In her paintings, Sonia Almeida often draws imagery from typographic sources such as Roman letters or a medieval anthropomorphic alphabet. The Portuguese-born, Boston-based artist is fascinated by linguistic rules and systems, which she explores in a rather associative manner. A bilingual professor of printmaking and book arts at Brandeis and the mother of a dyslexic child, Almeida spends much of her time thinking about language, and produces works that feature bright colors and unconventional formats loosely inspired by books. Athulya Aravind, an assistant professor of linguistics at MIT and codirector of its Language Acquisition Lab, visited Almeida in her studio outside Boston. As an expert in verbal learning, Aravind is fascinated by the human capacity to form language communities. The two women discussed the links between writing and visual art as communication tools as well as the relationship between grammatical understanding and cultural belonging.
SONIA ALMEIDA: As I was watching a lecture of yours, I found it surprising when you said that children are actually really bad at imitation. I’ve always thought the opposite, that imitation is how you learn language—or, at least, spoken language.
ATHULYA ARAVIND: That was a discovery Noam Chomsky made in the late ’50s. The belief at the time, largely derived from B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov, was that all kinds of behavior—talking, walking, motor skills—essentially come from imitating what we see in the world around us. Chomsky said that has to be wrong, because if you look at children’s verbal performance, they’re producing things that their parents have never said. For example, it’s common for kids to say “goed” instead of “went.” If you think about it, that’s actually a smart thing to say, even though it’s wrong—they’ve heard the past tense of various verbs, and they’re extrapolating the rules by adding “-ed” to the verb stem. That’s what makes children different from parrots.
ALMEIDA: Very cool. I was also thinking about how some multilingual people experience having almost split personalities when they switch languages. When I left Portugal, I spoke little English, and I quickly understood that I couldn’t really express myself the same way that I do in my native language. Even now that I have a good understanding of English, I notice that when I speak Portuguese, I use a lot more gestures.
ARAVIND: In the scientific community, there’s a lot of controversy concerning what’s known as the question of linguistic relativity, which is the idea that the language you speak shapes how you think. At this point, it doesn’t seem as though there’s a direct link between the words that you might have in your language and the kinds of things you are and are not able to think. But what you’re talking about is a bit different—you’re referring to the ability to express yourself in a language that you don’t feel is your own. Speaking from personal experience, that’s a very real thing! I remember my mother saying to me that the people she could communicate with only in English didn’t know that she could be funny and charming. Part of that tenseness comes from the fact that oftentimes speaking a second language can feel a lot like doing work instead of expressing yourself fluently.
ALMEIDA: In my work, I’m definitely interested in cultural appropriation—not simply learning a foreign language but also mimicking what is acceptable. This brings up all sorts of problems in terms of agency and assimilation. Having lived in Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and the U.S., I find myself doing a lot of code switching. When I go back to Portugal, my sister, my mom, and I all talk at the same time and interrupt each other. We can still hear one another! But it’s impolite to interrupt in many cultures. Or, if you are very animated, it can come across as aggressive in some places. I think a lot about what it means to try and fit into another culture.
ARAVIND: I wonder how much of that is language specific and how much is intimacy based. With my mother and sister, we’re also constantly talking over each other, and somehow it feels OK because we trust that the other person hears and understands. There’s something very special about that.
Letters show up at various points in your work—maybe they take the form of some letter in the Roman alphabet and are made up of something unexpected, like contorted human bodies. Elsewhere, a letter might evoke something other than the thing that letter is conventionally associated with—namely a sound. Is this detachment an interpretation of mine, or is it deliberate? Or do you think of your works in relation to the sounds the letters make?
ALMEIDA: It’s not [as if] I have ideas that are completely figured out, and then I illustrate them—I work a little more intuitively than that. But generally, I think about how language is embodied: You need the body to produce it. One of my pieces [Magnetism/Upper case Z, 2018] slides open and shut, and has a Z-shaped person depicted on it, but you might not see that right away. I hope the piece also makes the viewer think about putting their body in that position. My new work, though, involves some musical symbols and is based more on sound.
I’ve always been interested in pages and books, and sometimes I think perhaps if I were any good at writing poetry, I wouldn’t need to paint! I often work with artists’ books, and I really do see my paintings as pages, or as unfolding over chapters. Also, language was really hard for my youngest son, which made me keenly aware of how complex the process of learning language really is; and even today, not every adult knows how to read.
ARAVIND: It’s easy to take reading and writing for granted. While language is an innate human skill, writing is a human invention. You can go anywhere on the globe and you’ll find that people there talk to each other. You can’t expect they’ll all have systems for reading, though.
ALMEIDA: And when it comes to dyslexia, even individuals who are totally fluent in reading might have a really hard time ingesting information—for example, in an airport.
ARAVIND: Right. And since many people understand the sorts of symbols found on navigational signs from such a young age, it’s easy to forget how much practice we had, and that not everyone is equally equipped to pick up this sort of skill.
ALMEIDA: Relatedly, it worries me that one language—English—has become dominant throughout the world, and that a lot of languages are disappearing every day.
ARAVIND: It’s definitely scary and sad to think about what might happen if we don’t actively preserve all these languages and dialects that are deeply connected to various cultures and personalities. I really think languages are worth preserving. There are Native American languages that today have maybe twenty native speakers left, who are all over seventy. Documenting these languages is one thing, but one needs new speakers. And there’s a real push to revitalize these languages. In the scientific community, we’re losing all kinds of information about what it means to have a human language. And those communities are of course losing something deeply, deeply personal.
Revitalization has been very successful in the Basque Country, where for a long time Basque was basically suppressed. But the people decided that they didn’t want to lose their heritage, so they pushed to have Basque taught to young children in school. Now we have a new generation of native speakers whose parents’ native language is Spanish.
This is sort of related to your artist’s book KWY .
ALMEIDA: That book was a response to the 1990 Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement, which was signed shortly before I left. It was an effort to introduce the letters “K,” “W,” and “Y” to the Portuguese language for global convenience—originally, they were absent. I showed the book in a group exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; it’s a unique book, edition of one. It includes some works on fabric, plus paintings on paper, many of them showing humans trying to make those letters with their bodies.
ARAVIND: Tell me more about your new work.
ALMEIDA: It’s loosely based on the idea of call-and-response in music. My show [at Simone Subal Gallery in New York through October 30] marks the first time I’ve made all the paintings the same size, and they all have lines at the top that loosely look as if taken from a music sheet. I really don’t want to force any readings, but for me it was interesting to come up with these shapes or brushstrokes that, when positioned on the lines, can be read like musical notes. In some places, they evoke repetition; in others, counterpoint. I’m fascinated by all the variation that can happen even in a call-and-response—the response can be really strong, or it can be near silence. Eventually, I got to thinking about this transitional pandemic time, and how not all calls have responses, because not everyone is listening. It’s not just because we’ve been isolated; I think many people don’t listen in general, because they have their own set ideas. So I began to ask, what if the paintings were the call, and the responses were whatever the viewer projects back into the work?
Other paintings in the series have pockets. This started with my 2020 installation “Pockets & Lies.” I was thinking about the history of pockets being excluded from women’s garments—they were taken away in Victorian times to accentuate a tiny waist. It was a tool for controlling women too. If you don’t have pockets, you can’t carry money or go very far. When pockets started to be reintroduced, many of them were somewhat secretive—small, or hidden inside clothing. I adore pockets, and so I’ve been sewing my own clothing for a while, always adding pockets that are actually big enough to put my phone in. And I stick drawings and prints inside the paintings’ pockets. Some of the inserts are a few years old but never got shown, for whatever reason. No I wanted to show them but not show them. You can might see a bit poking out at the top, but you can’t access the whole thing. In the past, I’ve shown lots of double-sided paintings displayed on hinges, as well as works that slide open and shut. I teach book arts, and I’m always thinking about all the ways that books can be “bound.”
ARAVIND: We’ve been talking about different kinds of tools that we have for communication. But I’m curious what you think about your primary tool—visual art. On the one hand, it’s a very circumscribed kind of communication between the artist and the viewer that relies on community convention, as does language. On the other hand, it does feel like even a person as naive about art as I am can look at your work and “read” it—maybe not in the way that you intend, but they can still get something out of it. I’m curious how you think this kind of communication works.
ALMEIDA: I think it has a lot to do with the distinction between intention and perception. Art viewing is a subjective experience, and there are many situations where you can’t control the perception of your work. When I go to a museum with my teenage son, he sometimes wants to know exactly what the artist meant.
ARAVIND: That speaks to how people are so often worried about miscommunication! They see that the artist is trying to tell them something, and they want to make sure they understand it exactly.
ALMEIDA: And also, people think, “Oh, I’m not intelligent enough to understand this; it’s for the elite, and I must be missing something.” I get it. If I go to hear an orchestra, I’m going to miss a lot compared to someone with the knowledge that allows them to appreciate certain nuances. But still, I’m going to enjoy myself.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington
This article appears in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 24–26.