scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A ‘Forest’ comes alive at the Currier

The Brazilian artist Emerson Pontes’s “The Living Forest: UÝRA” subversively combines art and ecology.

Emerson Pontes as UÝRA in “Série A Última Floresta: Fogo,” 2018.Matheus Belém

MANCHESTER, N.H. — “The Living Forest: UÝRA,” at Currier Museum of Art, documents a force of nature.

UÝRA is the persona, garbed in plant matter and body paint, of Brazilian artist Emerson Pontes. UÝRA is a gender-fluid, interspecies figure Pontes inhabits in performance art, and whose biography in the show’s catalog identifies them as “an Indigenous diasporic inhabitant of Manaus, Amazonas, in the Central Amazon, Brazil.” They have a master’s degree in ecology of the Amazon.

“The Living Forest,” organized by the Currier’s chief curator, Lorenzo Fusi, features radiant and wrenching photographs and videos of UÝRA’s performances.

Emerson Pontes as UÝRA in “Série Elementar: A Mata se-te Come,” 2018.Lisa Hermes

Some performances are public, calling attention to environmental degradation. Others are largely ritualistic and alone in the forest, aside from a photographer. UÝRA represents the ancient wisdom, precarity, and wildness of the rain forest.


Pontes started performing in 2016 as a drag queen in clubs and bars in Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas. The all-embracing cosmology they bring to UÝRA is akin to queer ecology, which tosses away old notions of power, ownership, and hoary definitions of what is or is not “natural” pertaining to gender and sexuality, and adopts a spirit of oneness with the earth associated with indigenous people. Binary oppositions — between male and female, nature and culture, plant and animal, performer and character — fall away.

We’ve made a terrible mess of things with our rigid old ideas. They’ve led to colonialism, enslavement, genocide, and climate disaster. UÝRA’s approach, queer and humane and mindful of the epoch reach of time on our planet, flies in the face of those old models of power.

For their drag act, Pontes designed eco-conscious costumes, dressing in foliage and branches rather than sequins. Drag is all about the construction of identity, distilling some aspect of oneself into a superpower. UÝRA presents a kind of interspecies intersectionality that knocks humankind off our self-constructed pedestal.


UÝRA is known as the “tree that walks,” Fusi writes in the exhibition catalog. “A tree that walks is no longer what we once knew. In essence, UÝRA maintains, to be better equipped for the future, we must (re)-learn what a tree is. … A walking tree has agency, intentionality, and awareness.”

It’s a real tree. The “walking palm,” native to Central and South America, has roots that serve as legs, moving it toward the sun.

Emerson Pontes as UÝRA in “Série Mil Quase Mortos,” 2018.Matheus Belém

The photos and videos in “The Living Forest” are not pablum about nature’s abundance. Pontes, as UÝRA, captures its capriciousness. In their “Série A Última Floresta,” Pontes looks critically at air, earth, and fire. In “Fogo,” representing fire, they frame themselves amid dry leaves, face painted white with wing-like purple eye makeup, eyes wide as flames approach.

The artist has made 15 photographic series, working with several photographers local to the Amazon. The “Elementar” series, shot in the rain forest, depicts a world in which humans are not the central protagonists. “A Mata se-te Come,” contemplates the way nourishment in the forest cycles through plants and trees, and features UÝRA, head wrapped in stiff, dry leaves, one pale green eye peering through a circle of wood.

Looking at these photographs, I found my mind toggling, trying to make sense — seeing a tree and a human at once, but also recognizing the way the UÝRA rhymes with art history, which among other things is a chronicle of humanity and power.


Emerson Pontes as UÝRA in “Série Elementar: Lama,” 2017.Keila Sankofa

In “Série Elementar: Lama,” they are half immersed in still, foggy water, a ring of spiky palm fronds around their neck, foliage springing from their head, face caked in white. It’s hard not to see UÝRA there as Christlike, head tilted, shoulders back, wearing a choker of spikes rather than a crown of thorns. “Série Mil Quase Mortos” documents a public performance amid trash in a polluted Manaus stream. In one image, UÝRA lies in a netted mask, the lower half of their body wrapped in leaves, along the polluted water’s edge, holding up a plastic water bottle. Spectators look down upon them, like a washed-up mermaid.

Such photographs evoke the public spectacle and fleshly drama of crucifixions of Saint Peter painted by Caravaggio and Michelangelo, but here, instead of humans assailing and gawking at other humans, UÝRA portrays life itself – nearly buried in refuse. The human figure becomes sacrifice, but also archetypal and godlike.

“Now it is only possible for us to recognize [UÝRA] in the cosmo-perception of the creature, the enchanted one, the entity,” Beatriz Lemos, assistant curator at Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Modern Art, writes in the show’s catalog.

But UÝRA is no god of man or woman. UÝRA springs from the earth: Imagine the rain forest as your grandparent; imagine how far back the wisdom of that entity reaches. Imagine its slow pulse of life; imagine the way species evolve and die off, over eons. All under the watch of the rain forest.


Then imagine the quickening of life there. That ancestral quickening is UÝRA. Something perhaps divine, something onto which we humans can project our beliefs and memories and systems of knowledge, but something that is both too old and too quick to hold that projection. Because we are too young, too slow, and too small to conceive of that breadth of life.

Some of us are, anyway. Perhaps UÝRA is not.


At Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Sept. 24. 603-669-6144,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at