View of the “Ancestral Venus” exhibition. Photo: Ana Pigosso/Courtesy Galeria Superfície.

For the first time in São Paulo, a robust set of works by Celeida Tostes (1929-1995) is exposed to the public, in the solo exhibition “Vênus Ancestral”, at Surface gallery, who has represented her since 2021.  The artist has participated in important collective exhibitions in recent years, such as radical women (2018), at the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, and the 37th Panorama of Brazilian Art (2022), at the MAM in São Paulo. In the same gallery, in 2021, works by Celeida were part of the exhibition O Ventre da Terra, a title borrowed from a verse in the poem that accompanies her work Passagem.

Clay, a substance chosen by Celeida as the main raw material in her career, has its importance even more evident in Vênus Ancestral as it forms part of the exhibition, covering some walls, the bases of showcases and also a kind of garden where sculptures are arranged. According to gallerist and researcher Gustavo Nóbrega, in charge of Superfície, the entire exhibition was carried out in line with the way the artist herself liked to mount her works, on land. 

For centuries, clay has been treated by many cultures as an element related to fertility and creation, a belief with considerable spiritual strength that passed through Ancient Greece, the Yoruba and Christians. More than that, clay was a central raw material for ancient societies, being used to manufacture ceramics for domestic use or to build large structures, as pointed out by curator Pollyana Quintella, who signs the exhibition text: “There are traces of technique that dates back almost thirty thousand years ago, when sedentary societies were barely being implemented. Whoever molds and burns a material as primitive as clay is activating an ancestral time, which feeds us with the fantasy of a principle of humanity”. 

For Celeida, clay was part of the entire cycle of life. And this is what the exhibition reveals, being organized in a route that moves through works that allude to fertilization, birth and death. Right at the entrance to the gallery, the public sees on the left the famous work Passagem, in which Celeida closes herself in a large clay pot that represents a uterus, rupturing it minutes later. Parallel to this wall, a showcase highlights pieces from the Ovos and João de Barro series, which follow the same theme. Furthermore, in the same showcase, an untitled work from the Fendas series draws attention due to its wealth of details, which goes back to a vagina about to give birth, like portals of life that evoke the mystery of birth. 

On the walls of the gallery's two floors, pieces of Venus and Guardians are displayed representing the feminine and masculine respectively. Small-scale versions of the Venuses are also seen in a showcase on the second floor, accompanied by small versions of the Tools, Rods and Wheels series, the latter with large-scale representatives fixed to the opposite wall. Another showcase next to it brings together a large number of stamps made by the artist, each with a distinct mark.

On the upper floor, the way in which the Amassadinhos were assembled is also very intriguing. Placed in a line on the walls, they go back to the way they were arranged in an exhibition that the artist held at Parque Lage, where she was a teacher for more than two decades at the Fire Arts and Materials Transformation Workshop, created by her. The Amassadinhos are pieces made from “archaic gestures”, a term coined by Celeida for “the reflex act of closing the hand over any material”, as Quintella explains. 

The story of Amassadinhos deserves to be highlighted, as it demonstrates that the transformation of clay in Celeida can also be a metaphor for social transformation, as an element of what she called “emancipatory pedagogy”, cultivated collectively. In 1983, Celeida Tostes was invited to participate in the São Paulo Biennial and proposed the construction of a raw clay wall. It wouldn't be just any wall: it would be a wall built by inmates inside a prison, with messages on notes, but also messages scratched into the clay with their own hands. This wall would be taken to be exhibited at the Biennale, while the inmates would remain incarcerated. “The idea of ​​prisoners building a wall that is, at the same time, an unwall, because it is the wall that was freed. Nobody understood anything. It seems so simple, but the top hats and arts bureaucrats didn’t accept it”,  says artist Luiz Aquila in the book “Celeida Tostes”, organized by Marcus de Lontra Costa and Raquel Silva. 

A few years later, in 1991, inmates from the Frei Caneca complex arrived with Celeida at the Biennale through their archaic gestures. Other marginalized groups were with them, such as homeless people and prostitutes from São João do Meriti, but also students from the institutions where the artist taught and from Morro Chapéu da Mangueira, as well as regulars at MAM Rio and other groups. The gestures of each of these people gave rise to 20 thousand Crumples that were part of the work Archaic Gesture. Mounted on three large panels in the Bienal Pavilion, the pieces came from “a collective effort with no class reference”, as said by the artist. Celeida's social streak is also very strong when it comes to the successful initiative she led with women from Morro do Chapéu da Mangueira. Her proposal played a fundamental role in building support networks there, strengthening community ties.

The exhibition at Galeria Superfície also features an exciting text written by Henri Stahl, the photographer who recorded the work Passagem and who followed the artist's trajectory, affectionately calling her “Celeida do Barro”. A collection of journalistic writings about her and her work are also on display in the exhibition, which ends with funerary urns at the end of a sculpture garden, announcing the end of the cycle of life narrated by Celeida Tostes.

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