Oresponsible for programming the Tomie Ohtake Institute, in São Paulo, made the exhibitions of two afro-descendant artists: Brown is Paper, traveling exhibition by Rio de Janeiro artist Maxwell Alexandre; and Di Cavalcanti – Muralist, an exhibition by the renowned modernist painter, curated by Ivo Mesquita. This “encounter” allows us to follow the strength of the history of Afro-Brazilian painting in two different moments and from distant but intertwined pictorial perspectives. A more patient look would perhaps perceive important narrative coincidences between these apparently disparate universes, but here we are going to focus on this young black artist who burst onto the national and international scene with peculiar force.

Since the end of the 19th century, in the West, art academies established canons that lent importance – relative – to the various genres of painting. In this way, more meritorious and worthy of consideration (and consumption) would be the processes that resulted in works dedicated to the affirmation of the elites on duty, whether ecclesiastical or not. Works that portray these aristocracies would be guaranteed to be at the top of a hierarchical pyramid of aesthetic and political values. 

Having oneself represented was imperative and, in the absence of the monarch, the figure and authority expressed by painting or sculpture were revered. The representations of the king or nobles symbolically projected their powers and, therefore, were copiously realized and distributed. In the same way, his deeds received great attention, since from the paintings of a historical nature, warrior or pious exploits of the monarchs and their congeners were divulged. 

Among us, this historical type of painting, which is almost necessarily epic in its appearance and pretension, was also practiced and some of these works still occupy a central place in the narratives that predict the birth of the Brazilian State and nation.

“A cigarette and life through the window”, Maxwell Alexandre, 2019. Photo: Gabi Carrera / Publicity

In our case, obeying the inherited and colonially imposed academic canons, these paintings present heroes in action, like the one Independence or death, carried out in 1888 by Pedro Américo (1843-1905) from Paraíba and today belonging to the collection of the Paulista Museum of the University of São Paulo, where the still Prince Pedro can be seen flanked by an entourage and escorted by cavalrymen raising the sword and declaring Brazilian independence from Portugal. 

The other, Battle of Avai, also by Américo, was completed in 1877 and can be visited at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro. It represents a real crowd of soldiers locked in a fierce battle, with a Duke in the background, by the way, Caxias, whose uniform is open – apparently, this provoked the displeasure of the person portrayed –, who mounted his white horse, haughtily coordinates and distant the movements of “his” fatally victorious troop.  

These works have in common the gigantic dimensions, the profuse number of soldiers who carry out or support the actions described and, above all, the subordinate and peripheral role of the characters representing the popular fraction of that society, whether blacks, women, indigenous or miserable whites.

A Battle of Avai it is notorious for the number of characters represented in it, for the technical prodigy involved in its realization and, of course, for the impressive description it makes of a crucial moment in the battle it describes. In that profusion of characters, bodies in dynamic and dramatic shock, in the central foreground and at the foot of the scene we see the body of a black soldier who lies with his head wounded – the brain mass escapes from the split skull. The blacks represented in this battle fight for the sovereignty of the country that kept them enslaved. However, the body dehumanized by slavery is the same that sheds blood and viscera in that titanic combat presented by Pedro Américo.

“The moon wants to be black, it paints itself in the eclipse”, Maxwell Alexandre, 2019. Photo: Gabi Carrera / Disclosure

Maxwell Alexandre's paintings on display at the show brown is paper – initially shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon (France), in 2019, and later at the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) and at the Fundação Iberê Camargo, in Porto Alegre – also have an epic, grandiose, consecrating and, certainly, character. historic. 

They were not carried out in Europe like that of Amerigo. They are not the result of a state request, nor were they painted on fine linen. Nor do they boast an ornate gilded frame displaying the arms of the empire. On the contrary, the paintings by Alexandre exhibited at Instituto Tomie Ohtake were made on a fragile support that is not even supported by a chassis. The fragility of this support, the paper, is easily detected and perceived in the features that were incorporated into the painting. Arte Povera, poor, which emerged in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s also praised the cheap material used by artists who adhered to this aesthetic. There as here, this choice highlights a political attitude. 

As in the classics, Maxwell Alexandre's painting also brings crowds in a dynamic movement. But, unlike other works, on purpose the bodies presented there are all black, unequivocally black, and painted in everyday situations. And they are not anonymous. Despite not having their faces sketched, it is possible to identify the poet and sambista Cartola, the demiurge Arthur Bispo do Rosário or Jean-Michel Basquiat, who coalesce with the myriad of other subjects of this faerie black scene that only on the flat surface of the paper looks chaotic. , since the designed space is well composed of solid colors decorated with gold. 

Untitled, from the Novo Poder series, Maxwell Alexandre, 2019. Gabi Carrera / Publicity

At the entrance to the gallery that houses the exhibition there is a huge painting that represents a group of black people observing and commenting on a painting presented as a panel, beige or brown, a large and empty rectangle yellow Naples, a very pale yellow. There it is painting within painting, meta-painting. Maxwell Alexandre makes us contemplate people who, in turn, observe a panel (within the panel) where a single color can be seen. An acid and intelligent comment on the white cube, on the cultural institution that projects it and that narcissistically reflects only the color of white admitted to this space, without mirroring the blacks that also occupy it. If there are references to Basquiat in Alexander's paintings, this influence does not detract from the potency of the artist's works and, moreover, appears legitimate. It is still consecrating that young black artists can refer to others who are equally black, excellent as their influences.

The opulence of gold over blue, iridescent gold over red, sparkling gold over green, are present in the composition of these paintings, almost as a reminder of the precious metal that, prospected by the enslaved in the mines of Minas Gerais, made the wealth of many - except for those that extract it. Gold frames elements of pop culture, consumption, symbols of social ascension promoted by sport, work, art and the sometimes inevitable delinquency on the path of the excluded.

WE WERE ASH AND NOW WE ARE FIRE, by Maxwell Alexandre
“We were the ashes and now we are the fire”, Maxwell Alexandre, 2019. Photo: Gabi Carrera / Disclosure

It may be that we identify in Maxwell Alexandre's paintings some festive character, of a profane and sacred feast. In this case, it is necessary to understand how much the party translates into resistance for that part of the population that is the preferred target of “stray bullets”, of necropolitics ammunition that mutilate families and liquidate young lives or even in the wombs of young mothers, but who neither contain nor dissipate the unyielding genius of this insurgent black Brazilian contemporary art. 

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