Third-gen Lebanon immigrant makes art to discuss existence

Denise Milan is in the top tier of Brazil’s contemporary art scene. She works with stones to approach survival, coexistence and humanity, and sees traces of her own family history in her creations.

Isaura Daniel

São Paulo – A granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants from Baalbek and Kafarakab is working her way into the upper echelon of Brazilian contemporary art. Denise Milan, a member of the third-generation Maluf and Milan families in Brazil, makes art using stones, which she employs to converse with the public about survival, coexistence, humanity, and even her grandparents’ 19th century journey from Lebanon to Brazil.

“Survival or disappearance was also the drama of those travelers, those migrants. Would they disappear or would they survive in those brand new lands?”, Milan told ANBA while sitting next to her installation in the 33rd São Paulo Art Biennial – the premier contemporary art show in Latin America. Milan has a space of her own in the Biennial; only 12 other artists do. This area is for the few.

Her Biennial installation features several stones across the floor. They’re reminiscent of human figures, of phalluses, of women wearing veils, of hands calling out to the skies or whatever other elements visitors’ imaginations may conjure. One of the upright stones, its inner violet-tinged amethyst showing, marks the beginning of a set that resembles a river, or the tracks left behind by a meteorite – or Ilha Brasilis (Island Brasilis), the exhibition’s title.

The show’s opening text at the entrance to the hall illustrates the artist’s thoughts regarding her own work: “I got to look at these stones more and more as human beings, because they had human shapes. The more I’d look at their narrative, the more they’d tell me. I found testimonies of the analogy between human being and stone, and of the extent to which we have ultimately been imagined by Earth,” Denise’s exhibition text reads.

Denise Milan’s ‘Ilha Brasilis’ show is featured in the São Paulo Biennial

Denise’s installations in Brazil and the world over are variations on the stones theme in its wildest possibilities, reflection- and exploration-wise. Permanent artworks of Denise’s are featured in the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM)’s Sculpture Garden, the Pelourinho in Salvador, Brasília’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Chicago’s Museum Campus, etc. Her work has been on show numerous times in places including New York, USA; Hannover, Germany; Assisi, Italy; and many other locations in Brazil and elsewhere.

The stone is always the starting point in discussing humanity. “We’re facing 130 million-year-old stones here. They survived the roughest of clashes of matter. They persist. They manage to create their own integrity and individuality. What is this mystery that allows them to survive?”, Denise inquires. The artist scours the depths of earth for her work material and her thinking. The way basalt and quartz share the space with amethyst speak of coexistence to Denise. “I discovered the notion of coexistence through the drama of matter,” she says.

By picking Denise’s work for the solo show, the Biennial’s curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro brought this kind of perspective into the event. “We’re not used to seeing stones in an art context. You’ll see them as jewelry, as souvenirs, as very consumption-related things. Denise brings stones to a different place, as a source of learning, of experience, a source of connection with reality that’s underneath our feet. They’re supporting us all the time, yet we don’t think about them,” he said.

As she wove up her own storyline, Denise gradually realized that her work was strongly connected with her Arab background. Denise’s art delves into family history as it inquires about survival, which is what the early Arab immigrants came looking for in Brazil. She drew on minor aspects of a loving family life: the little stone box she got from her father as a kid; the stories in an Egyptian magazine her grandfather used to read; the stones in the Moorish architecture of her grandparents’ home.

“They came to America, and so I immersed myself in the underground of America and uncovered its treasures. I bring the treasures into the world of visibility. It’s like the hidden treasures in Ali Baba’s cave,” quips Denise, likening her personal history to the character from the Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Brazilian artist Denise Milan creates installation work using stones, like the amethyst

After an invitation by philosophers from Lebanon’s Notre Dame University, Denise Milan travelled to the country about five years ago to deliver a lecture. “It was a deeply moving experience,” she says. Denise recalls that everyone would speak Arabic with her and were surprised she wouldn’t answer – she doesn’t speak the language. “But it was beautiful, because I could imagine all the narratives, the conversations, the epics unfolding,” she says. That was her first contact with the real world – all she had up until then was an imaginary comprising the lute music she’d hear at home, the scents of Arab food, the stories about the Baalbek ruins. “I’m a daughter of the East, gestated in the West,” she argues.

Denise says she has a desire for deeper contact with Arabs in her work. She exhibited in Marrakech, Morocco in 2016, during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change – COP22. She used Ammonoid fossils, which abound in Morocco, to create the installation Ventre Oceânico (Oceanic Womb) and the exhibitions Ventre Cósmico (Cosmic Womb) and Ventre da Terra (Earth’s Womb).

Denise has also been to Egypt as a tourist, in 1982. “I marveled at the knowledge Egyptians had of the human soul and at their civilization’s grandeur. I learned from the source of those konwledges,” she says. She’s also been to Morocco as a tourist, in 1973. In 2016, Denise visited the Dubai Art Fair.

Denise Milan had her first-ever show in the 1980s, at which point she did collage work. She wouldn’t stumble upon stones as work material until a few years later. Earlier on, she’d made a more traditional career choice by studying Economics at the University of São Paulo (USP). After getting her degree, Denise travelled the world to learn about art. Besides Art, she took courses in Contemporary Theater and Arab Dances, all of which fed into her then-fledgling career.

Denise recounts that she got a lot of support from her father when it came to her art career. She believes this was a natural choice for her, being the third generation of a great journey, the Diaspora. “Daddy had to lay the foundation, to build a structure for his family, but once that structure was in place, I got all the support I needed in taking a leap into imagination. I had the time to be able to gestate a different reality, to be able to tell people about that journey,” she ponders.

Denise is in groups of Arab descendant intellectuals who get together to discuss their connections with the region. She also does art-related social work. She has several books out, including A Linguagem das Pedras (The Language of Stones). November 22 will see the release of her Pedra: o Universo Escondido (Stone: the Hidden Universe) at São Paulo’s Galeria Lume, through publishing house BEI Editora. Besides her solo show at the Biennial, which will run until December 9, Galeria Lume is hosting Denise’s OrDeNAção, DNA da pedra (OrDiNAtion, the DNA of stone) through November 19.

The 33rd São Paulo Art Biennial
September 7-December 9, 2018
Free admission
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and holidays, 9am-7pm (doors close at 6pm)
Thursday and Saturday, 9am-10pm (doors close at 9pm)
Closed on Mondays
Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion – Parque Ibirapuera – São Paulo – SP


Watch Denise Milan discuss her work with stones in the video below:

Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

Sérgio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sérgio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sérgio Tomisaki/ANBA

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