With large-scale paintings that seemingly ooze innards and self-portraits brushed with racial signifiers, Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão does not hold anything back. Her works offer a pointed commentary on contemporary race relations by referencing colorism, colonialism, co-mingled cultures, and cannibalism. The latter is the unifying theme of the artist’s first US solo exhibition, curated by Anna Stothart, though she and Varejão prefer the term “anthropophagy”- coined by Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade to describe the assimilation (“devouring”) of European culture by native Brazilians as a means of surviving during the colonial period. In this way, “the cannibal, which had long represented the paradigm of the indigenous savage” is reclaimed, and “the taboo of eating human flesh [is transformed] into a symbol of cultural absorption” (Stothart, 39).
Varejão represents this concept both literally and figuratively in a range of media, including large-scale paintings, mixed-media installations, and sculptural tiles. Entrance Figure I, situated in the first room of the exhibition, probably reveals her themes most literally. A classical nude woman stands in the center, gesturing in welcome (referencing popular courtly decorations in Portugal and Brazil). Covered in floral tattoos and holding a spear, she represents an idealized indigenous warrior. Her right hand reveals a shocking scene behind her, a grisly depiction of cannibalism as nude men and women tear into human body parts, cooking them on a large fire. These images themselves are pulled from the illustrations of Flemish printmaker Theodorus de Bry, who illustrated the people of the Americas with incredibly broad strokes, never having traveled there himself. As Stothart notes, in the minds of colonizing Europeans, such images “became validation for forced catechism and cultural oppression” (Stothart, 41). In works like this, Varejão relies on stereotypes of indigenous peoples, long maintained by Western minds (often unconsciously), as well as viewers’ familiarity with omnipresent Greco-Roman motifs. We see a classically beautiful nude, but are thrown off by her allover body tattoos. We see a classically beautiful balustrade setting, but are then repulsed by the intense scene of cannibalism and “savages”. The blue-and-white painted style of this piece and many others is a further reference to colonial ceramic tiles, subverting a domestic tradition into something far more sinister.
My favorite element of Varejão’s work is her penchant for Cronenbergian body horror. Several of her pieces are literally spilling over with fabricated blood and guts, others pucker like human skin. The artist breaks through the facade of harmonious cultivation, of benevolent colonizers, of imposed “civilization.” These nicely painted tiles are falling apart to reveal the human detritus inside, a not-so-subtle reminder of Brazil’s (and all of Latin America’s, really) violent past due to European takeover. In her work, Varejão asserts that there is no hiding that past, even today, for it remains an integral part of Brazil’s cultural identity. Wall with incisions à la Fontana is a canvas that has been slashed as if with a sword or knife, cutting into the painting to expose blood and tissue, an update of the cut canvases of Argentinian modernist Lucio Fontana. Map of Lopo Homem II turns a 16th-century Portuguese map into sutured flesh, with gaping wound torn through the center: a visceral representation of map-making’s benefactor, world conquest, and a nod to the adage, “history is written by the victors” (and of course in most instances in Western history, that means white people). As Federico Rosa points out, in human affairs, “beauty and destruction often have to coexist” (Rosa, “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh”).
One gallery is devoted to a third and integral aspect of Varejão’s practice: her exploration of race and colorism. For her recent “Polvo” series, she experiments with skin tone and racial perceptions in both paintings and mixed-media installations. Polvo Oil Colors from 2013 features a collection of paint tubes with labels like “coffee with milk,” “half breed,” and “mostly white,” all descriptors taken from a 1976 census in which Brazilians were able to identify their own race. Having created the paint colors, Varejão then uses these unique racial signifiers in a number of subversive portraits. For Polvo Portraits (Seascape Series), she commissioned a traditional Brazilian artist to paint multiple copies of her portrait, which she then altered using different skin tones so that her face suddenly moved within numerous racial categories. Such works point out the limiting and narrow-minded views of race within contemporary society, views that have carried over from the complex racial hierarchies established by Europeans when conquering South America. The artist challenges her viewers to consider how skin color affects their view of a person, specifically of a woman, silently pushing all of our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about race and ethnicity to the forefront of our looking experience.
In the final room of the show, there are a few paintings taken from a series dedicated to empty tiled rooms, in which Vareão chooses to forgo the sculptural guts for a more subdued composition, merely hinting at unseen acts of violence through stark settings and anonymous blood. The large-scale canvas The Guest perhaps makes the biggest impact of the whole show. Its bright white tiles seem to pop out of the wall, a believable three-dimensionality that invites the viewer into the painted space, only to meet them with a mysterious pool of blood. There is no visible body, no attacker, no weapon, no police tape or clean-up crew, no indication of the titular “guest.” Upon viewing this work, I was immediately reminded of Varejão’s peer Teresa Margolles, whose work Limpieza features a man mopping a palatial floor with the blood and grime of Mexican crime scenes. Margolles is literal and aggressive with her use of human remains to comment on the violence that has become commonplace in her home country; Varejão is similarly confrontational and visceral, but filters her commentary through history and metaphor so that the overall effect is more open-ended. Her presentation is varied in material and style but consistent in its iconography. She captures our attention with her unsettling compositions and forces us to consider why we are unsettled, why we feel discomfort when met with the atrocities of the past and the remnants of colonialism found in the present. Her work is strange and academic and often esoteric, but its full-frontal approach makes an impact regardless of context, and this exhibit is sure to stick with me for a long time.
Federico Rosa. “Adriana Varejão: A History of Flesh.” The Culture Trip. http://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/adriana-varej-o-a-history-of-flesh-/
Anna Stothart. Adriana Varejão. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2014.by