The United Nations (UN) Information Center for Brazil is sponsoring an exhibition that has already been brought to Rio, São Paulo, Curitiba, Florianópolis, remained until the end of July in Porto Alegre (at the Municipal Cultural Center, in a joint promotion with OAB/RS and SMEC) and will now proceed to Recife and Salvador, before arriving in Brasília for the celebration of the 36th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10.
Using the text of that document and a research of universally understandable symbols, artist Otávio Roth has created a work that, in different versions, is always occupying some exhibition place around the world. Roth also has an international reputation as a specialist in the difficult technique of artisanal paper making, being a member of the International Association of Paper Historians in Basel (Switzerland) and visiting professor to the New York Center for Book Arts. It was in this capacity as paper expert that Roth taught a course at the Art Museum of Rio Grande do Sul.
According to Otávio Roth, his first contact with the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a complete surprise. "Up to then, whenever someone spoke of human rights, I thought those concepts were a kind of common sense inherent to each person's conscience; that it had nothing in writing and didn't have to. After all, who doesn't know that every man has a right to food? Well, on second thought, it seems many governments, including ours, don't..."
What is fascinating about the document, according to the artist, is that it "embodies all the concepts that define a human being, and points to the true function of the State. The Declaration is beyond good and evil, it can be used to support any political ideology without being trapped by them. Ideologies are always smaller than human rights."
Roth's acquaintance with the Universal Declaration occurred in 1977, three years after he left Brazil to find in England "a clean lung to start breathing freedom again." While in London, he was an Art student and did volunteer visual communication design work for Amnesty International. "I am a rear-guard person, I contribute with that which I know how to do." An excerpt from the Declaration was used by him to illustrate a poster for the International Year of the Prisoner of Conscience. Since then, "I felt the desire to transform that text into a form that would be easier to propagate and graphically more pleasing."
After graduating at the Hornsey College of Art and concluding his engraving apprenticeship with master Paul Pitch, Roth went to Norway to work in design. It was there, during two long Scandinavian winters, that he carved into wood 32 matrices for large-format prints (60 x 80 cm). "I realized I had finally found the visual solution to present the subject," he says.
His research focused on the selection of symbols that could be universally understood – a sort of graphic Esperanto. "Sometimes I made involuntary mistakes. For example, the birdcage that illustrates arbitrary arrest is a rare object in civilized countries. In Norway, the article on the right to free association caused some controversy, because Norwegians are compulsorily linked to trade unions and associations. In a country that prides itself on never having violated human rights, it was, to say the least, an embarrassing situation."
The series of woodcuts was shown in Oslo during the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the text, in 1978, in a large exhibition staged by Amnesty International in the same building where the Nobel Prize party is held. "There was a large affluence of public to the exhibition on the award day, a sort of protest against granting that year's Nobel Peace Prize to Sadat and Begin," he recalls. This same collection of wood engravings with English text was displayed in Paris, after being edited in New York City, and distributed internationally by various human rights organizations.
Back in Brazil, Roth displayed his woodcuts and won the award of best engraver of the year from the São Paulo Association of Art Critics. In 1981, the then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim offered the UN headquarters for the exhibition, which was opened simultaneously in New York, Geneva and Vienna. Roth's woodcuts were acquired by the UN for its collection and are now part of a permanent exhibition in those three locations. "Suddenly, the proposal to disseminate human rights began to expand and develop independently of my efforts. I know I touched an eternal, universal theme, that won't ever expire."
After the woodcuts, Roth created a Portuguese version in which color stains were embedded into the very fabric of the paper during its manufacture. Still another version, using watercolor and ideograms, was developed jointly with a Japanese master calligrapher on invitation by the Tokyo government. This series will circulate all over Japan for the next 15 years and is presently in Hiroshima.
"Today I am no longer connected to these international bodies, but the idea is still bearing fruit," says the artist. Now he is preparing a version for Brazilian children. The text will be adapted to children's language by writer Ruth Rocha.
Can illustrating and disseminating human rights contribute to make them more respected? Otávio Roth answers without hesitation: "Yes, certainly. A few years ago, before I had the experience that Amnesty International gave me, I was very skeptical about these methods, which, deep down, are quite reflective of the British mentality. In England, people believe that public opinion moves the world. For instance, they write thousands of letters to dictators demanding the release of political prisoners. And they do it with utmost civility, addressing Pinochet as honorable president. They raise funds, organize petitions, give moral support to prisoners through public acts... And they get results with these methods, which have been adopted throughout the world, especially here in our Latin America. Flávia Schilling's release, for example, is a proof of what I'm talking about."
Angélica de Moraes, "Roth: Os direitos humanos como arte" (August 1984)