Jennifer Carvalho

Despite the rose tint of nostalgia we can occasionally paste over it, the past is a mostly a sad and haunted place. Death, disease, famine, war, genocide, societal collapse. Jennifer Carvalho’s paintings are ancient, but in a way that reminds us of how much we carry forward. Tapping into art history—cinema, antiquity and the Renaissance—to find her gloomy motifs, the work is referential yet archetypal. Cold and cruel, the paintings just are. They are stoic artifacts, neutral yet observing. They stare back at the viewer as if to say “I know what you’ve done.” Extracting details from notable works of art, but obscuring them through framing, composition, and color, Carvalho transmutes what is known acutely into something known abstractly but innately. Her works are universal, primal, collective. The past, the present, the future—it all flattens out into familiar but impenetrable relics. – Olivia Whittick

What is Hauntology? 

Hauntology is the return of elements from the past as if they were ghosts. It is a term that was introduced by Jacques Derrida in 1993 in his book Specters of Marx, and re-popularized by cultural theorist Mark Fisher in the mid-2000s. It refers to the sense that contemporary culture is haunted by the past—which I feel innately. It’s also nostalgia or mourning for a future that never arrived. I became interested in Hautology after reading Silvia Federici’s books: The Caliban and the Witch and Beyond the Periphery of the Skin. I was interested in the transformation of the body in relation to capitalism and what that meant specifically for women’s bodies. Fischer writes that “When the present has given up on the future, we must listen to the relics of the future in the unactivated potentials of the past.” I think of the fragments of objects and images that I mine from antiquities to the Renaissance as having the potential to produce something new. That somehow, by freeing them from their narrative and context these ghosts of the past can suggest a way forward. 

What is the scariest thing about the past?

I don’t really think about the past in terms of scary or not scary, but rather when I look backwards I see a lot of parallels to the world I inhabit, a sense of history repeating itself that makes me question this perceived notion of stability that is used to quell criticism and questioning within western democracies. For example, in the European middle ages, people didn’t necessarily experience a dramatic collapse of the Roman empire, but rather it was likely a complex story of flux and slow change. In my paintings, I depict objects and images from antiquity to the Renaissance as a way of connecting historical narratives to contemporary crises. My feelings of anxiety are all projected toward the future: Worries of impending climate and social collapse.

Do you think artifacts from antiquity contain spirits? 

I was just reading about the empress Galla Placidia who lived in the fifth century. After her second husband’s death, she acted as ruler of the Roman Western Empire until her eldest living son came of age. She was a complex figure who was able to negotiate the complicated politics of her time. Her firstborn son from her first marriage had died of natural causes within a year of birth and was buried in a silver coffin just outside of Barcelona. Years later, the empress arranged to rebury her long-dead infant son in a tomb in St. Peter’s basilica where she too would be buried. It’s unknown whether she sent someone to fetch her son’s casket as she approached death or if she unearthed it during her return to Italy years prior. To me, this artifact of a silver coffin encapsulates the persisting spirit of motherhood throughout the ages.

Are museums haunted?

I like to think about museological objects as markers of the slow passage of time through history. A curious reminder of what has survived, what is cared for, and how these objects frame a narrative of the past. Art history is an incomplete narrative. Maybe museums are haunted in terms of the way that their objects communicate and the persistence of these ideologies over time.

Have you lived a past life?

I don’t believe in the idea of past lives. For me what’s interesting about the past is finding biographical details within an individual’s story that helps to create a sense of empathy for them. I’m interested in narratives that seek out or reexamine the stories of women who have been forgotten, overlooked, or weren’t discussed outside of their relationships to men.