Rubem Valentim in Review

Manifesto Against Cultural Subalternity

Two shows trace different aspects of the artist’s work and highlight its importance for Brazilian art. Through the combination of an Afro-Amerindian repertoire and European methods, Valentim’s work points to the idea of a Brazilian national sovereignty based on the value of ancestral, particularly Black African, knowledge.

Unlike other Concrete artists, however, Valentim rejected the so-called “optical games” that, according to him, so attracted followers of Concrete Art in São Paulo. His focus was on the pursuit of mysticism, spirituality, popular culture (but not folklore or tourist consumption), African art, candomblé, umbanda, and popular practices. In other words, things that were, according to him, from the “Brazilian way of feeling”. In addition, his poetics point directly to an idea of national sovereignty based on the value of ancestral knowledge, particularly that of blacks from Africa, capable of changing Brazil’s position in the world.

Afro-Centric Perspective

Valentim was also an artist who viewed his own life story in Bahia with respect, the place where he was born and worked during the beginning of his career, from 1949 to 1956. Today, it is clear that his European experience was also fundamental for the strengthening of an Afro-centric perspective, which began to appear in his work starting in the early 1950s, and gained momentum during his European period (1963-1966), when the artist, restless and critical of the recurrent subalternity in the attitudes of Brazilian artists linked to the European tradition, visited collections of African art in Europe, such as the British Museum in London.

Born to a poor family, Valentim began painting as a child. In 1946 he graduated from dental school at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). He worked as a dentist for two years, but left the profession in order to pursue an artistic career, dedicating himself to painting and attending the School of Fine Arts. It was also in 1946 that he met the group of Bahian modern artists with whom he would later stage his first exhibitions. Breaking away from this hub, but never failing to recognize the influence Bahia held over him, he moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he was not only well-received in the art world, but he also participated in exhibitions and won prizes such as the one that would take him later to Rome.

Religious Intolerance

Despite the wide dissemination of his work on the Internet, there have been no solo exhibitions of Valentim’s work since 2012, indicating the lack of recognition for his importance for Brazilian art. In April 2017, curator Marcus de Lontra Costa broke with this curatorial silence and organized Rubem Valentim Construção e fé (Construction and Faith), initially exhibited at Caixa Cultural in Brasília, the city where the Instituto Rubem Valentim is based, an institute idealized by the artist himself while he was still alive, but that only became a reality in 2017. It is also home to his famous work: Fachada em mármore branco da Secretaria Estadual da Fazenda (White marble facade of the State Secretary of Finance) (1960).

The same exhibition was hosted from October to December 2018 by Caixa Cultural da Sé in São Paulo. With a focus on his production starting in the 1970s, this exhibition, with just over 60 works belonging to several private collections, mainly focuses on the religious themes that characterize the artist’s poetics. At the exhibition’s entrance, a set of spiritual songs dedicated to Xango recalls the importance of the symbol of this orisha in Valentim’s work, but also evokes the issue of religious intolerance, a theme that, with the rise of the extreme right in Brazil in 2018, has become an absolutely current public issue.

Additional Exhibitions

The MASP (Museum of Art of São Paulo) chose the period from 1950 to 1970 when organizing Rubem Valentim: Afro-Atlantic Constructions (November 14, 2018 to March 10, 2019), curated by Fernando Oliva, bringing their year of programming dedicated to Afro-Atlantic Stories to a close. In the exhibition, 92 works are on display from the early years of Valentim’s career, a moment in which the relationship between geometry and the Afro-Brazilian sacred already makes an appearance, alongside the maturity of the artist, who departs from canvas to occupy space with his sculptures and reliefs in polychrome wood. Viewed together, the two exhibitions mentioned above cover practically the entire trajectory of Valentim.

With even greater strength, because its resources are far greater than those made available for the Caixa Cultural spaces, MASP brings together works from private and public collections. In an important research exercise, some works were given critical captions, which further explain the references to candomblé, something still little explored, perhaps due to the lack of more in-depth studies, but also the prejudices surrounding Afro-Brazilian religiosity. In addition, the catalog acts as a major contribution to the study and distribution of the artist’s work, with critical texts and previously unpublished documents on his creative process. During the 1960s and 1970s, according to artist and Valentim’s personal friend Bené Fonteles (1953-), it was Valentim himself who edited the catalogs for his exhibitions.

These two major shows also contribute to asserting Rubem Valentim as an artist who is black, from Brazil’s northeast, a restless constructor and not a constructivist. Each in its own way, they emphasize that the conjugation between the sacred and the political should not be dissociated when one speaks about Valentim’s work, or one risks fragmenting the artist’s poetics. He never hid his detestation for any form of cultural subalternity. In his work, a respect for Afro-Brazilian culture, the value of spirituality as the substratum of artistic expression, and a unique notion of politics as cultural sovereignty come together.

Alexandre Araujo Bispo is an anthropologist, critic, independent curator and educator.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.