Adriana Varejão: Kindred Spirits
The Brooklyn Rail
By Sara Christoph
In the spring of 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, erecting a boundary—the Mississippi River—between Americans in the East, and those unwelcome inhabitants, Native Americans, forced to the West. Artists and writers traveled to document the mass migration, as it wavered on the edge of genocide. One thinks of the darkly romanticized photographs of the Navajo by Edward Curtis, or the paintings of Charles Bird King and George Catlin, highly polished studio portraits of Native American chiefs—the colonizers simultaneously memorializing and destroying.
Adriana Varejão, one of Brazil’s most visible contemporary artists, mines historical narratives such as these as rich artistic material. Her paintings and sculptures deal in epochs of cultural quicksand: when cultures—by means either violent or acquiescent—merge and cannibalize each other, producing intertwined histories and peoples. In “Kindred Spirits,” a series from 2015, the artist turned her archeological eye to the American Plains and Southwest, finding subtle resonances between two periods of American art history, one highly triumphant (the trademark forms of Ab-Ex and Minimalism), the other, belittled and largely extinguished (the academic portrait of the “noble savage”).
“Kindred Spirits” is composed of twenty-nine identical, compact, delicately painted portraits of a dark-haired woman. Like a sculpted bust rendered flat, the bone-white color of her skin fades into a stone-like, monochromatic background at the nape of her neck. Each painting was commissioned from an anonymous professional artist in China, then altered by Varejão with various iterations of colored bands, ear piercings, and decorative headdresses—an iconographic mixture of ceremonial Native American dress and 1960s abstraction. The woman’s gaze is the same throughout: soft, straight-ahead, and seemingly unaffected by either the adornments of paint and jewelry that cling to her skin or their symbolic weight.
In one standout painting, the black curls of the woman’s hair have been painted over with swaths of sky blue, her head crowned with a splotch of black, as if the paint had been pelted at the canvas in one hard shot. Her expression remains steadfast; the bravado of such gestural ostentation is reduced to ornament, yet another style to be worn and performed. Below, three thick, gray bands connect her lips and chin, echoing the traditional face paint of King’s Young Omaha, War Eagle (1821).
The woman in the paintings is the artist herself, a trope common to Varejão’s practice. (She cites Severo Sarduy’s Written Upon a Body as a formative influence.) In “Polvo,” a series from 2013, the artist bottled shades of flesh-colored paint into tubes to match the imaginative ways Brazilian citizens described their skin color in a 1976 census. While “Polvo” had an autobiographical layer—the artist grew up in the utopian mist of the city of Brasilia—the paintings of “Kindred Spirits” are decidedly not self-portraiture; they are constructions. Thinly painted stripes may dip with the curvature of her nose and fall into the crevice of her chin, but one knows the sitter never wore these bands of color or plums of feathers. Rather, each painting is an assemblage of multiple artistic hands, borrowing from visual languages across time.
Andrew Jackson, elected in 1829, could arguably be considered the first anti-establishment president to ride a wave of populism into power. He was the first candidate to write his own autobiography as a component of his national campaign, a platform through which he rallied contemporary frustrations and anger in one, very specific, direction—Native Americans. In light of the history Kindred Spirits excavates, the parallels to the xenophobic rhetoric of today’s political climate—the cultures and peoples being bound and demonized—are too hard not to draw.