São Paulo

Maria Auxilidora da Silva, Mobral, 1971, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 23 5/8 x 47 1/4".

Maria Auxilidora da Silva, Mobral, 1971, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 23 5/8 x 47 1/4".

Maria Auxiliadora da Silva

MASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand

Maria Auxilidora da Silva, Mobral, 1971, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 23 5/8 x 47 1/4".

Brazil was the last Western nation to abolish slavery, in 1888, and 130 years later the Museu de Arte de São Paulo has dedicated its 2018 program to Afro Atlantic histories as part of its larger mission, adopted last year, to become “diverse, inclusive, and plural.” To inaugurate this cycle of programming, the exhibition “Maria Auxiliadora: Daily Life, Painting and Resistance” opened just after International Women’s Day in May. This exhibition, curated by Fernando Oliva and Adriano Pedrosa, revisits her work, neglected for decades because it was deemed irrelevant to the prevailing modern and Neo-Concrete narratives that have dominated Brazilian art since the 1950s.

Born in 1935 into a family of former slaves, da Silva rejected “good painting” as understood by European modernism and also pushed away labels such as primitive or naïf; additionally, she distanced herself from elitism in a country with a vast inequality of opportunities. Remaining true to her realist program of depicting the quotidian and her immediate surroundings, the artist used brightly colored oil paint as well as plastic adhesive and even her own hair in making her paintings. Eighty-one works from the last six years of her too-brief career are displayed in seven sections addressing key themes: Afro Brazilian religions such as candomblé and Umbanda and their personified spirits, known as orishas; self-portraits; couples; rural; urban; interiors; and popular events such as carnivals. Uniform in style yet rich in detail, her work combines written, gestural, and musical imagery; Bar com gafieira (Bar with Gafieira), 1973, for instance, shows a band onstage in front of a blissful dancing community (gafieira being a type of samba). Oftentimes sabotaging perspective, her paintings are characterized by low-relief surfaces, lending plasticity to the depicted bodies and their exuberant attire. A group of largely Untitled works present scenes from candomblé rituals and pay homage to the orisha divinities. Briga (Fight), 1973, depicts a brawl in a typical bar setting. We also see jubilant figures dancing in Capoeira, 1970; celebrating in Festa Junina (June Festival), 1969; joining the attractions in Parque de diversões (Amusement Park), 1970; or at a beach in Banhistas (Bathers), 1973. The industrialization and rapid urbanization of São Paulo feel very distant; the artist frequently depicts the symbioses between humans, plants, and animals in the periphery of the city. The hardship and stigma experienced by the artist appear, for instance, in Mobral, 1971, which shows a large group of adults (some sleeping or crying) attending the adult literacy program, implemented in 1968 by the military regime, called Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização, abbreviated MOBRAL—which also happens to be a slang word meaning “ignorant.” Diagnosed with cancer in 1972, the artist portrayed herself painting in heaven surrounded by angels in Autorretrato com anjos (Self-Portrait with Angels), 1972, before dying at the age of thirty-nine in 1974.

Currently, Brazil is facing a wave of police violence, which recently climaxed in the assassination of human rights activist Marielle Franco, the only black woman on Rio de Janeiro’s city council, in mid-March. Like da Silva, Franco (who would have turned thirty-nine in July) was seeking not to join Brazil’s power structure, but to overcome it. In bearing witness to the joys and struggles of Afro Brazilian life, da Silva’s work is an important testament to the fight against amnesia and marginalization.

Tobi Maier