"Blue boatman in Manaus", 1992. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy Instituto Tomie Ohtake.

*By Mateus Nunes

CWith a laborious process, Luiz Braga manages to create an atmosphere, the stage of an imagistic romance. The narratives that intertwine the backstage of his photographs, with the constant contact that the artist from Belém has had with his subjects over the years, fill this dense space of unruly material between the portrayed, the photographer and the viewer of the work. Umberto Eco shared that the hardest thing to do when deciding to write a novel is precisely to create an atmosphere. Think about the number of steps on the stilt stairs, the colors of the open letters on the boats, the curvature of the open nets, even if they are empty. With the atmosphere constituted, everything is no longer controlled by the author: the characters and the words – in the case of Luiz Braga, the images – appear on their own, at their own pace. After the expensive work of taming colors and lights, the photographer is bound to open up to chance, to dialogue. He actively waits and wanders, and, with a dropper, is graced with his characters over four decades, which he finds and finds again in the harbor, on the boat, on the street, on the river and at home. Waiting for Rose, to the Beckett: in Luiz Braga's work, persistence and patience go hand in hand.

"Rosa no Arraial", 1990. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy Luiz Braga.
“Rosa no Arraial”, 1990. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy of the artist / MAM.

In this series of color portraits, brought together for the first time, the photographer creates allegories of everyday life, where the viewer can identify, in the eyes of the person portrayed, with figures distant from their reality. In this way, he transforms those portrayed into ideas, into idyllic characters, such as the deities of Tapajonic sculpture or the biblical engravings of Gustave Doré – tracing a hybrid matrix path between native traditions and Western European culture. By magically illustrating day-to-day episodes, Luiz elevates the image of his portrayed to an immaterial level, as if they did not belong to the real plane – almost like visages, phantasmagorical beings of Pará culture.

The expographic project is in line with the conceptual paths proposed and instigated by the works. In it, the images rise, in a kind of ideological suspension, reaffirming that they are neither affixed to the earth nor raised to the heavens, but inhabit this phantasmagoric field of images, in an eternal “between”: the notions of material and immaterial, reality and fiction, materiality and abstractionism are challenged, denying conventional dualisms and piercing them like a dart at the exact moment when it tears the veil – the photographic click. The exhibition space is designed so that the viewer sees one image at a time, gradually, building a maze of wooden planes on which the photographs are affixed, which resembles the perception labyrinthine of the forest. Like leafing through a book, one sees one image at a time, and that is not only enough, it overflows: in each one there is a universe. Upon entering the exhibition, we glimpse the photographer's feeling when he opens himself to the chance of life, to the surprise of encounters, open to the possibility of being carried away by an image to the next curve.

"Raylana", 2013. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy Instituto Tomie Ohtake.
“Raylana”, 2013. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy of the artist / Galeria Leme.

The parallelism to Pierre Verger's exhibition, simultaneous and close to Luiz Braga's exhibition, at the Tomie Ohtake Institute, in São Paulo, is assertively traced by the curatorial texts of Paulo Miyada and Priscyla Gomes who narrate the story of two travelers. Braga, the stubborn and curious person who seeks to travel within himself, his land and his culture; and Verger, the ambitious world adventurer worthy of a Jules Vernes novel. Literary analogies could follow: the circumnavigator Phileas Fogg, protagonist of Around the World in 80 Days, of Vernes, is accompanied by his servant, called Passepartout. Element dear to photography, the passe-partout, namesake of the character, is something that is not inherent to the work, but is also not outside of it in certain contexts: it inhabits, again, this mysterious “between”.

"Blue boatman in Manaus", 1992. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy Instituto Tomie Ohtake.
“Blue boatman in Manaus”, 1992. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy of the artist / Galeria Leme.

titled Mask, mirror and shield, the exhibition is named after three highly symbolic signs that are analogous to the artist's photographic process, as he himself wrote. There is, however, a strong hybrid charge coming from the transcultural matrix of Pará that can also be related to these three symbols.

The masks, dear to indigenous rituals, were also hybridized – when receiving European traditions brought by Catholic missionaries – by the Indians colonized in the Amazon, who painted the admirable masks on the ceilings of the churches where they became devotees. In these artistic expressions, you can see different marks of indigenous tradition made by native hands, painted with earth and kingdom inks. This strength was not something that could be tamed by priests.

In the same way, an instrument of enchantment, the mirror accompanies the usual narratives of seduction by Europeans in the invasion of Brazil, using it as a colonizing weapon camouflaged as a gift. In the universe created by Luiz Braga, this same narcissistic fascination of those who look at themselves in the reflection of water or metal is present in country houses, in mirrors in front of which their residents dress in the best clothes and meticulously comb their hair for the festivities, events of joy that Braga chooses to perpetuate.

His shield, fragile and controversial, protects him from nothing but himself, as it carries a target at its center, as if to say “shoot!”. In this way, the gaze of the portrayed reaches him, subverting the shield as an instrument of protection and transforming him into a chest open to life, at random. Sometimes, the moment of decision to capture the image does not seem to belong to the photographer, but to the person portrayed. In that instant, everything clicks.

"Profile of the lady in the candle", 1991. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy Instituto Tomie Ohtake.
“Profile of the lady in the candle”, 1991. Photo: Luiz Braga. Courtesy of the artist / Galeria Leme.

The exhibition reiterates the effervescent cultural plurality of the region of Pará, calling attention to the existing political inequalities and to the aesthetic stigmas that are erroneously linked to its heterogeneous artistic production. When the masks fall, when the mirrors collapse and the shields are split, it seems that an arrow crosses the plane of the photograph and lacerates those portrayed. This incision in the bodies of Luiz Braga's images would contest their expected Dionysian viscerality and attest to their abrupt Apollonian fabulation: it would cut an open wound of color where flesh was expected, light bursting from where blood was expected.

*Mateus Nunes is an architect and researcher. Doctoral student in Art History at the University of Lisbon, with an exchange period at USP, where he is a researcher and guest professor. Architect and urban planner from the Federal University of Pará, in Belém. He is a professor at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) on the occasion of the course “Contemporary Art from Pará: Hybridisms, images and poetics”.

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