Otávio Roth (1952–1993) was a Brazilian visual artist, curator, teacher, writer, and papermaker. He founded the first hand-papermaking teaching studio in Brazil, becoming a pioneer in sharing papermaking techniques that he learned during research trips to Asia and Western Europe. He was also the creator of the first art exhibition exclusively dedicated to handmade paper in Brazil as well as the author of the first book about paper published in Portuguese.
In addition to his research and authorial production on paper, Roth’s handmade paper artwork took shape starting in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, he developed the concept of making the smallest piece of paper one could produce without tools. For his prototype, he chewed a piece of cloth (cotton fiber), pressed and molded it with his fingers, and used a toothpick as a mould. He named this element peninha (little feather). Over the coming years, it was used in several sculptures and large-scale installations, including The Long Tail (1988), The Garden (1989), and Population (1988). Little feathers were molded one by one, each carrying a singular shape and color. They were never exhibited alone, but rather in a composition of hundreds or thousands of elements. Roth’s intention was to celebrate collectivity while recognizing the uniqueness of each individual. At the same time, the installations play with the idea of artisanal versus industrial production, prompting reflection on the handmade work of artisans and artists.
There were two other major lines of work in his artistic career: graphic pieces focused on the defense and dissemination of human rights, and participatory art installations. Humanistic values aimed at promoting ethics, peace, and respect for the Earth permeate his work. Although these themes are complex, he addressed them in a light-hearted way, inviting children and adults to reflect on citizenship.
He was the author of the first illustrated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1979), produced in a series of thirty large woodcuts on his handmade paper. Because of this project, Roth was the first living artist to be invited to exhibit at the United Nations. Three albums from this series were acquired by the UN and have been on permanent display at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, New York, and Vienna since 1982. This project was followed by the handmade production of an exclusive print run of five copies of the Brazilian Federal Constitution at the time of its promulgation—a political milestone in the country’s re-democratization process in the 1980s.
His participatory art pieces arose under the influence of these same values. The first was The Peace Document (Jerusalem, 1985), a panel produced in collaboration with Israeli and Palestinian children. In 1988, Civic Mural continued to honor the then-recent Brazilian Constitution. Roth rewrote its passages with letters drawn by more than 6,000 people, invoking political representativity and the Brazilian people’s diversity.
Two years later, Roth devised an ambitious project that sought to symbolize harmony among peoples and present a vision focused on the planet’s socio-environmental sustainability. The Tree is an itinerant participatory art installation conceived in 1990 at the United Nations International School. It covers almost 600 square meters and is made up of small drawings produced individually by children and adolescents from more than 70 countries. In the original concept, The Tree was intended to reach one million leaves by the year 2000, when it would be projected onto the façade of the UN headquarters in New York. This time frame could not be met due to the artist’s untimely death in 1993. In the three years he led the project, Roth worked directly with 65,000 children.
Since his death, the Otávio Roth Collection has overseen The Tree project and relaunched it as an ongoing process of promoting the culture of peace through art education. It has partnered with education departments in Brazil’s different regions, including territories in the Amazon Rainforest. In the last five years, hundreds of educators and more than 80,000 students have been invited to reflect upon the state of human rights in Brazil and worldwide, through formative processes and art-education activities designed by the Collection. The culmination of the activities is a drawing workshop, in which each student draws a dream for the future on a piece of paper in the shape of a leaf. The leaves are then forwarded to the Otávio Roth Collection, which attaches the drawings to The Tree, making the installation grow.
The Tree uses art and natural forms as a meeting point for children from all over the world and is a space for relativizing differences. Simultaneously it transmits the feeling of belonging to a shared humanity. The expression of each child’s individuality— their drawing on a small sheet of paper—is added to that of thousands of other children, symbolizing the individual’s contribution to forming the collective. This project, executed with simplicity and genuine Brazilian creativity, brings with it a long list of provocations: reflection on peace and peaceful coexistence, the discovery of other cultures, art as a means of expression, interpersonal and intercultural communication, issues concerning children and the youth, a sincere reflection on human rights, and the development of the planet’s social and ecological sustainability.
As the artist’s daughter and the Collection’s curator, I believe that honoring Otávio’s legacy involves promoting his art and life values, which means letting his collaborative artwork continue to grow and mobilize people. It is a beautiful metaphor for how ideas and art, being bigger than the artists themselves, survive the ages.
Handmade Oficina de Papel, 1979.
“Criando Papéis: O processo artesanal como linguagem,” exhibition at Museu de Arte de São Paulo, MASP, 1984 and Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, MAM-RJ, 1984.
. O que é Papel? (São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1983).