Art In Conversation
Adriana Varejão with Lee Ann Norman
“Talavera is not a product of cultural colonization, but rather a colonial cultural project.”
May 3 – June 26, 2021
Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão creates worlds steeped in the social histories of identity, cultural exchange, and the land using Baroque techniques and strategies. Her two- and three-dimensional paintings and sculpture-like objects and environments escape the traditional confines of their medium by serving as symbols of other things—flesh, fat, clay, blood, meat—to conjure bone-deep memories of colonial conquest and subjugation, resistance, and the inevitable hybridity that is created as a result of it all. Whether a color wheel using the tones of human flesh, a thickly painted map incised like skin, or the intricately painted detail of jerked beef or a sauna, Varejão’s work often compels us toward the quotidian while simultaneously surprising us by prompting a terrible sublime. Through these clever convergences Varejão surfaces the complex nature of the human condition, imploring us to have empathy for its fraughtness while choosing actions that might reconcile it. We spoke recently on the occasion of her first exhibition with Gagosian New York about the evolution of her career, artistic influences, and her relationship to the azulejo.
Lee Ann Norman (Rail): Can you share how and why you decided to pursue art? What were some of the major influences on you, as you started to work as an artist?
Adriana Varejão: At university, I began to study engineering, not art. My family was not artistic at all; we didn’t go to museums and so on. I think I was 18 years old when I decided to enroll in a free art course. I went to Parque Lage, an art school in Rio, but it did not have a graduate program. It was very active in the 1970s and ’80s. At this point, my perception of life changed completely and forever. I was at university right after the 21-year dictatorship in Brazil, so the art department was conservative. People were drawing apples… very academic. I decided to rent a place with some other artists and I began to make paintings. I used to go to many film festivals and remember being deeply impressed by the power of the images of filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, and David Cronenberg. When you see my work, it makes sense. [Laughs]
Rail: Yes—the Baroque influences, body horror, and all the experimental techniques from their work definitely resonate.
Varejão: In the 1980s I was also studying the literary work of Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, and I read his important book of essays Written on a Body. I also visited Ouro Preto, which is a colonial city in Brazil that was built at the end of the 17th century. It was a region of Brazil rich in gold and diamonds, exploited by the Portuguese with slave labor. Consequently many Baroque churches were built there by local artisans, who somewhat influenced the decorative schemes. Aleijadinho, the Brazilian architect and artist whose churches and artworks are considered some of the best and most important examples of colonial Brazil, was the son of a Portuguese architect and his African slave. So it was at that point that the Baroque came into my life and art and stayed there forever.
Rail: During that time in Brazil, there were a lot of artists making political art and more experimental work, using video and performance, so what drew you to painting?
Varejão: Well, I would say that experimental art was much more prominent in the 1960s and ’70s—Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, Lygia Clark. But in the ’80s we followed movements like the Italian Transavanguardia, and German Neo-Expressionism. I was not so familiar with what was going on in the United States at the same time but I remember David Salle and Julian Schnabel, and in Germany, Anselm Kiefer. I made my first trip outside of Brazil to New York in 1984. Of everything I saw, I remember Philip Guston and Anselm Kiefer, especially Kiefer. At that point, I discovered the notion of materiality.
Rail: In your approach to painting, materiality comes up in a different way than it does for other artists who are also interested in paint as a material in the work. Can you talk about how that plays out in your work?
Varejão: I was influenced much more by the impact of artists who have this kind of three dimensional concern. David Salle, for example, who was incorporating furniture into his paintings. Kiefer’s paintings seemed like pure materiality for me, but my interest in his work is also the encounter with the Baroque itself—not painting, but architecture and the materials used. I mix material in a very non-traditional way. I add volume to the paint using plaster, polyurethane, foam, and aluminum.
Rail: You tend to work in this space that mimics sculptural practices, and sometimes you paint in three dimensions. You mentioned how that relates to the Baroque theatricality, making something that looks like something else… were there precedents for this in Brazil?
Varejão: Yes. Antonio Dias, an artist who greatly influenced me, made a kind of visceral Pop art, playing with three-dimensional surfaces. Cildo Meireles made a series called “Cantos” (corners) which were between paintings and sculptures, like the border between two walls, a corner.
In Brazil, many artists, like Hélio Oiticica, were working on these ideas of transforming space, such as painting invading and occupying three dimensions, including architecture and the body.
Rail: But you didn’t always work that way. Earlier in your career you were making more traditionally figurative paintings and then you moved into creating different kinds of objects that mimic tiles, flesh, and architecture. Can you talk about how your work has progressed through the use of different forms?
Varejão: In the 1980s, I used masses of oil paint to create the sense of the body. I made one of my first important works, Map of Lopo Homem by filling an oval canvas with oil paint, then cutting it open, and then suturing up again, like a body after surgery—I actually had a friend of mine who was a dentist do it, and she described it as being exactly like skin! That led me to the idea of a materiality of the body. I developed this idea of materiality further by creating a surface that opened to reveal simulated visceral flesh that then spilled into the space around it, like the huge tongues that make up the “Lingua” series …The “Meat Ruins” were a consequence of this. But I never literally use maps or meat or tiles; I mimic them according to the theatricalizing strategies of the Baroque. There is no ethic of materiality in my work, it is all artifice.
Rail: There are a lot of historical references and culturally specific references in your work, but you also make connections to other cultures and histories—you mentioned the Song dynasty, and now in your most recent work you reference practices in Mexico. Can you talk about how you use those different elements to inform what you make or even sometimes how you make it?
Varejão: In the ’90s, when I began to study the Baroque, it became apparent that it was a European strategy of colonization and cultural conquest. And so I began to study the history of the conquests of the Portuguese and the conquests of America. Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other was a very important book for me. I studied the conquest strategies of the Baroque, not only to invent my own images but also to make parodies of images—to employ the Baroque’s dialectics of persuasion to rewrite history from a marginal point of view.
Rail: Can you unpack anthropophagy a bit more? As you mentioned, people sometimes wonder if Oswald de Andrade literally meant “eating the other” or literal cannibalism, or if he was speaking more metaphorically.
Varejão: In 1928, Oswald de Andrade introduced this concept of antropofagia to invent modernism in Brazil, because the art that was being made there emulated what was being made in Europe. As he was conducting research into native traditions at the time, he used the concept of anthropophagy as practiced by Indigenous peoples. For example, in the 16th century the Tupi tribes captured the soldier and explorer Hans Staden, who then wrote about his experience and described the rituals in True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil. He wrote the whole story of anthropophagic rituals—how it works and how it functions in a tribe—with drawings. (It’s amazing, and I have used this iconography a lot in my work.) When there was a war between tribes, some warriors were captured and kept in the tribe for a while. Then there was the ritual where the tribe decided that the person they captured would be eaten, because the hierarchy of the tribe required it. When the person was eaten, one more name was added to the captor’s existing identification, making them a more important member of the tribe, and thus enhancing the tribal hierarchy. It was not a question of eating because of hunger; it was a ritual to absorb the other’s courage and strength and maintain balance in society. So for de Andrade, Brazilian culture was not about copying Europe, it was about eating Europe: we will observe, and we will absorb your traditions into our folklore to make a difference based on our own traditions.
Rail: I really appreciate how you are looking for and making those different connections. You have talked a lot about the notion of the rhizome as well, meaning there are many different strands that one can follow to consider an idea. You’ve also said that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is more complicated than we tend to think about, that the relationship is more complex than a binary. It reminds me of how we often must think about how what happens in the past affects our present.
Varejão: I made a work called Proposal for a Catechesis where the Indians were eating Jesus Christ instead of the literal script of catechism whereby Christ’s body is eaten and his blood drunk. The Cuban writer José Lezama Lima always said that the Baroque in Latin America is an instrument of counter conquests. The subject of my work today reflects that period of my research and education whereby I use pedagogy and Baroque strategies, like artificiality, to criticize the tragedy of cultural domination.
Rail: Yes. Maybe we don’t want to get rid of all of the foreign influences. We do take some of them on and they become part of who we are. A blending happens that then creates something new or unique. I think that was the goal in this case, with anthropophagy, to create something uniquely Brazilian.
Varejão: The Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant developed the concept of creolization, which is, in a way, similar to anthropophagy. It’s about how you build new traditions from local influences and variations. He also introduced the rhizomatic concept as it relates to how culture develops and, literally, takes root. Glissant says that it is wrong to conceptualize culture as a single tree, to think in terms of just one trunk or stem branching into several other branches. Or that just one system generates many other systems.
Rail: The new works in the Gagosian New York exhibition grew out of those you were making previously that referred to the Portuguese azulejo. But the new paintings focus on a Mexican ceramic tradition rather than a Portuguese one. Could you talk about this evolution?
Varejão: The history of the azulejo, or tile, contains many histories, from Arab culture to the European and Asian. In the Netherlands there was the city of Delft, which was a very important center of tile-making and ceramics, where blue and white tiles were made. The blue and white tiles arrived in Portugal and then were sent on to Brazil through Portuguese colonization. Similarly, the Spanish brought tiles to Mexico from Talavera de la Reina, and in the 17th century only they were permitted to produce traditional Talavera in Mexico. This makes Talavera not a product of cultural colonization, but rather a colonial cultural project. But we know from history that Mexico already had its own amazing local ceramic tradition—the pre-Columbian: there were many, many, many local cultures producing amazing things that we can now see everywhere in museums around the world.
I visited Mexico frequently and I lived there once for six months. Over two years I created a huge photographic archive firsthand about Talavera, but I never used it. I sat on that material for a long time. Then a few years ago, I was invited to make a show at Museo Amparo in Puebla, which is the center of Mexico’s own Talavera tradition. Talavera is very different from the Portuguese Baroque tiles that I am used to. It uses many colors and geometric shapes. I was interested in it because of this—geometry and color.
Rail: What are some of the other influences or cultural convergences you noticed in the Talavera tradition?
Varejão: We can see Brazilian modernist influences, especially from architecture, such as Athos Bulcão, a very important Brazilian artist who created tiles and collaborated on many projects with Oscar Niemeyer. Talavera pottery vessels and tiles are handmade crafts in which you can see Spanish, Islamic, and even Mayan or pre-Columbian influences, and I include all of those traces in the works in the current exhibition. It’s challenging but very important for me in my work to break the hierarchies of art forms, not only in European history and culture, and America’s past and present, but also between fine art and artisanal craft—by mixing.
Rail: It feels to me that you’re not just focusing on the beauty of the object when you are making the tile paintings or the “Meat Ruin” works. I feel like you’re intentionally focusing on the use of the object, or its role, while also paying attention to the aesthetics. You are placing these craft objects like the tile, or the architectural, functional pillar, into a high art setting, whether it’s a gallery or a museum, which gives this formerly useful object a different meaning. To me, that’s also a political act. You have made some works in the past that can be read as much more explicitly political. How do you envision the role of politics in these new works?
Varejão: It’s a bit more subtle. I was beginning to discuss that in my previous New York exhibition, Kindred Spirits, where I employed portrait paintings, some of which were parodies of Indigenous visual traditions. Together with them I used the work of Frank Stella and Donald Judd over my Minimalist facial decorations to create a kind of hybridism. Just think that when Josef and Anni Albers went to Mexico, they were influenced by what they saw there and appropriated those sources into their own respective work. Similarly for me with Talavera, everything was “written” in the wall of handmade tiles I photographed in Mexico in the 1990s.
Rail: I think that I understand. You’re saying that the political aspects are subtle, but that they are also infused in so many different aspects of life; that maybe it doesn’t need to be stated so didactically because we can’t avoid the political.
Varejão: Think of this knowledge, this story, like a rhizome. This story is a mechanism of control used to create a tradition. We have created one official history of art, but there are many other stories of art, just as you can create many words with different sources. In my work, I have tried to take a completely different source—the history of tiles—to build a story parallel to the history of art. If we think of history and these tragic cultural traditions as rhizomes happening at the same time—building many traditions and many stories—we break the concept of the existence of only one history of art. And so we break the hegemony of certain artists, the hegemony of certain geographic places, the order of orders… because it doesn’t make sense for me when I go to MoMA, and I see history being told in a certain way. That’s what curators have done, that’s their story, not mine. They have decided what is part of history and what’s not.
But now we are seeing that all the museums are reformulating their narratives. That’s endless work because now we recognize that there have always been so many histories going on at the same time, not just one. That’s what’s political.