The Black Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes may have bloomed late, but she’s been making things ever since she can recall. Born in 1948, in Caetanópolis, Minas Gerais, Gomes entered the Guignard University of Art, in Belo Horizonte, in 1994, already in her mid 40s, after giving up a career in law. But as an adolescent in Minas, a state famous for textiles, Gomes admired African dance and clothing. Gomes has said in interviews that her wearing of wraps and necklaces inspired a teacher to once call her a “walking installation.” It’s a fitting description for this prodigious artist, whose practice stems from joining two passions: one for the body’s elemental power, as the seat of spirit and memory; the other for fabrics, with their malleability and animistic force.
Gomes’s first show in New York, opening on September 3 at Pace Gallery’s East Hampton outpost, brings together five of her works, alongside nine abstract oil paintings by the Brazilian artist Marina Perez Simão, and one collaborative work.
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Gomes’s works in fabric seduce with their vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and organic forms. Strangers often leave clothes and boxes with fabrics that they can’t bear to throw out at the artist’s atelier in São Paulo, such as an antique wedding gown. Gomes then weaves these donations, and other cloths she scavenges at street fairs, into her installations. She knots and twists the fabrics, at times also incorporating other materials, such as wood or wire.
In exhibitions, Gomes installs pieces on walls, but sometimes also on the floor and hung from the ceiling, creating a maze for visitors to traverse with their bodies. In this sense, there’s a spatial element to her work — another way of draping, or weaving vantage points. This was the case with Gomes’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo (MASP), in 2018 — the first such show given to a Black Brazilian female artist since the institution’s founding in 1947. In it, Gomes also incorporated tree trunks and branches. The malleable fabrics thus sprung around and complemented the rigidity of the organic matter.
There is also a more somber aspect to Gomes’s work. The tendrils she creates can paradoxically seem sturdier, less pliant, when bound tightly as ropes. In some pieces, such as “Memory” (2004), fragments of cloth are stitched into a tarnished map, or a mantle. As noted by the Brazilian art critic and curator, Alexandre Araújo Bispo, such fragments, strung and mingled as if on a clothesline, point to the absence of bodies, as much as they celebrate the bodies’ passage. In a sense then, the clothes are haunted, and haunting. And yet, Aráujo Bispo feels that the essence of Gomes’s work, “is not sadness (…) but the desire that things continue to exist, in a new body.”
In recent shows, at Mendes Wood DM gallery, in São Paulo, and presently at Pace — the galleries that represent Gomes in Latin and North America, respectively, in addition to Blum & Poe, in Los Angeles — some of the works Gomes has presented are gaiolas, or bird cages. These colorful mixed-media objects, such as “Vôo” (literally translated to “Flight,” 2014), soon to be on view at Pace, are full of life. They evoke resilience, as in the case of another cage exhibited at Pace: “Untitled,” from the series, Life Does Not Scare Me (2020). The exuberance of these works, however, is offset by the claustrophobia of the cage enclosures. At its most symbolic, this tension feels political, evoking the creative genius of Afro-Brazilians amid centuries of governmental repression, while also hinting at Brazil’s history of slavery. In some instances, when the cages are dented or cracked, they hint at a powerful force breaking out, the cage itself a haunting remnant of captivity.
When thinking about Gomes’s mantles, it’s impossible not to mention the Black Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosârio who also produced such objects. Only recognized for his work after his death, do Rosârio spent most of his adult life in a psychiatric institution. “[Perhaps] more genius than a madman,” as Gomes has characterized him, do Rosârio’s mysticism was a source of his bewildering creativity. One could argue that his art points, inversely, to our own age’s rapid secularization, and the exclusion of the mystical experience from the realm of our immediate concern. In Gomes’s work, this concern returns, not as the Christian sacral, but as a cosmic practice, linking ancestry to the present, the singular to the communal, the body to the Afro-Brazilian rituals.
In this sense, although Gomes’s works resonate with such contemporary Brazilian women artists as Leda Catunda, or even Lygia Pape, the former’s spirit of found-object assemblage also draws her work close to Marepe, another Brazilian artist from Minas. Meanwhile, her work’s affinity for fabrics recalls the work of artists such as Ibrahim Mahama and El Anatsui, both from Ghana.
Gomes often speaks out about the tremendous obstacles and marginalization that Black Brazilians face when entering the art market, as well as the fact that the art world has yet to fully recognize the importance of cultural institutions such as the Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo. She also points out that racial quotas are necessary in a country such as Brazil, where “the debt to Black people is huge.” This sense of debt — of belated recognition — echoes in Gomes’s own career: She was first championed not by a gallery but by an antiques and crafts store, Sandra & Márcio Objetos de Arte, in Belo Horizonte. Gomes’s first show at Thomas Cohn Gallery, in São Paulo, drew relatively little attention. It wasn’t until more recently, when the influential, late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor invited Gomes to show at the Venice Biennial in 2015, that she finally, and rightfully, arrived.
Sonia Gomes / Marina Perez Simão will be on view September 3–27 at Pace Gallery East Hampton (68 Park Place, East Hampton, NY). On September 10, Pace will host the Zoom panel, “Of Seams and Stories: The Art of Sonia Gomes,” featuring curators Vivian Crockett, Fabiana Lopes, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, and Keyna Eleison in a conversation moderated by Michaëla Mohrmann. More details here.