Rio de Janeiro

Adriana Varejão, Mapa de Lopo Homem II (Map of Lopo Homem II), 2004, suture thread and oil on wood, 43 1⁄4 × 55 × 3 7⁄8".

Adriana Varejão, Mapa de Lopo Homem II (Map of Lopo Homem II), 2004, suture thread and oil on wood, 43 1⁄4 × 55 × 3 7⁄8".

“Engraved into the Body”

Curated by Keyna Eleison and Victor Gorgulho, the group exhibition “Escrito no corpo” (Engraved into the Body) examined existence and resistance in a country where systemic violence, especially that directed at the poorest in the society and above all its Black population, is a deep-rooted reality. Brazil is indelibly marked by structural racism and manifests high rates of homicide against women, gay people, and transvestites.

The exhibition took as its starting point the activities of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN). Based in Rio de Janeiro and led by artist Abdias do Nascimento, the theater company was active between 1944 and 1961. Photographic documentation and its programs showed how it sought “to claim space for Black people in the theater of the time,” as an accompanying text put it. TEN transformed theater into a site of political contestation and empowerment as well as of consciousness-raising and the production of a voice for Blacks in the country. Its wide-ranging activities—which also included literacy courses and even beauty competitions—were all aimed at creating radical change in a country that hoped for modernity while disingenuously boasting of its color-blind “racial democracy.”

Following this example, the twenty-six works on view by nineteen artists gave vivid evidence of Brazil’s heterogeneity. Eschewing white, Christian, heteronormative stereotypes, the selection of works accentuated polysemy and demonstrated the ongoing relevance of TEN’s endeavors in the way it centered Black bodies, along with other peripheral bodies, as its theme and subject. This framing of history in a country that has systematically employed violence as a means of domination encompassed topics such as Afro-Brazilian religions, as seen in the paintings of Moisés Patrício, in which bodies and identities affirm their place of existence and subjectivity. The historical role of this violence came into focus through the triangulation of the works of Carla Santana, Armando Andrade Tudela, and Adriana Varejão. The paintings by Varejão not only retraced the oppression of the slave trade but also brought into bold relief profound cultural exchanges between Brazil and Africa that continue into the present day. Her Mapa de Lopo Homem II (Map of Lopo Homem II), 2004, explores the worldview behind a mappa mundi created by the Portuguese cartographer named in the title at the time of the great explorations. But the presence of a wound across Africa, bearing witness to the shedding of blood, calls attention to the long, perverse, and violent fate of the continent over the centuries. Santana’s “Fardo” (Burden), 2017, is a performative photographic series in which the artist molds clay onto her nude Black body. The material merges with the skin, metaphorically transmitting the sensations of affection, recognition, and reconstruction of herself and signifying the painful rebirth and affirmation of her body in space.

Tudela’s contribution to the exhibition, Untitled (DF), 2017, a totemic plaster-and-wood sculpture, can be recognized in this context as a grotesque image of the white colonizers who oppressed the Peruvian artist’s Andean forebears. The ideas of the colonizers that remain dominant even today are beginning to be systematically rejected, not only in Brazil but worldwide, as exemplified by the recent toppling of statues of slave traders and white supremacists in the UK and the US. As this exhibition showed, Brazil, too, is filled with long-disdained bodies and voices that yearn to rewrite their legacy.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.