Rio de Janeiro

Mário Cravo Neto, Odé, 1989, ink-jet print, 39 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Mário Cravo Neto, Odé, 1989, ink-jet print, 39 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Mário Cravo Neto

This retrospective, subtitled “Espíritos sem nome” (Nameless Spirits) and curated by Luiz Camillo Osorio, was a panorama of the work of one of the most important Brazilian photographers. Born in the state of Bahia in 1947, Mário Cravo Neto was the son of a sculptor, Mário Cravo Jr. In 1968, in one of his earliest works, Cravo Neto photographed the mythic set of soapstone sculptures of the twelve disciples executed by Brazilian Baroque sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisboa, popularly known as Aleijadinho (the Little Cripple). These images already reveal an interest in plasticity and the framing of details that highlight the expressiveness of gesture, and represent the beginning of a poetics created in the hybrid state between sculpture and photography.

From 1969 to 1970, Cravo Neto studied in New York. For a young man from a country in the grip of a dictatorship and the absence of liberty, New York was a free and experimental territory. But the way Cravo Neto captures the effects of modernity on the dynamics of everyday life is distinctly his own. In a series of photos of the subway, he turns not to the seduction this modern icon can offer, but rather to those who make use of it. His photos feature anonymous people barely aware of being recorded by a photographer-voyeur. Solitude and introspection produce a sense of pause in a metropolis that prides itself on continuous acceleration. Images of cars—fetishized consumer objects—are also permeated by this more taciturn atmosphere. Cravo Neto usually shows us vehicles that are parked rather than in motion. He evokes not their function but the unconditional beauty of their forms in the middle of deserted streets. And far from gazing in amazement at modernity, his work is a speculative and challenging exercise revealing the contradictions of the modern, particularly a certain disquietude and sense of isolation.

After a car accident in the mid-1970s that pushed him to adopt primarily a studio practice, Cravo Neto achieved maturity with two series, “Eternal Now,” 1985–94, and “Laróyè,” 1977–97. The former comprises black-and-white photos of Black bodies, generally against a featureless backgrounds. Symbolic elements such as animals invoke the rituals of the African Brazilian candomblé religion. The faces are obliterated; in Odé, 1989, named for the candomblé hunting god, a goose is held in front of a young child’s eyes. In Deus do caminho (God of the Road), 1988, a man’s face is obscured by a turtle. His body takes on an animality that merges with nature. The affirmation of the Black body evincing both its own physical power and that of candomblé shows what Camillo Osorio calls “a profound respect for Afro-Brazilian tradition” that still has political force in a racist country. Despite the risk of exoticism, the artist was careful to place his subjects in the role of protagonist. In the curator’s words, moreover, Cravo Neto spoke “from within,” as a practitioner of candomblé, “assuming an existential engagement that went beyond the spiritual.”

“Laróyè”—the series is titled after a phrase used to hail Exu, one of the fundamental entities of candomblé—includes images of the sites where candomblé is celebrated as well as of the Catholic churches scattered around Salvador, the capital city of Bahia, home to a large Black population. Color and the play of light expose what must be accentuated, such as the candomblé offerings as well as the frontispieces of churches or people practicing capoeira. In the tension between the sacred and the profane, what stands out is Brazil’s cultural richness. By documenting and stressing the rituals of candomblé, Cravo Neto, who died in 2009, not only reflected his personal beliefs but made a political choice in favor of a marginalized religion.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.