At the Visual Arts Center of the University of Texas, Austin, ten Brazilian artists provide sanctuary and deliver critique in “Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil,” a feat of an exhibition three years in the making organized by Adele Nelson, MacKenzie Stevens and María Emilia Fernandez. Consisting of sixty-five objects—three of which are new commissions—the exhibition visually centers around the indelible impact of São Paulo-based artist Rosana Paulino (b. 1967). As one would thus expect, the exhibition is also a significant referendum on the anemic state of Brazilian democracy by reckoning with a wide array of the national myths still brewing from Brazil’s colonial past. To call this exhibition timely is an understatement: these works, all created within the last twenty years, appear before American audiences in the middle of the United States’ midterm election season, coincident with Brazil’s own consequential presidential election, amid public dissent about what constitutes the very essence of personhood.
Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro’s (b. 1996, Vitoria, Brazil) stunning large-scale installation, “Jupiter is Here. Celestial is Everything” (2022) is the centerpiece of the exhibition, functioning as both its beginning and end. An Umbanda practitioner and trained in psychology, Brasileiro installed this “perishable space of freedom” using the pontos riscados de Umbanda as architectural guideposts. According to Brasileiro, such a space is “another way of living,” wherein one is encouraged “to linger, sit, lay down, and look with respect, care and love.” At a critical moment when curators throughout the United States seek how to center spectator care in exhibitions that contain racialized and gendered violence, Brasileiro offers a model that is grounded in Afro-Brazilian healing and expression. It is precisely the kind of space viewers who identify most viscerally with these specific histories of racism and colonialism would want to find there.
To walk down the aisle Brasileiro laid with thin black tarp is to walk among the locally sourced rocks, wood and soil the artist obtained through a collaboration with the University of Texas Landscape Services and the School of Architecture’s hidden gem, the Co-op Materials Lab. Brasileiro’s trail ends at a modest terreiro constructed from compressed-earth bricks. which functions as a pop-up shrine for an aquatic ancestor: an ammonite fossil. The pedestal upon which it rests is surrounded at its base with offerings of water to the orixás poured into glasses that were thrifted nearby. Brasileiro’s attention to the aquatic history of Texas, which 265 million years ago was once a sea, also alludes to the notion of Kalunga, or “the liquid power of transmutation.” Water becomes a “spiritual element… an energy conductor, capable of cleaning and nourishing.” True to her process, the installation’s materials—even the thrifted glasses of water—will either be returned or recycled after the Austin duration of the show.
Acknowledging entangled states of cosmic being and quantum relations is one of the exhibition’s most successful through-lines. For instance, Paulino’s “Tecido social” [“Social Fabric”] from 2010—the show’s namesake—provides a visual grammar for how Black Brazilian women are seen and represented in society through a patchwork of close associations. Her signature black thread sutures patches of fabric monotyped with a variety of images: revolvers recalling Andy Warhol’s “Gun” from “Death and Disasters”; en caul fetuses; domestic servants with their charges; blindfolded pin-up icons. All reference the sexualization, commercialization, domestication of, and violence against the Black female body to distill into a singular patchwork the numerous demands that determine their status in society.
While Paulino investigates these visual codes, Sallisa Rosa’s “Resistência” [“Resistance”], 2017-present, is a counter-image against the violence saturating them. Her grid of photographed machetes, neat in arrangement but overwhelming in number, seamlessly cohere into an advancement of Paulino’s grammar. Plastered on the gallery wall with the democratically available medium of wheat paste, Rosa’s mural faces a display window overlooking a student pathway, just beyond the walls of the Visual Arts Center, silently declaring potential in the collective.
The violence against which Rosa defends originates, of course, in Portuguese colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Paulino argues as much in “Atlântico Vermelho” [“Red Atlantic”], 2017. Here, she sutures patches printed with Louis Agassiz’s photographs of the enslaved he exploited in both the United States and Brazil. So, too, with images of the caravelas that transported them from Africa to Brazil and the United States. It doesn’t take much to see the Atlantic Ocean’s waves in the azulejos’ blue arabesque pattern, which drips with the blood of those lost in the Middle Passage. Hanging this work next to Jaime Lauriano’s “Invasão” [“Invasion”], 2017, reinforces this connection through an almost literal formal translation: Lauriano’s pemba chalk-drawn map of Brazil seems to both float and drown in a sea of vermillion.
Blood plays a vital role, too, in António Obá’s intimate watercolors, “Mãe” [“Mother”], 2017. When paired with Paulino’s “Assentamento” [“Settlement”] lithographs of 2012-13, Obá’s earthly red Rorschach figures bleeding into the paper suddenly become powerful testaments to the many manifestations of motherhood—especially in today’s post-Roe moment. Paulino advances this conversation on bodily autonomy in two nearby prints from “Paraiso tropical” [“Tropical Paradise”], 2017. Here, she similarly dissects the visual vocabulary of nineteenth-century scientific racism that still resonates in contemporary political rhetoric.
Upstairs, in a darkened gallery of its own, Aline Motta’s six-channel video trilogy, “If the Sea Had Balconies,” “Bridges over the Abyss” and “(Other) Foundations,” 2017-2019—seen in its entirety, as it should be seen, for only the third time since its completion—testifies to those intergenerational matrilineal connections. Her mirror images and blurred geographies similarly acknowledge the inextricably intertwined histories that the trade in human flesh between Africa and Brazil made possible. In sharing her journey of searching for her roots, Motta successfully reneges control from colonial narratives in order to author her own history.
Intergenerational inheritances are also brought to bear on the broader art-historical legacies with which Paulino and her coterie have had to contend. In Paulino’s print series, “Brazilian-Style Geometry Arrives at Tropical Paradise,” 2018, red, blue and yellow rectangles recall Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) and his iconic large-scale installation “Tropicália, Penetrables PN2 ‘Purity is a myth’ and PN3 ‘Imagetical’,” 1966-67. Like the visitors who penetrate Oiticica’s installation, Paulino’s images are juxtaposed and collaged into bold, colorful remixes of the “New World.” Whereas Oiticica’s used tropical fauna and favela constructions to show the superficiality and contingencies behind a reputation like “tropical paradise,” Paulino more deeply explores the many significations held by the word “tropical” throughout the past five centuries. The “arrival” in her title signals an oblique reading of this visual language’s development. Mid-century Neo-Concretists’ emphasis on feeling and expression inevitably shores up and weaves in and out of the scientific rationalism they sought to avoid.
Maré de Matos’ diptych, “Mais nascimento que morte” [“More Birth Than Death”], 2021-22, deploys geometric abstraction as a way to address the historic registration in Brazil of more deaths than births, largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Matos embroidered variously colored threads and materials representing abundant diversity onto a rectangular sheet of white fabric signifying an affirmation of life. To its immediate right, a similar plethora of embroidered threads, this time white, loosely hang off a slightly larger sheet of black fabric, a monochromed representation of death. In her call for life amid death’s destabilization, and in her quest for a visual language that contemplates the necropolitics of our time, Matos offers an answer to Achille Mbembé’s essential question: “What place is given to life, death, and the human body (the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?”
Nearby, a breathtaking swarm of 250 terra cotta clay figurines provide another response to this question. Paulino handcrafted these insect-women, which are attached to a generous amount of wall space while their corresponding terra cotta cocoons sprawl across the floor below. “Tecelãs” [“Weavers”], 2003—notably, the earliest work in the show—reminds viewers that the loose threads of constant invention, re-invention and revision, even amid death, need not be seen through a lens of despair. Speaking of the work at her Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo retrospective (“Rosana Paulino: The Sewing of Memory,” 2018)—an historic first for a woman of color—Paulino described “Weavers” as “a metaphor for how women transform themselves all the time, with the passing of time. […] In the work, the woman pulls from within herself the threads with which she makes her cocoon—[where] she rebuilds, dies, and is reborn.”
“Pulling from within” to recast and transform oneself applies just as much to the remains of contested history as it does to the manifesting human being, as Jaime Lauriano demonstrates in “Bandeirante #1” and “#2,” both 2019. Cast in brass smelted from ammunition cartridges used by the Brazilian Military Police and Armed Forces, and placed on a plinth of rammed earth, Lauriano’s miniatures are an important object lesson in how to reckon with polemical monuments that honor problematic histories. The Brazilian analog to the enduring myth of manifest destiny in the United States, the bandeirantes’ legacy is one of violence, plunder and capture: these “pioneers” ventured into the Brazilian interior seeking gold, fugitive enslaved persons, and indigenous persons likewise exploitable as slave labor. Munitions discharged for the sake of “national security” are also transformed into shiny brass plates neatly cut into a shape of the state of Sao Paulo, where many of these bandeirantes began. By reducing and placing them upon these plates, Lauriano shows that though minimized, these genocidists still occupy an outsized place in Brazilian culture.
Denilson Baniwa most acutely addresses occupation and colonization in the large print looming above, “Letter to the Indigenous People of the Planet Mars with Recognition Codes of the Planet Earth,” 2020. Converging his interest in science fiction with his activism for indigenous causes makes sense: the first film to indelibly affect Baniwa, “Alien” (1979), tells the story of a spacecraft crew’s encounter with a deadly lifeform after investigating an unknown transmission. Viewed after one of Brazil’s presidential debates in 1989, Baniwa also bore witness to an unfolding juxtaposition between Brazil’s origins and its future. His belief that the world’s destruction is possible, if not imminent, and that society is similarly blinded by its new colonial pursuits, is reflected in his letter:
Outro dia vi que os planos de morar em outros planetas estão avançando, quer dizer, essa gente lá da NASA, já sabe que pelo ritmo que destruímos tudo, não vai sobrar nada aqui neste planeta […] Descobriram ouro e diamante em Marte, é uma nova corrida do garimpo […] Então, fiquem alertas, os terráqueos não são confiáveis…
Another of Baniwa’s prints hung elsewhere, “Voyeurs,” 2019, uses this deadpan irony to tend to the layers of spectatorship, and thus participation, contributing to peoples’ exploitation and uncontrolled consumption. Detached, anonymous arms wielding cell phones take snapshots of reclining indigenous people, who are already translated via a European’s etching. Making us complicit in this spectatorship, Baniwa questions our individual responsibility within this visual economy of invasion and subsequent over-looking.
Laïs Myrrha’s collages “Reparação de danos” [“Reparation of Damages”], 2016, also explore the “incestuous” relationship between the media and Brazilian political and economic elites but does so with a steady eye on President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trials. Using newspaper clippings of scenes from the impeachment process, Myrrha hollows out political spectacle to reveal its innate emptiness. One collage, “Tudo azul” (“Michel Temer”), is a remarkable accomplishment in this critique: using a joyful blue and playing on the ignorant bliss the work’s title signals, Myrrha cloaks the countenance of Dilma’s acting successor so that he blends into his blissful yet devoid surroundings. Myrrha likewise foregrounds how national identity can be molded by architecture, most notably its seat of government: Brazil’s Modernist attempt toward utopia, Brasília.
Visitors can see this critique of Brasília almost literally spun on its head in Guerreiro do Divino Amor’s contribution, which alone warrants the trip to Austin. In a dedicated (though unfortunately not soundproofed) gallery, Divino Amor’s two videos, “O Mundo Mineral” [“The Mineral World”] and “A Cristalização de Brasília” [“The Crystallization of Brasília”], are projected onto closely connected wall-length screens. The two delightfully ironic works, both from Divino Amor’s 2019 project “Superfictional World Atlas,” are complex digitally collaged appropriations of corporatist narratives that ultimately expose the absurd scaffolding behind Brazilian national identity. Divino Amor’s satirical approach to mineral extraction and the systemic desire to “bleach,” or purify perceived social disorders drive home the argument that “the past and the present go hand in hand in harmony.” By the time one realizes that the artist’s crystallization of Brasília is, in fact, an inversion of Oscar Niemeyer’s 1960 landmark “Palácio do Planalto,” the slender white columns of the Brazilian President’s official workplace have already morphed into vampire teeth, and are sinking into a deliciously wretched, molten wasteland you can never unsee.
“Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil,” at the Visual Arts Center of the University of Texas, Austin, 2300 Trinity Street, Austin, Texas, through March 10, 2023