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Jorgge Menna Barreto, Assistant Professor, Art, Environmental Art and Social Practice Questions Art’s Role in the Environmental Debate

Jorgge Menna Barreto had always dreamed of having a farm as a classroom. His career as an artist, researcher and educator focusing on land art, site-specificity, plant-based food and multispecies entanglements has included examining food as it relates to a complex system of environmental restoration called agroforestry. 

When he discovered that UC Santa Cruz had a working organic farm right on campus, he was impressed.

“I wasn’t really looking for a teaching position because I had been a tenured professor at Rio de Janeiro State University,” he said when discussing why he chose to teach at UC Santa Cruz. “It blew my mind when I learned about the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. What I did not expect was, not only does UCSC have an organic farm inside the campus – one  of the first in the agroecological movement in the U.S. – but that farm has a view of the ocean! And it was not just the beauty of it that captured me, but the very feeling of an open horizon of possibilities and expansion that I see happening at UCSC.

Citing food as his greatest inspiration, Barreto sees it as much more than what we eat. Instead, his work has led him to take a profound look into how food is an integral part of a much larger system involving the land, its relationship to the earth, and how what we eat shapes the landscape and, in turn, the drastic effects of agriculture on our planet.

Barreto began is post-doctoral work on the subject in 2014. “What was new for me was the idea that I could practice art, or intervene on the landscape, by deciding what was on my plate,” he explains. “I like to say that I practice environmental sculpture at least three times a day. So that was when I also started doing research on regenerative forms of agriculture and when I found out about agroforestry, which remains one of my main research interests and a major source of inspiration.

Growing up in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul in the southern part of Brazil, as part of a large family of five children with many cousins and friends nearby, gave Barreto adept negotiating skills and a willingness to collaborate. He also had a keen sense about what was happening in his own country regarding the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest due to cattle farming, which would profoundly shape what he later chose to study and research.

His father was an ophthalmologist and many conversations around the dinner table centered on patients’ related eye disorders, having a direct impact on Barreto’s curiosity around visual art and how people visualize in general. 

“I find it fascinating when studying art, and I still consider myself a student, that we are constantly learning to see,” he says. “In a classroom, and one of the great things about its collective aspect, is that we are learning to see things together. Sharing a vision, or sharing the diverse ways through which we look at the world, is one of the things that most attract me in art classrooms.”

He also was an avid swimmer during his teen years becoming the national champion in 1983, which enticed him to try other water sports including surfing and bodyboarding…another reason he was drawn to the Santa Cruz area. But when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always found himself being interested in food, even replying that he wanted to be a waiter. “I think as a kid I thought waiters were the closest to food a man could get, as I rarely saw men in the kitchen. With time I understood I could also cook and be really close to food. But with time I also learned that food is not something that begins in the kitchen, but is part of a much larger system which involves the land.”

As he has pursued his art, creating in 2015 a project called Restauro that was exhibited at the Biennial of São Paulo in 2016 and later traveled to the Serpentine Galleries in London, he’s continued to focus on food production and land use. His research has led him to develop pertinent questions on the issues around: What is art's role in the present environmental debate? How can artists and educators help raise awareness and engage the community in urgent environmental issues? How can art and education help us understand the present moment and critically make a move?

But Barreto describes the most challenging time of his life being when one of his own art students was viciously murdered in 2018 by the militia. 

Being born in 1970 also meant that Barreto grew up in a brutal military dictatorship. A regime change and presidential elections took place in 1985, the first such elections since 1960. “What I witnessed during my lifetime was democracy gaining ground, which also formed a lot of the way I think and see the world. Twenty-eighteen was the year I lost hope and felt at an intimate level that things were going in a different direction. If up to that point I had felt that as a gay man, an environmentalist, a public university educator we were gaining power and protagonism, those violent events I experienced from very close made me realize that our gains were still very fragile and that the conservative side of Brazil was going to make its comeback, threatening a lot of what we had built as a democratic society.”

With the election of far-right conservative Jair Bolsonaro came a leader who has been described as authoritarian, racist, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-environmentalism and very pro military. He bestowed excessive power to the military police turning Brazil into what has been called the “LBGTQ murder capital”.

“My partner and I were scared to go out on the streets when Bolsonaro was elected, because his ideas and support of violence authorized people’s hatred to be expressed and that fractured the country. All of a sudden, we felt we could also be targets, either because of whom we chose to love, or because of our political positions,” says Barreto. “Brazil is the country with the highest reported cases of homophobic crimes and assassinations of environmentalists.”

Thus, when an opportunity to do post-doctoral research England came up, Barreto and his partner made the heartbreaking decision to flee their homeland, selling everything they had. “I think the hardest part of leaving was not what was staying behind, but our ability to dream that had been taken away,” he reflects. “We felt we had hit a wall and that our lives were in danger. It was a feeling that was new to me. I had never felt that. But if at first I was scared, now I see my work and research as even more vital, because it is life that I am talking about when I teach and make art.”

Barreto is currently engaged in a second postdoctoral research project at Liverpool John Moores University, England, which will lead to the work he will present at the Liverpool Biennial next year. He’ll begin teaching at UC Santa Cruz in January 2021.

He is excited about UCSC’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and bringing a diverse perspective to his students as well as offering various worldviews. While teaching at Rio de Janeiro State University, many of those in his classroom have been first generation students, transgendered, and disabled. 

“As a Brazilian queer vegan, I have several times experienced what it is like to be part of a minority,” says Barreto. “Through an intersectional perspective, I have been able to relate and create alliances with other groups who have been historically oppressed because of ​race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity and socioeconomic status and that has changed the way I teach, do research and practice art.”

As he gets ready for the next chapter of his life at UC Santa Cruz, Barreto plans to keep his connection to Brazil, which, he points out, is also home to the largest biodiversity in the world. 

He’s looking forward to working on projects with an interdisciplinary approach, engaging such UCSC programs as the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, E.A.R.T.H. Lab, SPARC and the Environmental Studies Department. He also is eager to continue his collaborations with a variety of institutions around the world. 

“As various universities, departments and institutions may be involved, UCSC stands out as fertile ground, as it has historically reflected on the complexity of the environmental debate, which may only be dealt with by bringing together different lines of thought and research in a truly ecological and systemic approach, where art plays a vital role.”