About the Photos
I was stopped in my tracks when I first saw Anna Mariani’s photos of traditional houses of the Sertão, at a show in São Paulo, in 1990. She had traveled through the region in the 70s and 80s, photographing only the houses still painted the old way, with natural lime wash, and the result was a still and stately portrait of the culture of the region that no one else has ever captured, despite the fact that there is nary a person in any of her shots.
I stood enchanted, moving past what seemed to me to be a backlands version of luxe, calme and even volupté, brightly painted as some were, pink, yellow, blue, green. Some had false fronts, “reminiscent of Dutch houses from the 16th century,” read the museum commentary, but there seemed little Dutch about these. One had a fish coming off the front, others scrolls, and fanciful impasto, plus “Dutch” implied a certain prosperity, and these houses were clearly of the poor.
Some were even falling to pieces, which made the colors even lovelier, more subtle, even brave. Old colors, that you can only get from what they call “cal,” natural paint, whitewash, not latex. One of the houses was shown twice, one year, yellow, the next year, green. The people had told Anna they needed a slight shift of luck. This had done it.
I myself had become interested in a bandit culture from the region, and wanted to travel up there, but no one would go with me. It was the poor backlands of Brazil, none of my friends were interested, but Anna Mariani was clearly interested. I wondered—could I meet her? How? Where did she live?
I asked the guard for her number. Nothing doing. Started to pen a formal note. Concentrating on the Portuguese spelling—she wouldn’t want to take a third-grader.
“Closing time,” said the guard.
“Vee-ky?” My name, in Portuguese. Beautiful. I turned.
A young woman I hadn’t seen in years was in the gallery—a beautiful girl who had once shown up at our house with a boy we knew from New York. They’d stayed for a while, and we’d all had a lovely time, though I’d just had a baby and was in that zone, and they were in rather another. There were days when they were going to bed when I was staggering up, and then they’d gone off to the beaches up north, the boy eventually went back to New York alone, and I never saw her again.
That must have been five, six, seven years ago, we tried to figure. She’d gone to England, she told me, lived in London, danced with Royal Ballet, there’d been a husband, a baby, a dance company back here now, trying to “valorize,” as she put it, the indigenous cultures.
She nodded to the pictures on the wall. “You like them?” she asked.
We had stopped in front of a particularly small little box of a house painted blue, and smaller than the rest. It probably belonged to the poorest family in town, she said, but they’d chosen it for the poster when they showed the work at the Beaubourg, in Paris—
“Oh, did you see it there?” I asked her.
A strange look. “Of course.”
“I hear the artist lives here, in São Paulo.”
A smile. “That’s true.”
“I’m writing her a note, hoping maybe, somehow, to meet her—”
“You want to meet her?” She looked at her watch. “Could you come now?”
“What? You know her?”
“She’s my mother,” said my friend.
So it’s true, what they say—Brazil has five hundred people. Still, it seemed semi-miraculous to me that on a rainy day in 1990, on the grimy streets of the chic part of São Paulo, a girl who herself had come into my life by wild chance years before, having met a boy we knew at a random café on Canal Street in New York—this girl and I were running through the traffic and the rain to the penthouse apartment of the person I wanted most in the world to meet, who happened to be her mother.
On the other hand, I wasn’t entirely unworried. I had tried, once or twice, to meet with other São Paulo intellectuals to learn more about the “bandit culture,” as they called it, professors who’d written the books on the topic, and had been roundly rejected, on grounds of both national origin and cultural incompetence.
“Read my books first,” said one, using the most formal, distant Portuguese to which I’d ever been subjected. “Thou [implying both servant and slave] wilt find them in the recesses of the National Library.”
“But dey ain’t dere,” or some version was what I probably answered back, desperately leafing through the grammar book on my lap. “Dey bin stole.”
So not only was I a fascist North American pig down here for purposes of cultural hegemony, but illiterate to boot. Fine. Those books, in the end, had nothing to do with the lace and love that had intrigued me about the bandits anyway, but Anna Mariani’s pictures did. And as I remember our first meeting, we turned to each other, drank a cafezinho or two, and realized that it was possible that we could be friends.
She told me she was planning another trip.
I took a breath. “Will you take me out there with you?” I asked.
A beat. “Yes, but no one has ever liked it but me.”
“When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow.” We would fly to Salvador, and then drive out from there. She had arranged to borrow her brother’s car.
“Perfect,” I said, and stood solemnly to leave. Glided home through no traffic, packed a small bag with a few light things, and then, the next day, was driving with her out of Salvador, on the trail of Maria Bonita and Lampião.
Although, when I recently opened the first book she gave me, the inscription read: “To Vicky and John, A reminder of our first talk about the roads of Maria Bonita. With affection, Anna, March 2, 1990.”
So my husband had been there as well, at that first meeting, and it hadn't been a thunderclap, but a friendly, introductory chat—in March, and we didn't leave on our first trip until the beginning of October. But what happened in between—did she need much convincing? Did we chat further, have dinner, discuss itineraries, preferences and so on? Of that there is no trace.
So it seems likely that we did none of it—we were both travelers, both knew that what would happen on the road would happen on the road. I was a friend of her daughter; I wanted to go; she would take me. She was a hero to me, and I liked everything about her at first glance—her wild gray hair which contrasted with her calm beautiful face, her taste, her manners—and I suspected a soul mate, but that meant less to me than the fact that she was going up there, and would take me along. Because the truth is, I would have gone with anyone.
Though I didn’t, I went with her, and that made all the difference.