Adriana Varejão has since the late 1980s recast the hybrid cultural history of her native Brazil into a series of related paintings, sculptures and installations. Seen collectively, her work narrates a revised, post-colonial catechism through a new iconography of corporeal and allegorical bodies. The lushly baroque stylizations of her paintings, in which fragments of bodies mingle allusively with images drawn from Brazil's colonial past, reflect a present-day meditation on the language of the body and the legacy of cultural exchange. In series that have explored the material and visual artifacts of colonial Brazil, such as Proposal for a Catechesis, Apparition and Relics, and Azulejaras, Varejão has plumbed a rich historical record of sixteenth-century engravings, maps, religious symbols, travel narratives, and decorative objects. "I am interested in verifying in my work dialectical processes of power and persuasion," she has explained. "I not only appropriate historic images--I also attempt to bring back to life processes which created them and use them to construct new versions."
Relicario do braço de São Bento is an early and elegant example of Varejão's practice of appropriation and transformation, which she has long explored through the Brazilian paradigm of antropofagia, or cultural cannibalism. As a critical practice renewed by the Brazilian avant-garde generation of the 1920s, antropofagia posited transculturation and syncretism as constructive values, a fitting rejoinder to essentializing European constructs of the New World. "Adopting the conspicuous language of church iconography and using explicit theatrical strategies of indoctrination methods of colonial catechizing," as curator Rina Carvajal has explained, "Varejão is able to surreptitiously desecularize and display the content of the images."
The relics of saints--their bodily remains, clothing, or personal effects--are venerated within the Catholic religion, where they are understood as enduring extensions of the departed physical bodies. Relicario do braço de São Bento alludes to Saint Benedict (c. 480-547), considered the father of western monasticism. The first Benedictine monks settled in Brazil in 1581 amid evangelization efforts that witnessed the construction of cathedrals and churches in the Baroque and later Rococo styles.
Varejão posits an allegorical relic in the present work, gesturing to Catholic scripture but touching as well on the complicated social and political legacies of the Church in colonial Brazil. The saint's right forearm is raised in anticipation of making the sign of the cross; the hand emerges from an ornately embroidered costume with dense, foliate designs that glimmer against what Carvajal has described as a "mise en abîme" of imagery. The painting's decorative design is built through multiple layers: against a sumptuously colored background with leaf-and-vine motif rests a gossamer fabric, its rhythmic pattern of scrolls visually mediating the florid vocabularies of both the embodied sleeve and the painted ground. Varejão draws an analogy between the physical body of the saint--the relic--and the social body whose catechistic teachings profoundly shaped the cultural and civic mores of the colonial world. The uncanniness of the relic, a part-body miraculously sustained, becomes here a suggestive invitation to consider the historical complexities and, no less, the contemporary resonance, of Brazil's colonial past.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) Adriana Varejão, quoted in Rina Carvajal, "Adriana Varejão: Travel Chronicles," Virgin Territory: Women, Gender, and History in Contemporary Brazilian Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2001), 116.
2) Carvajal, "Adriana Varejão: Travel Chronicles," 119.