Considering Brazil’s Racial Heritage

Considering Brazil’s Racial Heritage


Laura C. Mallonee

The 18th-century Brazilian sculptor Aleijadinho was the mixed-race son of a black slave and one of his country’s most legendary artists. In the gold-rich state of Minas Gerais, where millions lost their lives in the mines, tourists still pay to visit the immaculate baroque churches he embellished. Though leprosy took his fingers, rumor has it he continued chiseling away with tools tied to the stumps of his hands.

Aleijadinho’s enigmatic life married two contrasting subjects that have preoccupied Adriana Varejão for the past 20 years: the oft-forgotten history of Brazil’s mestizo identity, and the dramatic baroque art of the colonial period. These underpin series like Tongues and Incisions (1997–2003) and more recently Polvo (2013–2014), both which are currently featured in Adriana Varejão at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston — the artist’s first U.S. solo museum show.

Varejão spoke with us recently from her studio in Rio de Janeiro about her childhood in Brasilia, why she is drawn to painting meat, and how she feels about being a “Latin American artist.”

Laura C. Mallonee: Your family lived in Brasilia when you were very young, because your father was a pilot in the air force. That would have been less than a decade after the city was completed in 1960. What was it like?

Adriana Varejão: Just emptiness. No history. Very red, because the earth is red, and there was a lot of earth around because there was not much vegetation. They’d just built everything. This crazy president had decided to build a capital in the middle of nowhere. They called many people from all over Brazil to build Brasilia, so there was a huge amount of immigrants. Black people, Indian people, very mixed race. Very, very poor people. And they built these satellite cities where these people used to live. They were miserable cities. My mother used to work with child malnutrition in a hospital in one of them. I remember the kids with those huge bellies…

LCM: How do you view yourself racially?

AV: I am as Portuguese as I am Indian as I am black. I believe in building a mestizo identity, which means to have everything together with balance. When people come to Brazil, they forget their ancestral identity. They tend to. So Brazilians become Brazilians very quick. People don’t say here, “I’m Afro-this and this.” Or, “I’m Portuguese this and this.” No, they say, “I’m Brazilian.” This is a good point about us…

Read the entire interview here.

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