Rio de Janeiro

Djanira da Motta e Silva, Vendedora de flores (Flower Seller), 1947, oil on canvas, 39 5⁄8 × 25 5⁄8".

Djanira da Motta e Silva, Vendedora de flores (Flower Seller), 1947, oil on canvas, 39 5⁄8 × 25 5⁄8".

Djanira da Motta e Silva

Casa Roberto Marinho

Originating at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo and organized by Rodrigo Moura and Isabella Rjeille, this exhibition of works by Djanira da Motta e Silva (1914–1979)—or simply Djanira, as she is more commonly known—showcased nearly four decades of paintings by the primarily self-taught artist of working-class origin and indigenous ancestry. Often dismissed as “naive” or “primitive” (one American reviewer observed that a painting of hers would look at home on the cover of a New Yorker), the artist’s oeuvre has been symbolically effaced from the canon of Brazilian art, lending all the more the importance to “Djanira: a memória de seu povo” (“Djanira: The Memory of Her People,” though the exhibition used the divergent English title “Djanira: Picturing Brazil”) and its accompanying catalogue, which was edited by the curators together with Adriano Pedrosa.

Djanira’s trajectory begins amid the period of accelerated modernization that Brazil experienced during the 1940s—a time of heated debate between figurative nationalistic art buttressed by state direction in the field of culture, with the intense presence of the public Maecenas that was the new state, as Moura emphasizes, and the emergent Constructivist-tinged tendencies that would soon give way to the Concrete-art movement. This, in part, explains the (non) place of Djanira, who was not aligned with either of these poles. At that time, her interest was in the sure and delicate autonomous line, in figures without weight, and in perspectives that rendered bodies into collages, a technique seen in Vendedora de flores (Flower Seller), 1947, and Costureira (Seamstress), 1951. In spirit and in form, Djanira’s work was closer to that of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse than to that of Max Bill, an artist who wielded substantial influence over the Concrete-art movement in Brazil in the wake of his participation in the first São Paulo Bienal in 1951. Above all, Djanira found her inspiration in her country, drawing on a mix of popular patterns reflecting Brazil’s multifaceted heritage and its religious diversity, whether Catholic or African Brazilian in origin. In Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, BA (Pelourinho Square, Salvador, BA), 1955, for example, she teased the distinction between the two by showing a black Christ-like figure getting publicly flogged around baby-blue and coral-colored colonialist architecture, casting the scene as a commentary on the persistence of violence and social injustice.

Djanira’s work was always a return to her surroundings. When she depicted friends and neighbors, images from her childhood, or popular entertainment, as in her scenes of amusement-park attractions, she simultaneously created a distinction between herself and the artists associated with Rio de Janeiro’s National School of Fine Arts, who preferred to paint the elite. Her embrace of the vernacular was coupled with a consistent criticality and social awareness, honed by her close ties to the Brazilian Communist Party. O sonho do menino pobre (Poor Boy’s Dream), 1948, for example, gives viewers a glimpse into a young street child’s yearning for freedom, education, and prosperity. While her earlier paintings depict workers engaged in small-scale agriculture, Djanira began to show, in her images from the 1970s, preindustrial labor coexisting with scenes of a country undergoing industrialization. Trabalhadores de cal (Quicklime Workers), 1974, exposes the hardship endured by workers operating under precarious conditions and facing increasing demands. In Mina de Ferro, Itabira, MG (Iron Ore Mine, Itabira, Minas Gerais), 1976, Djanira not only captures the predatory transformation of the landscape by the extractive industry but in a premonitory way sets the stage for the future natural disasters that would plague Brazil. The landscape we are left with is that of a country that spares no expense in the name of progress, even when nature itself is the victim.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.