Between 1989 and 1998 Solange Pessoa was a member of the Galpão Embra group, a collective studio in an old industrial warehouse which functioned as an alternative space in which exhibitions, conferences and events were organized. In the nineties, she curated several important exhibitions at the Galpão, together with fellow artists. At that time Pessoa also participated in several seminal exhibitions in Belo Horizonte. Two of the artist’s most important exhibitions took place at the Palácio das Artes in Belo Horizonte— Construção Selvagem [Wild Construction] in 1990 and the solo show Solange Pessoa in 1995. The inception of many of her unique aesthetic and conceptual preoccupations is found in the works produced and exhibited during this period.
Construção Selvagem was curated by a group of artists, including Pessoa.1 It was conceived under the influence of texts by Hélio Oiticica published in the 1986 book Aspiro ao grande labirinto; the catalogue of the seminal 1989 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Magiciens de la Terre; and the 1969 publication Arte Povera by Germano Celant.2 This exhibition and many later works by Pessoa were influenced by Antropofagia, a cultural movement in Brazil in the 1920s which was immortalized by Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago of 1928 and by Tarsila do Amaral’s paintings, such as Abaporu (1928). This movement proposed to cannibalize and re-appropriate other cultures—such as the European—while embracing the country’s indigenous culture; to produce a new modern Brazilian culture that was anti-colonial and primitivist. Antropofagia’s anti-colonial stance celebrates a cannibal, “primitive” Brazil acting against colonizing Portuguese and European cultures.
Pessoa learned about Antropofagia when she was 15 years old, and was impressed by its savage implications. The artist considers Antropofagia, the Baroque and Surrealism to be related because they are not fixed and are instead metamorphic and resistant to temporality. Furthermore, Pessoa considers Antropofagia to be a concept that is constantly renewing itself; and therefore contemporary and no longer simply modern. She describes an anthropophagist as a “devourer of the old.”3 The title and concept of the show Construção Selvagem, conceived by Pessoa and Cristiano Rennó, refers directly to Antropofagia and is also evocative, albeit critical, of the “Figuraçao Selvagem” [Savage Figuration] movement current at the time.
The artist included two of her own works in this exhibition. Untitled (1990) is the first form of one of Pessoa’s most important works, Catedral [Cathedral], which she continued to develop until 2003. This sculpture is made with leather, hair and fabric, and configured in a vertical composition of 3.2 meters which the artist related to Oscar Niemeyer’s cathedral in Brasília. That building is comprised of concave columns arranged in a circular structure. Pessoa’s sculpture may be thought of as referring to those columns in its verticality suggesting spiritual elevation; while simultaneously embodying the scatological through the presence of human hair and leather. This duality permeates all of Pessoa’s work. It is easy to perceive her work as simply dark, because her materials are often powerfully abject; nevertheless, her works seldom only embody something negative or threatening. When analyzed, Pessoa’s work is embedded in its very materials—no matter how grotesque—and their conjugation: the possibility of light and life. Catedral embodies in its materiality a relationship with the body and baseness, and simultaneously with spirituality.
It is important to stress the process-based nature of Pessoa’s work given the long period of gestation and production of singular works such as Catedral (1990–2003) or Lesmaslongas (1998–2002), which was produced over four years in five stages; or the series made with human hair and feathers, which the artist started to produce in the early 1990s and still continues to develop today. Pessoa’s use of hair stems from her childhood— her mother kept her hair, as well as her brother’s and sister’s, from infancy. It also comes from the stories of the fear Pessoa’s mother felt when she saw sculptures of saints that used actual human hair in Mariana, Minas Gerais, and how because of this, they seemed to come to life. The heads of sculptures of saints in the churches of Minas Gerais are often covered in human hair which is donated by the faithful: a tradition inherited from Portugal and Spain, going back long before the Baroque. Pessoa saw these saints for the first time as a teenager. At the Bienal de São Paulo in 1987, she saw Tunga’s copper hair piece which gave her the courage to explore hair in her work—something she had been wanting to do for some time.
Pessoa has a strong, personal relationship to hair. It connects to something spectral as well as profoundly human. Hair in Brazil has a strong connection with dark magic, as it is used for witchcraft. It is the matter of nightmares, as well as of nature itself. It is magical as well as scatological; it is intimate and personal as well as collective; it is specific as well as undetermined. Hair is a kind of organic matter that may be at once abject and divine, fetishistic and common. Catedral, as well as the sculptures of saints in Minas Gerais, embody a phantasmagorical spirit of medieval hope and renunciation, and thus of something spiritual yet superstitious. Hair embodies the intelligible in powerful ways. Catedral as it stands today measures a monumental 8 meters high, 100 meters long, and a little over one meter wide. It unravels in space, invading it with its organicity, darkness and intensity. This cathedral embodies the spiritual; embracing the somber and uncontrollable and yet it encompasses light, too. Catedral highlights Pessoa’s penetrating capacity to materialize the strange and embody the metaphysical in baseness, making it sublime.
Since the 1990s Pessoa has produced sculptures with feathers. As with the hair works, the inception of the feather pieces comes from a darker metaphysical place. Her first feather piece, Asa, was made in 1990. On this occasion she recycled a dress and glued feathers to it. It was installed at the Galpão Embra for a long time until it was exhibited together with a second, large untitled feather piece, measuring approximately 225 × 600 × 200 cm— an ambitious size for experimenting with a new material for the first time. An early totemic sculpture was also included, and the ensemble was exhibited at the 22 Salão de Arte Visuais da Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte at the Museu de Arte da Pampulha in 1990. Asa won the Prêmio “Museu de Arte” and entered their collection.
Pessoa often exhibited the feather works together with her early metamorphic totemic sculptures made with papier-mâché, which she started in 1988. These have corrugated surfaces and are colored with the dark tones of Pó Xadrez, a mineral dye. They may be described as a crossing between a geological formation and a totemic structure. In many ways, the feather pieces and the totemic sculptures share a primordial baseness and vitality.
Pessoa has always been interested in mestizaje, Indigenous and Black cultures; and the artist’s feather series encompasses important references to the Indigenous art of featherwork.4 The artist was aware of the symbology of her materials, but was not focused on them.5 Even if she was very interested in Indigenous culture—which was not in fashion at the time— she does not consider it a conscious reference.6 Pessoa acknowledges that her works were strange in that they seemed to carry open references to Indigenous culture, nevertheless her chief interest in feathers was an intuitive one—what she describes as the “intuitive darkness” of the material itself, which was not the result of a rational conceptual or aesthetic analysis of the material or decision process as this may have led her to self- censorship. The symbology became evident only over time, after the works were produced.
There are many possible meanings associated with feathers: Christian associations with angels as messengers of God; the idea of ascension and flight; migration and travel; freedom; communication with spirits for Native Americans; spiritual evolution to a higher plane; and, finally, to the attributes of birds themselves. We may associate one or several of these meanings to Pessoa’s use of feathers. Nevertheless, these were not intentionally inscribed in the work, at least not in the beginning. Importantly, the use of the feathers, as with the human hair, is close to the idea of Antropofagia. The artist mostly used the feathers of chickens consumed at her family’s farm. Pessoa explains that she always felt something antropofagic in this, as the feathers belonged to animals that had been eaten.7 These feathers thus symbolize the cycle of death and life and, despite their connotation of ascension and spirituality, there is the baseness of their commonplace origin.
In 1994, Solange Pessoa co-curated and participated in the exhibition Chão e Parede [Floor and Wall] at Galpão Embra. On this occasion a catalogue was published and three conferences with three important critics—Lorenzo Mammi, Paulo Herkenhoff and Sônia Saltzstein—were organized. Pessoa exhibited the installation titled Sem título (1994), which possesses a certain Arte Povera sensibility. Nevertheless, the artist has described how during this time she was pursuing a “sensorial intensity and a certain amorphous fluidity.”8
Sem título occupied an area of 60 square meters. Bones, rags and sacks were scattered on the floor, and soil, dust and grease were spread around it. A “wall” of earth-colored jute sacks were sewn together to create large pockets. They contained diverse objects and matter that the public could take home: soil, minerals, bones, coal, flowers, roots, leather, human hair, graphite stones from the Jequitinhonha Valley, pigments, dust, seeds, feathers, stones, photographs and texts. In the pockets one could find modern and contemporary poetry, emblematic countercultural images, photographs of Brazilian Cinema Novo, vinyl record covers and portraits of poets. She considers this work to be a large archive: open and endless. Since the time she made this piece, she has thought of remaking it and is considering producing it again. She explains that Antropofagia was powerfully present in the archive of the installation. She included de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, and the great pre-modern epic poem O Guesa by Joaquim de Souza Andrade which combined several languages such as Tupi-Guarani, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin and Greek, among others. This work may be seen as embodying a sort of unconventional encyclopedic nature, reuniting culture and many of the cultural referents highlighted at the beginning of this text with nature, decay and potentiality.
For her solo exhibition at the Palácio das Artes in Belo Horizonte (October 1995) she exhibited four installations in a 550 square meter space. The general aesthetic of the exhibition was distinctly precarious. Untitled (1995) was an installation made with fabric and mineral pigments, luminous and airy, floating in space. This piece contrasted with the darker nature of the other three installations. Couros [Leathers] (1993–1995), a suspended installation constructed with many parts of bovine leather. Inferno (1994–1995) was a large floor installation that was made with fabric which on one side was treated with clay thinned with water, dried, and then covered in burnt car oil. The other side of the fabric was soaked in animal blood. The rugged surface, which was shaped by sewing together pieces of fabric, resembled an amorphous desiccated ancient creature. Made with fabric, leather, blood, hair, foam, dust, animal grease and earth, the installation formed an irregular, ruined, apocalyptic topology. Its full title was Inferno de Belo Horizonte referring to Souzândrade’s “Wall Street Inferno,” an emblematic fragment of the poem O Guesa, written in the 1870s by the Brazilian poet that portrayed a nightmarish vision of American Capitalism.
Jardim [Garden] (1993–1995) was a complex installation spanning 60 square meters made with moss, roots, leaves, cotton, eggs, earth, tadpoles, fish, bovine eyes, meat, plastic and fabric, water, diesel, chemical formulas (such as the artist’s own medical skin cream), formaldehyde, wax and seeds—which sprouted into plants.
The production of works with blood, such as Couros and Inferno, are the result of investigation; an intimate as well as expansive thought process over an extended period of time. The use of leather, hair, bones and feathers—all organic, symbolically animated materials—expanded naturally into the use of meat, bovine eyes and organic matter in Jardim. In her personal diaries of the 1990s, Pessoa meditates frequently about blood and the abject. Reflections on her own menstrual blood become a gateway for exploring her body and connecting it with the outside world. It is a catalyst for creation, the fluid as the source of a bodily imaginary in sculpture and in space. The impulse for using blood and organs was on the one hand powerful, fascinating, pleasurable, life affirming; and, on the other, she experienced a sense of rejection, discomfort, sadness and a certain torment. Experiments with menstrual blood are also found in her diaries, as when the artist unfolded and glued a sort of extended Rorschach blood stain on toilet paper onto pages. For Pessoa, blood is overflowing with unfiltered energy. In the 1990s she stored sperm and urine, two fluids which are also simultaneously base and vital, to make a work that was never realized.
The ambitious installation works with organs, meat and live matter that ensued required courage and persistence on the part of the artist. She had to do research on the preservation of organs, such as bovine eyes, for works like Inferno. For example, she had to learn how to maintain and highlight the bright red tonality of blood, and also how to find liters of blood and the organs themselves in abattoirs. As mentioned earlier, Solange’s work is concerned with both the body and the landscape. This is palpable in no work more than in Jardim. The fluids and organic matter such as blood and meat stand for the body; while the installation in the form of a garden with sprouting plants, seeds, moss, roots, leaves, earth and pools of water with tadpoles stands for the landscape.
It is crucial to point out that of all the bodily parts available to her, Pessoa chose the eyes. Although this choice may be intuitive or instinctive, the eyes have a powerful conceptual and symbolic meaning. In this particular case the eyes represent vision, light, the gaze, the animation of the soul or the spirit, and a sort of inner eye materialized in a visceral way from the very interstices of death. Even if the eyes in plastic bags swimming in formaldehyde are to a certain extent repulsive and abject, they also relate to life cycles, and as such they confirm life, not death. They stand for metamorphosis, for the confluence of nature in both the human and the animal and are ultimately about the power of imagination and healing in art. The artist’s capability and courage to deal with darkness and invest it with a transformative and ultimately affirmative force is at the very center of her undeniable artistic relevance.
Nevertheless, this installation is the artist’s most misunderstood work, and became the center of a public scandal. Walter Sebastião, an art critic writing for the newspaper Estado de Minas, published a positive article on October 10, 1995, just as the show was opening. He explained that seldom before had an artist deserved to exhibit at the Grande Galeria do Palácio das Artes more than Solange Pessoa and affirmed that her work was the most radical produced in the visual arts in Minas Gerais and, to a great extent, Brazil. He writes: “On stage is the poetic conceptual aspect that made the tridimensional language one of the most expressive spaces of the art produced in the second half of the twentieth century (. . .) to watch these pieces is to enter a world of shattered dreams, of wild gardens, imaginary airplanes and vertiginous landscapes, whose motto is the rebellious and allegorical turbulence of the images.”9
An anonymous letter published on October 21 in the same newspaper describes Pessoa’s exhibition as absurd, questions its validity in a public gallery, and complained of bad odor, decaying matter, detritus, and lack of care in how the artist arranged the installation, in particular the bovine eyes.10 Pessoa was interviewed and explained that “The meat is decomposing while the seeds are sprouting. I’m talking about the inevitable cycle of life. (...) These are strong works, but they were not made to scandalize.”11 She also had to explain that she had not killed animals to display the bovine eyes.
The public may have forgotten that in 1970 at the same Palácio das Artes, Frederico Morais curated the legendary exhibition Do corpo à terra [From Body to Earth] where Artur Barrio presented situações [situations] with bloodied clothes, rotting bones and meat; and where Cildo Meireles burned live chickens in his Tiradentes: Totem-Monumento ao Preso Político. Some critics such as Maria Angélica Melendi and Marília Andrés Ribeiro came to Pessoa’s defense, but many artists did not take her side. The debate drew a huge crowd. The book of visitors registered that 10,656 people came to view the show—a record at the time in Belo Horizonte—and revealed a divided public.12
There are several reasons for describing this exhibition’s mixed reception. First, it shows how conservative and peripheral Belo Horizonte was in relation to other art centers in Brazil, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Second, it explains how this experience shaped a more reticent and withdrawn Solange Pessoa, and ultimately marked the beginning of a certain invisibility for the artist in the Brazilian art scene despite the relentless intensity of her art production and her participation in many important exhibitions. The very moment Pessoa was showing her most ambitious work, the art world closed its doors to that work’s radicality, expansiveness and unconventional nature.
In retrospect, it is perhaps Agnaldo Farias who has best understood Pessoa’s work. In 2012 he acknowledged the relevance of the artist’s use of organic matter and placed her work in a larger context, writing: “Solange Pessoa’s surprising trajectory has been addressing this issue; from the beginning, her work deals with life, makes use of organic material, remains, rejects and waste that she, like [Jannis] Kounellis, Joseph Beuys and, here in Brazil, Artur Barrio, Karin Lambrecht, José Resende, Tunga and Nelson Felix, perceive as living substance. Indeed, from the artist’s work one draws the conclusion that nothing is dead: everything is related to a never- ending process.”13
In 1996 Pessoa earned a Pollock-Krasner grant, which gave her the opportunity to produce the bronze sculptures she had wanted to make for a long time. Bronze allowed the artist—in her own words—to “solidify the flows.”14 An important work produced at this time was the installation Fonte [Fountain] (1997), which continued her exploration that started with Jardim and is also connected with her interest in holy water stone fonts from Minas Gerais Baroque churches. The structure of the font, a floor piece measuring more than a meter in diameter, is organic and amorphous, resembling a rock with crevices, irregularities and orifices that contain water. The patina of the sculpture is mossy green, so that if placed in a natural environment it would morph with the landscape. One of the larger holes holds small circular organic shapes, resembling seeds. There is a close relation between the bag with bovine eyes in Jardim and the formlessness of the font with its pods. Water, a leitmotif in Pessoa’s work, here constitutes an element of purification, of cleanliness; a sort of sublimation of the viscerality of Jardim. Even though Fonte does not have the abject nature of Jardim, the artist maintained in its formlessness a deep-rooted baseness, though instead of relating closely with the body as in Jardim, it relates more to nature—water and stone—while both are associated with the landscape.
The exhibition took place November 29 – December 19, 1990 and traveled to Centro Cultural São Paulo January 14 – February 3, 1991. The artist curators were Marconi Drummond, Roberto Betônico, Ricardo Homen, Solange Pessoa, Claudia Renault and Cristiano Rennó.
RIBEIRO, Marilia Andres; CUNHA, Valdeci (Ed.). Solange Pessoa: Depoimento. Belo Horizonte: C/Arte, 2012, p. 9.
Original quotation reads: “O antropófago é un devorador das antigas.” Solange Pessoa, personal correspondence with the author, April 2018. Author’s translation.
In her archive there are detailed drawings the artist made at the age of 10–11 of Indigenous musical instruments and weapons, and of indigenous people themselves.
In her library we find literature on the subject, which is an important reference for the artist and which she acquired long after her first feather work. For example, FERRARO DORTA, Sonia; CURY, Marília Xavier. A plumária indígena brasileira no Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da USP. São Paulo: Uspiana – Brasil 500 anos, 2000
Pessoa profoundly admires Celso Renato, an artist from Belo Horizonte whose painting similarly encompassed indigenous characteristics—in this he was a stand-alone figure at the time.
Solange Pessoa, personal correspondence with the author, April 2018.
PESSOA, Solange. In: RIBEIRO, Marilia Andres; CUNHA, Valdeci (Ed.). Solange Pessoa: Depoimento. Belo Horizonte: C/Arte, 2012, p. 14.
SEBASTIÃO, Walter. “Solange Pessoa faz releitura da escultura.” Estado de Minas, October 10, 1995. Original quotation reads: “Em cena está o corte poético-conceitual que fez da linguagem tridimensional um lugar dos mais expressivos da arte da segunda metade do século XX (...) Observar estas peças é adentrar em um mundo de sonhos dilacerados, de jardins selvagens, aeroplanos imaginários e paisagens vertiginosas, cujo mote é a turbulência insurgente e alegórica das imagens.” Author’s translation.
SEBASTIÃO, Walter. “A criaçao de Solange Pessoa em debate: Exposição no Palácio das Artes causa polêmica e provoca reaçōes do público.” Estado de Minas, October 21, 1995.
Original quotation reads: “A carne está se decompondo e as sementes estão nascendo. Estou falando de um ciclo inevitável da vida. (...) São obras fortes, mas não feitas para chocar” in SEBASTIÃO, Walter. “Solange Pessoa diz que sua arte fala de vida.” Estado de Minas, October 25, 1995. Author’s translation.
Walter Sebastião writes “De um lado estão os que consideram a exposição “contemporânea, audaciosa, instigante, reflexiva e visceral” (...) De outro, os que consideram a obra “mórbida, gosmenta? fedorenta, aterrorizante e repugnante.” Sebastião, “A criaçao de Solange Pessoa em debate: Exposição no Palácio das Artes causa polêmica e provoca reaçōes do público.”
Original quotation reads: “Desde o início seu trabalho dialoga com a vida, vale-se de materiais orgânicos, sobras, dejetos e lixos que ela, em sintonia com artistas ligados a expressividade e força simbólica da matéria, como Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys e, aqui no Brasil, Artur Barrio, Karin Lambrecht, José Resende, Tunga e Nelson Felix, percebe como substância viva. De fato, a partir de cada obra da artista conclui-se que nada está morto, tudo concerne a um processo interminável.” FARIAS, Agnaldo. Preface. In: RIBEIRO, Marilia Andres; CUNHA, Valdeci (Ed.). Solange Pessoa: Depoimento. Belo Horizonte: C/Arte, 2012, p. 6.
Solange Pessoa, personal correspondence with the author, March 2018.