Decolonizing Art with Adriana Varejão
On Friday, March 8, the Brazil LAB hosted the Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão to discuss her original artwork and reflect on the violent histories and postcolonial identities of Brazil. One of the worlds’ most imaginative and probing artists, Varejão was joined in conversation by Professor Lilia Schwarcz (University of São Paulo and Visiting Professor at Princeton University), with whom she co-authored Pérola Imperfeita: A História e as Histórias na Obra de Adriana Varejão (2014). Professor João Biehl (Co-Director of the LAB) introduced the speakers to a large audience from Princeton and the New York area, highlighting the long-lasting impact of their work in Brazilian arts and public sphere. Varejão’s work is held in major collections worldwide: at the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, the Museu de Arte do Rio de Janeiro, among others. She has a permanent pavilion dedicated to her work at the Inhotim Center of Contemporary Art and is represented by Gagosian Gallery.
Through her vastly evocative works and physically arresting artistic practice in multiple media, Varejão presents incisive reinterpretations and reflections on the complex nature of Brazilian history and the plights and becomings of its peoples. This was best portrayed when Varejão described her work Proposal for a Catechesis (1994). The painting renders a scene in which the native Indians are teaching catechism to Europeans and a ritual where the figure of Christ is killed to be consumed. The tiles, which are simulated in the painting, are not only a symbol of Portuguese Empire, but also, as Schwarcz commented, “represent the ambiguities between violence and pleasure.” Biehl described this provocative and incisive approach to press on those ambiguities of colonization and offer alternative histories of Brazil as “a reorientation to perception and a resistance to death.” During a lively Q&A session, Varejão had the opportunity to reflect upon her literary influences, methodologies as a self-taught artist, and manifest her belief that art should propose questions and not provide definite statements.
Varejão’s Princeton experience culminated in a wonderful visit to Firestone’s Rare Books reading room, where she was delighted to see first editions of 16th and 17th century books by Jean de Léry and Theodore Bry, among others, carrying images remade by her artwork. The library visit was organized by Brazil LAB Associate Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez, Librarian for Latin American Studies, who also introduced Varejão to the Ephemera Collection. The Brazilian artist was likewise deeply impressed with the Art Museum, which she visited at the end of her day at Princeton.