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Recently arrived from its first run at the Tomie Ohtake Institute in São Paulo and curated by Germana Monte-Mór, 'Teimosia da Imaginaçao' ('The Stubborn Imagination') brings together ten national artists from ten different states at the Casa França Brasil. None of them enjoy mainstream success, nor do they have gallery representation nor fit into prescribed notions of ‘high art’. Some of the artists shown have a complicated relationship to the very word ‘artist’ and others, like Cícero Alveo dos Santos, do not accept the label as their own, seeing no separation between his life and the work that he does, saying of his work ‘this is a life’. For him, creating is a part of living and does not need to be externally defined or labelled by the art world.
Despite occasional first appearances, there is, of course, work of the finest quality to be found herein, such as José Bezerra’s sculptures, hewn from wooden logs and wonderfully evocative of the animals they represent. A baying dog, a singing bird and a reluctant armadillo dance their way out of their wooden constructs. It is as if the forms have been waiting to be discovered in the wood all along. Close by, Izabel Mendes de Cunha’s statues, reminiscent of the folk sculptures of Northeastern Brazilian culture, depict eternal themes such as marriage and motherhood. Mendes de Cunha is shown, alongside all other nine artists, in a wonderful film commissioned by the curator which plays in a loop in the space. Her sensitivity, humility and sharp intelligence are marked, along with an obvious mastery of the clay that she works with.
Aurelino Santos’ paintings are another gem of the exhibition, combining geometrical and figurative forms to create vibrant, rich and textured portraits of the city of Salvador. Archetypal forms - serpents, lion’s heads, religious symbols - combine with the architecture of the city and the result is almost too tactile to resist touch.
Cícero Alves dos Santos, or Véio, as he likes to be known, is behind the other wooden sculptures, often partly retaining the form of the wood they came from; branches, knots and whorls still visible. The best way to describe them is that they are, simply, utterly what they are. A fiery ant rears up on his hind legs, peering quizzically at us, using a sensitivity with the material that can only come from a lifetime of looking and observing the natural world. This is the anchor of Véio’s work - even his charming smaller sculptures and amulets, displayed in a case, never stray far from natural truths and cultural knowledge.
It feels as if, in the context of global capitalism and the Rio+20 conference happening close by, this exhibition is a truly necessary and courageous statement. It marks a return to sustainability, of craftsmanship and true respect of the natural world in all its variations. Although plural and each an individual expression, the art is characterised by a sense of closeness to its maker, not mass-produced or assembled by the hands of countless studio assistants. It has come into being through labour, because the artists are compelled to bring it into being.
In this there is an immense power, and it is not often that you leave an exhibition feeling as if you have still so much to learn, experience and understand. In that way, 'Teimosia da Imaginaçao' achieves that which the very best art work should; jolts the viewer out of the everyday with an alternative vision of the world. The expertise and real love of the materials used shown in this exhibition are humbling, and the exhibition as a whole does as it set out to do: challenge the mainstream notion of what it means to be an artist in the current market. The high-art world, fuelled by profit and driven by passing fashions, has a lot to learn from the stubborn imagination of these artists, who are similarly workers, creators, learners, makers, revolutionaries and dreamers.