In anticipation of our current exhibition Streams of Being: Selections from the Art Museum of the Americas, The Art Gallery’s blog featured posts from the University of Maryland graduate students who curated the show with their professor Abigail McEwen, Assistant Professor of Latin American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Below is the final graduate student post. Please stop by The Gallery before the show closes on April 25th!
The Banana in the Americas
Several rows of green and yellow bananas greet shoppers at my neighborhood grocery store in Washington, D.C. Stocked in groceries across the country, the banana is a familiar fruit that calls little attention to itself. But in a series of paintings made between 1968 and 1975, the Brazilian artist Antonio Henrique Amaral (b. 1935) transformed the humble banana into a monumental subject. Conjuring up associations to warmer climates, exotic bodies, and perpetual leisure, the banana has become a strange, but vivid metaphor for micro-histories of commodity markets, migration, popular culture, global economic regulations, ecological issues, and even the performing arts.
In our graduate seminar last semester, we discussed the physical and conceptual boundaries that mark the experiences of exile in Latin America. In this post, I explore the multiplicity of meanings embodied by the banana, particularly as it represents the landscape/body of the Americas. “Bananas are so common that they are almost invisible,” historian Virginia S. Jenkins remarked in Banana: An American History. What forms of agency belong to this ubiquitous and allegorical fruit?
I began my research on Amaral’s paintings with a visit to the archives at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) where I found, in the artist’s file, an unexpected pamphlet for the Ninth Annual Banana Festival in the twin cities of Fulton, Kentucky and South Fulton, Tennessee. This slim volume led me to think about the ways in which the banana has continued to connect the United States and several Latin American countries. The banana arrived in the Americas from Asia by way of Africa, on ships of sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers. Bananas were a luxury import until the late nineteenth century, but the advent of new technologies – steam-powered ships, refrigeration, canning, and boxing – allowed tropical fruits to become widely available on the world market. The banana became popular in the United States following the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876), which included a forty-acre display of “orange trees, a banana plant, date palms, wax plants, century plants, sago palms, fig trees, orchids, and pineapples.” As Jenkins explains, “The banana plant was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs.”
Amaral developed his large-scale banana paintings in two phases. The first (1968-72), broadly titled Brasiliana, features solitary clusters of bananas in the green, yellow, and blue colors of the Brazilian flag. Paintings of the second phase (1973-75) are characterized as Campos de batalha (Battlefields). Amaral created the Battlefield paintings while in the United States, where he went in order to avoid censorship from the Brazilian government. These later paintings introduce sharp, metallic objects, such as forks and knives that stab and cut the ripening and rotting flesh of the bananas. In stating, “I reject all repression,” Amaral suggests both the specificity and universality of his artistic project. We can see in Amaral’s banana paintings not only political resonances, but also ecological, racialized, and gendered meanings that reinforce the artist’s affirmative stance against oppression. In the lines that follow, I will briefly address the latter issues of race and gender.
In popular culture, the banana is often conflated with the Latino/a body and the tropical landscape. Sociologist Mimi Sheller, in an article on how the banana connects the complex systems of global transportation, communication and politics, writes that “food…is not simply something we consume; rather, it is a crucial part of the daily routines and actions of bodies through which racialization happens. Bananas contribute to racing space and bodies in several complex and interacting ways.” As a tropical export crop, the banana depends on a racialized labor force of ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ bodies distinct from its presumptively ‘white’ consumer in North America. (This distinction can be problematized if we consider that consumption of bananas in the North does not necessitate a white consumer.) Bananas also figure into evolutionary hierarchies as a food eaten by non-human primates like monkeys and chimpanzees, thus becoming a sign of ‘primitive’ association with animals. Lastly, the banana is sexualized due its phallic shape. In these ways, the tropics manifest a sexualized space inhabited by raced bodies deemed lower on the evolutionary chain of being, bodies that are further sexualized by their association with the banana.
Myra Mendible’s “ironic reference to bananas and buttocks” in the title of her edited volume, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, “conjures images of banana republics and fertile natural resources—literal and figurative ‘booty.’” Her words connote “a history of U.S. tropicalization vis-à-vis Latin America and evoke the kind of ambivalent desire and disgust that characterizes North-South relations and, by extension, inflects the Latina body as transnational signifier.” (See Ellie’s post on the female body in exile, here.) One embodiment of this tropical, nonthreatening vision of South America was given by the Brazilian actress, singer, and samba dancer Carmen Miranda, whose flamboyant persona served as the inspiration for the United Fruit Company’s creation of Chiquita Banana a half-banana, half-woman cartoon character. With a heavy accent and fruit-topped headdress, she acted as the company’s “friendly face.” Caetano Veloso aptly summarized Brazil’s love-hate relationship with Miranda:
For the generation of Brazilians who…became adults at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship and the international wave of the counterculture…Carmen Miranda was, first, a cause for both pride and shame, and latter, a symbol that inspired the merciless gaze we began to cast upon ourselves.
The critical self-consciousness Veloso describes is embedded in Amaral’s paintings. Their protagonist is a discursive symbol reflecting nationalist struggles, oppression, economic exploitation, migratory patterns, racial and sexual tensions, subversive politics, and environmental denigration.
 Virginia S. Jenkins, Banana: An American History (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), ix.
 Ibid., 11.
 Edward J. Sullivan, “A View from Abroad,” in Antonio Henrique Amaral: Obra em Processo (São Paulo: DBA, 1997), 281.
 Mimi Sheller, “Skinning the Banana Trade: Racial Erotics and Ethical Consumption,” in Geographies of Race and Food: Fields, Bodies, Markets (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 292.
 Myra Mendible, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 7.
 Ibid., 12.