“(…) Hélio Melo’s life journey along with the subject of his art production make him a unique artist in the panorama of Brazilian visual art of the twentieth century. (…) his oeuvre portrays violence, beauty and destruction, as well as the Amazonian forest’s sublime vastness with its irreplaceable, profound, silent existence.”
This is curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti‘s description of the grandeur of the oeuvre of self-taught artist Hélio Melo (1926-2001), on exhibition at Galeria Almeida & Dale in São Paulo.
At first glimpse, the rows of small drawings in the same color-washed, frugal, greenish palette seem prosaic. However, delving into its richness in detail you are gripped by the socio-political revelations, some in surrealistic fashion bringing to mind a comic-strip panel, some touching and tragic, all made by precisely traced India ink drawings only a firm, exercised hand can produce. They certainly result from Melo’s experience as a seringueiro (rubber tree tapper) making the characteristic sequence of parallel “V” surgical incisions on the tough bark of wild rubber trees to extract latex to barely support his family and enrich rubber barons, during the drama of the rise and decline of the Amazon rubber cycle from 1879 to 1945.
Colored exclusively with native plant extract formulated and produced by the artist himself, the works portray the life of the rubber-tree tapper, the longstanding battle to protect the Amazon rainforest, the forest myths, the menagerie of animals, the cynicism of the S.O.B. politician (explicit in a title), the cattle pastures stripping clear the forest and displacing families, the threats. But also the joys of the Saturday dances, the guitar playing at the end of the day, the vernacular architecture of their modest homes, and the lush beauty of the thick rainforest silhouetted against orange sunsets and glowing early morning.
In a play of transparency and opacity, poetry and irony, the exhibition tells a story of resilience of a multi-talented man from the deep Amazon region of Acre state encroached in Brazil’s northwestern border of Peru and Bolivia, an area so remote most Brazilians, myself included, have never touched. In 1959, when Melo was displaced from the land inherited from his grandfather, to bring food to the family’s table he worked as a boatman, traveling barber and night watchman, but found comfort doubling as a writer, composer, musician and, later in life, as an artist working from memory.
Five years after Hélio Melo passed away at seventy-five, his work was displayed at the twenty-seventh São Paulo Biennial in 2006. In his lifetime he had exhibitions in Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, in several cities in Italy and across Brazil. His artwork now hangs in the collections of the MASP museum and the Pinacoteca de São Paulo; the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) in Rio de Janeiro; and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
We interviewed his daughter, Fátima Melo, a dentist who lives and works in Rio Branco and represents the artist’s family.
Fátima, let’s begin with Chico Mendes. Did Hélio Melo ever meet Chico Mendes (1944-1988), the rubber tapper, trade-union leader and environmentalist, who fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the human rights of rubber tappers and Indigenous peoples, whose murder made international headlines and brought attention to the plight of these marginalized communities?
My father was very community-oriented, he was always involved in socio-political and environmental issues, his work brilliantly attests to that revealing the daily suffering of the seringueiros (rubber tappers) and denouncing deforestation. Chico Mendes fought for the preservation of the Amazon region and was murdered because he went against the interests of the extractive industry. Dad participated in the 1º Encontro Nacional dos Seringueiros (First National Meeting of Rubber Tappers) in Brasilia in 1985, which aimed to create an extractive reserve for rubber tappers. When Chico Mendes was murdered, dad was exhibiting in Italy; he was shattered by the news.
You mentioned your father was abroad when Mendes’ was murdered. So, tell us about his main exhibitions abroad.
In 1988 he traveled to the U.S. for his show at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. Before that he had only been abroad once, in 1986, when the same exhibition opened in Paris at the Nouveau Salon. In 2022, when Almeida & Dale Gallery exhibited his work for the first time at New York’s Armory Show, it was mentioned by the New York Times art critic as one of the thirteen best shows of the art fair. To me it felt like dad was granted an award.
In Brazil, he did an amazing number of exhibitions. How did that come about?
Indeed, he had the chance to exhibit around the country several times. He maintained good relations with institutions and government officials, so he was usually given the flight ticket, and was grateful to those who helped him, bringing them little souvenirs from his trips. My dad knew how to charm people everywhere he went with his “alma acreana” (soul of his native Acre state).
When was his breakthrough art show?
At the beginning of his career as a visual artist, he had an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro, in 1980, where he met the famous sculptor Sergio Camargo. Sergio loved my dad’s work the minute he saw it and bought seventeen works on the spot. They became friends with Sergio always encouraging him. In 1981, Sergio introduced my father’s work to Galeria Sérgio Milliet (a prestigious gallery in Rio, now closed) and a show was organized. From then on, he was exhibited north and south. His visibility happened thanks to Sergio Camargo.
Five years after your father’s death, his work was displayed at the twenty-seventh São Paulo Biennial in 2006. Would you say that was the peak of his career till now?
Yes, undoubtedly. Biennial curators Lisette Lagnado and Colombian José Roca came to Acre to get to know his work and were very impressed. At the Biennial he occupied an entire room and was one of the highlights of the edition.
Tell us about his “Via Sacra na Amazônia” (Way of the Cross of the Amazon region) series, with the stations of the cross staged in the Amazon forest and the characters, including Jesus Christ, all seringueiros (rubber tappers).
He originally painted the “Way of the Cross” in 1990 for the Italian priest Luigi Pieretti in exchange for a trip to Italy he made in 1989. He wished to meet Pope John Paul II, but was late for his flight connection in São Paulo, so unfortunately, he never got to meet the pope… The trip to Italy was initially planned for two weeks but was extended for three months. He was invited to show in several cities and at universities across Italy, but still found time to produce and sell some works.
What can you tell us about the natural plant extracts he made himself instead of using industrialized paint? Did he keep notes of these formulas?
The plant extracts rendered even more originality to his work, but he never kept notes. He experimented with several native Amazon plants, extracted the juice and applied on canvas or cardboard. When some natural dyes changed coloring with time and/or light exposure, he incorporated a drop of India ink or a color fixative.
Your father’s life was harsh; he went through different professions. How did the artist and the workman coexist?
My dad was born with an artistic soul. During his life as a rubber tapper he fell in love with the sound of the violin, so he and his younger brother Melinho taught themselves to play at parties at the seringal (rubber plantation). They also learned to play the banjo and the ukulele. When we moved to Rio Branco, he worked as a catraieiro (Amazon region boatman) transporting people back and forth on the riverbanks for eleven years. When the government built the bridge, the boatmen were out of work, so he became a traveling barber. In 1975 he became a night watchman; during the long nights with little to do he took the time to hone his painting skills. Three years later he enrolled in a short art course and never again stopped painting. In 1982, he and two friends formed a band, “Sempre Serve” (“always works”), and he composed thirteen songs. In the 1980s, he decided to become a writer; his first book, “História da Amazônia” (Story of the Amazon), was published in 1984. Everything he put his mind to do he did well, but his greatest passion, I must say, was the violin.
How about your father’s legacy? Have you plans for an Hélio Melo Foundation?
I need more time to develop the idea.
Curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti
Through May 20, 2023
Almeida & Dale Galeria de Arte, São Paulo
Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Cynthia is a recipient of the 2023 APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics) award as a contributing editor of Newcity Brazil since its founding in 2015. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.
Contact: [email protected], www.cynthiagarcia.biz