U-M professor explores childhood trauma and gender identity through new exhibit

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

Rogério Pinto was 10 months old when his 3-year-old sister, Marília, was struck and killed by a bus outside the housing project where his family lived in Brazil.
As he grew up, Pinto says, "I began to imagine my sister as an entity that existed inside of my mind." He adds that he doesn't mean that "in a pathological way," but he "missed her so much" that he "developed this idea that she lived inside" him.

Pinto is a university diversity social transformation professor, a professor of theatre and drama, and a Berit Ingersoll-Dayton collegiate professor of social work at the University of Michigan. He explores the trauma of Marília's death, both for himself and his large family, along with his own resulting questions about his gender identity, in a new exhibition, "My Gender States." The show will be on display in the lobby of Lane Hall, 204 S. State St. in Ann Arbor, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays until Aug. 13. 
"I call [Marília my] 'little sister,'" Pinto says, although he was born after Marília was. "She's only little because she never grew up."
As a child, Pinto says, he experienced Marília as "a presence that was always there," inseparable from his own being. As a result, he says in a pamphlet accompanying the exhibit, he "began to embody what [he] imagined to be her mannerisms, voice, and psychology."
Pinto now uses he/him pronouns, but at the time, he understood himself to be a girl, a feeling that was reinforced by his father's sexual abuse.
"My Gender States" draws on writing Pinto originally developed for a one-person play, "Marília," as well as artwork he created for a site-specific installation performance, "Realm of the Dead," which he originally performed in the atrium of the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
For "Realm of the Dead," Pinto created a series of sculptures from trunks and vintage suitcases. Some were empty, while others were filled with Catholic icons and rosaries, fabric flowers, photographs of Pinto, and dolls.

“Mother” Trunk, designed by Rogério M. Pinto.
"My Gender States" draws on this earlier work while zeroing in on one particular issue.
"It's all trying to answer a question that is not a simple one," Pinto says: "What is my existence?"
"How does … a family deal with a void that is left by a little girl?" he adds. "And what are the consequences? What are the ripple effects of that that allow us to explore different issues, such as gender?"
For "My Gender States," Pinto worked with a team of artists to adapt his earlier creative work. Often this meant photographing objects — like the suitcases — that wouldn't fit in Lane Hall, and displaying the photographs.
The result is an adaptation of an adaptation, with overlapping borders and lines, and is entirely befitting its subject — both otherworldly and entirely of this world, skating easily between any nominal gender differences.
"My gender right now is not necessarily my gender in another three hours, because in three hours, I am a different person," Pinto says. "This is how I always felt, my entire life."
He named the exhibition with a great deal of care: "Gender identity might be a state," Pinto points out, "if one decides that it's mutable."
"I am trying to have a conversation about how I understand my own gender states," Pinto says — but he's quick to add that he's not telling anyone else how to think: "I'm not saying that it is a better way or a worse way to understand one's gender."
Certain images — dolls, flowers, Pinto's own face — recur throughout the exhibit, echoing the lingering effects of the trauma reverberating through Pinto's (and his family's) life.
After Marília died, Pinto's family held a wake for her in their living room with the casket left open. Pinto was too young to remember the wake itself, but he remembers the family stories and "everybody talking about it [his] entire life."
He says the image of "this little girl in a coffin" stuck in his mind and that "she looked like a little angel," as his mother described her "over and over again."
As a child, Pinto would have vivid fantasies about an angel in a coffin — which, in his child's understanding, resembled a box. These weren't morbid fantasies; in his mind, Marília looked like a beautiful doll, Pinto says.
At the same time, day after day, Pinto's mother was visiting the cemetery where Marília had been buried, and taking Pinto with her, since he was too little to be left home alone.
"I don't know how long this lasted," he says.
Pinto doesn't consciously remember these visits but knows his mother "would tell this story — how she lost her child," and knows that he absorbed the telling.
"I don't know if she realized that I was paying very much attention to everything she was saying," he says.
In his 20s, Pinto moved to the United States where, for a period of time, he was undocumented (an experience he says is reflected in the imagery of the suitcases). In New York, he worked as a hairdresser for years; eventually, his employer guided him through the documentation process. Pinto wound up returning to academia (he'd earned a bachelor's degree in biological science in Brazil), earning a master's degree in philosophy and a PhD in social work at Columbia University.
Pinto was in his late 20s or early 30s when he received word that heavy rains had destroyed the cemetery where Marília was buried. Her remains had to be unburied and moved to a safer location.
Back in Brazil, Pinto found that his six siblings were emotionally unable to deal with the situation (his father had died of cancer in his early 40s), so he and his mother returned to the cemetery. Aside from the grave diggers and police officers assigned to observe the procedure, Pinto and his mother were alone.
Over long periods of time, Pinto says, "the earth basically eats everything up."
The decades that had passed since Marília was first buried, combined with the heavy rains, meant that "things were not all neatly placed under the earth."
"We found whatever it [was] we found," he says — essentially, a few scraps of fabric and bone.
But "in my mind," Pinto says, "[I thought], 'I'm going to find this little doll that I imagined my whole life.'"
Meanwhile, his mother was "still having fantasies about her daughter, who in her mind was alive like the day before [she died]."
"It was just this incredibly deflating kind of thing," Pinto says of the experience: he and his mother standing on the cemetery slope, his mother holding an umbrella against the heat of the sun, the grave diggers and police standing around them until, eventually, everyone else had left.
"I can only imagine how mothers feel about these things," Pinto says. "I'm not a mother; I'm not a father."
"In that moment," he says, "there's a thing that happened between me and my mother that I cannot even begin to explain," though he does so quite capably.
"My gender state in that moment was very much the state of a girl, of a woman. Not of a boy, not of a guy, especially after the grave diggers left. It was just my mother and [me]," Pinto says.
"I'm bringing up the idea of gender in that situation because I think the gender states that I am trying to talk about — they come from the idea of what it is you need in the moment to be who you are. And in that moment, I needed to be a woman. … I didn't have the strength as an identified boy or man or whatever. … In that moment, I had to be like my mother."
Pinto says his mother "had this strength" without which he wouldn't have been able to survive the moment.
"It's almost like she's passing that [strength] on to me. And I'm in some ways passing it [back] on to her," he says.
"If I could imagine that moment … as a painting, as a picture, it would be me and my mother being the same in some ways. I'm in front, she's in the back; she's in the back, I'm in front, and my sister is somewhere between us, like connective tissue in some ways. To me, that kind of union between us is extremely female. There's nothing male about it in that moment."

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photos by Nicholas Williams and Emerson Granillo.
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