More than emotional, artist Otávio Roth's connection with handmade paper is ideological. It took him years to resume a trail that had been abandoned in the 18th century and rebel against the age of disposability by manufacturing at home the medium for his own works. Now, the result of his meticulous research is shown once again to the public at the exhibition held in Space 2 of the São Paulo Cultural Center Gallery (...), in which Roth deals with a very familiar theme to his work – human rights.
This time, however, the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will cause greater impact than the previous series on the same topic, particularly because the humanist tablet of commandments has been translated into Portuguese, in a country where such rights usually are scarcely respected. In this new series, pigments of various colors (except black and white, to avoid possible racial overtones and a troublesome chromatic hegemony that could lead to other interpretations) are impregnated during the making of paper – differently, therefore, from the original work commissioned by the United Nations Organization (UN) in 1978, when the first version was exhibited in Oslo as part of the commemoration of the 30 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In these, the prevailing language was woodcut, and Roth resorted to easy and immediately identifiable symbols (which, nevertheless, were not interpreted the same way in the various countries where the series was exhibited, among them the United States, France, England, Austria and Switzerland). "When I thought of transposing this series into Portuguese, I decided to experiment with pigment on paper, a work that took me two years in New York, with the help of an assistant. I couldn't do it alone, because the sheets of paper were huge (1.70 m) and, after being pressed, weighed over 40 kilos," explains Roth, the most disciplined disciple of master Paul Pitch and one of the likely successors of Ben Shahn, the master of graphic language.
Roth, who works with a diverse range of scrap to manufacture his own paper (leftovers from the textile industry, vegetable peel), used more than ten pounds of old cotton clothes to create this new series, already displayed last December in an badly assembled exhibition in Rio de Janeiro (by no fault of the artist himself, but rather due to the disorganization of governor Brizola's cultural advisors).
He has already created five series based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of which in Japan by invitation of the local government. Working alongside the great Japanese master of calligraphy Ryoichi Kogi, Otávio was forced to develop a peculiar language and resort to symbols from Eastern imagery to translate abstract concepts into images. "I had already felt a certain difficulty of the public, in some countries, to understand graphic symbols. In Norway, for example, the article about arbitrary arrest was illustrated by a little man inside a corked bottle, which the Norwegians interpreted as personal criticism to the high rate of alcoholism in the country..."
Other symbols used by Roth ended up generating curious episodes, like the inverted funnel (out of which another little man leaves), which former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim interpreted as a slight provocation. In fact, this funnel meant that all men have the right to freely choose their representatives through direct elections, but at the time Waldheim was leaving and being replaced by Javier Pérez de Cuellar. "Another funny thing happened in Japan: the article on the right to food originally was illustrated with a fork, a knife and a spoon, which does not make any sense to Japanese habits. In Norway, the article on the right to free association also 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, embarrassing..."
Some other symbols designed by Roth were maintained because they are intelligible in any region of the globe, although sometimes the artist was forced to perform some adaptations (the birdcage that illustrates arbitrary arrest, for example, is a rare object in civilized countries).
"Anyway, I always looked for symbols that could be easily understood, because it seemed there was no attractive way to deal with the matter", explains Roth, who is preparing with children's book writer Ruth Rocha a version of the Declaration for children. "I'd like to see it reproduced in books, billboards, posters, or by any other means," says Otávio, an enthusiastic defender of human rights whose works have been present in all libertarian manifestations, from the Brazilian Amnesty Committee to international struggles against repression. In the meantime, his exhibition disseminates those rights to the four corners of the country. When it ends at the Cultural Center (on April 15), it will move on to Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Florianópolis, Salvador, and finally Brasília, where it will be inaugurated on December 10, when the 36th anniversary of the Declaration will be celebrated.
Antonio Gonçalves Filho, A arte no papel de Roth defende direitos humanos, "Folha de S.Paulo", Ilustrada, p. 27, São Paulo/SP (Wednesday, March 28, 1984)