and transport large canvases, so I made the work from small pieces of cardboard I found in the street and piece together. I made a couple of important discoveries working this way. Using “recycled” materials freed me up to be less precious about the work, allowing me to explore themes and styles in a way that I resisted previously. The modularity also allowed me to continuously expand and contract the scale of each work, swapping and exchanging entire sections of a work that could theoretically be any size that I want.  I’ve worked on sections of Cartography since 2000 and most recently combined a very large and previously unrelated portions into a mural installation.

Rearranged World series

My “Rearranged World” series serve as an analogy to the destructive and creative processes of both nature and humanity, and how humans try to transform the chaos of nature into order. Each piece begins with letterpress typeset tray, discarded from a Chinese print shop that used a technology that has been supplanted by digital reproduction. Inserted within each niche are strips of maps taken from old atlases, with representations of a “rearranged” world from our recent past, one that has since been further altered by humanity.

Cartography

Cartography, 2010-2016. Mixed media, 96″ x 300″ in. more or less

Cartography began as a continuation of my ongoing themes, combining map imagery with wrestlers, symbolizing how human conflict has effectively reshaped the earth in our image and to accommodate us.

When I conceived of the piece, I wanted to work large but was not in a location where I could purchase and transport large canvases, so I made the work from small pieces of cardboard I found in the street, each scrap additing it’s own aesthetic and history to the piece. Working modularly and with “recycled” materials also freed me up to be less precious about the work, allowing me to explore themes and styles in a way that I resisted previously. As another bene t, I could choose to work inany size I wanted and to con- tinue to grow the piece in any direction.

I’ve worked on sections of Cartography since 2000 and most recently combined very large and previously unrelated portions into a mural installation, pictured above.