Cover image of the Nudity Book by Giorgio Agambem

On display at Masp, the exhibition “Stories of Sexuality” seeks to investigate through almost 300 works one of the most burning themes of humanity. As summarized by Lilia Schwartz, one of the curators responsible for the show, the show seeks to understand how “sex, gender and desire” are “fundamental aspects in our social representations, ideological formulations, everyday perceptions and visual experiences”. After two years of investigations and discussions, the show features a significant set of works, which gain prominence from a constant strategy of confrontation that, sometimes exploring harmony, sometimes reinforcing differences, underline different forms of expression around sex.

On the other hand, the exhibition seems to suffer from an excess of internal criteria, which end up leading to a somewhat forced presentation and reading of the works. What was thought of as a libertarian show ends up, due to its own structure – the segmentation into nine “thematic” sets without much internal coherence, other than the fact that they have a close relationship with the theme of sexuality or express very burning issues of the actuality –, acquiring a cast character. In other words, if at times this excessive clipping helps to organize ideas and gives the visitor a series of keywords through which he can “read” most of the works, on the other hand, the same ordering effort ends up leading too much fruition, subjugating the poetics to categories of interpretation external to the work of art.

Ana Mendieta, Guanaroca, (Rupestrian Sculptures), 1969
Ana Mendieta, Guanaroca, (Rupestrian Sculptures), 1969

It is difficult to know what were the criteria adopted for the adoption of the nine elected groups, which range from the initial nucleus, entitled “Bodies nudes” (with a beautiful selection of paintings of the genre), to the final block dedicated to “Politics of the body and activisms” – housed in the museum's basement –, passing through chapters such as “Voyeurisms” and “Religiosities”, but they probably correspond to themes with a significant presence in the museum's collection.

In some cases the significance and potency of the works surpass the segmentations. This is the case, for example, of “Side Feminino/Side Masculino”, by Chico Tabibuia, and “Sapho”, by Francisco Leopoldo e Silva, which are among the works that are not restricted to a specific category and symbolically open the show, which can be seen until February 14th. The choice of the two works reveals a lot about the sides taken and the issues that the curatorship sought to illuminate. First, there is an evident clash between the two sculptures. On the one hand, we have a classic work, with all the nobility of marble, which is part of the respect for the academic precepts of the representation of the female nude. On the other hand, a beautiful example of popular art, made by an artist clearly excluded from the official art circuit, whose rudimentary representation of a naked man and woman on a single wooden trunk illustrates one of the most significant themes in this dive into the artistic representation of sexuality. : the notion of sexual identity and the issue of gender uncertainty.

This is perhaps the most highlighted issue throughout the exhibition, present in almost all the sub-nuclei, with a block entirely dedicated to it (“Gender Performativities”) and symbolically elaborated in the exemplary case of Gauguin. Taking as a starting point the canvas “Self-portrait (near Golgotha), painted by him in 1896, a whole digression is made about the importance of androgyny in the artist’s work, in a more psychological rather than plastic way, which clashes with a little of the guiding line of the show that, even aligned with a multidisciplinary perspective, seeks most of its references in the analysis of the links between society, its contemporary problems and visual culture. Such an approach is at the base of the museum's curatorial strategy, which for some time has been trying to investigate the relationship between art and some themes that are gaining relevance today. The exhibition dedicated to sex is the fourth in a series of investigations, which in the past have focused on childhood, madness and feminism, and in the future will address Afro-Atlantic and indigenous histories.

José Antonio da Silva, untitled, 1971. Collection Vilma Eid, São Paulo, Brazil.
José Antonio da Silva, untitled, 1971. Collection Vilma Eid, São Paulo, Brazil.
The curatorship actively sought to implement corrective actions for inequalities, opening space for works of popular origin, giving visibility to activist groups and seeking a fairer balance between male and female artists as a whole. When embodied in the work itself, the defense of minorities achieves results of great impact and acquires a power that reveals oppression and the use of language as a form of domestication of the other. This is the case, for example, of the approximation between the canvas “Moema”, painted in 1866 by Victor Meirelles and one of the great examples of romantic Indianism (which appropriates the image of the Indian, but also cancels its strength, showing an impotent, dominated, who dies of love for the white conqueror), and an extremely delicate photograph by Claudia Andujar, in which a real Indian can be seen, in its specific context (a Yanomami village), caught at rest.

Other dialogues, scattered throughout the exhibition, deserve attention, such as the contrast between the image of a primitive woman created by Ana Mendieta and the photograph “O Sculptor and the Goddess”, by Ernesto Neto. The sensuality of the image of the artist's mouth “framing” a small female deity is not common in the exhibition. Evidently, eroticism and the visual representation of desire – an important theme in the history of art – has its place in the exhibition, but it is diluted in the midst of so many more present issues such as incommunicability, indifferentiation, the use of sex as power or as political weapon.

Egon Schiele, Nude Self-Portrait, 1910
Egon Schiele, Nude Self-Portrait, 1910

There are a number of examples of emphatic denunciation, such as the paintings by Descartes Gadelha, which portrays the grotesque nature of sex tourism and pedophilia on Iracema beach, in Fortaleza, or the series “Para Hereges”, by Leon Ferrari, in which erotic drawings they are superimposed on engravings of biblical passages by Dürer, making explicit the links between religion, oppression and perversion. The works in which eroticism and sensuality predominate, as in the case of Alair Gomes and Tracey Moffat (another of the great encounters in the exhibition), seem less relevant. Anyone who goes to “Stories of Sexuality” for steamy scenes or images that approach pornography will be frustrated.

At the end of the tour, the visitor is left with the feeling of a certain contemporary unease in the face of permanent sexual repression, which is now reborn with force, and against which the artists struggle in a somewhat hopeless, but intense way. This feeling is illustrated by the work of Sergio Zevallos Santa Rosa, associated with the context of the persecution of homosexuals in Peru, in which a man can be seen squatting, tied by real ropes tied in front of his image, whose title is “Esperar la hora que cambiará nuestra you are not easy”.

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