PRINT March 2021

Close-Up: Negative Capability

Leonilson, Ninguém (Nobody), 1992, thread on embroidered cotton pillowcase, cotton fabric, pillow, 9 1⁄4 × 18 1⁄8 × 2".

NINGUÉM. NOBODY. NO ONE. Ninguém, as in: There’s nobody at the door; nobody knows him. Ninguém merece: Nobody deserves that. But also ninguém, as in: nobody of significance, an individual of little consequence, a body with no name. Ninguém inhabits the underside of someone, somebody. Somebody entails distinctiveness, or its possibility. Ninguém is a placeholder, the anonymity and abstraction of a person who is no one in particular. Anybody, anyone—alguém—but defined through the force of negation.

Leonilson’s Ninguém dwells within this deliberate absence of identity. Even so, it is a work that singularizes, again and again, its materiality, context, authorship, addressee. Made in 1992, a year after the Brazilian artist learned he was HIV-positive, and a year before his death at the age of thirty-six, it consists of a small pillow, its case hand-sewn from fabric remnants. The front is a piece of machine-embroidered pink pillowcase (pink like Pepto-Bismol, Mother’s Day cards, artificial Easter eggs), the back a swath of tartan extended with panels of taupe and peach cotton. Too small for bed, it seems intended for succor rather than sleep: something to clutch in the darkness, rest one’s head on during the day. Despite its title, the work’s delicate, pieced-together construction carries the affective charge of a specific hand, a specific body. A year earlier, Leonilson had stitched his first name, JOSÉ, on a stretched rectangle of shimmering, cloudlike voile in the same position as NINGUÉM, the upper left-hand corner, as it might appear on a grade-school worksheet or a bureaucratic form. The substitution of one designation for the other is inextricable from the later work’s corporeal allegory. Leonilson surely knew that viewers would approach it as both a reliquary and a memento mori.

Leonilson, José, 1991, thread on voile, 23 5⁄8 × 15 3⁄4".

Originally, the artist suspended Ninguém from two metal rods against a wall, the pillow’s padded interior sagging gently toward the middle with all the vulnerability and opacity of a body. Stretched upward and affixed by means of incisions in the pillowcase’s upper corners, the display allowed gravity itself to map the pictorial vectors of crucifixion. Leonilson’s childhood was suffused with Catholicism, and even as his work veers far from faith it is replete with Christian iconography: stigmata, scars, bleeding hearts, crosses, crowns, swooning and supine bodies, miraculous touches that bridge worlds apart. The prostrate life-size figure in his 1986 painting O que ele está fazendo (What He Is Doing) is physically punctured at head, heart, and groin. There is an unmistakable echo of the claustrophobic compression of Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521–22) and of the pockmarked skin of Christ in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512–16), which had inspired Holbein in turn. In Ninguém, the off-center lunette of ornamental flowers and ribbons adumbrates a shape similar to that of the prone body in O que ele está fazendo, only here in radical abstraction. Internal to the very process of handling and installing the work—appending it to a wall, removing it to rest, protecting it by securing its recumbent form—is the entirety of Christ’s crucifixion, deposition, and entombment. Notably, Ninguém offers nothing in the way of resurrection; it remains in the register of condemnation and sorrow.

Owing to its increasing material fragility, Ninguém is no longer hung vertically when exhibited but laid as an ordinary pillow would be, on a horizontal surface, where we peer at it from above. What it loses in bodily affect, it gains in discursivity. Now sharing the plane of handwriting, its single word approaches a salutation, while its embroidered nubs proliferate like so many ellipses across a page. In one of the first critical accounts of the artist’s oeuvre written after his death, Lisette Lagnado wrote that Leonilson’s work constituted an “epistolary fiction,” with each piece “constructed as a letter to an intimate diary” that would inevitably be made public. In this sense, Ninguém is equally a work of aching exposure and of bitter denouncement, resonant today not despite but because it was aimed at the artist’s own time, when AIDS ravaged gay communities and the ailing body was weaponized by the Right. (The same year he created Ninguém, Leonilson made a drawing called O perigoso [The Dangerous One] with a single drop of his own blood.)

Top: Leonilson, O que ele está fazendo (What He Is Doing), 1986, acrylic, colored pencil, marker, and cutting on canvas, 19 3⁄4 × 87 7⁄8". Bottom: Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521–22, oil and tempera on limewood, 12 3⁄4 × 79 5⁄8".

Leonilson was an avid traveler whose bohemian itinerancy seems ever more distant from our current state of pandemic-induced isolation and paranoia. He encountered Shaker embroidery at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; read Wittgenstein in Antonio Dias’s studio in Milan; sold drawings to survive in Madrid; visited the Jewish ghettos of Venice; constructed a snow volcano for a show in Munich. Along the way he fell in love with the work of Eva Hesse and Blinky Palermo; sewed errant maps; and imagined writing an autobiographical fiction inspired by the wandering Ulysses. And yet despite his own cosmopolitanism, Leonilson’s work has been little known outside the country of his birth until relatively recently. In Brazil, however, his work is revered not only for the distinctiveness of its own poetic charge, but also for the way it charts an aesthetic constellation that includes Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica; members of his own generation, such as Leda Cantuda and Daniel Senise; the fantastical constructions of the psychiatric inmate Arthur Bispo do Rosário; and popular traditions from the country’s northeast, where Leonilson grew up. His sensibility—caustic yet romantic and exquisitely queer—indexed a particular moment that followed Brazilian redemocratization, when exuberance about the demise of the military dictatorship mixed with cynicism about the country’s ongoing political scandals and its embrace of neoliberalism.

Notably, Ninguém offers nothing in the way of resurrection; it remains in the register of condemnation and sorrow.

If an epistolary work presumes distance and delay, we might recognize Ninguém as a dispatch to us in the present. Indeed, as Ivo Mesquita observes in a catalogue essay for the artist’s upcoming retrospective at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, to revisit Leonilson’s work in the midst of a global pandemic, with authoritarianism on the rise, is to see ever more clearly the force of the artist’s critique of hypocrisy, social violence, and greed. As Mesquita notes, Leonilson’s 1993 caricature of populist sentiment—three banners proclaiming PATÉTICO, RIDÍCULO, VULGAR—applies equally to Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro (and former US president Donald Trump, for that matter). Bolsonaro’s hate-filled rhetoric is directed at precisely the “undesirables” the artist listed in two related drawings: women, Roma, Communists, the LGBTQ community, Black people, people with aids, Jews, the disabled, the Indigenous, sex workers. Against the fascistic logic that renders such individuals ninguém, Leonilson’s work proposes dispossession as the site of pluriversal identification. As Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “Je est un autre” (I is an other).

Leonilson, Comer barata é o novo barato da cidade (Eating Roaches Is the New Craze in Town), 1993, permanent ink on paper, 5 7⁄8 × 3 3⁄8".

It is inevitable that the increasing material fragility of Ninguém has intensified its memorial character. But perhaps the work invites, even more urgently, an apotropaic reading, one in keeping with the fabric amulets or pouches—called bolsas de mandinga—of Afro-Brazilian tradition, worn in proximity to the body to shield it from evil spirits and disease. Shortly after Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, a phrase began appearing in social media, posted by the “undesirables” and their allies whom the new president had made the target of his scorn. The phrase, “Ninguém solta a mão de ninguém,” was used by student activists in the era of the dictatorship, when military police would cut off the electricity within classrooms ahead of a raid. It translates to “No one let go of anyone’s hand,” only with the palindromic intensity of ninguém on either end. Ninguém, here, is the grammar and syntax of protection and entanglement. It is also the horizon toward which we reach today: to touch an(other); to find in ningúem the solidarity of we.

Anti-Jair Bolsonaro protesters with “Ninguém solta a mão de ninguém” (No one let go of anyone’s hand) poster, São Paulo, October 30, 2018. Photo: MídiaNINJA.

But as an artist friend reminded me, another ninguém runs through recent Brazilian politics as well, exemplified by the response of a protester interviewed during the June 2013 demonstrations against political negligence, when the streets overflowed with demands for sweeping transformation. In answer to a journalist’s request for their name and political affiliation, the protester said, “Take note: I am nobody.” Although those uprisings—when demonstrators danced on the roof of the National Congress—seem many lifetimes ago, the phrase deflects nostalgia. As the philosophers Peter Pál Pelbart and Vladimir Safatle have since described it, the declaration speaks to a certain desubjectivization as the kernel of another form of politics: a radical refusal of nomination within the existent grammar of power. (How different than the claim to be “patriots” made by the members of the right-wing mob that stormed the US Capitol in January.) In this sense, ninguém is also a lesson of strategy in the face of excessive force. “My name is nobody,” Ulysses declares to the cyclops Polyphemus before blinding him in The Odyssey. As the giant roars that “nobody” attacked him, Ulysses steals away.

Irene V. Small is an associate professor of contemporary art and criticism at Princeton University and the author of Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame (University of Chicago Press, 2016).