Emblem relief N. 4, 1977. acrylic on wood, 100 X 150 X 5 cm. Bahia Museum of Modern Art Collection
Composition 12, 1962. Oil on canvas. The work was donated to the Masp collection by gallery owners Ana Dale, Antonio Almeida and Carlos Dale Junior 61

In his “Manifesto Além que Tardio”, published in 1976, the Bahian painter, sculptor and printmaker Rubem Valentim (1922-1991) made it very clear where his art emerged from: “My plastic-visual-signographic language is linked to deep mythical values of an Afro-Brazilian culture (mestiza-animist-fetishist). With the weight of Bahia on me – the lived culture; with black blood in the veins - atavism; with eyes open to what is being done in the world – contemporaneity”. He sought, as he said in the same text, “a universal language, but with a Brazilian character”, without being affiliated with any of the foreign or national artistic movements or currents.

Image: Rubem Valentim, Painting 2, 1960 / Photo: Tomás Toledo, MASP's chief curator

Even so, contrary to the words of the artist himself, a good part of the critics, the market and the art historiography defined Valentim as a basically constructive artist, relegating to the background the symbolic universe of his work, linked to Candomblé, Umbanda and to Afro-Brazilian culture. There was an “insistence on framing it, somewhat forcibly, in the context of the canonical constructive currents, forged in the Rio-São Paulo axis, separating from the reflections the religious, spiritual and social meanings, therefore political, which are an integral part of the conformation of his works and his life as an artist”, says Fernando Oliva, curator of the exhibition “Rubem Valentim: Construções Afro-Atlânticas”, a major solo show by the artist on display at Masp until March 2019.

Marcus Lontra, curator of “Rubem Valentim: Construção e Fé”, another exhibition by the Bahian artist on display in São Paulo, at Caixa Cultural, follows the same line. “That way he became more palatable. They wanted to sweeten Rubem Valentim by saying that he was a modernist with a Brazilian flavor. As if they were saying: 'Let's throw a palm oil here on this escargot'. But it turns out that palm oil was not the end, it was the base”, says Lontra. “I mean, Valentim starts from this African visuality and, with an erudite look, synthesizes it through color and shape.”

On the other hand, when he was not classified as constructive or concrete, Valentim was seen as a “mystical, supernatural and magical” artist, being framed in a folkloric universe that also simplified his work. “It is wrong and very limiting of the power of this artist to reduce him to just constructive or just a tributary to the culture of Candomblé”, says Oliva. “We want to present the total artist that he was, who transited and synthesized forms associated with canonical, European ancestry geometric abstractionism and the forms he originally found in African-based religions,” he explains.

The proposal to present a more complex reading of Valentim's work, highlighting its hybrid character and its political force, is what moves the two exhibitions on display in São Paulo. At Masp, 80 paintings and 12 sculptures cover mainly the periods in which the artist lived in Rio de Janeiro (1957-1963), London and Rome (1963-1966) and Brasília (1967-1981). The exhibition also privileges the three elements of Candomblé with which he was most related: the arrow of Oxóssi, the ax of Xangô and the rods of Ossain (or Ossanha). “These forms of Candomblé are a starting point, but what it does is debug, synthesize, recreate and transfigure these forms into other elements. And therein lies the power of his work. Like any great artist, he creates his own universe, something unique and original”, says Oliva.

The exhibition at Masp is part of the cycle “Afro-Atlantic Stories”, the museum’s curatorial axis in 2018, consisting of individual exhibitions by artists whose works are crossed by racial issues and a large group exhibition that synthesized the theme. Focusing on the black diaspora and the “flows and ebbs” between Africa, the Americas and Europe, highlighting the violence and resistance that marked these stories, the museum continued the cycles of “Stories of Madness and Feminist Stories” (2015), “Stories Childhood” (2016) and “Stories of Sexuality” (2017). The curatorial axis in 2019, also focused on non-traditional narratives, is titled “Feminist Stories, Women’s Stories”.

At Caixa Cultural, the show with around 60 paintings and a sculpture also focuses on the symbolic universe and the issue of blackness in Valentim's work. Focusing on the period when the artist lived in Brasília and on the final years of his life, spent between the federal capital and São Paulo, the exhibition presents what Lontra considers “a hybrid, disturbing work that operates in the territory of fantasy and formation of national identity”. “He broke with traditional designations; disregarded anachronistic boundaries between the popular and the erudite, between the national and the international, between reason and emotion”, writes the curator in the exhibition’s presentation text.


Valentim was born in Salvador, in 1911, and grew up in close contact with a syncretic universe. Despite being from a Catholic family and having made his first communion, he attended Candomblé terreiros in the city with his father. With a degree in dentistry, he began to devote himself more to artistic production in the second half of the 1940s, when he became closer to left-wing thinking and artists such as Mário Cravo Jr., Carlos Bastos and Raymundo de Oliveira. Together they started a movement of renewal in the visual arts in Bahia. Valentim still studied journalism in the early 1950s, in search of a more humanistic education, and from the middle of this decade he began to incorporate the emblems and signs of Candomblé and Umbanda in his paintings. Using strong colors and geometric shapes, he created a personal repertoire “based on a complex dynamic of clippings, subtractions and juxtapositions”, as Oliva explains.

Emblem relief N. 4, 1977. acrylic on wood, 100 X 150 X 5 cm. Bahia Museum of Modern Art Collection

Geometry and formal concerns, however, did not overlap with symbolic issues, as the artist himself pointed out: “I was never concrete. I became aware of concretism through personal friendships with some of its members. But I soon realized, at least among the people of São Paulo, that the final objective of his work was optical games and that didn't interest me. My problem has always been 'content' (the mystical impregnation, the awareness of the cultural values ​​of my people, the Brazilian feeling)”. In this sense, both the movement of framing him in constructive currents and calling his work magical and supernatural ended up removing his political character from Valentim, which is now carefully resumed in the two São Paulo exhibitions. At Masp, the discussion also gains depth in a large catalog that, in addition to presenting the exhibition, brings together historical texts, drawings and notes from the artist's notebooks and unpublished essays by Lilia Schwarcz, Helio Menezes, Lisette Lagnado and Marta Mestre, among others.

As the curators explain, Valentim was an artist engaged not only in the content of his visual work, but also in the political positions he took in texts and interviews throughout his life. In his manifesto, for example, written in the midst of the military dictatorship, Valentim positions himself as a defender of exchanges between all peoples and nations, but against cultural colonialism and subservience to standards coming from outside; he defends a Brazilian visual poetics that draws on Afro-Amerindian-Northeastern iconography, but that flees from fads and the “caricatured violence of folklore and the genuine”; and he states, finally, that “art is a poetic weapon to fight against violence as an exercise of freedom against repressive forces”.

Emblem 78 relief, 1978, acrylic on wood. Collection of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. Purchase by the Government of the State of São Paulo, 2013

“Unlike the purist discourse of modernism, Valentim represents the real possibility of building a language that reflects Brazilian specificities”, says Lontra. And it is these specificities, for the curator, that must be identified and highlighted, especially in the current context. At a time when Brazil elects a president who offends quilombolas and despises human rights, when the country experiences murders such as that of the black feminist councilor Marielle Franco and the capoeira master Moa do Katendê, resuming the work of Valentim and his character political takes on new potency and meaning.

“We are faced with constant violence, with Brazil revealing all its evil, the horror of a reactionary middle class. And there is this idea of ​​the cordial country, the good nation, which is the discourse of the oppressor and which no longer deceives. Before accepting our miscegenation, we have to accept that the black woman was raped”, says Lontra, stressing the importance of identifying black elements as fundamental in the history of Brazilian art and in the understanding of a mestizo country. “And I think Rubem took on this political issue in a very strong and important way. He never hid the violence.” Regarding the near future, the curator concludes: “Now we have to face the threat to democracy. And art has always faced this: dictatorship, persecution, lack of support. And your role will continue to be that, to show Brazil for real”.


Rubem Valentim: Afro-Atlantic Constructions

From 14 / 11 / 2018 to 10 / 03 / 2019
MASP – Av. Paulista, 1578, Sao Paulo

Rubem Valentim: Construction and Faith

From 07 / 10 / 2018 to 06 / 12 / 2018
CAIXA CULTURAL – Praça da Sé, 111


Leave a comment

Please write a comment
Please write your name