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barbara balaclava

20/02 2016 – 26/03 2016

The series of works by Thiago Martins de Melo were created through an amalgamated rationale, without any defined beginning or end. Observing his body of work over time, various aspects have been decanted, now culminating in the series barbara balaclava.

Martins de Melo's paintings were never actually just two-dimensional. Much like a reading of his work could not be described as strictly retinal. Already in his early work, one could sense an exercise taking place on the border between the two- and three-dimensional as one of his main characteristics.

Gradually more material, Martins de Melo delved deeper into physicality and its ability to reveal meaning in formal pictorial structures and the materiality of their layers, drawing from an array of pictorial techniques of texture – to transcend, like one who seeks to breathe life into painting.

The various planes and reliefs of pictorial matter are characteristics of this formal structure and, when applied to its composition, contribute to the revelation of signs, narratives and radicalism in images. Narratives are established in various degrees and symbolic layers, organized with different textures and planes. The painting jumps out at the eye with its physicality; when we see different techniques applied in the work, it is as if we see blades in it. In this way, the textures placed on the canvas, together with the narrative, symbolic and archetypical content, create unconscious planes of reading.

In these formal pictorial layers and in the entire compositional process, themes and subjects which have emotional resonance for Thiago are revealed – objects of his affection, interest and concern.

When creating, Martins de Melo starts with a sketch, in which he attempts, minimally, to think of the elements and their spatial location. However, it is in the pictorial act that the configuration of the elements takes place, precisely between elements – which he leaves intentionally open – that interact with the canvas and express its reflections of the signs. It is in this experience that, for Thiago, the symbolic connections, the studies of references and the enhancements take place. For me, it's not possible to replicate a method and a previously developed project. This would be like killing ´the process´ and it would make no sense to continue any further. The process is the constant pictorial, formal and semantical exercise, which takes place between the tenuous line that divides my own will and the self-determination of the sign... that's right... it's like an entity that regulates the meaning. It's the act that shows me what it will be like, Thiago states.

barbara balaclava is the sublime result of these formal breaks with the two-dimensional, a demonstration of painting expanded to the three-dimensional, to the image in motion and sound. These aggressively Baroque forms of expression, arrive as allies to the altars, as ebós (or offerings) – both visual and energetic – created by Martins de Melo.

In the series, Martins de Melo reinforces what the curator and critic Gunnar Kvaran previously identified as his capacity to reinvent the narrative structure in the world of painting and, which, it seems to me, beyond this, to reassign meaning, also in content, to the very use and conceptual reach of the traditional terms anthropophagy and cannibalism.

Since his first series, O Ciclo do Cão [Cycle of the Dog] and Tricéfalo em Catarse [Tricephalus in Catharsis], Thiago has expressed a cannibalistic appetite for institutions and values, creating transgressions by way of a devouring process that chews them up and recreates them as criticism – political, social and psychological – before they are digested or excreted.

In this phase of self-portraiture, Thiago transferred literal experiences to his body, putting himself in the place of others, recreating spiritual and archetypical metaphors, braving paths and landscapes as sublime as they were inhospitable: The fact that I portray myself together with natives or mestizos makes me feel like I am painting my friends and myself at the same time. The State, for all of us, is not conducive to our values, explains Martins de Melo.

Meanwhile, in his earliest work, desire, carnal libido and an encounter with female power seem to substitute the meaning of the passion of Christ. The heresy that this might represent socially fuels Thiago's intuition in questioning, grinding up in order to discard, like excrement, authoritarian political power, monotheistic belief, the sexism of an inquiring, castrating father, whose laws threaten the carnal fusion between anima and animus.

Sex and carnal, amorous ecstasy guide the sacred conjunction in this transformative and transcendental rite. Initially, these sentiments assume the clash between rigid family structures, heritage, traditional morals said to be civilized, Eurocentric religions, the foundations of the State and the codes of standardized behavior. Gradually, this clash expanded to other readings of the world.

By devouring these structures in catharses, Thiago turns us into spectators of passions as well as his vigilante narratives against atrocities, forms of slavery, unbridled ambition and domination over nature, oppression and killings committed in the name of what appear to him to be cruel and rancorous foundations. From another aspect, that of a spiritual nature, Thiago's anthropophagy or cannibalism seems to seek a quintessence of God by the devouring of the body and the moral entity of the monotheistic deity. He becomes the lord of his own ethics redeeming the diversity of moral and psychological expressions.

Martins de Melo's hunger goes beyond the institutions and values that have castrated his world. He viewed the universe through the complex window of his studio in São Luís, Maranhão, located in the socio-geographic division known as Amazônia Legal. From there, he began to see issues that seemed local, but which were really reflections of the homogenizing force of globalization. In the struggle against this force, global and local dimensions are interconnected, reinforcing meanings and local characteristics.

Prejudice against knowledge, beliefs and cosmogonies leads Thiago to ask, in one of the first works in the series, The Nagô Cartesian Theater: What is the place of the soul in the body? Is the soul in the pineal gland as Cartesian rationalism claims? Or might it be located in the back of the neck, as understood by Nagô cosmogony? How should we understand the psyche and the soul? What is the physical geography of the soul of different peoples? And how does this translate into worldviews?

These questions lead Thiago to seek archetypical connections that lie beneath everything and, by way of hybrid signs and syncretic expressions, unite broader systems of African, American-Indian, Caribbean, Hindu, Anglo-American, Latin and other cosmogonies... However, this places another problem at the forefront: how to represent, for example, current images of the Indian, the quilombola, the caboclo, the non-white or the poor white, when faced with the ways they have been portrayed since the 17th century?

Here, Martins de Melo intuitively accesses issues that challenge anthropology and social thinking in Brazil and around the world. The anguish of the struggle for identity of the people that demand recognition, the many meanings of territory, deterritorialization and re-territorialization, the landslides that, at times, unite or deny cultural unity, syncretism and race-mixing... Still, it is from Thiago's art, desire and feeling that his personal truths emerge. Far beyond any theory or politicization, he is guided by affection and respect in the construction of the image.

The work Martyrdom, exhibited at the last São Paulo Biennial, is a classic example of this logic. In it, the sacred caboclos of Umbanda and Tambor de Mina, which witnessed the struggles of anonymous heroes like the caboclos Sete Flechas and Ubirajara, are portrayed much as they are known on their altars, wearing the headdress of the American Apache. Thiago explains: I will indeed place the headdress of the North American Indian on Ubirajara and 7 flechas. In order to represent them as caboclo friends I need to utilize the iconography of colonialist origin that characterizes their representation, because this is what I'm familiar with, this is known as the sign of power in umbanda and Tambor da Mina and which gives me the desire to paint. In addition, they (caboclos) want to be honored and represented the way that they are. This is what leads to affection

The characters portrayed by the artist – whose faces are often identified as From Maranhão or Amazonian, unrecognizable in the rest of Brazil and the world – actually represent universal people, involved in situations of global resistance. The combatants are people and groups that demand recognition of their right to their identity and the difference in their ways of life, starting from the interrogative experience, the necessity to defend their territory, the confrontation of discrimination and judicial-political negation. They are demanding the signification of cultural difference and, as such, they represent post-colonial thought. Politically, they denounce the abuses of power made by the military via governmental agencies and, in the economic realm, they question the contradictions in the worldwide developmentalist model and the forms of integration to the circuits of capital, on a national and international level.

The subjects portrayed represent the faces of those who are screaming all over the world, exercising a disjunction of modern rationality and the universality of Western thought; they suggest alternative answers, demanding autonomy and their own projects for the future.

The power to arouse affection is exercised through the Baroque allegories created by Thiago, and the meaning of his narratives is revealed by an optical and pulsional unconscious. The entanglement of visual representations in his body of work and their titles provide us with valuable clues for reading. Still, in most cases, a complete, immediate or hurried understanding of the works is not possible. Their complex and significant elements seem to come later on, operating in the realm of memory, the unconscious, the imagination, of insights, of revelations, oblivion or prejudices that stem from a repressed memory of stories that belong to us, to humanity.

In the current exhibition of the series barbara Balaclava, Thiago's works turn even more tragic: They confront utopia and dystopia in narratives that depict the moment of the second before the blow. Thiago dons the mask of anonymity in the confrontation, no longer portraying himself in his works. On this subject, he justifies: I came to feel that I, as a white, middle-class man, a descendent of the bourgeoisie, I no longer visually represent my own utopias. Hence the necessity to exit the scene (...) I search for my interior visuality in other skins. When I create a Tupinambá warrior or a quilombola, it gives me the will to resist, it gives life meaning, it gives me power against the dystopia.

The works address non-legitimated struggles of peoples and groups viewed as barbarian, non-civilized non-citizens. They portray the locales and psycho-geographies of battles that occur in spatial margins, in permanent states of exception between borders. In this context, the mangrove, as a psycho-geographical locale in some works, is the symbolic slime, emblematic of these intersections of fresh- and saltwater, of life and death, water and land, a locale undesired by urban civilization and which, historically, was and is the locale for the reinvention of liberty, of the resistance of those branded barbarians.

Balaclava is the invisibility, discomfort or aggression caused by the battle mask, which destroys identity, personification and individuation, stores the anonymity of oppressors and the oppressed and, as such, possesses a double meaning. The shirt that covers the face, the iron mask of Anastácia, the mask of the riot squad, of the police... and many other masks worn socially by those who fear institutions as well as those who represent them... Dichotomous situations of self-annulment in the name of resistance or violent confrontations, that hide underlying interests of groups, collectives, movements, organizations or the State itself.

Desire, libido and forms of sexual expression make strong returns in the works, which have anthropophagic, ritualistic and transmutative power. Yin yang, animus and anima, androgyny... poetics of the conjunction whose horizon is liberty.

The axis of the exhibition is the film barbara balaclava, which crosses with other works, synthesizing and reinforcing their signs and meanings. The exception is a work which Thiago dedicates to Tiresias, Exu Duas Cabeças and Saint Sebastian, addressing questions of gender identity like transsexuality.

In barbara balaclava, Thiago explores time in a horizontal, almost quantum manner. The logic of this time is more connected to a law of cause and effect than any chronology of events. In the film's script, for example, the heroine appears living three lives in a simultaneous way: A supposed past life, as a man, a black slave thrown into the ocean from a slave ship; as a woman, recently killed by the effects of the illegal occupation and the misappropriation of land and as an enchanted entity, who fuses former existences in an androgynous immaterial body, coexisting in the present and carrying with it the scars, stories and powers of these past existences.

In the film, there is also a micro-narrative for the heroine realized by intermediary through Marselha's tarot cards, addressing aspects of the archetypical journey which she goes through, like a premonition of the psychological depth of her experiences.

In one of his paintings, Thiago narrates the reincarnation of a São Paulo bandeirante in the womb of an indigenous woman from the Amazon, in a negation of the energetic death of history and of an end to personal spiritual journeys. The law of return does not break with the past, but it has the power to place it in the present.  

As predicted by the principles of magic, the events of the narratives and their signs echo in several dimensions, times and spaces, producing energetic effects, manifesting synchronicities and propagations that are not always in sequence.

As described and experienced by Jung in the Red Book, by making contact with the sign, Thiago seems to make contact with the world, perhaps in a socio-artistic visionary experience of our times.

For example, I ask myself: by painting, months in advance, the barricaded occupations at the marquees of the Brazilian National Congress, the invasion of black mud in the country's villages, by depicting the wound of dirty iron years before, might the artist be connected to some kind of Neuromancer? Might he enter, via signs, an almost physical cyberspace, a kind of programmed matrix in which he envisions the causes and effects of occurrences? Or might he have access to the images present in Plato's world of ideas, in which existing occurrences are replicated ideally in our physical universe? Might he anticipate, far ahead time, the battles that await us? I also wonder: Does Thiago's (alchemic) belief truly make sense that his pictorial ebó will bring below (to the physical world) that which exists above (in the spiritual world) and vice-versa?

In my view, Thiago is, above all, aware of the fact that signs have power and he uses them for his artistic pajelança in order to avenge, cure, awaken and liberate characters and the public in the many dimensions and times of the universe, governed by his own personal ethics. 

– Viviane Vazzi Pedro