Written by Fernanda Pires
Each piece of vintage luggage in the installation performance tells a piece of Rogério Pinto’s story. Crafted into sculptures, suitcases and trunks recount a period when he was consumed by the loss of his three-year-old sister Marília and his family’s struggles after her death.
Born and raised in Brazil, Pinto, a professor and associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, found a way through the visual and performing arts to confront a painful past, find peace and forgiveness. He created an award-winning play entitled “Marília,” readapted now as a new art project called “Realm of the Dead.”
This community-based art initiative invites the audience to dive into complex subjects from death and parental molestation to ethnicity, race, gender and other issues. It premieres in October at the U-M School of Social Work, which celebrates its centennial.
“Realm of the Dead” is an autobiographical project that uses self-referential theater as a vehicle for self-healing and advocacy. Based on pedagogy and theater of the oppressed, it intends to advance social work research and practice, as tools of critical reflection, personal growth and advocacy.
By exploring the nearly 30 sculptures in the installation, visitors will learn about Pinto’s journey out of a childhood of poverty and the trauma followed by the death of his older sister, who was hit by a bus when he was just 10 months old.
The audience also will revive the turmoil caused by his father’s sexual molestation, the domestic violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship and Pinto’s arrival, at 21, as an undocumented immigrant in New York City in 1987 and the challenges he faced as a gender nonconforming gay man.
“I use autobiographical drama theater for personal growth and self-healing and to inspire the audience to find creative ways to resolve personal conflict,” Pinto said. “I am particularly interested in inspiring people to think of poor immigrants in more humane ways. I believe that all of us engaging as a community might lead to advocacy around the issues dealt with in the ‘Realm of the Dead,’ such as the prevention of childhood accidents, sexual trauma and poverty.”
Megan Leys, U-M graduate student in social work, said she cried the first time she read Pinto’s play.
“I was left speechless by its power and impact. ‘Marília’ left me thinking about my own identity and positionality,” she said. “It pushed me to think about parts of my identity I don’t always share, and forced me to consider if and why I might be ashamed to express those elements. It allowed me to look inwardly and consider personal growth and explore my own identity.”
Last fall, Leys was a student in one of Pinto’s classes, in which he incorporated activities based on his play. The course aimed to increase students’ knowledge about diversity, anti-Black racism, human rights, and social and economic justice by encouraging students to explore the power of autobiographical approaches to self-healing and advocacy.
“Despite living in the midst of a global pandemic, and the amount of grief I felt about lost loved ones, those activities provided me with a sense of connectedness and community and reminded me why I wanted to be in social work,” Leys said. “This feeling proved to me that performance and autobiographical investigation is a wonderfully effective tool to improve our own social work. I look forward to seeing the installation in person this fall.”
Art helps to heal, promotes classroom discussions
After visiting the installations and exploring Pinto’s journey, students will be invited to participate in pedagogical exercises. One, called “The Hair Dresser,” is based on Pinto’s rendition of his work experiences in the United States, before he became a professor.
The goal is to help participants practice improvisational and collaborative empathy and develop listening and empathy skills around grief and loss of a loved one, poverty, immigration, gender identity and LGBTQAI2+ issues.
Another exercise called a “Marília Moment” is based on Pinto’s evocation of his dead sister to help him face and address difficult moments in his life, for example, homophobic violence and lack of resources as an undocumented immigrant.
This exercise asks participants to embody a gesture or a characteristic of someone—who has passed away or is still alive—and develop a strategy for overcoming a personal issue based on the person in question.
“By sharing his personal experiences, his vulnerabilities and his successes, Pinto creates a safe space where all participants feel comfortable revealing their true selves,” said recent social work graduate Megan Malaski. “Pinto has created an art installation that speaks to lengths about resiliency. His story takes the audience to parts of his past that have shaped him into the person he is today.
“Through these activities, students can learn the intersectionality of a person, how people are affected through their lens of the world, and overall that a person’s strengths and resiliency are not always identified by oneself.”
Your own suitcase
What would you put in your “suitcase”?
Viewers will be encouraged to answer this and other questions: How do personal objects help you tell a story about who you are and about your many identities? How can specific art forms and practices support social justice in different contexts, considering demographic diversity, diversity, equity and inclusion?
“I recommend autobiographical exploration to all, and to social work students in particular, as a way to prepare them for ‘use of self’ in social work practice,” Pinto said. “It is important to envision creative ways to help their clients engage in self-healing, community-level engagement, political involvement, letter-writing campaigns and more.”
Marc Arthur, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Social Work, has worked closely with Pinto on several projects, including the expansion of a social justice art collective including students from across the university. During a course he taught to immerse students in art-based social justice, Arthur used the play “Marília”—with Pinto’s participation in the classroom—to discuss autobiographical work and process.
“As a homework assignment, I asked the students to create their own “suitcase” by using boxes and then to bring them to class for show and tell,” Arthur said. “It was a very rewarding exercise that helped students understand some of the ways that self processes of introspection are useful forms of self-realization and community engagement.”
For Arthur, the community-based theater is a growing field with few boundaries.
“Rogério’s project is deeply interdisciplinary with an eye toward the fine arts, by bringing together a play and an art installation from his social work perspective,” he said. “Seldom, the visual and performing arts come together in a community-based theater like the ‘Realm of the Dead.'”
The installation will be on view Oct. 4-17 in the Lower Level Atrium at the School of Social Work.