Colonialism leaves a peculiar scar. As generations pass and ethnicities merge, the distinction between indigenous and invader becomes increasingly blurred until it is impossible for either side to regard the other without finding something of themselves reflected there. Some 500 years after the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in Porto Seguro, Brazil, Adriana Vareja~o takes a look at the historic clash of cultures in her native land with a new solo exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art.
Vareja~o’s work is focused and direct, the more recent paintings particularly accessible. Yet she cites an incredibly eclectic collection of inspirations. A partial list, from an interview in a catalog of a recent show, reads: ” . . . a news item in a newspaper, a mirror in Tlacolula, a public restroom in a bus station, a Chinese bird in Sabara, the sound of a guitar, an azulejo [tile] in Queluz, a piece of jerked-beef in the Caruaru market, a sentence from the past, a painting in New York, ex-votos [votive offerings] in Maceio, a red from Madrid, a sento in Kyoto, and more and more . . . ”
Amid the swirl of references and influences, Japan occupies a special place in Vareja~o’s heart, and she in Japan’s. She was featured at 2004’s “Body Nostalgia” show of Brazilian artists at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, and more recently at last year’s Cartier Collection show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Vareja~o attracts attention partly because there are not a lot of Brazilian artists on the international art scene. But the novelty of an exotic nationality will only get you so far. What has taken this artist to the next level is both the conviction she communicates with and the startling uniqueness of her work.
It is a treat to see her in Tokyo with a solo show at one of the city’s finest private museums. The exhibition comprises some 20 works from 1992 to present, in a wide variety of media. It starts and is interspersed with the three-dimensional, gashed-tile pieces that most directly address the subject of colonization. In these works, Vareja~o makes frequent reference to a special and significant type of hand-painted ceramic tile traditionally crafted in Portugal and used in Brazil.
Her technique is arresting — the “tiles” are seen to be bulging like thick slabs of skin, rupturing in red, festering slits. The message can be taken as literally illustrating how the clean surfaces of colonial propriety ultimately fail to contain a nation’s viscera, or they can be regarded as symbolic of the wounds created by a clash of cultures. Alternatively, one could simply marvel at the freakishly cool juxtaposition of entrails and ceramics.
The tile and other “wounded” pieces here (and closer scrutiny will reveal much more to many of them than just the bleeding) are followed in the Hara’s main room by a selection of new paintings from the artist’s ongoing “Bath and Sauna” series. The large oil-on-canvas works illustrate the interiors of bathhouses and saunas from Brazil, Europe and Japan. Because the walls and floors of such spaces are often made of tile, there is a link with Vareja~o’s earlier work. But the visual effect here is entirely different, the paintings suggesting more the serenity of U.K. artist David Hockney’s California swimming pool paintings.
They are perfectly executed with regard to color, composition and the introduction of subtle perspective-shifting through careful application of light and shadow, and water-distortion effects.
Upstairs, we find a couple of wholly unexpected, surrealist oil-on-canvas works from the early 1990s, interiors and landscapes that reference the Chinese Buddhist style, inhabited by an improbable collection of hunters, fornicators and religious figures.
The exhibition is well worth a visit, and make sure to take a look outside, where Vareja~o has added a new permanent work to the Hara’s sculpture garden. Titled “Panacea Phantastica,” the 10-m long, tiled wall is designed with a pattern developed on botanical drawings of some 60 types of hallucinogenic plants.