A thickly embroidered garment known as the manto, or “annunciation garment,” stands in the middle of the first room in the Americas Society’s exhibition Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth. The manto, which the artist wore, is stitched with intricate patterns, images, and women’s names. With the manto and other wearable textiles, documentary photographs of the artist, and his hospital record cards, the exhibition places Arthur Bispo do Rosario (1909–1989) at the center of a world the viewer is about to enter.

This solo presentation is the artist’s first in the United States and the third exhibition by an artist of African descent at the Americas Society in New York City. Arthur Bispo do Rosario was born in the early 1900s in Japaratuba, Brazil. He was an apprentice sailor in the Brazilian Navy, where he became a signalman, and later was also a boxer and an attendant to a wealthy family. In 1938, he had a vision that he was Jesus Christ. He believed he received a mandate from God to replicate the entire world in preparation for the Last Judgment. Subsequently, Bispo was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to the Colonia Juliano Moreira in Rio de Janeiro, an institution for mentally ill people where he spent the rest of his life. From the facility, he created over 1,000 artworks including embroidered textiles and sculptures, 71 of which are featured in this exhibition alongside a plethora of found objects.

Bispo do Rosario, “Untitled [Manto da apresentação (Annunciation garment)]” (undated), fabric, thread, ink, found materials, and fiber, 46 5/8 inches x 55 5/8 inches x 2 3/4 inches

“Thrice marginalized as a poor African descendant diagnosed with mental illness, Bispo do Rosario, like many other visionary artists, felt the need to reorganize the world and create an artistic language of his own after experiencing a life-changing epiphany,” the exhibition’s co-curator Javier Téllez told Hyperallergic in an interview. “The obsessive creation of textile works and the accumulation of objects drove him from chaos to order, and helped him survive the harsh conditions of the mental institution.”

Epitomizing this mandate are the estandartes, or embroidered hanging banners. Their surfaces are filled with images related to Bispo’s life, including battleships, a detailed map of the country of Brazil, hospital buildings, and various national flags. To create these objects, Bispo used the materials available to him, including bedsheets and thread he obtained by unraveling the hospital’s uniforms. An avid consumer of newspapers, he combined this knowledge with his personal recollections, such as the names of other people he encountered in the institution. The density of names on the banner’s surface approximates the cold anonymity of the institutional ledger, a system that would have been familiar to him from the Navy as well as the hospital. While the estandartes have a pseudo-encyclopedic function, they also document Bispo’s particular time and place, and insist on the specificity of his personal history, marking his presence in the world that was erased by institutionalization.

Installation view of estandartes in Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth at the Americas Society
Installation view of Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth at the Americas Society; front left: “Untitled [Carrinho Arquivo (Cart file)]” (undated), wood, paper, plastic, thread, dung, ink, manufactured object, and ink, 37 3/8 x 35 3/8 x 21 5/8 inches

Other small sculptures wrapped in faded blue thread reproduce everyday objects including scissors, a hammer, and chess pieces. He also created miniatures and vitrines, tableau-like groupings of quotidian objects such as spoons, combs, and Brazilian Havaianas. The exhibition’s close arrangement of these works and half-painted walls, similar to those of a mental institution, simulates the way that Bispo arranged these objects in his cell.

Bispo’s incredibly intricate and painstakingly crafted works both encode the oppressive languages of the institution in which he was held, while also insisting on his personal history. While they speak to the idea of a universal, all-encompassing taxonomy, they also cannot be considered separately from Bispo’s spiritual mission. This exhibition is a rare opportunity, not only to see Bispo’s works outside of Brazil but also to gain access to his varied forms of expression and to better understand the vision that motivated him throughout most of his life.

Detail of Bispo do Rosario, “Untitled [Navios de Guerra (War Ships)]” (undated), fabric, thread, wood, ink
Arthur Bispo do Rosario wearing his work “Manto da apresentação (Annunciation garment),” pictured in a photographic essay, “Revista O Cruzeiro” (The Cruzeiro Magazine) in 1943 (photo by Jean Manzon, courtesy Americas Society, New York)

Bispo do Rosario: All Existing Materials on Earth continues at the Americas Society (680 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 20. The exhibition was co-curated by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, Ricardo Resende, and Javier Téllez, with Tie Jojima.

Irini Zervas is an art historian, curator, and copyeditor interested in photographic modernism, Surrealism, and gender. She has contributed to exhibitions at the Hunter College Art Galleries and the National...