Some May Work as Symbols: Art Made in Brazil, 1950s-70s

Raven Row (London), Mar-24/May-24

Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Ione Saldanha, Willys de Castro, Djanira, Abdias do Nascimento. These are only a few of the thirty artists featured in Some May Work as Symbols: Art Made in Brazil, 1950s-70s, currently on view at London’s Raven Row until early May. This large group show, made in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro (MAM Rio), showcases paintings and sculptures that navigate through the Brazilian modernist histories of concretism and neo-concretism, and the rich symbology, imagery, and mysticism behind Afro-Brazilian cultural practices and traditions. Whilst the aforementioned names represent some of the most influential figures in twentieth-century Brazilian art, and their presence in Brazilian art history is truly ubiquitous, the exhibition at Raven Row serves as a preface, an introductory essay on Brazil, its vast and diverse culture, and its sometimes conflicting, inconsistent nature.

Exhibition view Some May Work as Symbols: Art Made in Brazil, 1950s-70s at Raven Row, 2024

Curated by MAM Rio’s artistic director, Pablo Lafuente, and independent curator Thiago de Paula Souza, the display recalls past exhibitions held at MAM Rio, with light yellow plinths and columns that seem to have been teleported from the museum’s bright gallery rooms overlooking the picturesque Baía de Guanabara. Within the Spitalfields area of East London, inside this renovated 18th-century Georgian building, the same museum display gains a different understanding.

Geometric abstraction is traversed by the works of renowned concretists such as Judith Lauand, Aluísio Carvão, Willys de Castro, and Ivan Serpa, and two major figures of neo-concretism, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, present a tangible sample of their tactile and multi-sensorial practices.

Abdias do Nascimento, Mediation n. 2: Apis, the Sacred Bull, 1973, Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute (IPEAFRO) / Museu de Arte Negra (Black Art Museum) Collection

The iconography of Candomblé, the codes and symbols of Umbanda, and various objects of worship can be seen in the pungent sculptures and vivid paintings of artists Abdias do Nascimento, Mestre Didi, Rubem Valentim, and Agnaldo dos Santos. Everyday scenes portraying festive traditions and communal activities are transposed onto canvas and tapestry by Maria Auxiliadora, Heitor dos Prazeres, Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt, and Elisa Martins da Silveira. The inclusion of these latter artists, whose works remained somewhat overlooked but have recently received increased institutional attention and interest from national and international collections, represents a significant shift in art historical narratives.

There is a textile piece by self-taught artist Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt that perhaps reifies the heterogeneity of aesthetic idioms in Some May Work as Symbols. Titled Untitled (1969-77), the embroidered tapestry, one of the first works encountered upon entering the exhibition space, is a colourful translation of the main forms and mediums on display. It depicts what could be described as an attempt at geometric abstraction that is ultimately absorbed by an uncoordinated choreography of sorts. The abstract shapes, despite their supposed geometric precision, become almost figurative. One can spot a bit of everything in this work: the small multicoloured circles, tightened up at the bottom, seem to illustrate a busy social gathering, and the green and red lines at the centre cannot keep up with their intended rigour, expanding and dancing to the sound of rhythms.

Madalena Santos Reinbolt, Untitled, 1969–77, Edmar Pinto Costa Collection

This is indeed an unmissable show for those interested in gaining insight into Brazilian culture between the 1950s and 1970s, as well as for the fellow UK-based Brazilians – and cariocas like myself – who wish to be captivated once again by the fascinating and contrasting landscape of Brazilian art.

Caroline Fucci to London Art Walk
March 2024