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.