IN THE NEWS
By Inti Guerrero
Since the 1990s the work of Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão has been centered on how heritage in her home country is structured by extensive agglomerations of people, culture and civilizations from across the planet. She has built a consistent body of work and sensibility that began with her inquiry on how, over centuries, traditional Portuguese tile-work has symbolized processes of cultural appropriation found in Brazilian colonial history.
During its reign, the Portuguese Empire implemented its traditional blue-ceramic tile-work known as azulejo on the walls of the 16th- and 17th-century baroque architecture that they built on their colonies—including the city of Olinda in Brazil, Kochi in India and Macau. However, the origins of the craft and its blue palette can be traced to traditional pottery in southern China, which had been traded to Europeans via the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch, wanting to get ahead and produce these ceramics on their own to avoid expenses and taxation, decided to make imitations, which eventually led to the establishment of the world-renowned Delftware enterprise. The Portuguese later appropriated this craft from the Dutch, which then started appearing in ecclesiastic buildings and state architecture across the former country’s colonies. One could say that when azulejo was implemented in Macau to decorate its estate buildings, churches and streets, the craft saw a boomerang effect—in regards to its passage in cultural history—by unwittingly coming back to the point of its origin, China.
Varejão’s recent debut exhibition in Hong Kong, at Lehmann Maupin gallery, itself marked the artist’s boomerang-like return to China—a place that she had visited earlier in her career and sparked her long-running interest of incorporating its culture into her work. Split into two areas of the gallery, the exhibition comprised two different types of work by Varejão, both featuring her exploration of traditional tile-work and colonial history. In the larger of the rooms was a series of ink paintings on cracked ceramic canvases shaped as life-sized banana leafs. From a distance, the subjects depicted on the ceramics seem like traditional Song Dynasty imagery; yet upon a closer look, certain figures and buildings appear to have been inspired by the current sociocultural context of Brazil. Additionally, the narratives in many of the portrayed scenes are representations (but also, at times, literal acts) of miscegenation, including a geisha figure laying down in a tropical landscape, copulating with a dark-skinned mulatto man.
The other, more quite and modest room presented only two monochrome paintings. Contrary to the tropical and Dantesque style of the painting series in the other room, these two monochromes are iconoclastic and richer in meaning. Its blue, minimal palette, painted over a cracked surface of plaster placed atop canvases, is a refreshing abstract language to Varejão’s aforementioned endeavor on tiles, trade and colonialism. In the two monochrome pieces, her interrogation on transcultural identity takes form as the cracks on the ceramic surfaces, which represent the orifices of our body and the interstices of the various spaces that we inhabit.
Perhaps the mannerism found in Varejão’s new tropical/orientalist banana-leaf painting series can be seen as being part of a negative phenomena found in many international galleries based in Hong Kong and China, where “the Orient,” as a subject, seems to be enforced on artists debuting a solo exhibition at these spaces. It is a specific strategy that is frequently implemented as a way to build up and translate the artists’ work (which is often unknown in the region) to the interests and taste of the gallery’s local audience and clients. In the case of Varejão, however, this cultural translation is seemingly unnecessary.