Adriana Varejão at the ICA

Entrance Figure I

Entrance Figure I, 1997 Oil on canvas, Private collection, Miami.

How does one describe the work of Adriana Varejão, the provocative Brazilian artist whose first solo exhibit in the US is found right here in Boston? Powerful, yes. Disturbing, absolutely. This is the opposite of easy art – it’s difficult to look at, but at the same time it demands attention. If that sounds a little aggressive, that’s because it is. But her work is a fascinating window into Brazil’s history and culture, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

Take for example, the painting above. At first glance, the subject seems familiar – maybe an allegorical figure or ancient deity – but on closer examination, the piece evokes feeling of unease. We notice that behind the central tattooed female figure and  betwen the balustrades the small figures are engaging in callous cannibalism – human heads are being carried around, and legs gnawed on. The scene recalls the images of cannibalism among the native people that were circulated as justification of their colonization and religion conversion. As Assistant Curator Anna Stothart states,” Varejão’s work confronts this historical aggression by turning colonial imagery back on itself to expose its own fictions and biases.”

The sense of the familiar disrupted continues through the exhibition of 23 works by the well-know Brazilian artist. Varejão’s work is deeply influenced by the concept of anthropophagy, a critical approach to cultural assimilation developed in 1928 by Oswald de Andrade, a leading thinker of Brazilian modernism. Rather than resisting the impact of colonization, de Andrade urged Brazilians to “devour” the ideals and norms of colonizers and integrate them with indigenous traditions to create a powerful cultural synthesis. The works in the ICA exhibition embrace this framework, in both literal and metaphorical depictions.

In a series of portraits, Varejão focuses on race. Two sets of paintings on skin color are on view in the exhibition. For each set, Varejão asked another artist to draw a portrait of her based on a photograph. She then modified these depictions of herself by changing the skin color and cultural signifiers. It is a powerful experience to see the same face represented in various tones. Looking at each one individually, we might infer a certain heritage and history, and together they work to challenge those assumptions.

Polvo Portraits I (China Series) poliptico

Polvo Portraits I (China Series), 2014, Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Another group of Varejão’s work builds on the concept of anthropophagy by depicting the practice more literally. These are powerful pieces that evoke a visceral reaction. Many of them include the blue-and-white tiled surfaces made popular by the Portuguese, which are now found everywhere in Brazil. In the piece below, a traditional Brazilian tiled wall is unexpectedly pulled away to reveal the guts and gore below the surface.

Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh2

Carpet-Style Tilework in Live Flesh, 1999, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Elizabeth W. Russell Foundation Fund

While we expect the surface of the canvas to contain the painting, Varejão disrupts this surface. She has developed a method of sculpting polyurethane to resemble meat and organs, which she then paints. In another work on view, the canvas bulges even in areas where it is intact, leading the viewer to wonder how far the gore extends, even under a white smooth surface. In the map pictured below, the gore beneath the surface is again exposed. Here, attempts have been made to stitch up the surface, and yet the wound still gapes.

Map of Lopo Homem II

Map of Lopo Homem II, 1992/2004, Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The show at the ICA is a powerful, provocative collection from an influential artist many of us in the U.S. are unfamiliar with. After spending some time in the exhibition, I can see why Varejão is so embraced by her fellow Brazilians. Her work acknowledges the various forces that have shaped the country throughout its history, and continue to influence its future, while questioning the way we think about it all.

Adriana Varejão, ICA Boston. On view until April 5. 100 Northern Avenue, Boston. Open Tuesday/Wednesday/Saturday/Sunday 10am-5pm; Thursday/Friday 10am-9pm. Admission: adults $15, seniors $13, students $10, member and under 17 free. Free entry for all Thursday evenings from 5-9pm. For more information, visit the ICA website.

Image Credits 1: Eduardo Ortega, 2-4: Jaime Aciola. Courtesy of ICA Boston.

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