Black Female Artists Sewing Afro-Brazilian ProtagonismFriday, January 7, 2022
This text is part of Alternative Routes, a project that foregrounds the work of eight young Afro-Latin American and Indigenous artists and highlights the historicity of racial and ethnic relations within Latin America’s art worlds. This project was organized and edited by Bruno Pinheiro, Ph.D. candidate in History at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and Horacio Ramos, Ph.D. candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. The following text has been translated from the original Portuguese.
Este texto está disponível em português
When I first came across Maria Auxiliadora da Silva's body of works from the late 1960s and early 70s at the São Paulo Museum of Art’s 2018 exhibition “Maria Auxiliadora: vida cotidiana, pintura e resistência [Maria Auxiliadora: Everyday life, painting and resistance]”, I was able to find something of what I yearn to discuss and conceptualize in my own work today. When I look deeply into both of our biographies, I perceive shared dialogues that travel across time. In this text I want to talk about these affinities, which I will explore in a brief presentation about our trajectories, in order to illustrate the points where our works touch.
Maria Auxiliadora was born in 1935 in Campo Belo, located in the countryside of Minas Gerais. Her family came from a rural environment and their memories from this experience became a recurrent theme in the artist’s paintings. Her family moved to São Paulo in 1938 and settled in its North Zone, in the Limão neighborhood. About ten years later, they bought a piece of land where they built their own house, in the Casa Verde Alta neighborhood, also in the North Zone of the city. It was in this house where this photograph was taken.
In this image, we can see Maria Auxiliadora beside an easel with two of her works. Some elements of the artist's biography are revealed in the photo: the modest environment, the artist barefoot on the ground, while showing special care with her outfit, which matches her headdress. Maria Auxiliadora came from a family of textile producers. Marcelina Carlota, her grandmother, produced crochet work, while Maria Almeida, her mother, was a seamstress and taught Maria embroidery techniques.
Despite following her mother's footsteps and working as an embroiderer since the age of nineteen, embroidery was not the only technique Auxiliadora developed creatively. In a biographical note published in the catalog of the exhibition held at the São Paulo Museum of Art between March and June 2018, curator Artur Santoro describes her artistic research process from the materials she utilized.  He comments that, as a child, the artist began to create illustrations with charcoal. Around the age of seventeen she started using colored pencils and, at twenty-six, she began to paint with oil-based paints. Her maturity as an artist coincided with her integration into networks with other Black artists from the outskirts of São Paulo. The poet, playwright, and painter Solano Trindade, who ran his Popular Theater in the city of Embu das Artes, was a key figure in this movement. It was during this period that Maria Auxiliadora began to devote more time to her pictorial production.
In 1968, Auxiliadora had her first exhibition. That same year, she began making paintings with reliefs made from oil paste—a technique that became one of the main characteristics of her work. It is through the use of this material that the artist assigned three-dimensionality to her canvases, emulating the texture of fabrics.
Hanayrá Negreiros, adjunct curator of fashion at MASP, states that the knowledge of clothing production shared in Auxiliadora's family influenced the aesthetic elaboration of the details of textile representations that the characters present on her canvases.  This idea is reinforced by the fact that the painter used to sew her own clothes. This point becomes more complex in her work, given the substantial number of canvases in which Candomblé deities are represented. The detailed richness of the characters' clothes in her canvases is related to the immense importance of clothes in the religion, as detailed in oralitures, itans, orikis, myths and research.
In the work Untitled from 1972, the artist creates a representation of the religious space of a casa de Axé [Axé house], together with its deities, in which she does not specify the religion.  As in several of her other works with the same theme, it seems to me that the artist chooses to place the Black entities at the center of the space. When considering the arrangement of the figures, we can also observe that outside the central plane Catholic saints, such as Saint George and Saint Sebastian, are represented, figures that were historically syncretized as orixás, along with a whitened representation of Iemanjá. These characters bring up the discussion of the process of syncretism, in which divinities of African origin or descent were associated with Catholic saints as a strategy to escape the violence of religious racism and ensure the continuity of Afro-Brazilian religiosity. In the case of Iemanjá, besides being represented as the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Sailors, and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, her image also went through a whitening (a process remarkably similar to what has historically happened with the image of Jesus Christ). From the dynamics portrayed in her painting, I believe that the choices made by Maria Auxiliadora would be a way for the artist to claim and highlight Black protagonism in Afro-Brazilian religions and, more broadly, in cultural life.
Though Auxiliadora garnered recognition for her works during her lifetime, her promising career was made short by her death at a young age after battling cancer. Despite seeking treatment and undergoing surgery, Maria Auxiliadora’s condition advanced and the disease became more aggressive, leading to her passing in 1974 at the age of thirty-nine. Narratives about her trajectory were only resumed recently when, in 2018, her artistic production won a retrospective exhibition at MASP as part of the program for the “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas’” project.
I was born in 1993 in the city of Campinas, in the interior of the state of São Paulo. Motivated by my studies in the arts, I left my hometown at the age of nineteen. In 2012, I moved to Florianópolis, and the following year, to Rio de Janeiro, where I started my studies in art history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
The following years were of immense importance for my education, as they marked my first contact with academic debates in the arts and with cultural institutions in a large city. At the university, I was able to organize an environment of discussion about issues related to my experiences. In 2016, I was one of the creators and organizers of Afroresistências [Afro-resistance], which brought together Black artists from all over Brazil to participate in a collective art exhibition, panel discussions, poetry slams, among several other activities. This was a milestone for the School of Fine Arts at UFRJ, as the event responded to the constant discomfort of Black students who did not see their lives reflected in the debates held in the classrooms, despite representing an increasing proportion of the student body year after year.
Along with Arcasi, an artist and fellow student at UFRJ at the time, I was responsible for selecting the artists who would be part of the exhibition. Through the works of Elian Almeida, Isabel Zua, Milena Lízia, Napê, and many other Black artists, I came in to closer contact with the issues that were being proposed in contemporary art across the various regions of the country. This discovery process intensified that same year, when I moved to Salvador, in the state of Bahia.
This change was once again motivated by my studies. I participated in an academic mobility program that allowed me to study at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). There, I had contact with professors who presented other narrative possibilities beyond the white Eurocentric ones I had encountered before. At that time, I was strongly influenced by the course I took with professor Dr. Fábio Velame on the history of Afro-Brazilian architecture, which allowed me to understand that we can write our stories from other intellectual bases.
My displacements, motivated by studies, were interrupted in 2017 after my mother’s passing. At that moment, I decided to return to São Paulo. After a while, I managed to transfer my studies to the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and started working as an art educator in the state’s capital. It was during this period that my artistic production became more systematic, and transformed itself into a way of elaborating my mourning.
Leticia Rodrigues (1975–2017), my mother, was a cleaner and artisan. She died of a stroke at the age of forty-two. It was with her that I learned how to crochet as a child. She produced pieces using mainly raw string and focused her production on rugs, although she also thought about the possibility of building more elaborate pieces and even works of art. One day she even mentioned to me ideas she had for objects that could be presented on the wall.
It was when I found my mother's unfinished pieces that I returned to crochet. That is how the series Mamãe & Eu & Mamãe [Mom & Me & Mom] was born. Inspired by my reading of Maya Angelou, I started to conduct an investigation into the process of separation between mother and daughter, in a series produced from cutouts of raw string pieces that my mother had left. In this process of separation and elaboration of mourning, I was led to reflect on the boundaries between us: what unites us, separates us, and differentiates us. For this, I performed interventions with different types of lines and colors.
In this photograph, I am in my studio, in the East Zone of São Paulo. On the back wall, it is possible to see the first work of the series Mamãe & Eu & Mamãe made of yellow strings. The other works present in the image are from the series Restauros Pretos (Black Restorations), which I started in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. This series allows me to dialogue with Maria Auxiliadora, both conceptually and technically.
Starting with Maria Auxiliadora's biography, which begins in the 1930s, and continuing with mine, in the 1990s, I can make some parallels regarding the learning of family techniques and their use in the construction of unique visualities among Black women. Likewise, I can highlight conceptual points of contact in our artistic research, which is based on the choice of narratives focused on Black identities and cultures, especially on the experience with Afro-Brazilian religiosities.
Restauros Pretos is a series of interventions of religious paintings normally collected by practitioners of different religions and often purchased in religious goods stores. Using crochet techniques, I create images of orixás over images of Catholic saints, and I recreate black skin on white skin in representations of figures such as Iemanjá, Christ and his disciples.
In the work Oxum #1, 2021, the image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, historically syncretized with Oxum, is utilized as the support for the intervention. The images used as the support in the Restauros Pretos series are paintings that became canonical from their wide reproduction in the religious goods market. Although the works in my series are directly related to Auxiliadora’s works in terms of composition, where she represents a single orixá, like in Orixá amarela (Yellow Orixá) or Untitled [Oxum], both from 1972, there is a stronger conceptual link to my work with her scenes of religious spaces, such as Auxiliadora’s Untitled (1972).
The basis of Restauros Pretos is my critique on dominant narrative forms around religious syncretism. By bringing Oxum to the fore, I present a challenge to religious hierarchies: can the Immaculate Conception be Oxum? This question surges from the possibility that my intervention can be seen as an act of vandalism, as if the image of Catholic saints suffers a violation or is tarnished when tethered to the orixás. Following this line of thought, we then reach the point of religious racism. I prefer to name it as such, because the term “religious intolerance” masks the real problem faced by Afro-Brazilian religions, which is a racial problem.
Thus, in Restauros Pretos I propose a return to fundamental questions, from racial distinction to the historicity of religious figures. Restauros Pretos states that Oxum needs to be Oxum, so that we may actually walk towards the abolition of historical and symbolic erasure with regard to Black cultures. The same happens when I see the composition of characters chosen by Maria Auxiliadora in her paintings. By placing Black people at the center, we may be seen and faced, but more so we affirm that, despite various attempts of erasure, we continue to resist.
 Santoro, Artur. Biographic Note in: Catálogo Maria Auxiliadora: vida cotidiana, pintura e resistência. São Paulo: Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), pp. 231–237, 2018.
 Negreiros, Hanayrá. Ela pinta como se estivesse bordando: pinturas e vestimentas na obra de Maria Auxiliadora. dObra [s]–revista da Associação Brasileira de Estudos de Pesquisas em Moda, v. 12, n. 25, pp. 276–285, 2019.
 Casa de Axé [Axé house] refers to an Afro-Brazilian religious house of unknown religious affiliation, and can include Candomblé, Umbanda, Terecô, Catimbó, Xambá, Tambor de Mina, etc.