André Penteado was born in Brazil in the early 70’s in a middle class family. During the time he lived with his parents they always had one or two maids working for them. This was the same for all his friends, as it had been for their parents. In those years, home chores were never part of his routine, or something he had to worry about. The house worked like a hotel where rooms were cleaned, clothes washed and meals prepared as per magic. It was not until he was older that he understood the impact this situation had on the way his social strata perceived life. Brazilian white middle and upper classes have always had, ingrained within them, a desire for this extreme level of comfort and convenience.
The relationship that develops between a maid and her employer is one of the most intimate and complex relationships between the rich and the poor in Brazil. The maids, sometimes living in their employers’ properties, have an all access insight into a world in which they don’t belong, to goods that they desire but cannot buy. At the same time, since Brazilians are usually very open people, the maids and family members often share intimate conversations and secrets. In some cases, after a while, she will be considered “part of the family”. These homes wouldn’t function without the maid; she becomes an essential part of the structure of the family life. This relationship is charged with a mix of employer-employee problems and familial affection.
The origin of this relationship can be traced back to the relationship between the masters and their slaves who worked at their homes in Brazil until the 19th century. The end of slavery in 1888 didn’t come with any plan to integrate the black ex-slaves into a capitalist society based on paid work. While the paid jobs were offered to the Europeans that immigrated to Brazil at that time, to many of the black women the only possibility was to continue working as maids. This structure, present in Brazil for centuries, is now being challenged by the recent economic development and the creation of new working possibilities for the poor classes. Suddenly, it is becoming harder for the upper classes to find a “good” maid, or even any maid at all and this “problem” has become subject to debate in national magazines and TV shows. This debate says a lot about the complexities of Brazilian society, its inequality and the kind of questions the country faces in this moment of change.
André Penteado has decided to photograph the maids at work, wearing their working clothes. His choice of deadpan mid-length portraits, printed life size, aims to force the viewer to be confronted by the presence of these women. For a Brazilian audience, the contrast between these women and the background is evident and there is no doubt they are maids, although this may not be obvious to a first world audience. Along with the portraits, the artist produced still lives of objects within the house that were part of the maids’ domain, and now may change hands.
The project Maids also includes an eight-minute long video created from footage – found in YouTube – of Brazilian TV programs such as: a beauty contest for maids, a game-show to find the best maid in the country, news shows discussing the maids’ new found rights and others. To emphasize what is said in the video, the image was blurred and its speed lowered by 50%, thus creating an effect that is, at the same time, comical and uncomfortable.