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Understated Protest Sewn into the Fabric of Brazilian Textile Art

The textile-based practices of three Brazilian artists presents a subtle opposition to the country’s new president and his government’s militaristic rhetoric and agenda.

Leda Catunda, “Eldorado II” (2018) acrylic on canvas and plastic at the 33rd São Paulo Biennial (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

São Paulo — At the 33rd art biennial in São Paulo, Leda Catunda’s commissioned artworks “Eldorado” (2018) and “Eldorado II” (2018) were large textile works hung back-to-back on one of the first gallery walls. They were shown within the group exhibition The Infinite Histories of Things or the End of the Tragedy of One (A infinita história das coisas ou o fim da tragédia do um) curated by Sofia Borges. These large, abstract works resemble enormous, ancient treasure maps comprised of lattice structures and exaggerated organic shapes painted in gold and other metallic colors. The works’ titles reference the mythical Aztec city of gold — an idealized notion of utopia that was never fully realized by the Spaniards who colonized that area during the 16th century. It seems in the contemporary moment that the vision of an idealized world that so many are hoping for perhaps only exists as an unrealistic, romantic endeavor.

In October, a little more than a month after the biennial’s opening, Brazil elected the extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro to be president, revealing a growing conservative Brazilian population whose political views seem to stem from a failing economy and a desire for public security. A retired military officer himself, Bolsonaro is predominantly filling his official cabinet with retired military generals and establishing a hardline agenda to resolve Brazil’s economic and security issues. His cabinet has expressed interest in radical ideas like abolishing the human rights ministry and giving military snipers the autonomy to execute criminals in the streets. With promises of pulling Brazil out of its economic crisis, Bolsonaro plans to lead the country with a severe and uncompromising fist. His racist and fascist remarks have many questioning how far the new government can push the definition of democracy before it breaks.

Leda Catunda, “Two Bellies” (Duas Barrigas), (1993) acrylic on fabric exhibited at the 33rd São Paulo Biennial

Leda Catunda’s textile practice presents an opposition to Bolsonaro’s masculine, militaristic agenda through organic forms and the medium of textiles. Textile-based art — meaning artworks that employ cloth, woven fabric, and thread — have often reflected the artistic exploration of social and political themes such as religion, gender, labor, and industry. Textiles have a history that began in the domestic practices of women, like embroidery and weaving, and later became a medium of protest against the male dominated artworld in 1970s feminist work.  Several of Catunda’s other artwork in the biennial reference the history of textiles, such as in “Frillies II” (Babados II, 1992) and “Patchwork” (Retalhos, 2018), while her other work makes reference to the human body with titles like “Two Bellies” (Duas barrigas, 1993) and “Golden Tongues” (Línguas douradas, 2018). Catunda articulates both of these themes in the soft, organic formal nature of her work, implicitly contradicting the political austerity at hand. Shortly after the presidential election, other art shows that also focused on artists who work with textiles were exhibited at the Praças das Artes and the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).

During the second week of November, the exhibition Design Vision, curated by fashion designer Walter Rodrigues with the Textile Focus Institute, highlighted the textile artworks of four artists: Alexandre Hebert, Eva Soban, Lídia Lisboa, and Renato Dib. Each artist displayed their artwork in one of four black metal cube frames (roughly eight feet tall) in the outdoor exhibition space at the Praças das Artes. The artists were asked to create works using recycled fabrics with the theme of resistance in mind. Three of the four artists employed the frames to display their artworks, however Renato Dib’s “Cubic Emptiness” (Cúbico Vazio, 2018) was the only work to fully integrate the cube frame into the piece itself.

In Dib’s “Cubic Emptiness,” a floor-length, quilted curtain hung from each of the four top rails. Made of red and pink patterned fabrics and thick stitching, these hangings suggest the tradition of quilt making. Each of the four fabric walls are only attached at the top, opening the cube’s internal space as they move with the wind. Oblong openings in each fabric wall allow the viewer to see into the work and through to the other side of the cube, revealing its penetrability. In Dib’s artist statement he articulates, “The cube represents the house to which we return and we can rest in peace. But this cube is surrounded by chaotic, extravagant, tattooed, embossed, embroidered textile walls.” The fabric walls exhibit the qualities of a permeable membrane that protects its own insides and filters its surroundings, like a living, moving entity that is confined by the unyielding metal that structures it. But, through the fleeting moments of movement the work challenges the structures it’s bound to. Dib’s work evokes the larger structures of life — whether it’s government, a physical environment, or other personal dilemmas — and the mutability of human nature.

Detail of Sonia Gomes’s exhibition Still I Rise at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP)

On display until March 10th, MASP is exhibiting a show titled Still I Rise (Ainda Assim Me Levanto) of work by Sonia Gomes, an Afro-Brazilian artist born in Belo Horizonte. Gomes’s exhibition shows abstract sculptures titled “Roots” (Raizes, 2018), which are created from used fabrics and found objects including clothes, purses, neckties, plush animals, pins, purses, and tree stumps. Her works integrated MASP’s thematic exhibitions for 2018 which focused on Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Altantic histories. In this new year, MASP looks to mount exhibitions rooted in feminist and women’s histories. Gomes’s current exhibition is an important show at MASP since it threads together both of the institution’s social and historical themes.

In Gomes’s works, previously discarded and neglected fabrics take on a new existence that embraces both the present and the past. Housed in a glassed-in gallery, the artworks rest on the floor and hang from the ceiling like soft vines. One of the smallest works in Gomes’s show is stretched out on the floor and along the gallery’s interior glass wall. A branch of driftwood points to the ceiling, while a delicate but taut mesh green stocking is stretched and weighted by a small ball of fabric. The different fabrics and items mingle in this intricate bundle – a piece of woven table cloth, a plush toy frog, and a strip of lace all stitched together by soft thread. The fabrics curl around the hard fibers of the driftwood, as the two opposing materials cohabitate. The gentle curves of the wood mirror the soft fabrics, while the strong forms and angles created through the tension in strings and cloth reciprocate the qualities of the driftwood. These abstract works marry the two materials, exemplifying a harmony between two opposing media.

Installation view of Sonia Gomes’s exhibition Still I Rise

It is obvious that Brazil, with the new government, will see changes in the next few years. Many are hoping these changes lead to a prosperous economy, greater security, and more jobs, while many fear that this shift will reflect the derisive and threatening nature of the new president. Exemplified in the textile works of Catunda, Dib, and Gomes, is an artistic language of resistance. Although not obviously political, these artists’ textiles works offer a point of reflection between opposing formal and conceptual ideas — rigid and soft, masculine and feminine, obstinacy and compromise. Through these artworks and the social histories of textiles they bring to mind, these artists draws out an honest discussion about the fate of democracy and the role of government in Brazil in the years to come.

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