Hélio Oiticica: Dance in My Experience
New Yorkers who had an opportunity to see the exhibition Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at the Whitney Museum in 2017 may have tried on his “Parangolés”—multilayered garments and capes made of fabric, plastic, or paper often bearing political slogans. Devised to be worn, experienced, and danced with by the spectator, these groundbreaking paintings-in-motion were conceived after Hélio Oiticica began to take part in the Estação Primeira de Mangueira, the venerable samba school located in Mangueira, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, in 1964. Oiticica’s experience was profoundly transformative—so much so that he eventually began parading during Carnival. Initially affiliated with the Neo-Concrete Movement and its tenets of rigor, method, and technical precision, Oiticica shifted his investigations from geometric painting to aesthetic experiences beyond the traditional realm of visual arts, employing dance, choreography, music, rhythm, and the body to incorporate sensorial, participatory, popular, and vernacular elements into his work. To mark the first presentation of the “Parangolés” series in 1965, Oiticica invited his friends, residents of Mangueira, to wear them to the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. However, the participants were denied entrance. Reacting with expletives, Oiticica left the building, bringing with him the crowd that filled the gallery. The “Parangolés” were then activated by Mangueira members in the gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx. As the work merged elements of so-called high and low art, it challenged art world standards and the institutional veto of the participation of people from a favela exposed the systemic racism and rampant social inequality in Brazilian society.
The “Parangolés” are now the starting point of Dance in My Experience, an exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). The presentation was already set up when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and like other public and private venues, MASP was shut down. As São Paulo emerged as one of the global pandemic’s epicenters and a reopening became increasingly elusive, the solution was to pivot part of the show to a virtual setting. As a result, the 19 “Parangolés” on view—14 of which are replicas that can be worn—remain hanging in the walls of the museum rather than being experienced by the public. Due to safety measures, it will not be possible to wear them once the museum resumes its activities (at this point, neither the reopening date nor the closing date for the exhibition are clear). While this is disappointing and certainly not the experience envisioned by curators Adriano Pedrosa and Tomás Toledo, the impromptu online exhibition allows it to resonate with audiences in the spirit of the message inscribed on one of the “Parangolés”, “da adversidade vivemos,” or “from adversity we live.” A guided tour, installation views and images of artworks now form the core of the online iteration. Photographs, writings, videos, and ephemera related to the “Parangolés” series, present in the physical exhibition, are elements that are very much missed from the online show.
Taking its title from a text written by Oiticica and published in 1965, the exhibit revisits his body of work through the lens of dance, rhythm, and choreography, from the “Metaesquemas” [Meta-structures], “Relevos espaciais” [Spatial Reliefs], “Núcleos” [Nuclei], “Penetrável” [Penetrables], “Bólides” [Fireballs], and, finally, the “Parangolés” series. While dance is intentionally both a thematic and integral part of the “Parangolés,” rhythmic and choreographic elements are present in more subtle and encrypted modes within earlier works. Take the “Metaesquema,” series from the 1950s, as an example. These gouache-painted cards, apparently static and formal, beautifully explore various geometric combinations (trapezoidal triangles, circle, and semicircle) and colors (red, green, blue, and black) to create a hypnotizing sense of movement. While their vocabulary is limited in terms of forms and operations, Oiticica, starting as a 20-year-old, devised several creations from these basic premises. Forms were still attached to Oiticica’s primary references—he considered Malevich’s White on White (1918) a supreme example of invention—yet geometric shapes seem to stroll the paper, exploding from the center to its edges. Oiticica’s masterful use of color also creates vibration, adding to the choreography.
Departing from these geometric explorations of color and space that draw upon European constructivism and South American geometric abstraction, shapes become increasingly dynamic and rebellious, until they leave the paper surface altogether, as with the Spatial Reliefs. These structures are in fact three-dimensional painted sheets of wood, suspended in space. Their colors follow variations of the same shade, from orange to burnt yellow. Along with the Grande Núcleo [Grand Nucleus] (1960–1966) a nuclear core that unfolds into an array of luminous yellows (an amplified version of the Spatial Reliefs), they make one of the most beautiful views of the exhibit in the context of the museum's architecture. The monumental X-shaped red staircase designed by Lina Bo Bardi makes for the perfect backdrop to this installation, allowing for a stark contrast between yellow and red—two primary colors Oiticica was very fond of.
Following these sculptures and installations, Oiticica’s works became increasingly immersive, inviting viewers to engage in progressively dynamic ways. Within these later works, color plays the important role of adding rhythms that create contrast and agitation. The Penetrables for example, pave the way for further interaction and bodily choreography—the public was invited (though no longer) to touch, move, walk about them.
“Parangolés,” the final stage of Oiticica’s lifetime pursuit for a participatory art that dissolved the boundaries between art and life and between fine arts and popular culture, came to life because of his encounter with Mangueira. In the favela, in his interactions with impoverished, illiterate Black Brazilians, Oiticica found the raw material to his “manifestations of color in the surrounding space,” as he described. The dance (a collective improvisation rather than an organized choreography), the rhythms, and the rituals of Afro-Brazilian origins, as well as the affordable materials like natural fibers and sequins (employed in Carnival costumes), became Oiticica's signature of avant-garde. The “Parangolés” were not art in themselves, as he once wrote. Their purpose was to serve as a vehicle to incorporate the body in the work, and the work in the body. In this sense, the human body was not offering a mere support structure. On the contrary, it was a total incorporation of the two—a concept that Oiticica, a privileged white Brazilian, learned from his disenfranchised Black friends at Mangueira. Oiticica would later explore this notion further, adding messages with political and religious content. Like the one that reads “incorporo a revolta” [I embody the revolt], worn by and built in collaboration with Nildo of Mangueira, who, like other residents of the favela, is often referred to by only his first name or nickname. The slogan alluded both to Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship and the notion of “incorporation” of entities borrowed from Afro-Brazilian religions.
Oiticica’s engagement with Mangueira came from a genuine belief in radical societal change, yet the artist couldn’t escape from the power dynamics in which he was entangled. Feeling progressively drawn to the margins of the society, he wished to leave his bourgeois milieu to occupy a new place, with no social divisions—what he called the “total ‘lack of social place.’” In a letter1 from 1968 to his confidant Lygia Clark, another towering figure of Brazilian Neo-Concretist movement, Oiticica invoked German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse to explain his desire to be seen as a marginal being. Clark gave her friend a major reality-check: “as for your marginalization I don't agree” (…) thinking that you are a marginal because you live on the edge of a rotten outdated society is still a bourgeois concept.”
This dialogue may offer some insights into the layered racial and economic circumstances in which Oiticica’s work was produced. While the online iteration of the exhibition doesn’t touch on the subject, it’s now clear that the favela and its residents weren’t simply objects of study, but rather rightful producers of culture, part of a singular cultural ecosystem marked by life experiences shaped by necessity and by survival strategies. A more contemporary reading comes from the catalog2, which includes an essay by curator Vivian Crockett, discussing some of the overlooked aspects of black culture associated with Oiticica’s oeuvre. Her take, she emphasizes, is not to disparage Oiticica and his radical work, but rather to move beyond the dominant frame of white cultural hegemony. A necessary revision, as Brazil, and, in fact, the entire American continent, painfully grapples with systemic racism and the lasting legacies of colonialism.
- Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Cartas, 1964 – 1974, ed. Luciano Figueiredo (Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1996).
- Vivian A. Crockett, “War Heroes: Toward a Poethics of Blackness in Hélio Oiticica,” Hélio Oiticica: Dance in My Experience, ed. Adriano Pedrosa and Tomás Toledo (São Paulo: MASP, 2020).