The Armory Show spotlights artists who have worked in the Amazon as Brazil’s indigenous artists gain global notoriety

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As the world watches the Amazon disappear day by day, artists from the region are finally gaining recognition on the world stage. São Paulo’s most recent biennale included five indigenous artists, the largest number ever recorded. Meanwhile, recent exhibitions at the Pinacoteca and Museu de Arte Moderna, both in São Paulo, have showcased glimpses of contemporary indigenous art. And in New York, this year’s Armory Show highlights the work of several artists whose practices and lives have been shaped by the Amazon.

This growing interest in the Amazon within the Brazilian art scene corresponds with a growing awareness of issues related to indigenous land rights and environmental protection in Brazil. This is largely due to the seriousness of the situation when President Jair Bolsonaro rolls back the regulations.

According to a recent report on forensic architectureBolsonaro specifically “enacted policies to encourage gold mining on indigenous lands.” Some researchers now predict an increase in violence and aggression in the coming weeks as Bolsonaro faces a potential loss in elections scheduled for October 2.

A work by Brazilian artist Jaider Esbell during the 34th Sao Paulo Biennale, at Ibirapuera Park, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images.

This year’s edition of the Armory Show features a selection of works that weave layered stories around the history, ecology and politics of the fragile rainforest and those who live there – from the painter autodidact and Amazon rubber tapper (the one who extracts latex from rubber trees) Hélio Melo to Macuxi artist and activist Jaider Esbell, whose work was just starting to make waves when he tragically died last year only 41 years old.

In the Focus section of the fair, curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, presentations for one and two people examine how the environment intersects with personal and global politics. The section includes works by Melo, who was active in the postwar period, working concurrently with the Neoconcretists who dominated accounts of Brazilian art history.

Melo’s polymathic practice included poetry, painting, and music. “It documents his life as a rubber tapper in the everyday moments of cutting down the tree, of a party, of a family dinner,” said Paul Jenkins, director of the São Paulo Almeida and Dale gallery. “On top of that, he superimposes this mysterious Amazonian universe with references to the myths and customs of the forest, and delves into surrealism.

Hélio Melo, O homem eo burro (The man and the donkey) (1993).  Courtesy of Almeida & Dale.

Helio Melo, O homem eo burro (The man and the donkey) (1993). Courtesy of Almeida and Dale.

Melo stopped tapping rubber at age 33 and later received moderate recognition for his work, exhibiting it in galleries in northern Brazil as well as in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where he found a fan of the sculptor. neoconcrete Sergio Camargo, who collected his work in depth. This week marks the first showing of Melo’s work outside of Brazil since 1998, though his market is far from nascent with works on paper starting at $30,000 and larger canvases reaching $200,000.

Also in the Focus section, with projects by Cecilia Brunson, the work of Katie van Scherpenberg, who was born in Brazil in 1940 and spent her childhood between Europe, Brazil and North America before finding her way to the isolated Amazonian island of Santana in 1968. , living and working there for nearly two decades. Her broad practice is rooted in painting – she studied with Oskar Kokoschka in Europe – and her landscapes seem to have an almost psychological depth.

However, it was van Scherpenberg’s relationship to the Amazon River itself that was the driving force behind his practice, both for the pigments it carries – which became his main material – and for what it symbolizes about time, impermanence and the relationship between man and nature.

Katie van Scherpenberg, Portal (1999).  Courtesy of the artist and Cecilia Brunson Projects.

Katie van Scherpenberg, Gate (1999). Courtesy of the artist and Cecilia Brunson Projects.

Van Scherpenberg had his first exhibition with Cecilia Brunson in 2021 and his presentation this week indicates his star is still rising at 82, with smaller works available for less than $10,000 and larger paintings reaching around 60,000 $.

Large-scale photograms by Peruvian artist Roberto Huarcaya, taken in the Bahajua Sonene Nature Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon (at the invitation of the Wildlife Conservation Society), are on display in the Platform section of the fair. The section, curated by Tobias Ostrander from Tate London, tackles the timely question of monuments: what we have chosen to commemorate and how we can choose differently in the future.

Huarcaya’s massive works, which he calls “Amazogramas”, were made by hanging rolls of photosensitive paper in the jungle and using the moon, in part, for light. Huarcaya then used water from a local river to develop the images, which measure over 1,000 inches in length, making the leaves and foliage appear true to size. The Amazon is roughly equal in size to the land mass of the entire United States, but the rate at which it is being deforested (the highest burn rate in 15 years was recorded just a few weeks ago) means that consideration of ways to commemorate him may come sooner than we think, giving Huarcaya’s works weight well beyond their already mainstream weight.

Installation view, Roberto Huarcaya, "Amazogramas, Casa Rimac" (2014).  Courtesy of Rolf Art.

Installation view, Roberto Huarcaya, “Amazogramas, Casa Rimac” (2014). Courtesy of Rolf Art.

The largest of Huarcaya’s photograms costs $160,000, while the smaller works – single pieces and editions – can be purchased for as little as $3,000.

In the fair’s main section, exhibited with São Paulo’s Millan Gallery, is a selection of works ranging from $20,000 to $80,000 by Jaider Esbell, the indigenous artist and activist Macuxi whose paintings and sculptures painstakingly designed were on the verge of global recognition when the artist tragically died by suicide in November 2021.

Working in drawing, paper, video, performance and text, Esbell’s practice was both art and activism – a sharing and celebration of Indigenous cosmologies as a way to connect worlds and thought – that he called “artivism”.

Jaider Esbell, Água, from the Elementais series, (2018).  Courtesy of Millan.

Jaider Esbell, Agua, from the Elementais series, (2018). Courtesy of Millan.

In recent years, curators and art historians in Brazil have worked actively to extend the hegemonic history of Brazilian art that has denied the contributions of black and indigenous artists, as well as anyone else outside the middle and upper classes. Still, it’s hard to imagine anything without Esbell.

Esbell was a driving force and leader of Brazil’s contemporary indigenous art movement, always claiming the leading role of indigenous voices,” said Millan’s Hena Lee Gallery. “He was the first indigenous artist from Brazil to have a prominent presence at the center of discussions in the academy and institutions.”

Esbell’s presence in São Paulo has been groundbreaking and while his legacy continues to take shape, it is already clear that it will be deep and lasting.

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