A young artist from São Paulo whose work first appeared on the contemporary Afro-Brazilian art scene a little over a decade ago, Sidney Amaral, who died at the age of 44, not only leaves behind a legacy for the history of this segment of Brazilian art, but also made contributions to contemporary art as a whole, an area in which, until recently, no black artists existed (1). In addition to his unique approach to ethnic and racial themes, Amaral addressed many other topics that came to life in the work he produced. In this way, he walked “many paths” and his technical and expressive repertoire included installations, appropriations, sculptures in bronze, marble and other materials, oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings, and drawings (2).
His work began to attract the interest of collectors, was acquired by public institutions (3) and continues to attract a black audience for the themes present in his poetic critiques, such as when he addresses the affectivity of the black man. Watercolors that speak eloquently on this include: Enfim encontrei você! (As afinidades eletivas) (2014); studies for Imolação (2009/2014); Banzo ou a anatomia de um homem só (2014); Bem me quer mal me quer (2012). His colorful bronze statues covered with electrostatic paints also display these feelings, such as Trauma (2014), in which blood that has been staunched is a metaphor for grief that comes back from the past to haunt the present, the pain never dissipating (4). In Entre iguais (Todo Amor Humano) (2014), Amaral presents the union of two hearts, which suggests there is a metabolism particular to the experience of love. These and other works reflect on the body in different ways, hammering out a path that transcends the structural racism of Brazilian society, gives shape to certain emotions, and stretches with remarkable conceptual freedom when the artist resorts to surrealistic devices, sectioning off the body into many parts. This gave rise to works such as Complacência (2014), in which marble and resin hands express opposite, but coexisting, emotional reactions, or No limite do possível (2015), in which a Carrara marble finger wears a ring of bronze thorns, pointing to the ambiguity of the marriage bond.
During the final two years of his life, the artist’s work traveled in major exhibitions and was added to public and private collections (5). Amaral’s solo exhibition O banzo, o amor e a cozinha de casa, under the curation of Claudinei Roberto Silva, was awarded the now-defunct Prêmio Funarte de Arte Negra, by the Ministry of Culture (6). The three subjects of the show’s title (“love, Banzo, and the house kitchen”) are reliable tools for a critical incursion into his multifaceted poetics. Between 2003 and 2016, Brazil’s Workers Party government was largely responsive to the demands of the various black social movements that had been fighting throughout the 20th century for integration within Brazilian society (7). In the aforementioned retrospective exhibition, one could observe both the variety of the artist’s proposals and the techniques that he used. He deepened his knowledge in each of these media, finding the specific point between theme and its material treatment. Interestingly, he did not use photography and video, but rather photographic images from the 19th and 20th centuries in works such as Incômodo (2014). Sensitive to the present moment, Amaral transformed a scene from the film “Cristo Rey” (8) in Mãe Preta, ou fúria de Iansã (2014), a 220×140 cm canvas. A woman armed with a knife stands ready to slice the neck of a policeman who, with bloody hands, points his revolver at the head of her son, kneeling at the bottom of the canvas. Instead of a Caribbean shantytown street, Amaral covers the canvas in the color black, accentuating the tension between the State and civil society. The mother sees no way out of the situation but to wield a knife – a domestic object used as a tool of war (9). The theme of the death of the young black man or the conditions that lead to this dramatic reality appears in other of his works, such as Imolação (2009/2014). Ever since it legally abolished slavery, Brazil has held a real contempt for talking about racism. This is a deliberate act and a way in which the elites and middle classes have dealt with a problem they choose to imagine does not exist (11).
Although the theme of race is a constant in the work of Amaral, it is reductive to look at it only from that angle. Attention must be paid to his refined sense of composition and montage from everyday elements such as dolls, sharp objects, balloons, flip-flops, toiletries, domestic spaces (12). Works such as Gravidade (2011) and Família (2012) turn to conceptual formalism, the same as in Probabilidade (2009) or Fecundação (2012), which allows us to think about the critical and expressive freedom of the black artist.
Sidney Amaral was a multifaceted artist, not only because he was interested in various subjects and techniques, but he also continued to work as a public school teacher, deciding each day who he would be. His death cut short a robust and prolific career, one that does not end with him. The still tentative recognition he earned leaves behind lessons for Brazilian art that, despite the current dismantling of democracy, shows little political and social concern.
Alexandre Araujo Bispo is an anthropologist, critic, independent curator and educator.
Translation from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.