The Approach, London
On until 16th February 2020 (FREE)
"Today I am aware that it is fundamental for the artist, for his authenticity, for his existence, to have a profound dialogue with his land, his people, his kinsmen, and later to add erudition, information, and knowledge through books, contact with other artists, with critics who provide further enrichment."
Rubem Valentim (1922-1991) was a crucial figure for Brazilian art of the twentieth century yet his contributions have only recently started to be recognised. Born in Salvador, Bahia to an unprivileged background, he was raised catholic and would also attend ceremonies of Candomblé - an Afro-Brazilian religion that emerged from the need of the enslaved African people to disguise their own religions. This resulted in orixás (deities embodied in human form) being syncretised with Roman Catholic saints in a way that each orixá would have a corresponding Catholic saint. For example Iemanjá, orixá queen of the sea, corresponds to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. In worshipping Our Lady of Immaculate Conception the African people would be worshipping their own deity.
Valentim was a visionary. He argued against cultural colonialism and the passive acceptance of everything that arrived from Europe. He defended the local cultural production such as the carranca figureheads of River São Francisco and cordel literature. By never letting go of his roots and with a deep understanding and experience of the complex mix that made up Brazilian culture Rubem Valentim created a universal yet authentic visual language which he called: O Sentir Brasileiro (The Brazilian Way of Feeling).
A self-taught artist, his very first artistic influence was the wall-painter Artur "Come-Só". Valentim later compared the man who had painted the walls of his parents' house to Alfredo Volpi - one of Brazil's most significant artists. "Come-Só" remained unknown all of his life. Valentim became a dentist and later studied Journalism all the while developing his artistic practice. He was an avid student of art movements and an assiduous museum visitor. The more he learnt the more he understood how important his relationship with his land and his roots was for his practice. Valentim moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1957 allowing him to dialogue with important artistic figures such as Tarsila do Amaral. He also spent sometime in Europe and participated in the 31st Venice Biennale. He was obsessed with a genuinely Brazilian culture and never affiliated to any artistic movement.
In his search for a universal yet authentic Brazilian visual language he found in the symbols of Candomblé the poetics that would synthesise his interest. These liturgical symbols would usually be something worn or carried by the orixás - anything from weapons to adornments. Each orixá had a unique personality that would match a specific wardrobe. Valentim would turn those symbols into abstract geometric forms creating colourful, symmetrical compositions. Using geometry as a tool the artist transformed the mystical symbols into a universal language. This distinguished his artistic production from what critics at the time would consider "folkloric". In the late 1960s Valentim transcended the two-dimensionality of the canvas in favour of totem-like sculptures maintaining the semiotic character inspired by Candomblé.
The Approach gallery brings to the UK Rubem Valentim's first solo exhibition in the country showing pieces produced in the last twenty years of the artist's life. The history and strong colours of the thirteen works on show contrast well with the high ceilings and white walls of the English pub where the gallery is located.
To decipher the language embedded in Valentim's works one either needs familiarity with the symbols of Candomblé or some type of decoder (or both). In Variação I - 87 some of the symbols seem to merge into one another. At the bottom of the painting against a brown background two yellow arrows point upwards. They represent Oxumaré, the orixá who brings water from the earth to the sky where Xangô lives. Further up in the painting to a light blue background (Iemanjá's colour) red arrows point in opposite direction and their tips seem to merge with tips of other (disembodied) arrows. They represent Iemanjá's union to Oxalá to create humanity. A lot is still left to the imagination as not everything can be decoded. (Tip: when you visit the exhibition ask for the decoder.)
I was fascinated by Rubem Valentim as a thinker, as a person, as Brazilian. His life story as a black man born only three decades after slavery was abolished in Brazil is truly inspiring. As I experienced Valentim's paintings and sculptures I wondered whether he was successful in his goal to create a universal language - "a structure able to reveal our reality - my reality at least - in terms of a sensitive order". I wondered whether in trying to achieve order, in trying to structure something that is arguably un-structurable, the feeling of it was lost.
In researching his life and work I was brought back to the Brazil of my own childhood when my mum would take me to Candomblé ceremonies and offerings to Iemanjá on the beach every year on 2nd February. I was then thankful to Valentim for what he did. Sometimes success doesn't matter at all.