For decades, Brazil’s Amazon forest was treated by some as a symbol of virgin nature, teeming not only with verdant flora and brilliantly colored fauna but also with Indigenous people who were able to resist the incursion of modernity. It is only recently that this image of the Amazon has begun to break down as the stresses of destructive fires, social movements, and the Bolsonaro regime reveal histories of abuse. In his exhibition “The Same Story is Never the Same” at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), Luiz Zerbini aims to give us a vision of perspectives across Brazil that have long been shrouded by colonial histories.
Zerbini had long been focusing on making landscapes when MASP artistic director Adriano Pedrosa commissioned Zerbini in 2014 to paint a reinterpretation of one of Brazil’s most iconic paintings, A primeira missa no Brasil (The first mass in Brazil). That work was created in 1861 by Victor Meirelles at the request of Brazil’s last emperor, Dom Pedro II.
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“This is a very typical, colonial image we learn in school,” explained Guilherme Giufrida, the curator of the exhibit. “Though Zerbini had neither worked with the human figure in some time nor with historical narratives, he accepted the challenge.”
Zerbini’s idea was to invert the point of view of the historical painting. Where A primeira missa no Brasil centers Portuguese colonizers as Indigenous people crawl around the edges of the scene, Zerbini’s A primeira missa (2014) imagines what it must have been like to see the Portuguese arrive on Brazilian shores. In Zerbini’s depiction, it was an unremarkable event.
The painting shows the forest in full, chaotic flower as Indigenous members pull in canoes and work. In the middle is a proud woman, whose bottom half is mysteriously engulfed by a fish. In the far distance is the newly erected cross that is now hardly of note. The colonizers did not stride onto this land and become awe-inspiring protagonists, the painting suggests. They were figures on the horizon of importance, trying to survive, adorning themselves with their precious icon.
“Now, in schools, they reproduce this work by Zerbini as a new image to be studied, this image of first contact between two totally different civilizations,” Giufrida said.
A primeira missa inspired Zerbini to continue painting unseen histories, and slowly the idea for the exhibition as part of a dedicated series of shows focused on Brazil held as part of MASP’s acclaimed “Histórias” series. In Zerbini’s recent paintings, he created new images to represent historical events like the Haximu Massacre of 1993, Brazil’s first recognized genocide, and the 1895 War of Canudos in which a diverse commune was exterminated by the Republic.
Both events are of massive importance to Brazilian history, yet they lack accompanying visual language, such as paintings or photographs, that offer alternative perspectives of the events that were in large part documented by state powers.
“Since the the Portuguese arrived here and discovered those the abundance of gold and silver, there has been conflict,” said Giufrida. Today, illegal miners set up in the recesses of the forest to extract gold. It was in this manner that miners came into fatal contact with the Haximu people who lived there.
Articles about the Haximu Massacre are usually accompanied only with images of Indigenous people or a picture of the forest. Zerbini’s Massacre de Haximu (2020) pulls no such punches. There are bodies strewn across the fertile forest floor, though the individual forms are not quite comprehensible. Yet one figure is plainly depicted, a lone man with a machete stands over the bodies as gold colors the surrounding waters.
Brazil’s natural abundance is at constant odds with the violence that revolves around it. This perversity is present in all of Zerbini’s work: a loving reflection on the botanical beauty of Brazil’s plantation crops as ghostly slave figures surround them, as in Paisagem inútil (Useless Landscape), 2020, or a plant of mythical proportions amid oily waters at a guerrilla gold mining site in Rio das Mortes (The River of Deaths), 2021. Peppered throughout the exhibition are his prints, made using plants he’s gathered around his home.
As much as Zerbini makes explicit histories of violence, he also deliberately obfuscates them. Out of respect for the bodies of the dead and slaves, they are often hidden or abstracted in some way. In his interpretation of the War of Canudos, for example, he gives us a vision of the community still whole, still full of potential.
The exhibition is a comprehensive one in that it includes not just Zerbini’s works but his inspirations for them—including abstracted dioramas full of things he referenced in his paintings, such as a leaf he liked or a plain knife. Yet A primeira missa no Brasil itself is notably absent here. “He said it was too violent,” Giufrida explained.