Weapons, or despots? In The Banana Republic, Brazilian photographer Shinji Nagabe depicts a dictatorship dominated by bananas. An absurd albeit really funny response to the Brazilian presidential elections of 2018. A project we discovered during The Rencontres d’Arles.

Fisheye: What kind of artists are you?

Shinji Nagabe :

I am a Brazilian journalist and photographer who has been living in Paris since 2013. The same year, I started working for personal projects, often linked to my Japanese origins. Through photography, I witness the world around me and immortalise my creative process. I like to mix reality with fantasy, documentary with intimacy. I usually create a fantastic universe based on real facts. I also like to manipulate stuff – I may use simple material such as tape for example.

What was the genesis of The Banana Republic?

This work was a reaction to the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections. 55% of voters chose a far-right wing president: Jair Bolsonaro. I was angry, and the first idea that came to mind, in this post-election context, was to create a fictive state – The Banana republic. A dictatorship, forcing people to adapt. This playful form enabled me to tackle politics, and more broadly, to show the state of the world.

Why bananas?

This is the most common fruit. Bananas are also the most popular fruits on food markets. It can be found all over the world. Besides, the word “banana” is universal. Wherever you go, you can communicate by saying it. Bananas are a pretext to mention the universal political and ecological crises.

The title is also a reference to the “Banana republic” designating not only a country whose only culture are bananas, but also a country masquerading as a democracy, which is in fact dictatorial and corrupted.

Are you creating a fiction because reality scares you?

Yes. As soon as I turn on the TV, I see complicated reports. But I try to remain hopeful – Brazilians are known to be optimistic. When I was working on my project, I met very generous people, who opened their homes and their hearts to me. I like to connect with people. The stories that have inspired my images come from real encounters. These narratives feed my work. If I tackle a strong message, I do everything in my power for it to be understood by anyone. For example, in my series of portraits, I point out our individualistic societies. These portraits form a book of good manners which I hope will keep people from behaving the way society expects them to.

Satirical, absurd, ironic… How would you define your Banana Republic?

This work is tainted with irony. In Brazil – as we can see on our flag – two main ideas are broadcast: order and progress. Yet, our country is getting more and more messy, because of conservatism. We are going backwards. We are experiencing a war of ideas. The world is divided and people no longer communicate. Instead of exchanging ideas, we turn to extremes: hatred, violence…

Which is why, among other things, I’ve created a wall of weapons. The objects here are fictional, but greatly inspired by police raids during demonstrations and other gatherings. Nowadays it is easy to build weapons, as you can see with these 24 elements. In the end, we are using weapons to fight against the idea of weaponry. It is completely absurd. This is what I’ve tried to summarise throughout this exhibition.

The exhibition opens with a compilation of three videos: what do they mean?

Thanks to a small television, the visitor can assist to a championship and find out who is going to be the fastest banana eater, to an exorcism organised in a missionary church, or to an emission in which a banana becomes a woman. Behind humour and absurdity? Mass consumption, religion and misogyny.

Any favourite image?

The picture of the mother, Dona Teresa, is representative of the project. This is a woman who agrees with the current politics. The system embodies order and security to her. But, under the same roof, her son chose the other “side”: he rejects everything that relates to the new presidency. They are family, and yet, they are starting to fight.

What future do you envision, for your Banana Republic?

I’d like to travel with it. I am also thinking about a book project. I am currently working on a new series, completing this work. I am focusing on the notion of manipulation.

© Shinji Nagabe