In Paris, in 1959, James Baldwin wrote, “The very word ‘America’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun.” São Paulo–based curator Hélio Menezes argues that one could say the same of Brazil in “The discovery of what it means to be Brazilian,” where eighteen works address myths of discovery, imagined parameters of national identity, and the peculiar experience of blackness in Brazil.
No Martins’s massive painting of an unidentified young Black male opens the show. The canvas has been attached to another length of fabric and then smothered in paint. The subject’s yellow shirt evokes the goldenrod hues of Beauford Delaney’s 1965 portrait of Baldwin and contrasts with the pitch-black flag and banner emblazoned with “#Já Basta!” (Enough!) prominent in Martins’s two portraits of other young Brazilians.
Jaime Lauriano’s works provide historical and geographic context for Martins’s allusions to Afro-Brazilian social-justice movements. His map projections are based on early modern cosmographies of what is now called the Western hemisphere and drawn loosely with charcoal, dermatograph pencil, and black pemba (a chalk used in Umbanda rituals). In bold capital letters, Lauriano triangulates Brazil’s “racial democracy” and America’s “melting pot” with fallacies of “racial purity.” Shiny gold tape stretched across the bottom left of each canvas echoes Lauriano’s works from the series “Experiência concreta” (Concrete Experience), 2017–19, hanging from the ceiling: With white grain sacks, Lauriano has constructed an Oiticican penetrável that materially and formally references the Atlantic “triangular trade.” Aline Motta’s breathtaking video and photographs from the series “(Other) Foundations,” 2017–19, take this concept further. Holding a shard of mirror to the sky, the video’s narrator asks, “If belonging is a fiction, can I point a mirror at Nigeria and see Brazil?”
While America and Brazil will remain undefined and controversial proper nouns, this exhibition maintains that belief in their myths "to which we cling so desperately” will keep freedom and identity beyond one’s grip.
-SARAH M. ESTRELA