AUSTIN — Brazil’s recent highly contentious and publicized presidential election placed a spotlight on the country’s complex history, society, and politics. A new exhibition offers another view of the nation through the lens of 10 of its contemporary artists.
Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil at the Visual Arts Center (VAC) at the University of Texas at Austin presents a variety of approaches to the nation’s complicated past and present, featuring more than 60 works made over the past two decades by Denilson Baniwa, Guerreiro do Divino Amor, Jaime Lauriano, Maré de Matos, Aline Motta, Lais Myrrha, Antonio Obá, Rosana Paulino, Sallisa Rosa, and Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro.
The show — which spans installation, painting, print, photography, sculpture, and video — takes its title from Paulino’s “Tecido Social (Social Fabric)” (2010). The piece features monotypes printed on pieces of cloth depicting images of pistols, fetuses, men in mugshots, and women in a variety of poses and styles of dress, from maid uniforms to lingerie. The prints are sewn together with a thick suturing thread that seems to expose a sense of fractured hurt even as it repairs. The artist’s other works in the exhibition center on female bodies, nature, and processes of growth and decay. “Sem Título (Untitled)” (2019) from the series Jatobá shows a woman whose legs resemble tree trunks with thin roots sprouting from her hands, arms, and nipples. In light of Brazil’s struggles with deforestation and climate change, these works seem to offer hope through distinctly female forces.
In fact, Paulino was the initial inspiration for the exhibition when it began to form three years ago, and her work functions as a sort of conceptual anchor throughout the show. “One of our objectives is to think about contemporary art in Brazil in a matriarchal way through Rosana’s production,” Nelson told Hyperallergic on a recent tour. Indeed, major themes in the show like memory, nature, and faith often emerge from a woman’s experience, or from perspectives seen by the mainstream as marginal or peripheral.
An immersive installation of Motta’s videos “Pontes sobre Abismos (Bridges over the Abyss)” (2017), “Se o mar tivesse varandas (If the Sea had Balconies)” (2017), and “(Outros) Fundamentos (Other) Foundations)” (2017-2019) is particularly engaging. In one piece, the artist meditates on the hidden history of her great grandparents — a coffee plantation owner and a woman employed by his family — through archival material and dreamy images of their faces printed on sheer fabric at the site of their encounter.
Permeated by shots of ocean waves and dilapidated ruins, Motta’s tender and poetic exploration of her own racial identity unfurls as a slow, entrancing residue of loss and melancholy. Her work is quietly but clearly invested in the power of restoring forgotten or overlooked stories to a fixed place.
Another enveloping space in the exhibition is Vitorino Brasileiro’s “Jupiter is Here. Celestial is Everything” (2022), a site-specific installation commissioned for the show. Here, the artist has turned the VAC’s largest gallery into a kind of shrine made up of arranged soil and stones, charred wood planks, a large painted banner, glasses filled with water, and in the center of a circular brick structure, a large ammonite fossil from the university’s special collections.
The piece’s elaborate configuration of ancient and new materials amid dramatic lighting and a central pathway emits a ritual aura, and integrates aspects of the artist’s Umbanda religious beliefs. But the installation is also meant to open an atypical, anticolonial space within the colonial space of the university museum. This and others works in the show widen and amplify alternative narratives about contemporary Brazil.
Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil continues at the Visual Arts Center (2300 Trinity Street, Austin, Texas) through March 1. The exhibition was curated by María Emilia Fernández, Adele Nelson, and MacKenzie Steven, and will travel to the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo in 2023.