Irezumi is the name given to the traditional Japanese form of comprehensive body tattooing. The tattoos usually cover the whole body or at least a large portion of it creating a decorative but permanent body suit. These embellishments can extend from the neck to below the buttocks or also, sometimes stretching also over parts of the arms and legs. In the diptych Irezumi com padrão de cerâmica (Irezumi with Ceramic Pattern), 1997, Adriana Varejão creates paintings on animal hide mimicking two varieties of Irezumis--in one, the whole body is covered up--with the exception of the face and head; in the other, only the torso is covered.
The painting was realized based on and as part of a performance carried out by the artist in 1997. Using the tattoo as a second skin, Varejão maps the body creating a kind of cartography in which vessels, flowers, snakes, dragons, Chinese porcelain, and nature-based motifs permeate the body surface, making allusion to the sea, voyages, foreign lands and virgin territories. In the torso of the larger suit, is the Biblical tree of knowledge, complete with serpent and suggesting the imminent expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. The small torso depicts a galleon--perhaps in reference to the era of exploration and conquest, and to the persistence of navigators in their quest to reach Asia. These images look like memories that become attached to the skin.
The theme of colonization is a recurrent one in Varejão's work. The Irezumis lay against a painted grid of wall tiles, which usually appear in her work as a reference to the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, since such tiles were used to decorate local buildings constructed by the colonizers. Varejão usually explores the historical past through the collective memory of how the Portuguese subjugated the indigenous people they found living in what is now Brazil. She does not hesitate to open the wounds inflicted by history, marking her subjects's skin with a violence analogous to that perpetrated against the continent's aboriginal people. In Irezumi com padrão de cerêmica, the architectural elegance of the Portuguese tiles with their geometric abstract patterns reminiscent of the minimalist grid, is infused not with modernist detachment but rather with the visceral ways in which the body becomes attached to that very grid and its dubious promise of objectivity.
Varejão's work uses painting as memories adhered to the skin. Through the fragmented surface of the body she reconstructs the different tales of transcontinental cultures and moreover, their harsh encounters through history. Clash or reconciliation is certainly a question posed by her work.
Claudia Calirman, Ph.D.