A Braid of Tales
by Chris Littlewood

Published in Mona Kuhn, Works, Thames & Hudson, 2021
Other texts by Darius Himes, Simon Baker, Rebecca Morse and Elizabeth Avedon

Memories, especially those from a childhood spent elsewhere from the place we inhabit, are filled with emotion and a sense of enchantment. Yet as fondly as we treasure them, they can be incomplete and imperfect. Such was the challenge faced by Mona Kuhn when she came to photograph a place and its people she had not known for two decades. Like the outline burned on to a wall where a picture once hung, an after-image lingers, but the precise details are impossible to grasp. Like a map with place names removed, memory has the ability to both orient or disorient one’s place in the world. Like these metaphors, Mona Kuhn’s work from Brazil alludes to the absence of family, a person’s dislocation from their birthplace, and the photographic as an inscription of light.

“I was thinking of a bird that flies back into the forest searching for its abandoned nest. I was looking for answers but forgot the questions along the way.” (Mona Kuhn, 2009)

A native Brazilian, Mona Kuhn was born in São Paulo, spending the first twenty years of her life there. She was part of a generation that embraced diversity, where one’s distant ancestry was secondary to the feeling of contemporary nationhood. Too complex and varied to even begin encapsulating here with any serious depth, the lineage of Brazil’s racial and ethnic history has led to one of the world’s most intricate demographic compositions. Brazil’s national census offers six main racial categories,1 though the reality for many is far more fluid and nuanced. Suffice it to say, according to the 1976 survey, Brazilians provided up to two hundred ways of self-describing.2 As a result, the discourse around race and culture, skin colour and identity in Brazil is a landscape that continues to shift. Depending on the context or where you are in the country, terms can interchange and definitions drift.

A young Mona Kuhn, nevertheless, found a commonality within the ambiguity; a collective acknowledgment that you were a Brazilian regardless of your ethnic identity or official racial classification. Talking of cultural synchronicity, she recalls how her experience of Brazil’s confluence of population groups and cultures was one of progressive metamorphosis. Independent as a teenager, Mona was accustomed to a street culture with its own hidden set of rules, rituals and symbols. Arising from descendants of African slaves, Afro-Brazilian culture, centuries of immigration and genetic mixing, a transculturalism had evolved where body language, eye contact and a style of movement known as ‘ginga’ created an atmosphere of looseness and ease. No doubt the energy of the music scene played a pivotal role. These underlying threads of heritage were an important influence when Mona returned to Brazil with a photographic project in mind. Realizing this side of her had laid dormant for some time, there was a longing to reconnect with her native self.

Shifting between autobiography, fiction and myth, Mona began constructing an image of her possible place within Brazilian society had her life taken a different trajectory. Yet she was not concerned with tracing the precise narrative of her own genealogy, rather with using her past as a touchstone for a more speculative journey. The resulting series, Native, pitches the grandiosity of the Mata Atlântica rainforest against the faded grandeur of a 1950s apartment interior – or rather a faded attempt at grandeur. Aspirational or simply the style of the day, the interior is a mixture of Baroque-esque ornamentation with other European influences. The colonial-era chair, patterned wallpaper, mid-century lampshade, parquet flooring and golden drapes: deliberately employed by the artist, these furnishings evoke an atmosphere of refinement. Yet something more mysterious and earthy percolates beneath initial appearances. Coinciding with the same time period Mona had been away, the apartment had remained abandoned for twenty years. Threadbare and moth-eaten, window dressings and surfaces succumbed to an inevitable process of tropicalization. Peeling paint. Rusty hinges. Everything stained. Like the bird searching for its nest, the abode itself was gradually returning to nature.

Reflecting and obscuring – doorways, mirrors and windows in Native function as both compositional frameworks and portals. A photograph is a frame and if you put a frame in the image you are suggesting that this is not the whole world – there is something else outside. That these interior spaces are part of a multilevel complex is faintly observable, but any other clues to the whereabouts are confounded by views of virgin rainforest throughout the series. In this indistinct territory, the views are somewhere in between the hyper-density of an inner city and the thickness of a jungle; part of a social housing experiment in downtown São Paulo, or conceivably a surrealist tower emerging from the forest floor. Dimly lit and dreamlike, is this a forest ambushing the city, or an apparition of a house haunting the jungle? Either way, the structure appears to be engulfed by the eternity of green that surrounds that region. Through this union, Mona Kuhn opens up a world, fusing urban architecture with pristine nature, materiality with fantasies, figures with shadows. Native presents a philosophical place. A stage. Its author is uninterested in exactitudes, as the artwork title Impression suggests, rather in capturing an essence.

Away from the regular community she photographs in France, and without her muse Jacintha, Mona was in new territory compared to previous projects. Emerging Boy is a portrait appearing early in the series. Strong and dignified, a young boy is surfacing from a river, torso and arms outstretched, gripping a rope swing. It is identifiable as a Mona Kuhn photograph, yet something feels different. Captured in the act of play, his gaze is strangely serious and direct. Like a sentinel guarding some secret community residing deep in the forest’s interior, the boy presented an unexpected encounter Mona needed to face up to. With his mistrustful expression, Emerging Boy represents something of an outlier in Mona’s work; it was the first time she had photographed a person she didn’t know in the slightest.

Entering Mona Kuhn’s camouflaged world, without social hierarchy, contemporary Brazilians are relinquished from the trappings of lifestyle. Jewelry and tan-lines are the most inconspicuous of giveaways. Calm and unposed, single figures or couples recline and sit. Their positions decided in collaboration. Slowly. Working in a square format with the sensibility of a personal diarist, Mona finds a balance between disarming her sitters and elevating them. It is a process that undoubtedly requires a level of intimacy; but what distinguishes Mona’s photographs of people is their casual sense of abandon. An emptiness. Pertaining to a person’s primal state of being, it’s as though her sitters forget about their nakedness. That they are nude is but one component, however. Creating such a relaxed state happens only over long periods; Mona’s trips to Brazil would last up to two months at a time. Not to mention the personality of the photographer and the quality of the exchange that takes place. By joining forces with people she imagined being associated with had she stayed in Brazil, Mona created a mantra within which to work.

A later project, titled Private, explores the Mojave Desert as a disorienting spatial and visual dimension, where the eyesight’s focus and perception of distance is collapsed into single optical planes. Both near and far, horizons appearing at once in close proximity and receding into infinity. Native, through the experience of being inside a rainforest, explores a disorientation of a different kind. More or less the opposite. Through their absolute density of detail, total lack of horizon and utter saturation with moisture – humidity so thick it becomes difficult to distinguish between water and air – rainforests are equally brutal and unforgiving to the senses. In this climate, camera lenses and eyesight fog up and the gelatin emulsion in camera film becomes gummy and begins to melt. With their multiplicity of layers, rainforests cause our vision to become highly attuned, yet also impeded. A quality that led Thomas Struth to describe an ‘experience of proximity’, as evident in his series New Pictures from Paradise with their ‘allover detail’. Struth regarded his views of impenetrable jungles with their flattening of perspectival order as ‘membranes for meditation’, in which the eye has no escape.3 Non-typological and free-flowing, Mona Kuhn’s approach runs incongruently to the cold detachment of Struth and others from the Düsseldorf school. We can think of her work as looking to certain European traditions, but liberating them – opening them up.

Through thick fronds of tropical gardens, Mona Kuhn’s lens instead centres on forest clearings, rivers and streams. Her eye is drawn to the cavernous, almost architectural structures created by overarching branches, tangled roots and creepers. Yawning and expanding, Virgin Forest resembles a lung inflated with breath, wherein a heart pumps blood through a network of ventricles. Finding solace in these nestlike spaces, we return to the idea of the little bird in search of home. Womblike and centred, this feeling is accentuated by selective planes of focus, whereby extraneous detail is rendered softly. Our attention drawn inwards. In creating smaller vignettes of discrete details, there is a suggestion of the individual life form among the sheer exuberance. Like the range of people we see, Mona’s photographs of flora carry a celebration of their extraordinary diversity, but also of their interdependence and interrelationships. Lushness, fullness and fecundity: tropical environments can also be sexualized spaces, as evoked through the photograph Sultry, and more evidently on show with Priscila – a portrait showing a young pregnant woman. In Native, where human and botanical life intermingle, the forest arguably takes on a female presence. Even the nude male figures appear somewhat androgynous.

Fading to black, a final sequence in the Native monograph shows a series of jungle views at night. Seemingly illuminated by an artificial source, they carry with them thoughts of the mystification of nature on which fantasies subsist. As threads within a braid of tales, what the coalescence of Native reveals collectively is not a truth, but a sense of the journey we encounter in the search for it.

If Mona portrays strangers in Native as would-be friends, in her follow-up project Bordeaux Series, she photographs her extended family with the poise and rigour of a studio portraitist. Formally subtle, precise and restrained, here Mona’s practice takes a rest from the abstracted figuration of more experimental works. Less impressionistic, Bordeaux Series calls for a different type of engagement from the viewer. Still expressing what she intends, but by not shaping the medium as overtly to her will, she allows photography to also say what it wants – outside of her own thoughts and disposition.

Photographed in a remote corner of La Lande in France, at Mona’s simple summer house, honest depictions of the human form are set against a deep Bordeaux-red backdrop. Uniformly titled, each figure study is simply labelled Portrait, whereas with Native we are offered clues in the titles – often single words, like signposts, which allude to the artist’s thinking, thereby colouring our reading of the images in a more subjective or poetic fashion. With the strictly frontal aspect of Bordeaux Series, where the camera faces each sitter squarely, the viewer’s eyeline lands centred on the body. No one part more important than the other. Lit naturally and evenly via a set of open double doors, the scene is infused with a softness, which although flattering avoids being dramatic.

Likening herself to a small-town photographer dutifully documenting her community, Mona Kuhn created Bordeaux Series over a period of four years. Each sitting was as much about reconnecting with long-term friends and neighbours as it was about her art – described by one sitter as a process having more in common with going for therapy or a relaxation session than having your portrait taken. Here, the act of photographing is a somewhat intense encounter between subject and photographer, an expression of attention for and appreciation of the person. Mona’s approach has always been about connecting to people over technical prowess, at its core a fascination with human energy. Bordeaux Series may well represent this dynamic at play in its rawest, most unfiltered form. Thanks to the simple setup, not even the camera itself comes between the photographer and her sitters, allowing a constant and reciprocal dialogue. The photographer preferred each sitter to gradually settle into their own posture. Through their shallow depth of field, the photographs lift the people from the background, balancing visual intimacy with respectful distance.

Opening with three consecutive panoramic landscapes in black and white, the Bordeaux Series monograph moves from a motion-blurred treeline to an inviting view of a house with open shutters, closing with a view of low-lying clouds above a distant treeline. It is as though we arrive and depart within a single day. Interspersed with mysterious views of rural lanes, waterways and crumbling stone buildings, the main body of portraits is both book-ended and broken up, in a deft interplay between narrative and non-narrative image sequencing that obscures the work from an ethnographic reading. Ranging greatly across young and old, a mix of body types and personas passed through Mona’s makeshift studio. Flaws laid bare, yet glowing from lazy summer days, they collectively symbolize the notion of being content in one’s skin. Founded by three families as a means of processing the psychosocial aftermath of conflict following World War II, the community that makes the yearly migration to this place is now in its third generation. While the horrors of the war and their memories are fading away, the principal ethos remains the same. Located on the west coast of France in an ecologically rich delta, a sanctuary for human life is centred around the healing qualities of nature.

1Edward Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Colour in Brazil, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004

2Mieko Nishida, Slavery and Identity: Ethnicity, Gender, and Race in Salvador, Brazil, 1808–1888, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003

3Thomas Struth, New Pictures from Paradise, Schirmer/Mosel, 2002