Chico da Silva drawing on a wall
Chico da Silva drawing on a wall, between 1960 and 1975. Gouache on canvas. Courtesy Galatea Gallery, São Paulo
By Bitu Cassundé
Chico da Silva drawing on a wall
Chico da Silva drawing on a wall, between 1960 and 1975. Gouache on canvas. Courtesy Galatea Gallery, São Paulo

The Brazilian Northeast was a major supplier of labor for economic adventures in Northern Brazil: among thousands of northeasterners fleeing the drought towards the Amazonian Eden, Minervina Félis de Lima from Ceará migrated to Acre around 1919 to work in the extraction of rubber. Minervina married a Peruvian native and had Francisco Domingos da Silva, born between 1922 and 1923.

There, through the religious missions that welcomed the migratory flows, the “white civilization” exercised its violence in a colonial model of catechization, exploitation and manipulation of the faith. In the first ten years of his life, the boy Chico da Silva lived between this oppressive context and the forest, with its legends and freedom.

Detail of the work of Chico da Silva.

With little prospect of survival, Minervina returns to her hometown, Quixadá, in the hinterland of Ceará. In this arid landscape, where livelihoods are plagued by drought, Chico's father is bitten by a rattlesnake, whose venom is deadly. After the loss, mother and son settled, around 1940, in Pirambu, on the outskirts of Fortaleza.

It is on the walls of Praia Formosa, in Fortaleza, that Chico da Silva composes images of impossible beings and Amazonian oral narratives. He is then captured again by the colonizing project when Jean Pierre Chabloz, enchanted by the poetics of the local artist, introduces him to gouache paint and paper, making him abandon the wall support.

Between 1930 and 1940, the Swiss promoted Chico's presence in national salons, such as the Askanasi Gallery, in Rio de Janeiro. In the 1960s, Chabloz articulated, in the newly opened MAUC/UFC (Art Museum of the Federal University of Ceará), a place where the artist would create a studio, receive a salary and stay for three years. The mystique built by Chabloz around this indigenous character reached its peak in 1966, when Chico participated in the Venice Biennale.

A constant element in Chico da Silva's work is the mouth. The mouth open for the boat, the mouth open for food, the mouth that welcomes and shelters, the mouth that eats and transforms, the mouth that devours, the mouth of the night, the mouth of the stomach. In the paintings, there are countless clashes, as well as the animalities that use the mouth as a weapon, as a defense, as a prelude to danger.

Chico activates a particular cosmology in which elements of life, everyday life, Amazonian and indigenous imagination are protagonists. If today his creation of worlds would be classified as “speculative fabulation”, the artist in life was never associated with an idea of ​​the “future”, but was always fixed to an image of the past, primitive and bestialized, and with a difficult adaptation to the present, to the now, to the clumsy idea of ​​modernity that was being announced.

Chico's own mouth was also the mouth of the reinvention of language, of the conception of new words, of dialectical creations, which bewildered the interlocutor: his mouth with gold teeth gave his body the most complete modernity. Chico's mouth was never that of the past nor that of the present, his mouth was always in the future, and announced: even the roof of his mouth is golden.

Another important movement in Chico's saga is the creation of the Escola do Pirambu. The place brought together collaborating artists with whom Chico shared his technique, whose reproduction soon contaminated the idea of ​​“genius” and “original”, fundamental to the art market. This dilution of authorship at the Escola do Pirambu was not exempt from punishment. In an article in Jornal do Brasil, Chabloz himself accuses the fading of the artist's poetic authenticity. The headline announces: “Swiss decrees the artistic death of Chico da Silva”.

Chico never artistically recovered from this campaign produced by the European critic, who did not respect him as a capable human being, treating him as a primitive. Chabloz did not discover Chico da Silva: it was the walls of Praia Formosa that germinated the visionary artist, and it was his insight, his strength and courage to overcome adversities in life and in art, which configured him as a discoverer of himself.

After the attack, Chico was constantly hospitalized due to alcoholism, psychiatric problems and the consequences of an equally colonized society that could not even respect him. Currently, his work is undergoing a new commercially speculative process, but Chico died poor in 1985, becoming a character who deserves to be demystified and humanized. ✱

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