Izabel Mendes da Cunha | Ceramic
I met Dona Izabel when I went to the Jequitinhonha Valley, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, in 2008. The Jequitinhonha Valley was a gap in my curriculum, as I always said to my friends who, in reply, said there was nothing left to be extracted from this region. However, it was not the extraction of minerals that attracted me – it was to know the region, find out about the people, try to understand the creative richness present in people such as Ulisses, Noemisa, and Dona Izabel. When I got to the small town of Santana do Araçuaí, to Dona Izabel’s house, night had already fallen. She was waiting for me with her calm, bucolic look, with patterned clothes, ear-rings and a necklace, a bracelet and her hair in a bun, with a welcoming smile. In her, I could immediately see her dolls. What light, what a shine, what a sweet yet firm look from that woman who had so many stories and experiences to share! I got involved in a flash. My admiration grew and I even felt seduced! We sat in the dining room and around the table eating fresh Brazilian tapioca powder biscuits (biscoitos de polvilho), made by her daughter Maria, and then she told me that biscuits she had never had an individual exhibition. She told me briefly, without any emphasis or sorrow, but then, when I asked her if she would like to have an exhibition, her answer came out straight away: yes!
Izabel Mendes da Cunha | Ceramic
Mistress Izabel: from the Jequitinhonha Valley, of the Mora world and who sculpts in mud, in Santana do Araçuaí, mistress Izabel Mendes da Cunha, who is now 85 years old, born in the municipality of Itinga, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, in the Córrego Novo farm. I first met her in 1975, when I was carrying out a field survey for Iphan. At this time, she had already started her collection of works, consisting of cows, horse riders, birds on branches, small Nativity Scenes, which would receive ceramic paste made from white mud. She also made more modern crockery when compared to the ceramic repertoire of the region, centred on pans, pots, and bulhões. Izabel produced sets of utensils for Brazilian bean stew (feijoada), as also ashtrays and dinner sets. Her husband was a cowboy, while her father, João Mendes de Cunha, worked as a farmhand. Widowed, she moved to Santana with her children. As we have also seen happening in other parts of the country – the most famous example being that of Mestre Vitalino in Alto do Moura, Pernambuco -, the men started to show interest in an art that until quite recently had been an exclusively female domain, and started to practice it, as this way they could boost the family budget. In Izabel’s family – she being a mistress of art that has qualified other artists within her family nucleus and even in the community of Santana – there is the example of her son-in-law João Pereira de Andrade, born in 1952. Married to Izabel’s daughter Glória, João brought a new repertoire, depicting more sensual women, some practically nude, as well as girls in the window, poor boys and pregnant mothers. Izabel’s son, Amadeu Mendes, is a good animalist. Izabel’s daughters Glória and Madalena dominate the technique of figure construction, while her grand-daughter Andréia Pereira de Andrade, born in 1981, is studying Fine Arts in Belo Horizonte. Andréia largely pays for her studies through her mud art, in Belo Horizonte itself. She shows strong personality in the characters which she manages to extract from mud, and she paints in exquisite low tones of grey, white, black and earthy hues. She already burns her sculptures in an electric oven. From Izabel’s school, we must also mention the person of Placedina Fernandes Nascimento, who died young, and who gave extraordinary shape to the slanting eyes and the often angular and prognathic physiognomies of their mothers breast-feeding. Another important sculptor in Santana is Delmira Ferreira de Oliveira, with her votive heads and mermaids. The Jequitinhonha Valley, with 52 municipalities, in 1970 had three quarters of its population in rural areas, most of whom were underemployed in agriculture or mining. The endemic problems of the Valley together with the shortage of water were public knowledge. In the 1990s there was an intensification of this rarified population, dispersed through the vast area of the Valley, heading for Belo Horizonte and also for agricultural work in São Paulo and other urban centres. However, an incredible power of resistance there produces, among other ways of staying alive, a collection of visual, musical and verbal creations among the strongest in the country. Faced with the material adversity of daily life, a cultural wealth survives and even expands. As from the 1970s, one of the rare programmes to have got in right in a move to support the regional population is implemented by the Commission for the Development of the Jequitinhonha Valley (CODEVALE), encouraging the production of ceramic acquired locally in kind to sell at their headquarters in Belo Horizonte. This decade and also in the survening decade, the arrival of electricity to the valley had an enormous impact. Radio and television, instead of creating more homogeneous behaviour patterns and artistic production, have instilled in these a fascinating change. In traditional areas of ceramic production, such as Campo Alegre (Turmalina) or even those more recently created such as Coqueiro do Campo (Minas Novas), there is a new and instigating participant, without abandoning the production of utility crockery, to the extent that this can be cheaper than industrialised products. The same occurs in the municipalities of Itinga and Ponto dos Volantes, as in Caraí. In Caraí, apart from the master Ulisses Pereira Chaves, already deceased and whose art has been continued by his daughter Margarida, wife Maria José and sister Ana with their own personal characteristics, there is Noemiza Batista dos Santos, an incredible story teller of in mud, together with sisters Santa and Geralda, who dominate with the experience inherited from their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who also plied the trade of ceramic artists. In Araçuaí, Maria Lira Marques engraved, on ceramic and also in drawings using pigments extracted from the soils of the region, with great vehemence, the situation of the have-nots in Brazil and also the imaginative yet worrying force of their “bugs of the hinterland”. The art of Izabel, the great mistress and incredible artist depicting the situation of women in the valley – men are rare in their production, normally being shown as bridegrooms on their wedding day, hence being linked to the central figure of the bride – has for four decades now been extracting from mud an incredible gallery of women from the Jequitinhonha Valley. Mixed-race women, white and black women, poor and rich – “everyone is a son or daughter of God”, she told me back in the 1990s -, the sculptures do not seek to show specific people, but rather fill the memory of the artist, from where they come at the moment of creation. This is art that reflects the essence of being female, the rolling of bodies in sensuality which is discreet yet present in the fleshy red mouths, the movable embellishments attached to the sculpture – such as ear-rings, wreaths, round hats, bouquets and birds – as also those appended to party wear, including bridal wear. This is art that reveals the reinforced woman at a time of dignity, seduction and hieratism, with a look that in general does not look at us straight from the front: it is reflexive and interiorised in an interior contemplation. This is a kind of art that sets two important passage rituals: marriage and birth. In this latter case, a separately sculpted baby is carried in the arms of the mother who breast-feeds the baby. Women in solemn moments of festivities or profane exits, with elaborate hair styles with wavy and softened locks of hair, smooth hair falling impeccably on the shoulders, in rollers or fringes, always setting the face into a frame. Women that work with a cloth on their heads and wearing a simple skirt and dress, normally decorated with small abstract objects, like printed fabric. Let’s look at the partially skin-melaninated woman with dishevelled, kinky hair, with her skin colour blending in with the clothes made of ochre mud. She has her arms glued to the body, dressed and not nude, prolonged along long hands. She gravely looks to the side, with a rare, light and well-nigh invisible feeling of sadness. A long single ear-ring, appended to the sculpture, hangs down from her ear, and this, together with her fleshy lips, set the tone for her femininity. The chromatic and graphic treatment of the clothes, in normally sombre tones – as the whole inflection of these sculptures seek to lead our eyes to the real portraits that are in the heads – can also show bold solutions of modernity in transit along the figure. Like the cuts in strips of white engobe along a diagonal that is closed at the waist in a right angle, going from the shoulders down to the hem of the dress. The frequent absence of arms in the sculptures is another element which leads to an incredible synthesis which the artist creates to make the head-portraits the fulcrum of the work. Even among brides, with their attire which is necessarily studded with ornaments, the unison of white engobe which covers the whole piece, with the exception of the face, still makes this the centre of attention from the eyes. However, this exhibition is still, among other points of mention, a case where Izabel brings back the three-centuries old activity of the female ceramic worker in the region, now impregnated with the author’s creative imagination. As we have shown before, it is extraordinary to see how she highlights the heads in the sculptures. Former evidence of the function of the old moringa or regional botija supported by three balls, whose lid Izabel’s own mother, pan maker Vitalina Maria de Jesus got as far as sculpting, pioneer, as a head, witnessed the long-lived art of ceramics in this region. The arms of the former moringas or botijas, which were previously handles or loops, now get thinner or disappear, as can be seen in Izabel herself, as they are no longer used to contain water, but rather to decorate spaces in the houses of the urban elite and also appear in museums and university spaces. On losing their functionality, this work is now adapted to our category of “sculpture”, at the same time as they gain, like others in the same case, the new denomination of “decoration”. Nowadays, said Izabel in this month of November 2009, it doesn’t matter if the heads are “separated” or “brought together”, both to avoid losses in this process as also for the packaging thereof ready for transport. The sculpture can also be divided into two as from the waist separated from the rest of the body, with the other half being burned with the head already incorporated into the trunk. “As if from the waist down we see an enormous filter of water”, adds Izabel. We see that from the “utility” repertoire that was pre-existent in the region, the artist takes elements of daily life, as an artist of “high” culture would do, to create her figures. We are therefore faced with a sculptor who lived to receive international awards from Unesco (2004), the Order of Cultural Merit of the Brazilian Government (2004) and whose works appear in books and essays by specialists in Brazilian art and culture, such as, among others, those of Angela Mascelani, PHD in Social Anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Lalada Dalgliesh, PHD at the Arts Institute of Unesp, Marina de Mello e Souza, sociologist and historian who is now responsible for the teaching and publicity of African History at USP. Mello e Souza observes that Izabel shares her knowledge “with the internal pleasure of great masters”, with all who approach her, and has thus “created around herself a school of ceramics artists involving all her family living in Santana and also many other people of the town” (National Folklore Institute, SAP 1995). The strong presence of this great artist is responsible for the flourishing of a real school around her person, which not only allows a self-affirmation and growth of the individual through creation, as also helps towards the appearance of a small family budget, by means of the commercialisation of the figurado. This is a form of commercialisation which, we must add, must never be the object of an assembly line based on the quick multiplication of doing, so “optimised” by economists, but rather on dignification by raising the price and also by exposure, in the art, university and school circles, of the creations of these artists who started to appear among us, in both rural and urban locations, at the start of the 20th Century and have continued to express themselves in the 21st. On addressing the category of time – time to imagine, time to do, to do through imagination and vice-versa, silence in ourselves these words by Nelson Brissac Peixoto in Urban landscapes (Paisagens urbanas, 1996):
“The struggle against the insubstantiality of the contemporary world, the inconsistency of things and characters, refers to the need to bring back the integrity of images. This, not only in their unity, but also through their capacity of being true. Pictures that tell us the truth. Pictures that – a task that Deleuze allocates to the cinema – restitute a bit of reality and of the world to us, after these disintegrating media processes. Images that have time (…) Instead of accelerating more and more, make a difference: preserve several temporalities at the same time, simultaneity of the past and the present, the present and the future”. Hybrid arts, temporality and intemporality, tradition and change. The images of Izabel, by Ulisses de Caraí; of Vitalino, by GTO; and of José Antonio da Silva, by José Bezerra, are time itself, just like Lyotard said about the painting of Barnett Newman. This is historical and intangible time. The appearance of Vitalino (Vitalino Pereira dos Santos, 1909-1963), for example, has something in common with those of Izabel, Geraldo Telles de Oliveira, GTO (1913-1990), Dezinho de Valença (José Alves de Oliveira, 1916) and many other inventors who have created around themselves real “schools” of talented disciples, starting with their own family members. Talking about popular art, in the 20th and 21st centuries, is, first and foremost, recognition of the deep social changes that have occurred therein. There is densification, as Gilberto Velho defines it in Project and metamorphosis (Projeto e metamorphose, 1994), “a field of possibilities” which is very typical of modern and contemporary society, and “appears in strong solidarity with the development of individualist ideologies”. Thus, we deduce that, starting from the collective ground of rural communities or the outskirts of large cities, as they get impregnated with an urban ethos – whether by migration, or the publicity of new media content – there is the appearance of individuals who, in the area of visuality and of the word, and of music, generate original works, authorial and unique. The subject individual resorts to memory which incorporates change, bringing several moments of time together to construct his or her biography, in order to create his or her own artistic project, there also incorporating the dimension of the future. The fluidity of frontiers between different levels of culture among us, according to Velho, is “one of the characteristics that best defines Brazilian society” (…). This can be seen both in popular artistic creation as also in the creations of the middle classes or even the elites, in the transition between them”. Here today we emerge with great vigour from that monolith of atemporality and anonymity which is deposited upon this circularity between the popular and cultured spheres, as Peter Burke and Carlo Guinzburg (1980) well observed in their analysis of the repression against popular culture in the Modern Age, from 1500 to 1800. We are really a country that is privileged to have distinctive origins, enriched by miscegenation and transcultural hybridism that has resulted therefrom, making it possible to have continuous refeeding in the area of behaviour and invention. The occurrence of the modernist movement in Brazil has made significant contributions to give greater visibility to this situation. One of its main creators, Mário de Andrade, clearly shows in his masterpiece, the novel Macunaíma, a living example of the reciprocal impregnation between erudite knowledge and the popular art and knowledge and also popular forms of art and knowledge, as well as tribal art from varied origins. A polygraphist – as a poet, fiction writer, essayist, folklorist and musicologist – he also sought and created a “third term” as he would say – and we shall now say transcultured – for the absorption, fusion and continuous to-and-fro movement, of “rising” and “falling” of elements between high culture and the cultural base of the common people. Therefore, it was the modernist movement, inserted in the major transformations which occurred in Brazil in the first half of the 20th Century and also an agent of these, that intervened in a decisive manner both for the renovation of artistic language, and also in the recovery of those of the past, like Baroque. With the “routinisation” of modernism, as shown by Antonio Candido in the 1930s and 1940s, it has become less of a problem, and even more programmatic, for Brazilian intelligence to identify and assimilate formats of different creations, which were emphasised so much later on, by those who studied the history of mentalities. It shall be starting in the 1930s in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as also in Pernambuco, that some artists of a more popular source shall be reincarnated into the intellectuals’ new conscience which was reflected in the press, moments of meeting and also “discovery”. José Antonio da Silva (1909-1996), Vitalino Pereira dos Santos (1909-1963), Chico da Silva (Francisco Domingos da Silva, 1910-1985) shall be just some of the first names to be recognised by Modernist intelligence, which made them make the pages in newspapers and also have exhibitions in museums. However, the popular artists themselves were not absolutely passive agents in the process of recognition of the wide picture of national life. This was because, on their own side, they tried out changes in the social and cultural medium, making their own formal synthesis, like any other artist within the literate Western tradition, of transformations which they witnessed before their very eyes and which motivated them. In the case of Mestre Vitalino, for example, from the relative uniformity of the figurado in mud previously made in the region for use as a child’s toy – hence the term “bonecos” or doll effigies – he set out to pursue the “invention of the doll motif”, expressly declared and documented by his ceramist colleagues in the same location, which is Alto do Moura in Caruaru, State of Caruaru, Pernambuco. A real school of ceramic artists is constructed around Vitalino, when he relocated from the rural area to the city. The public that purchases his work is almost exclusively from outside, in the main urban centres. Vitalino therefore develops what we would call “style”, in which his “expressionism” is translated through an own style of formal vocabulary, just like what happens with the mistress. Circularity and transformation. On the other hand, artists representing the cultured standard depicted the daily lives of the poorer strata of the population, in the field and also in cities. Alberto da Veiga Guignard, Tomás Santa Rosa, and José Pancetti, in the 1940s, depicted maids, slums, skin-melaninated people, fusiliers, urban and rural workers. Roberto Burle Marx, at the same time, painted equally good portraits of common people, slums, objects of popular art and Brazilian plant life. He then started his landscaping activities, with plant life researched on site, in constant exchange of information with botanists, with him thus becoming one of them, and decolonising the Brazilian garden of European prototypy. Over the decades, he has become our most eminent artist, with international recognition, and public gardens of incredible extension – for everyone, as he would say – in Latin America, as well as work in several other continents. After the eye-intense quality of the garden, which engulfs the view initially, there succeeds the perception of a deep and universal cultural substrate and also knowledge of universal art, as S. Giedeon, Bruno Zevi , Lucio Costa, Bardi, William Howard Adams and many others have suggested. Critiques in essays and books which have been written about him. So Burle Marx, whose centenary we now celebrate, as that of Mestre Vitalino, was dedicated to popular art throughout his life. To his farm in Santo Antônio da Bica, he brought works of the important masters of the Jequitinhonha Valley, including ex-votos and figureheads (carrancas). This could also be the site of the greatest collection of the master Ulisses Pereira Chaves (Caraí, Jequitinhonha, 1924-2007). This master was particularly well focused by Eduardo Subirats in his essay “Popular art and digital culture” (Arte popular y cultura digital), in A last view of paradise (Una última visión del paraíso, 2004). Burle Marx worked as an agent out of his home, a former coffee farmhouse in Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, with a special room allocated to popular art, and painted the roof in large boxes, to place himself intimately close and at party with it. One of the last and most captivating speeches made by the lucid octogenarian was that he hoped that he had absorbed Brazilian popular sources in his work. In the 1930s and 1940s, Tarsila do Amaral painted Brazilian landscapes, popular religious expression and, at a later date, São Paulo’s working classes. The chromatic scale of one of her phases, where blue and pink hues stood out, was given the name of caipiras. Sculptor Victor Brecheret executes a work in which we highlight a phase where elements of Native Brazilian art are masterfully absorbed. Painter Vicente do Rego Monteiro brings into great significance, in his initial work, Native Brazilian elements from the marajoara group, which he later extends through analogies with other tribal repertoires. Having come to Brazil in 1929, after a long stay in Europe, and having solid artistic training, having in Europe incorporated the experience of the avant-garde, Guignard developed a style of painting which was independent of the nationalist movements, although still aligned with the modernists, and becomes one of the most important artists representing the people and the landscapes of our country. Portinari, in his Brodowskian phase, paints parties in the tow square, children’s play activities, and football games, and then, in 1940, he turns to monumental painting, representing people at work and also at moments of extreme exclusion, such as the travellers (retirantes) during the droughts of the Brazilian Northeast. Here, we also remember that the Santa Helena group in São Paulo, which had in its ranks such names as Alfredo Volpi, Aldo Bonadei and Francisco Rebolo, an immigrant and also a son of immigrants, all of whom painted landscapes and proletarian scenes, in the open air. With a similar profile, the Bernardelli Nucleus, during the 1930s and through to 1942, had painter Quirino Campofiorito as President and also nucleated people such as José Pancetti, Milton Dacosta and Eugenio Sigaud. We could continue along the lines of this circularity almost ad infinitum, among the creations of several different Brazilian cultures, ranging from Rubem Valentim to Alcides Pereira, from Hélio Oiticica to the Mangueira samba school, from Antonio Poteiro to Celeida Tostes, from Waldomiro de Deus to Volpi, from Samico to José Costa Leite and J.Borges, from the recent paintings by Rubem Grilo to Galdino, or the installations of Efrain Almeida, who is already part of the work that local woodcutters have carried out in the Cariri region, and who the artist asked to do his self-portraits. These individual items were brought together in one single wood cutting, which in this year of 2009 is shown in art gallery in Rio de Janeiro. Vik Muniz had a similar procedure with the refuse recyclers (catadores de lixo) in Rio, albeit with different forms of treatment. Here we have madesome efforts, which are brief and incomplete when faced with the staggering social and cultural universe of our country, to establish the profile of artists like Izabel Mendes da Cunha, who is part of a long and growing universe representing creators of her size. They are our contemporaries, and also sons and daughters of the modernity of the 20th and 21st Centuries. In addition, here we must note the widening of our awareness of the place they occupy and the meaning of their work, the dignity with which they are treated in an exhibition like this, and also in catalogues and books that are carried out with care, as also the possibility of living off their art as a professional activity. Arising from generations of antient artisans, the great Izabel, however, gains an authorial dimension and goes deeper into that time well remembered by Brissac Peixoto: where “the dimensions, colours, material touches, are a happening in itself. Pure presence, such as the apparition of an angel”. In reality, through the different portrait of the women of the Valley, she sets the whole female population, of secular presence where she was born, and which brings back all perception of her dignity, reserve and beauty, seduction and mystery. Like those of the torsos with heads, of Japanese sculptor Katsura Funakoshi – who sculpts in plychrome camphor and marble –, the portraits that Izabel creates in ceramic, through the height of her art and the own means through which she developed this art, with the resources of her culture and imagination power, contribute to a strong expression of the universal representation of humanity.
Lélia Coelho Frota Writer and art historian, member of ABCA/AICA
The famous dolls of the Jequitinhonha region are already part of the collective subconscious of the Brazilian people and, a long time ago, already surpassed national territory to conquer international prestige. This first international exhibition of Dona Izabel in an art gallery, by the name of Izabel: of Jequitinhonha and of the World, is, however, a rare opportunity for the general public to appreciate a representative sample of her work, and also share her production process in the workshop that shall be held on the day following the opening of the exhibition. The 18 selected pieces from the general collection of the Estação Art Gallery supply a panorama of art in ceramic which arises from the hands of this extraordinary artist portraying the female population. On adapting mud moringas to women’s bodies, Dona Izabel ended up constructing an extremely vigorous production, like few had done, able to expand the geography of her own origin in the Jequitinhonha Valley. Mixed-race women, white and black women, poor and rich, “all sons or daughters of God”, as Dona Izabel herself would say, are characters of her imagination. This is a form of art that reflects femininity, in the writhing bodies, in sensuality which is discreet yet present in the fleshy red mouths, and in the movable appendages attached to the sculpture – ear-rings, wreaths, round hats, bouquets of flowers and birds – as also those attached to party dresses, like bridal wear”, comments Lélia Coelho Frota, within the text of the catalogue of the exhibition. According to the art critic who has been dedicated to the study of creation of popular art for over 30 years, Dona Izabel presents women at solemn moments of parties or profane exists, with faces framed by elaborate hairstyles, with crisp and wavy hair, smooth hair with fringes, and other styles. “The chromatic and graphical treatment of clothes, normally sombre – considering that the whole inflection of these sculptures seeks to take our eyes over to the real portraits that are in the heads – can also represent daring solutions for modernity in transit through the figure”, adds Lélia Coelho Frota. Izabel Mendes da Cunha, who is now 85 years old, was born in the municipality of Itinga, in the Jequitinhonha Valley, on the Córrego Novo farm. The artist has created around herself a real school of ceramists involving all the members of her family and many other people. She is an award-winning sculptor, having received awards from Unesco ( 2004) and also the Order of Cultural Merit of the Brazilian Government (2004) -, her work is mentioned in several books and essays by people studying art and Brazilian culture, including those of Angela Mascelani, PhD in Social Anthropology by UFRJ, Lalada Dalgliesh, PhD at the Art Institute of UNESP, Marina de Mello e Sousa , sociologist, historian, responsible for the teaching and publicity of African history at USP.
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