Bahian artist J. Cunha. Photo: Márcio Lima
Bahian artist J. Cunha. Photo: Márcio Lima

Logo at the beginning of the exhibition presentation text J. Cunha: Tropical body, Jochen Volz, general director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, says that only last year the institution started to have a piece by José Antônio Cunha in its collection. And he emphasizes: “This late insertion says more about the gaps in the museum’s collection than about the relevance of the artist’s work and the powerful dialogues it promotes.” In fact, it is unimaginable that only now the status quo of the country's visual arts system, dominated by the southeast, is removing the veil that surrounded the 60-year work of this artist, graphic designer, set designer and costume designer from Bahia.

The exhibition occupies the entire 4th floor of the pina station, in São Paulo, and features around 300 items, including paintings, drawings, posters, prints, objects and documents. The curatorship is by Renato Menezes, from the Pinacoteca's internal team, who summarizes Cunha's work as “a product of the homogeneous and coherent association between beauty, joy and political commitment”.

The scope of the exhibition surprises even those who have been following his career more closely, including myself, as my visits to Salvador always include a trip to his studio in the Boca do Rio neighborhood. of design, an area in which he stands out for having been a pioneer in creating a visual language for the affirmative movements of black culture in Brazil. He combined great creative freedom with a deep knowledge of African cultural and spiritual heritage and Brazilian popular and erudite culture to develop his own language, with great originality.

J. Cunha was born in Cidade Baixa, in Salvador, in 1948, and from an early age lived with Afro-indigenous religiosity, on his mother's side, and with gypsy culture, on his father's side. As a teenager with no resources, he went to study mechanical turning at Senai, where he acquired technical knowledge of various trades. At the age of 18, he entered the free course at the School of Fine Arts at the Federal University of Bahia, connecting with knowledge of the canons of visual arts by devouring the books in the library.

In the vibrant cultural environment of Bahia in the 1960s, he became a dancer, set designer and costume designer for the folkloric group Viva Bahia, created by ethnomusicologist Emilia Biancardi, and collaborated with the Ballet of Teatro Castro Alves and the Balé Brasileiro da Bahia. In painting, he linked himself to the Etsedron group (the word Northeast backwards), which questioned the effects of the advance of capitalism on local cultural identities. The ox, the cangaço, the backlands and popular religiosity are frequent elements in Cunha's works since this early period, discussed in the first room of the Pina exhibition, under the title Made in Brazil.

The following phase, from the 1980s to 2005, is covered in the module Pass by here. In 1980 J. Cunha created the brand and identity system for the Ilê Ayê carnival block, in Salvador and for 25 years he developed the specific themes of each carnival, forging a new Afro-Brazilian plastic language. The reach of this work was enormous, reaching thousands of people, as the fabrics had prints measuring more than 10 thousand meters, with which around 3.000 costumes were made, which were then reused by people. The themes covered each year were spread across various media, including the Education Notebooks, aimed at schools.

The room also features an expressive set of posters, album covers, book covers, urban design for carnival and other popular festivals, sets for shows and television, alphabets, shop windows, crockery surfaces, menus and visual identity projects.

The last exhibition nucleus, Afro-pop neobaroque, addresses the phase from the 2000s onwards. This is where the monumental Codex, measuring three by seven meters, with 21 canvases subdivided into 25 square areas, totaling a set of 525 fields, painted between 2011 and 2014. Recently purchased by the Inhotim Institute, the panel is the result of the in-depth knowledge that J. Cunha has been accumulating at entire life in the sphere of the sacred. It is a work that you can admire for hours, due to the richness of the symbols representing a pantheon of Afro-Brazilian deities.

In the same year of completion of the Codex, J. Cunha designs the iron and steel fence of the National Museum of Afro-Brazilian Culture (Muncab), in Salvador, in which he pays homage to Ogum, the orixá of metallurgy, tools and invention, interspersing metal – between welding, textures and leaked – archetypes, signs, signs and events of the black diaspora.

In the railing project memorial, he is pleased with the opportunity to “create a work of art with public utility”. The statement serves to set the tone for an entire journey marked by a political and ideological stance. The daily routine is one of compulsive dedication, whether painting on different supports, isolated in his studio, or interacting with other teams, creating collectively and “exhibiting” collectively, on the scale of the city and intertwined in people's daily lives. The themes translate “the pain and delight” of being who you are. They denounce the atrocities of the colonization process that took place in the country and at the same time celebrate the vitality of Afro-Brazilian culture. In the words of curator Renato Menezes in the extensive catalog that accompanies the exhibition, the work becomes “a means of celebrating vital energy, renewing axé and imagining an Afro-indigenous future”. I would add that not only the work – also the figure of the artist is celebratory and inspiring, firm in his positions and simultaneously without missing opportunities for fun and debauchery. The names of his works say a little about this, like Diva-angry Paulicéia (bought by Pina); Maquinaíma; Jesus-Cícero Super Star; e The goat that tricked the mother of saint, so as not to be sent away, and even knocked over the TV antenna.

For Menezes, the exhibition J. Cunha: Tropical body “stimulates a reckoning with history, recognizing in Cunha his singular creative energy, animating one of the most prolific careers in current Brazilian art.” It is worth remembering other initiatives that were part of its trajectory: the book by Danillo Barata, professor at the Federal University of Recôncavo, published by Editora Corrupio, in 2016; the exposure Uanga, at the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia, in 2023, curated by Daniel Rangel; and the 25-minute documentary that Pacto Filmes made about him for the Curta channel also last year, curated by me and directed by DJ Dolores, available on Prime Vídeo. There is certainly much more to explore in such a versatile and fertile production, with new perspectives discovering new connections and bringing to light its importance in the global African diaspora.


J. Cunha: Tropical body
Until September 29th
Pina Estação – Largo General Osório, 66 – Santa Ifigênia, São Paulo – SP
Hours: Wednesday to Monday, from 10am to 18pm (entrance until 17pm)
Free on Saturdays – R$30 (full price) and R$15 (half price)
176-page catalogue, with texts by Renato Menezes, Roberto Conduru and Carol Barreto

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