New York

Arthur Bispo do Rosario, Untitled (Manto da apre­-sentação) (Untitled [Annunciation Garment]), date unknown, fabric, thread, ink, found materials, fiber, 46 5⁄8 × 55 5⁄8 × 2 3⁄4".

Arthur Bispo do Rosario, Untitled (Manto da apre­-sentação) (Untitled [Annunciation Garment]), date unknown, fabric, thread, ink, found materials, fiber, 46 5⁄8 × 55 5⁄8 × 2 3⁄4".

Arthur Bispo do Rosario

Around midnight on December 22, 1938, Afro-Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario (1909–1989) was, he said, visited by seven angels who sent him on a mission. Days later, he appeared at the door of the São Bento Monastery in Rio de Janeiro, introducing himself as Jesus. In January 1939, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic; he would go on to spend time in numerous psychiatric facilities, including Rio’s Colônia Juliano Moreira, a notoriously brutal hospital where, starting in 1964, he lived out the rest of his days. Voices in his head commanded him to remake and organize the stuff of the world in preparation for Judgment Day, when he would come face-to-face with God. That chorus never quieted and kept him from sleeping, relentlessly urging him to create what would total, after decades of confinement, more than one thousand works of art that, in his words, “represent the existence of Earth.”

This exhibition, the first in the US dedicated solely to Bispo’s uncommon practice, presents a poignant selection of his garments (roupas), banners (estandartes), index cards (fichários), and what are known as his objetos revestidos por fios azuis (objects covered with blue thread), for which he unraveled the uniforms worn by the colony’s residents to re-create everyday things such as a paint roller, a bow, a shoehorn, and a compass. Teetering between the real and the imagined, these objects, all of which are undated, possess a ghostly, ephemeral aura, almost as if they’re fleeting from view—or not long for this world, though they are very much the products of it. All of Bispo’s supplies were either found or traded for: He tacked bottles, buttons, combs, cutlery, flip-flops, and mugs to wood panels, displaying them in various configurations—exalting them—as collections. He elaborately embroidered bedsheets to create his banners, rich catalogues of assorted subjects ranging from the intimate to the political and historical. (He read the newspaper, which kept him apprised of world events.) On one side of Untitled (Eu preciso dessas palavras escritas) (Untitled [I Need These Words Written]), he delicately rendered a male figure flanked by avalanches of words; on the other side, he stitched a map of Brazil and its many states. Another banner, Untitled (Dicionário de nomes letra A) (Untitled [Dictionary of Names Letter A]), offers up a dense list of people whose names begin with that letter along with their professions. For Bispo, language represented the existence of Earth as effectively as any object or image and, for the viewer, that equivalence can recast his practice into something like visual incantation.

It must be noted that Bispo refused to call his productions art, perhaps deeming it a too-frivolous category for his divine purpose. For him, catching the eye—being seen—was necessary in order to be saved. He sewed a cape, a scarf, a bolero, and a red-and-black beaded crown after Exu, a powerful spirit in the Afro-Brazilian religions of Quimbanda and Umbanda. He also sewed himself Untitled (Manto da apresentação) (Untitled [Annunciation Garment]), a handsome, regal cloak that he planned to wear on the day he was finally presented to God. He embroidered it with an assortment of images: of a phonograph, a stool, a trolley cart, train tracks, a seesaw, letters, numbers, and a heart. On the inside of the piece, he stitched the names of hundreds of women whom he wanted to take along with him to heaven. One assumes he wished to live in heaven surrounded by as much beauty as he’d created here on Earth.