• By Leonor Amarante and Patricia Rousseaux

Adriana Varejão is always alert. His curiosity and sensitivity allow him to locate cultural and symbolic connotations in apparently simple objects. It can be a tile, a plate or even a tube of paint. Everything can be turned into her work.

Your inspiration for the project Octopus was born in the 1990s in an association between his research on paints to paint the skin in his works and the reading of a census carried out by the IBGE in 1976, showing that, when asked about their color of origin, people came to name 136 colors : “Brown, agalegada, alvinha, navy blue, dark, bronze, copper, cinnamon, gourd, half black, lilac, yellowish, turns to white, beach burnt, pale, honeyed white, dirty white, healed , brunette very close, sulphurous, dumb when he runs away, etc.”.

Who could have imagined that Brazilians would not recognize themselves only in the five colors established in the official national censuses. The simple pink color of the paints on the market did not, by far, account for such a diversity of identities.

Hard work of research, writing and creation gave way to Octopus, a conceptual project synthesized in three exhibitions, one in London, in 2013, at the Victoria Miro Gallery; another in 2014, in São Paulo; and then in New York. Also the launch of a book written by four hands with the historian and doctor in Social Anthropology, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz.

That same year, both told the ARTE!Brasileiros details about the process of this work.

ARTE!Brasileiros - Tell us a little about the historical research process and the associations you made. How did you arrive at this color survey?

Adriana Varejao – Well, I'm not an expert on the subject, but I like to read about Anthropology, Sociology, History and Culture, especially from Brazil. I don't remember exactly when I found out about this census, but I believe it was in the late 1990s. I saw the list of skin colors, and I had a job in mind, in which I "collected" skin colors, skin ink colors from various places in the world. Most of the time they were pink and I thought I'd work on that issue. I put the two things together and thought of making inks with skin colors that weren't that pink, but more mixed skin colors, more related to what really exists. I joined the two pieces of information, the question of the colors that appeared in the census and that came to name the paints and the very manufacture of oil paint. In fact, I did it more in the sense of saying that color is language, before anything else. Color goes far beyond race. I think it's amazing the idea of ​​people calling themselves their color. I did some work in the 1990s that were self-portraits of myself, as if I were of different ethnicities. I made a triptych in which I was Chinese, Indian and Moorish. He had also already flirted with questions concerning Mexican social castes, all the racial classifications between Indians, Amerindians and Spaniards. These questions have always inhabited my universe of reading and knowledge.

Painting has been present in his work since his first works. What is her role in this series? 

Adriana – It's a little different, but it has a common element: in these two works, I didn't paint the portraits. This work was commissioned by Ana Moura, a painter who always collaborates with me, and she painted several portraits. But I don't think this is a work that goes through the question of painting itself. It's a more conceptual issue. The idea of ​​having portraits of the same person in several different colors, as the idea of ​​color is linked to race, is very fluid and becomes very clear when people call themselves “burned from the beach” or “well-arrived brunette”, many curious colors , What does that mean? There are many curious definitions of color, which we do not know exactly what it means, or what it means exactly: “It is impossible to determine colors for people”. It is a work that does not give us many answers, but raises several questions. The interferences I made on the portraits were made with the color tables. It was the last stage of the work, with Ana by my side, in the studio. A kind of fiction of what would be a chromatic survey. The same occurs with the Polvo paint box itself. I even think they are actually a painting.

Would you say they are metaframes?

Adriana – I could say, yes. As painting is also a kind of it. The work that goes to São Paulo, for example, was commissioned and they are all the same and the portraits are almost all in black and white. I interfere in them, using the colors of Polvo paints. Faces are painted with geometric figures. There are 33 portraits and each one has the interference of a color on the face. It is a hyper-realistic painting, but serial and almost colorless. The color is due to these interferences that I took as a reference in indigenous paintings. They make paintings with incredible geometries. I had some conversations with Adriano Pedrosa about this and we thought that “there was a modernism before modernism”. A wild modernism.

Could we say that this set of paintings is a kind of cultural contagion? 

Adriana – Yes, as in all my work I am always crossing stories.

When you say “commissioned work”, do you mean that a team worked with you, helped to do the intervention?

Adriana - No, I didn't do the base painting. I do all the interventions. I did the whole intervention of indigenous painting on the faces. I acted as if I were directing the work. I wanted the concept of portraits that change color and I made interferences of cultures on the portrait that was commissioned. I'm doing the same in the series China, which I call Octopus Portraits, and has multiple sets. One of them I did for the Victoria Miro Gallery, another I'm doing for Fortes Vilaça, and another for Lehmann Maupin, who represents me in New York. The sets come with a box of Polvo paints. I made a multiple of 200 boxes and each gallery will have a series of portraits. At Victoria Miro has the call Classic Series. A series of more traditional portraits. Fortes Vilaça will present the china series. I had all the portraits painted in China and they painted 33 identical portraits. The group from New York who will paint is the same artist from Classic Series, will be called Seashore Portraits, something like that, we spent hours discussing, portraits with a light background, as if it were in a marina, a beach.

How is the conceptual process of your work steeped in history and which requires a lot of research? How do you make these adjustments, how does it all unfold? 

Adriana - I have a daily work routine. I go to the studio and stay at least eight hours a day. I read a lot, talk to a lot of people from other areas and I'm very curious. I'm always open to talking about anything. I really like to take risks. I have concerns about my work. I wouldn't need to do anything else in life but tiles...

Exactly, but you risk doing other things, constantly changing course…

Adriana – There would be an infinite field for me if I wanted to do just that. But I didn't become an artist because of that. I like to get involved in different projects, to go into different areas, but I've always liked History and Art History more, more connected to decorative art. I go to museums a lot. Museums of popular art, of anthropology. These are subjects that have always interested me. Here's how the processes go: I was at a friend's house and I started to leaf through a book about Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, an incredible Portuguese ceramist from the XNUMXth century. I remembered that I had a book of his at home and I went crazy with the work. I went to Holland to research more about ceramics, I wanted to make ceramics and found out that it was impossible. I decided to make some dishes that weren't, but that looked like ceramic. I thought: if I make tiles without making tiles, I will make ceramics without making ceramics. I solved the issue of the dishes with fiberglass and resin. A pleasurable thing that I develop, as if it were a passion. I also have an idea of ​​carnivalizing things. To treat things like a carnival plot. You know when you see the story being told, and then all of a sudden, that wing completely freaks out and the story opens up in a dynamic way. Don't you realize this?

Yes, crazed and theatricalized too…

Adriana - Yes, pirates appear out of nowhere. Then you associate: “Oh, yes, it is, because, once, they invaded the northeast…”. I open many windows of interpretation. I started making the dishes and then, on the internet, I started researching mermaids. From Bordalo Pinheiro I ended up with the mermaids. Because they were sea motifs, from the mermaids I ended up in the Ama Divers, tribes of Japanese women who dive like hunters. A tradition of over two thousand years. They dive with only the bottom of their bathing suit, they go with their breasts exposed, a knife at their waist and tissues on their heads. There are photos from the 1940s that show hundreds of women going overboard. They look like “shoals” of women. The men used to go, but in the regions where the Ama Divers exist, the waters were so cold that the women, supposedly with more fat, started to go in their place. There was a role reversal. The men stayed at home taking care of the children and the women went to the sea.

I would like you to talk about this matter of meat. How skin, flesh and blood are present in his work. Does Goya or Rembrandt have anything to do with it? Do you have any influence from these two painters?

Adriana – Not especially theirs, but the history of meat, in painting, is long, it's a tradition. There are several painters who paint or painted the flesh. My first references are Goya and Rembrandt, as well as Caravaggio, who has a certain viscerality. Then came Chaïm Soutine, Francis Bacon, Géricault, the Baroque…

Goya is very visceral and political. In a way, his works are also political, you bring all this load of history, of colonization, naturally his works have a strong political bias…

Adriana - My work is very political, but I don't militate with it. The story is what interests me.

Octopus Portraits VII (China Series), 2014 - Photo: Jaime Acioli
Octopus Portraits VII (China Series), 2014 – Photo: Jaime Acioli

How was your beginning? Why did you want, back there, to talk about it all this way? Do you feel committed to this story?

Adriana - It's not a compromise. It's a sensitivity. And I even pay for it. The work is done from our personality. And I think I'm sensitive to issues of identity. But I am far from being a person who is politicized and committed to political messages.

Adriana, to conclude, allow me to make a joke: if you had been approached in that 1976 census, what color would you assign to yourself?

Adriana - I didn't think about it, but there's a color there that I liked, and I think it has to do with me, which is “slushy white”.

When we heard about the exhibition that Adriana Varejão was going to open in April, we thought about inviting you to write a text and then we knew you were writing a book…

Lilia Schwarcz – The book is almost ready. The launch is scheduled for April. It's not just about Adriana's recent work. We wrote over four years and I saw the work grow. Adriana cannibalizes things, takes the references, pulls them and transforms them into something else. She cannibalized my book. She said she had "read" it in The Spectacle of Races things I didn't write myself. We got along really well. When we started, I told her that I was neither an expert nor an art critic, but she gave me a lot of “lessons”. When her other book came out (Between Meats and Seas, 2010, Editora Cobogó) we talked a lot and that's where the idea of ​​writing a new book together came from. We didn't know very well, at the beginning, what it would be like.

In the presentation text for the Polvo exhibition, at Galeria Victoria Miro, art critic Margherita Dessanay comments on how language works at different levels of cognition.

Lilia - One important thing I always say: color is language. I work a lot on the idea that there is no absolute notion of color. Color is a relationship between other colors. It is a language, in the sense that we speak articulately, slowly. We never say isolated things, we use terms that we know and that only make sense in comparison. “Dirty white, almost white, pulls it to white.” In Brazil, white is a color that has a very strong symbolic force. In Brazil, the notion of race comes from the notion of color. People often don't want to talk about race, but they talk about color. Color is a form of social stratification, it is a social marker of differences. So, I think this is a very important question. It is a way of thinking about Brazil. Adriana has produced art in dialogue with history, with what we live in the country, and I think this reflection on color is a strong result of her perspectives. She has been discussing colonization, gains and losses and how colonization is language. It is a privileged way of talking about Brazil.

Dessanay states in this text that definitions used by people of mixed races in the 1976 Penade survey – “I am whiter, I am whiter, I am lighter” – reflect a proximity to the white ethnicity, showing a level of introjection of racism in Brazil. People of mixed races would feel the need to value themselves for their degree of whiteness. Being whiter would be a social hierarchy qualifier. Do you think this statement is correct?

Lilia - I didn't read the text, however, in Brazil, the last census, identifies five official colors: white, black, yellow, red and brown. But, why is red the native? Why is yellow the oriental? The official classification of the census contains the term brown, if you think about it, it is a color that is a kind of “etc.”. When they say someone is brown, it's because they didn't fit in any of the previous colors. If you ask a person to identify their color, they might even say brown. But if you give her all five options, who knows, maybe she won't say she's white? "I'm not red, I'm not yellow, I'm not black, so I'm white!" It is interesting this non-definition of brown color and how the census uses it as a kind of et cetera. It's basically this: are you white, yellow, red or etcetera? Color is not just language, it is also relationship. Color brings together other relationships. Of course, these definitions, like “white, almost white”, are definitions that would support Dessanay's text: a little “whiteness” is better. But they are definitions that also speak of a social place and a social experience. It's not just color for color's sake. Color brings together social experiences. As if we were saying: “I negotiate my color”. Color is not a fixed situation. It varies according to the circumstance. A term like “sunburned” means what? It involves several situations. Penade's research was carried out in 1976, almost 40 years ago… A lot has changed. But what I like to think is: the term color is more porous than the term race. Race is a fixed term and the term color is not. People in Brazil negotiate their color. What I don’t want is to make Adriana’s work a reflection of the social context…

Yes, we also do not want to say that this work is the result of sociological or anthropological research. It is the product of Adriana's creative and interdisciplinary associations. She associates things she intuits. As you said, it “cannibalizes” the information and transforms it into a powerful work… Let’s talk a little about the book…

Lilia - O book will be called Pearl Imperfect – History and Stories in the Work of Adriana Varejão. It is a large book, over 400 pages. A reflection on all her work. The book is a “conversation” and I really like the idea that she sometimes works as a scribe. Adriana ended up co-authoring the book at my insistence, because she, in fact, put the book together with me. We discussed each part, each section, and he deals with all the canvases: catechesis, works on colonization, academic canvases, tiles, embroidery and plates. There's a chapter that I think is very beautiful. It deals with the Yanomami and the beautiful experience she had with them. In the end, there is a discussion that brings together the irezumis, the tiradentes, with the work on skin, the skin changes. It has this expression in Brazil. André Rebouças, for example, who was very close to the crown, says that he never had a problem with his race and it was only when he went to the United States that he realized he was black. He says something like “I had to change my skin”. And this reflection on “changing your skin” combines Adriana's previous work with this new one. That's very beautiful in her work. A path that is unexpected and coherent, much studied. She has a very impacted dimension with the social context, even though she is not a hostage to it.

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