Every October the Brazilian port city of Belém is transformed by the Cirio de Nazaré, a Catholic religious festival that honors a centuries-old icon of the Virgin Mary. Many thousands of devotees follow the small statue as it is paraded through the city streets, seeking the Virgin’s miraculous intervention and blessings of good fortune for the year to come. A native of Belém who currently resides in London, Tonico Lemos Auad recently deployed a variety of forms and materials to explore the rich iconography of this annual event.
The literal and thematic backdrop for this show was Reflected Archeology (all works 2012), an interactive mural that spanned a large wall of the gallery. Visitors were given pennies to scratch through an overpainting of dull silver ink, gradually revealing an enormous photographic collage that pictured aspects of the Cirio de Nazaré. Two weeks into the show’s run, excavated images of crowded street processions jostled with Belém harbor scenes of boats festooned with colorful flags and streamers. While the participatory scratching encouraged close inspection of a potentially unfamiliar religious ritual, its similarity to rubbing the silver film from lottery cards allied the active viewer with the hopes and superstitions of the Brazilian faithful.
Two sculptures stood like sentinels in front of the mural. Carranca is a 4-foot-tall female figure roughly carved from grayish sea chalk and perched on a wooden plinth. Though faceless, the figure’s heavy cloak and crown suggest the Virgin Mary, and its Portuguese title refers to a type of ship figurehead endowed with apotropaic powers. The nearby Figa (Amulet), a 6-foot-tall forearm and fist constructed from red bricks and mortar, is also symbolic. In Brazil, its particular gesture of a thumb clenched between the index and middle fingers is believed to bring good luck. This theme was extended in Shelter, an open-weave lattice of thin brass strips that projected from a wall, overhead, in the shape of a peaked roof. Clearly ineffectual as a shelter or roof, this glistening awning seems to represent the desire for protection.
Devotional themes governed most of the works in this show. But they were not so apparent in Small Fires, a variable installation of 85 tin cans that were arranged on the floor. Echoing the subtractive gestures that transformed Reflected Archeology, Auad scratched away most of the painted labels from cans used for various commercial products, leaving behind isolated images on the empty vessels. The seemingly casual array could in fact be read as a tropical landscape: cans bearing fruit and flowers were clustered in one area; a small grove of palm trees seemed to grow in another; several stripped sardine tins doubled as boats in an imaginary harbor. And yet the shiny cylinders also conjured a metropolis in miniature, perhaps speaking to the recent and rapid transformation of the Belém skyline, and the remarkable economic growth of Brazil more broadly.
Photo: View of Tonico Lemos Auad’s exhibition, showing Reflected Archeology (on wall) and Small Fires (foreground), both 2012; at CRG.