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

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.