Maria Fernanda Cardoso

‘Death became her: the work of Maria Fernanda Cardoso’, GRANTPIRRIE, Sydney, 2004

Death became her…

“I am very interested in Chaos and Complexity theory, where simple units form complex systems, and if you follow those systems, it somehow connects us to the universe.” [1]

There are few artists who explore with such diversity, the paradoxical links between the natural world and human nature.  Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s stylised constructions from animal and organic matter are abundant with references to mortality, control, violence, metamorphosis and consumption.  Cardoso’s gift is her uncanny aptitude for fusing exquisite forms and colour, with the less palatable associations that often underlie her work.  Her ongoing fascination with establishing a sense of order and meaning from the complexity and chaos of the natural world has informed the creation of works rich in their materiality; from skewered frogs in syncronised circles to suspended seahorses and cattle bone grids. However, the presentation of Cardoso’s work utilising the formal aspects of Minimalisim allows the symbolic poignancy of her chosen material to resonate at both an aesthetic, and an emotional level.

Cardoso’s Butterfly Drawings are a seductive homage to our preoccupation with beauty, preservation, survival and death.  Her inspiration for these kaleidoscopic pieces was a previous installation, Camouflage: The Art of Disappearing 2001, completed during the initial stages of Cardoso’s move to Sydney from America.  In Camouflage, an unwieldy tree branch hangs suspended in an observation tank.  The branch bears what appears to be its few remaining autumn leaves.  These are, in fact, preserved butterflies with their wings surreptitiously closed, posed convincingly as leaves.

Having moved away from Bogotà in her native country of Columbia, to the USA and subsequently to Australia, Cardoso’s work has been greatly informed by the process of relocation.  Exploring nature’s skill at survival by decoration and concealment allowed Cardoso to consider the parallels within human behaviour and to examine her position within a new country.  It was these concerns which led to the conception of Butterfly Drawings.  Having researched the science behind the production of patterned wings in butterflies, Cardoso utilised the scientific discovery of a kind of wing pattern ‘blueprint’ called the nymphalid ground plan from which all wing patterns can be derived.  Cardoso then selected various butterfly specimens from research and educational organisations, which she experimented with varying tessellations, creating rhythmic formations and patterns.  By removing the wings from their natural symmetrical locale alongside the abdomen, Cardoso created engaging new possibilities: spiralling, circular and geometric arrangements, which glow from their minimal encasement of frosted white Perspex.

As with most of Cardoso’s work, she subtly references cultural history and socio-political friction through her medium.  In this instance, the decorative mode of presentation reconfigures the customary representation of butterfly specimens as a scientific record.  The production of Butterfly Drawings by a contemporary, Columbian, female artist also subverts the predominantly nineteenth century, colonial pastime of lepidoptery, or butterfly collecting.

The assemblages of nature, and the staging of beauty with death are further explored in Cardoso’s suspended installation Woven Water: Submarine Landscape 2004, created from dozens of starfish linked by their tips.  The piece creates an oceanic ambience, inviting the viewer to immerse themselves in the floating constellations of white starfish which appear to be suspended on invisible currents.  Their repetitive structure seems also to mirror formations in science, as Cardoso celebrates the infinite tapestry of nature’s design from microscopic DNA structures, to the five extremities of both starfish and humans.

The absence of water, however, leaves these preserved starfish unsurprisingly dry, and it is with this realisation that their beauty begins to feel ghost-like and melancholy.  These animals have been purchased from an Oceanic Gifts company.  Farmed for their appeal as quaint seaside curios, they become representative of human indulgence and commodity fetishism.

Cardoso’s skill at quietly, beautifully illuminating the vulnerability of nature is grounded in the personal dialogue that enters every work.  The climate of political violence embedded in Cardoso’s native country is, it seems, pervasive in her work today.  She is an artist with an innate sense of ornamentation, alongside an overriding capacity to depict mortality, without it seeming so.  Utilising the evocative power of the natural world, she combines elements which engage us visually, while hinting at the fragility of the natural world and its violent histories.  Despite their iridescent, other-worldly allure, these works are in themselves, symbolic reminders of the wider concerns of sacrifice and beauty; violence and preservation; repulsion and desire.

Clare Lewis, 2004


[1] Maria Fernanda Cardoso interviewed by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor in Zoomorphia, MCA, 2003