The subject is on the world agenda.
In Brazil, Europe, in the United States and Asia, over the last few years, everyone has decided to give women a voice. In literature, in music, in the visual arts, this is just to talk about the areas that encompass culture. They even came to me asking for a thematic exhibition.
I could, in this small introductory text of our exhibition in honor of female non-erudite artists, exemplify, with a large number of names in our museological institutions – from the Pinacoteca do Estado to Estação Pinacoteca, MASP, MAM and MAC –, the women, known or not, that were shown by these institutions.
I came to question myself, never aloud, about what would be happening to everyone. Quality versus gender?
I was convinced, with the number of exhibitions with this theme and about female artists that I saw over the last few years, that this was due research.
I was very touched by exhibitions I’ve seen. Women’s works far ahead of their time.
I hope you will also see and be touched by the ones we show you here. Some are better known than others, but each one has a sensitive and profoundly beautiful work.
When I invited a woman, Fernanda Pitta, to write the introduction text for the exhibition, I bet on yet another intelligent and restless person of our kind.
“Nobody ever taught me that”:1 8 popular artist women
Among the particularities of modern art in Brazil is the place occupied by the so-called popular production. Far from having a marginal or secondary role in this construction, the work of artists considered popular occupies the center of the debate and militancy in favor of the modern in Brazil.
Critics and institutions, from the 1940s to the Biennials, built an interpretation of modern art that advocated the expansion of the concept of art, especially committed to the idea that it should not require formal training and that it could arise “anywhere”: among the “primitive”, the “crazy”, the children or self-taught. Artists such as José Antonio da Silva, Djanira, Ranchinho, Heitor dos Prazeres, and many others, are essential names for the discussion of art produced in Brazil in its modern period. Just list the names of Mário Barata, Lourival Gomes Machado, Mário Pedrosa, Pietro Maria Bardi, Mario Schenberg, Theon Spanudis, Lélia Coelho Frota and Aracy Amaral, among others, to remember the dedication of each of them to popular art and its creators, building the critical fortune of this production and its inscription in the panorama of modern art in Brazil, precisely in an attempt to identify its particularities.
The production associated with the popular has a central position for its historiography, which constitutes a movement distinct from the histories of modern art in contexts such as those in Europe and the United States, thus offering a critical point of view for the global narratives of art.2 Just as popular artists are fundamental in the characterization of Brazilian modern art, their repertoires, forms, techniques and the visuality of their production were also (and continue to be) important references for the works of “non-popular” artists, thus constituting a sui-generis dialogue, one of the most exciting aspects of Brazilian artistic production in the last century.
If it is necessary to point out this specificity, it is because it is also necessary to historicize the relationship that the arts in Brazil established with the popular call to think what status they have today, in the contemporary context. If it has a long history, inscribed even in the canon of this production – and it cannot be attributed to the recent movement of institutional criticism, of expanding the representativeness of groups or subjects marginalized in the field of art3 – it also changes and is different over time.
It is not necessary to remember, however, that this prominent place in the discourse on modern art in Brazil does not have an equal impact on the valorization of this production in relation to other artistic aspects, or in its own terms. Limits and inequalities permeate the attention given to this production, whose contradictions deserve investigation.
In this sense, the example of the trajectory of Madalena Santos Reinbolt, an artist present in this exhibition, is sadly instructive: “discovered” by her employers Lota de Macedo Soares and Elizabeth Bishop, for whom she worked as a cook, she was initially encouraged to produce paintings, and was considered: “A wonderful primitive painter, so in a little while we’ll be selling her paintings on 57th Street and we’ll all be rich”.4 Madalena’s history, who later adopts tapestry as her most significant means of expression, recalls that it is important to never hide the fact that the production of these artists does not take place under the same conditions of relative autonomy and freedom as those arising from the formal system of art5 – she is dismissed from the Samambaia farm, with Bishop and Lota concluding that her activities “disturbed” kitchen tasks – “tranquility was worth more than enjoying a masterpiece every day”.6
Therefore, there is a need to recognize the importance attributed to popular art in the construction of a notion of Brazilian art, but also to critically review the use of this production in the affirmation of the same narrative.
There were times when popular art was valued for its disregard for the rules of formal art education, considered untouched or freed from the constraints of academic teaching techniques and rules, serving as a privileged point of support for its criticism. In others, it was considered a way of direct access to a supposed collective unconscious, a paradigm of innate and atavistic creativity, of a purity of expression. There were also those who used comparisons with the experimentation of form in modern art, cubist, expressive and abstraction syntheses, in the sense of making them accepted by the most conservative groups of the art public.
It is true that the idea of ??“virgin art”7 or untouched art has long since found its welcome criticism. As is known, self-taught artists also see magazines, go to museums, leaf through books and learn, so they create. In a way that is different from that of those who have undergone training in the fine arts, but that is not the reason why their works spring from an “untouched” unconscious, alien to their time and space.
However, in the manner of Lourival Gomes Machado’s comparisons between the art of a José Antonio da Silva and the experiments of abstraction,8 readings still persist that interpret popular production in the light of the so-called erudite, ignoring its conditions of production, its own historicity and references. Although this is intended, once again, to deconstruct hierarchies, these juxtapositions end up reinstating asymmetries. By simply flanking works by popular artists (or “primitive”, psychiatric patients, among others) to that of modern or contemporary artists (thus recognized by the system), without taking care of contextualization, there is a danger of ethnocentrism, commented by Lélia Coelho Frota, as there is a tendency to
[…] indicate a precedence of the creations of the high culture in the encounter of inventive solutions, or even to induce the receiver to think that those of popular source can resemble “surprisingly” the creations of the literate elite, as if they were fortuitous finds of simple minds, as points out Sally Price (2000). Field offers, among other examples, the exhibition Primitivism in the 20th Century [sic], held by MoMA in 1984. Placed side by side with a primitive sculpture and a Picasso, “the similarity of the proposals cannot have anything other than a comparative value”. And if the status of one of the two objects depends on the fact that it is recognized as practically as good as the other, it will certainly not be Picasso, as Picasso is already sufficiently established in the public’s mind on its own merit, making it unimaginable that it is assigned a status of “as good as”. Thus, it is the African mask that is wonderful for being “as good as Picasso”.9
The exhibition Women in Popular Art brings together eight women artists. The importance of the clipping is evidenced by the fact that women were less represented in the construction of the idea of ??popular art in Brazil. But this selection of works by Conceição dos Bugres, Elza de Oliveira Souza, Izabel Mendes da Cunha, Madalena Santos Reinbolt, Maria Auxiliadora, Mirian Inês da Silva Cerqueira, Noemiza Batista dos Santos and Zica Bérgami also allows us to observe the works under other identities – those of race and socioeconomic strata. With the exception of Zica Bérgami, daughter of Italian immigrants, Conceição dos Bugres, caingangue from Rio Grande emigrated to Mato Grosso do Sul, and Mirian Inês, all are Afro-descendants, and many share the creation in rural areas, the experience of subaltern work, the experience of life with meager means. The profound mark left in this production by the relationship with the rural world is significant, not only in those artists whose production takes place in this context or close to it (in the case of Conceição dos Bugres, Noemiza and perhaps Izabel Mendes da Cunha) but also in those who experienced or received the impacts of the exodus from the countryside to the cities that occurred in Brazil in the 20th century, and its vertiginous urban growth.
The works of Elza de Oliveira Souza, Maria Auxiliadora, Mirian Inês da Silva Cerqueira and Zica Bérgami feed on images of urban popular culture in cities like Recife, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – Madalena, in turn, always brings evocation from the universe of her childhood farm. Their works are also impregnated with everyday experiences, marked by inequalities of race and gender in our country. They shape the aspirations, dreams and disappointments of lives marked by a process of intense social transformation, most of the time violent, but also new perspectives and opportunities.
Weddings, funerals, popular parties, love flirtations, domestic and street scenes get representation in compositions populated by elements. This option often acts to compose the collective in a single scene, as in the cases of Auxiliadora and Zica. Often flat, their compositions build depth by means of diagonals and by spreading the figures on the vertical axis, without necessarily changing their scale (a compositional strategy that is also Madalena’s).
Elza and Mirian adopt a more synthetic composition, concentrating the narrative scenes in a few characters. Elza and Mirian also have in common the fact that they received a formal education, having attended Ivan Serpa’s courses.10 It would not be correct to say that the preference for this type of synthesis comes from this training, but it is interesting that both have chosen, especially Mirian, a frontally characteristic of ex-votes and popular prints.
Formal simplification also appears in the figures, whether in the reduction of features to eyes and mouth simply suggested, to outlined bodies or simplified by compact masses. The absence of volumetry is constant and the translation of the pattern of the draperies is done by lines, or even, in the case of Auxiliadora, by its replacement by the simulation of the pattern. Decorativism is actively sought as a quality of the artistic. In the case of the sculptors Izabel and Noemiza, the synthesis appears in the compacting of the volumes, most often concentrated to a single cylindrical or cuneiform shape.
The richness of technical experimentation is also another prominent feature in the production of these artists. All of them have somehow “invented” procedures or developed technologies for the purposes they seek, contradicting the more common view of traditional arts, which avoids recognizing that they have history and are transformed. Madalena developed a system of multiple needles to work her embroideries, thus obtaining her multicolored wefts and with volume. Conceição dos Bugres had her yellow wax technique revealed in a dream. Auxiliadora used the decal of her own hair and fabrics to print textures. Izabel reaped her clay at the New Moon and invented traditions by making her female figures autonomous – “that no one ever taught me, I invented it”11 –, previously associated with the utilitarian art of jugs. Noemiza, also initially making these objects, makes her figures independent of utility. The support, be it canvas, wood, clay, burlap or talag, is never neutral. It suggests forms and reacts to the artist’s action. The colors are always expressive, even the black of Conceição’s sculptures or of Zica’s lines.
If the artistic production of these popular women entered the manor houses (Casas-Grandes) of the narratives of art in Brazil, museums and galleries – but it did so to the extent that socioeconomic and racial differences were only assimilated by modernism through the categories of “popular”, “virgin” or “primitive”12 –, the current moment demands that we go beyond recognition, transforming what is the already historic symbolic inclusion into a true transformation of the power structures of all these institutions, not only from the point of view of their speeches, but practices. May the fruits, material and immaterial, of the popular creators of the future also be shared with them, until there is no more manor house.
Fernanda Pitta is an art historian and curator at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo.
1 Testimony by Izabel Mendes da Cunha to Veja magazine, commenting on her creations. “Nobody ever taught me that, I invented it. it was a gift that God gave me and I invented it.” “Clay woman”, report by Julia Carneiro and photos by Germana Monte-Mór, Revista Globo, year 5, n. 276, November 8, 2006.
2 Scholars like Lorenzo Mammì have already drawn attention to the fact, which has an interesting point of comparison with the same process that occurred with the art of psychiatric patients, also central to the understanding of modern art in Brazil – for this analysis, see the excellent study of Kaira Cabañas Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
3 The approach of this theme by museums such as Masp has recently been an interesting phenomenon, but it could enrich the debate and find a new place for this issue if it debated the modernist view, instead of resurrecting it without further ado.
4 BISHOP, Elizabeth, One Art: Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, p. 247, apud FERREIRA, Armando Olivetti. Recortes de uma paisagem: uma leitura de Brazil e outros textos de Elizabeth Bishop. Doctoral thesis, FFLCH-USP, 2008, p. 120.
5 Kaira Cabañas, in a recent lecture at MoMA, speaks of the contradiction between aesthetic inclusion and social exclusion in relation to the works of psychiatric patients, something that could be extended to popular artists and the arts of native peoples.
6 BISHOP, op. cit., p. 259, apud FERREIRA, op. cit., p. 121.
7 Term coined by Mário Pedrosa. See PEDROSA, Mário. “Pintores de arte virgem”. Rio de Janeiro, Correio da Manhã, March 1950, cited by CABAÑAS, Kaira, op. cit., p. 204, note 22.
8 “Lourival Gomes Machado showed Silva’s paintings upside down to prove that, in art, chromatic and formal issues are more important than the theme, because the works ‘worked’ in any position”. ESPADA, Heloisa. “Arte virgem na década do concretismo”. Numero Oito, São Paulo, November 2006, p. 4.
9 FROTA, Lélia Coelho. “Imagem e linguagem de objetos-documentos em contexto museal”. In: SANTOS, Gilda and VELHO, Gilberto (orgs.). Artifícios & artefactos: entre o literário e o antropológico. Rio de Janeiro: 7 letras, 2006.
10 Mirian even begins in the artistic world with a woodcut production, and only later will she produce the works that are associated with the so-called popular art. Her choices are similar to those of a Samico, in that the artist “adopts” a popular expressiveness for her production, after having trained herself in other languages ??and poetics.
11 See note 1.
12 I am grateful to Kaira Cabañas for drawing my attention to precisely this issue.
The exhibition Women in Folk Art, held by Galeria Estação, brings together eight artists, with about 50 works, which include sculptures, paintings, prints and tapestries. The importance of the presentation, according to Fernanda Pitta, art historian and curator of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, who signs the text on the exhibition, is evidenced by the fact that women were less represented in the construction of the idea of folk art in Brazil. As she highlights, this selection of works by Conceição dos Bugres, Elza de Oliveira Souza, Izabel Mendes da Cunha, Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt, Maria Auxiliadora, Mirian Inês da Silva Cerqueira, Noemisa Batista dos Santos and Zica Bérgami also allows us to observe them under the race and socioeconomic perspective. The historian also notes that, with the exception of Zica Bérgami, daughter of Italian immigrants, Conceição dos Bugres, caingangue from Rio Grande do Sul emigrated to Mato Grosso do Sul, and Mirian Inês, all others are Afro-descendants, and many share the creation in the rural life, the experience of subordinate jobs, the experience of living with meager means. “The trace left by the rural world is significant, not only in those artists who produce in this context, but also in those who received the impacts of the exodus characteristic of the second half of the 20th century”.
Images of the popular urban culture of Recife, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are in the works of Elza, Maria Auxiliadora, Mirian and Zica, while Madalena brings to mind the universe of the farm of her childhood. According to the historian, the artists are impregnated with the daily experiences, marked by the inequalities of race and gender in our country; they give shape to the aspirations, dreams and disappointments of lives marked by intense social transformation, most often violent, but also new perspectives and opportunities.
The richness of technical experimentation is another constant, according to Pitta. The artists invent procedures, develop technologies, contradicting the common view of traditional arts, which avoids recognizing that they have a life history and are transformed by it. While Madalena developed a system of multiple needles to work her embroidery, Conceição had her yellow wax technique revealed in a dream. Auxiliadora, on the other hand, used the decal of her own hair and fabrics and Izabel harvested her clay on the new moon and invented traditions by empowering her women – “no one ever taught me that, I invented it” – in her art associated with jugs. On the other hand, Noemisa also moves away from utility, the support is never neutral, suggests forms and reacts to the artist’s action.
“If the artistic production of these folk women entered the big houses of art narratives in Brazil, museums and galleries – but it did so to the extent that socioeconomic and racial differences were only assimilated by modernism through the categories of ‘popular’, ’virgin’ or ‘primitive’ –, the present moment demands that we go beyond recognition, transforming what is the already historic symbolic inclusion into a transformation of the structures of power; not only of the speeches, but of the practices. May the fruits of the popular creators of the future also be shared with them, until there is no more manor house left,” adds Pitta.
Exhibition: Women in Folk Art
Opening: March 26, at 7pm
Visitation until May 9, 2020
Monday to Friday, from 11am to 7pm, Saturdays from 11am to 3pm – free admission.
Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 – Pinheiros – SP
Pool de Comunicação – Marcy Junqueira / Martim Pelisson / Ana Junqueira
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