Moving Pictures: Rebecca Najdowski Reflects on Her Fulbright in Brazil

Rebecca Najdowski with Tio Lino. They created Rocinha Foto Project, a photography course for community youth

Even after the end date of her nine-month Fulbright scholarship in São Paulo, Brazil, the photographer and artist Rebecca Najdowski (MFA 2010) couldn't resist staying just a little longer to make one more trip, south to the Argentinean border, to see the legendary waterfalls of Iguaçu.

Art and travel have been soldered together in her life for as long as Najdowski can remember. She grew up in Santa Fe, a city world-renowned for its art scene. "I was surrounded by this impulse for craft. My dad was a silversmith and had a studio attached to the house. His work wasn't separate from his regular daily life. My mom was a school counselor and teacher at a public elementary school. During school holidays, she'd take off to Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, with organizations like Save the Rainforest, and often brought me with her. I've definitely inherited my love for travel from her, the drive to really experience other parts of the world."

Movement infuses Najdowski's own artistic practice, from her Spectra photogram experiments with color and light to her photographs of rural Brazilian storefronts to her roaming investigations into South American shamanism. "Travel forces you to be really open to new people and experiences. During my time in Brazil I couldn't stop traveling, moving around to collect experiences and material. I went to Rio, to Brasília, to Recife for a folk carnival (a super cool experience), and took a three-day boat trip on the Amazon River between Belém and Santarém. The river is so massive, sometimes you feel you're on a lake. Near the northern Brazilian outpost of São Luís, I went to see a tidal bore known as the pororoca, from the word for 'destructive noise' in the indigenous Tupi language. It is an immense wave caused by salt water crashing over fresh water during the new and full moons. It's not exactly on the tourist map -- I had to go through hoops to get in touch with local surfers to reach it."

"Over the course of the Fulbright, I found I was more productive when I was moving around. At the start of the scholarship, I'd resolved not to produce an exhibition, but instead use the time to get started on new projects. One of these focuses on vernacular signage -- the hand-painted signs on the walls of businesses, like a burger advertising a restaurant, or a tire and tools to designate an auto shop. I see it as a Walker Evans-style project, documenting this particular era in Brazil. There's some urgency involved, because these paintings are a dying art. They're just so sincere. It's getting so that it's much cheaper to have a plastic sign made. I'm considering doing a book project on it: going back to Brazil, and also gathering similar material in the Bay Area and other parts of Latin America."

Najdowski's motion-based artistic process in Brazil is a continuation of the same routine she refined during her MFA at CCA. "My practice evolved into a balance between a studio practice with fixed daily hours, and a more fluid approach the rest of the time. For me, travel is all about getting new ideas. Only then can I go back to my studio and start to filter, process, and edit. For my MFA, a lot came to me on a road trip during one of the winter breaks, traveling around southern New Mexico and Arizona.

"My experience at CCA was just fantastic, I had amazing professors. Some, like Larry Sultan and Tammy Rae Carland, I knew beforehand were going to be influential for me. But some of the connections I made were completely unexpected, from thesis advisors to studio visitors. Brian Bress, a Los Angeles-based video artist and photographer, gave me insightful feedback and encouraged me not to make perfect sense in my works. And I'm indebted to Sanjit Sethi at the Center for Art and Public Life. He was unbelievably helpful in helping me build a solid Fulbright application. I don't know if I would have received the scholarship without him."

Now back in the Bay Area, Najdowski is preparing to co-teach an introductory photography course at CCA through a teaching fellowship. She is also writing articles and reviews for the online contemporary visual art magazine Daily Serving and applying for grants and residencies, including the Rijksakademie and de Ateliers in Amsterdam. Lasting between one and two years, these residencies offer longer-term funding. "But they're also über competitive! Still, the process of applying is a really useful way to articulate my ideas, and it forces me to focus on my writing." With big plans that span from Amsterdam to Peru, it's a fair bet that the nomadic Najdowski may be back on the road soon.