The 18th-century Brazilian sculptor Aleijadinho was the mixed-race son of a black slave and one of his country’s most legendary artists. In the gold-rich state of Minas Gerais, where millions lost their lives in the mines, tourists still pay to visit the immaculate baroque churches he embellished. Though leprosy took his fingers, rumor has it he continued chiseling away with tools tied to the stumps of his hands.
Aleijadinho’s enigmatic life married two contrasting subjects that have preoccupied Adriana Varejão for the past 20 years: the oft-forgotten history of Brazil’s mestizo identity, and the dramatic baroque art of the colonial period. These underpin series like Tongues and Incisions (1997–2003) and more recently Polvo (2013–2014), both which are currently featured in Adriana Varejão at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston — the artist’s first U.S. solo museum show.
Varejão spoke with us recently from her studio in Rio de Janeiro about her childhood in Brasilia, why she is drawn to painting meat, and how she feels about being a “Latin American artist.”
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Laura C. Mallonee: Your family lived in Brasilia when you were very young, because your father was a pilot in the air force. That would have been less than a decade after the city was completed in 1960. What was it like?
Adriana Varejão: Just emptiness. No history. Very red, because the earth is red, and there was a lot of earth around because there was not much vegetation. They’d just built everything. This crazy president had decided to build a capital in the middle of nowhere. They called many people from all over Brazil to build Brasilia, so there was a huge amount of immigrants. Black people, Indian people, very mixed race. Very, very poor people. And they built these satellite cities where these people used to live. They were miserable cities. My mother used to work with child malnutrition in a hospital in one of them. I remember the kids with those huge bellies.
LCM: Brazil has long been celebrated as a “racial democracy,” though that idea has been questioned in recent years. Did you think about race when you were young?
AV: I had a black nanny, who I called “mother.” My own mother said she was totally pissed off because I called my black nanny “mother” but I didn’t call her “mother.” And when my nanny left me, my mother said I got very depressed.
In Brazil the racism is sublimated. When I was a child — in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even ’90s — you didn’t see black people in high social levels. If it was, maybe it was a soccer player or musician. But very rarely a lawyer or engineer or doctor. People didn’t say “black” people. They said “work” people. But this means black. If someone took the social elevator and he was black, sometimes the doorman would say, “Oh, take the service one.” It was very segregated not in terms of race but in terms of society. Which means every poor person is black. It’s almost the same.
LCM: How do you view yourself racially?
AV: I am as Portuguese as I am Indian as I am black. I believe in building a mestizo identity, which means to have everything together with balance. When people come to Brazil, they forget their ancestral identity. They tend to. So Brazilians become Brazilians very quick. People don’t say here, “I’m Afro-this and this.” Or, “I’m Portuguese this and this.” No, they say, “I’m Brazilian.” This is a good point about us.
LCM: When did you first become interested in art?
AV: My parents were middle class, very regular people. We weren’t really a family connected to cultural affairs. But my mother collected fascicolo. It’s something you buy every month, and in the end it becomes a collection. We used to buy Gênios da Pintura (Geniuses of Painting) in the newspaper stand. I remember that I was all the time looking at the “geniuses”: Botticelli, Cezanne, Monet, Kandinsky, the whole history of art. In Brazil, you don’t go to the museum and see a Cezanne. My first contact with art was through reproductions.
But until I was 18 years old or so, I had nothing to do with art. I enrolled in engineering university. Then one day, I was watching a film on TV, The Sandpiper, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She is an artist, a kind of pre-hippie person. She has these ideals of freedom. I was very touched by the film and I said, “I’ll go to an art class tomorrow.”
LCM: Did you?
AV: I enrolled in a painting class and met this teacher and he told me I should go to Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage. Many people went to this school — Ernesto Neto, Beatriz Milhazes, Adriana Pedrosa. My whole existence changed …. my whole feeling about the world. I rented a studio and began to work and work and work. More important than beginning was not to give up. In 1986, I got a prize from the National Arts Salon here in Brazil. And when I was 23 years old, I began to work with a gallery called Thomas Cohn. They worked with Guillermo Kuitca, Tony Cragg, Mira Schendel. They began to come to my studio and buy my work, so I was able to dedicate myself completely to art.
LCM: What artists were you looking at back then?
AV: My first trip abroad, I spent one month in New York. I saw Anselm Kiefer and I was shocked. In ’84, Kiefer was really amazing. I also saw Phillip Guston. And Debuffet. I liked the materiality. Especially Kiefer — how he deals with history, symbolism, a lot of paint and earth too. I also liked the Brazilian painter Iberê Bassani Camargo. He’s not international, but he uses a lot of material on the canvas.
I used to read and go to the cinema a lot. There was a very nice cinematheque here in Rio, and I would go and stay for three films almost every day. I was very, very touched by Peter Greenway and David Cronenberg. They have an aesthetic that is very connected with my work.
LCM: What did you think about Neo-Concretism?
AV: When I began painting, I never had a teacher who taught me about the concretists. I had teachers that were always talking about finding a language. I only learned about the Neo-Concretists after I had developed my own language, if we can say that. I went to Minas Gerais, to the baroque churches, and I began to paint. I saw the works of Aleijadinho, who was a great Latin Baroque genius. And then in 1986, I read a Cuban author called Severo Sarduy. He wrote about the baroque a lot. The book is called Escrito Sobre un Cuerpo (Written on a Body). I realized my whole work would be there. So I didn’t learn about Neo-Concretism until after I encountered the baroque.
LCM: How does the baroque relate to your work?
AV: I deal with a body that is totally theatrical, and for that reason I say it is baroque. The baroque always connects two extremes, like light and shadow. This is the game of the baroque — two things completely different are connected in one body, one painting. History outside against a wild body inside, culture and uncultured, cooked and uncooked, greed and expressionism, rationalism and irrationalism, cold and hot.
LCM: How does this play out in your series Tongues and Incisions?
AV: When I see the tiles with the meat inside, I think that the meat is much more connected with life and voluptuousness than the clean, rational tile surface. It is like the rationality of the greed. It’s very, very cold. The interior, which is alive and baroque and bleeding, it attracts me a lot.
I don’t want to give a text for the painting and what it should represent; I think the final meaning will be in the person that will see the work. For some, the meat represents that every house is an organism. The other day, a woman said it reminds her how during the Chilean dictatorship, they put bodies of political prisoners in the walls of a stadium. And for some people it’s funny, cartoonish, guts. Some people say that body is a political body, others say it is a historical body. I say that maybe it’s a painter’s body. In the end, I belong to this Western historical tradition, which is the tradition of painting meat — Goya and Gericault and Bacon.
LCM: Some critics have interpreted the meat in the painting to symbolize the suffering of colonized peoples.
AV: I found that written in England once, that the meat represents the Indians which were massacred by the Portuguese. It doesn’t meant that. The work is not so obvious. I don’t want to put all the Indians or any culture into the position of victim. I respect that this person said they saw the Indians, but I don’t believe that this person really saw the Indians. They saw a Latin American artist doing something, and because I’m from a colonized country, they think I should do political art. It’s a whole cliché.
Maybe they don’t know the baroque. For instance, for someone in the United States, the baroque didn’t exist. In Spain and Portugal people understand my work, because they have the same aesthetic tradition. In Germany, the United States and sometimes England, it’s not like that.
LCM: How do you feel about being labeled a “Latin American artist”?
AV: I don’t feel in the same group of artists as Ernesto Neto and Gabriel Orozco. So how could we both be Latin American artists? I don’t feel in the same group as Lygia Clark. Sometimes, when I am in Latin American sales, I am with Fernando Botero. I don’t understand how people who buy Botero would be interested in my work. I think I should be in sales with Peter Doig or Lucio Fontana — contemporary art sales.
I was introduced to someone at the Metropolitan, because the Met will have this new Latin American department. And she said, “Oh, you are Brazilian, we will have a Latin American department!” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t believe in Latin American art.” And the woman looked at me and I thought, “Oh my god, I shouldn’t have said that.” I always prefer to have curatorial parameters not judged in geographical terms.
I think the definition is more for creating departments and market fields than talking about identity. It’s an administrative term. I don’t really think people believe there is a clear Latin American identity in art. Or any other identity. Like a European identity. It’s so vague.