Discovering Miriam Inez da Silva
5 Mar 2021, 7:29 am
The exhibition “The Extraordinary Impurities of Miriam Inez da Silva”, currently on display at Almeida and Dale Galeria de Arte, consists of the largest retrospective ever held on the artist from Goiás. Curated by Bernardo Mosqueira and with curatorial assistance by Ana Clara Simões Lopes, the exhibition repositions Da Silva’s work — always characterized by a nomenclature of terms such as naif, pure and folklore — as a modern multi-layered body of works and imbued with a biting humor . “The inclusion (or exclusion) of Miriam in these categories made her work the object of a stunted look, informed by coloniality and elitism, unable to recognize the complexities that constitute her practice. Where these critics have been pointing out intuition, innocence, purity and tradition, in the exhibition we highlight intention, malice, impurity and transgression”, says curator Bernardo Mosqueira.
During the research process for the exhibition, the curatorial team came across a treasure: a meticulous file maintained by Da Silva that detailed her transit within the art world, and which reveals a precious glimpse of the artist’s performance within this environment, previously neglected or unknown. Ana Clara Simões Lopes talks about the interaction with this file, and how its discovery can impact the public perception of Miriam Inez da Silva’s work.
The exhibition catalog, which contains the text “Metabolizing Miriam” commented in the interview, in addition to other seminal texts about the artist, has just been released by Almeida and Dale Galeria de Arte and can be downloaded on their website.
BARBARA MASTROBUONO: When researching the work of Miriam Inez da Silva, you came into contact with an extensive file maintained by the artist and subsequently by her daughter, Sofia Cerqueira, in which forty years of practice and transit in the art scene are meticulously recorded. Can you talk a little about how you discovered the file, and the learning experience that came from interacting with it?
ANA CLARA SIMÕES LOPES: I discovered Miriam’s archive at the beginning of the research process for the exhibition. Bernardo and I had already gathered some information and noticed particularities about Miriam’s trajectory, but there were still many gaps and inconsistencies in the information that was available to us. Primary sources were scarce. I remember being in contact with about ten museums simultaneously, trying to confirm Miriam’s participation in exhibitions inside and outside Brazil. This process had been slow and especially difficult, since most institutions were working with a significantly reduced research capacity due to the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. And then, Bernardo gets in touch with Sofia Cerqueira, the artist’s daughter. In the first conversation, Sofia mentioned having kept paintings, woodcuts and matrices, in addition to many of Miriam’s folders, since she is now living in the same apartment where her mother had lived. Very generously, she made this treasure available so that we could use it in our research.
It was in one of these folders that I found the file. After some folders filled with sketchbooks, drawings, prints and sketches for paintings, soon there were brochures, resumés, documents and exhibition catalogs. I remember that I immediately saw the printed brochure of an exhibition in Mexico, held at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil — one of the institutions I was constantly harassing, trying to consult a document that I now held in my hands. And not only that, the archive promptly solved many of our doubts, greatly clarifying Miriam’s trajectory. We found at least twice as much evidence of exhibitions in galleries as we had gathered in our previous research, for example. The simple amount of material made clear the proficiency of the artist, the impact of her circulation, gave shape to Miriam’s participation and protagonism in a significant number of exhibitions over the years. Miriam’s documentary collection taught me her consistency, the cultivation and regularity of her practice, outlining the unfolding of her professional career.
And yet, although decidedly diligent, this file or collection of documents is also the result of a selection whose parameters are unknown. It is a meticulous file, but full of gaps. I believe its outline was defined by years of storage without crystallization of criteria. It is curious to note what Miriam kept and what she chose not to keep. She did not keep any notes on her finished and sold works, for example. Not even in the case of the exhibitions in which she kept other types of documentation, she did not keep any record of the works produced for the occasion, much less their final whereabouts. See? There are gaps that are true vacuums. I am led to believe that perhaps the parameters for selection were simply her affection for the information.
BM: In your text “Metabolizando Miriam”, published in the catalog The Extraordinary Impurities of Miriam Inez da Silva (2021) you reflect on the traces left by Da Silva when compiling her file, and on how the act of documentation plays a role in the construction of the figure of the artist and her work within the larger discourse of art criticism. Can you talk a little bit about this?
ACSL: Ah, I think those traits you are referring to, these minutiae, are my favorite parts of Miriam’s immense archive. From the first moment, each emphasis, dated clipping of newspaper, underlined catalog and typewritten curriculum enchants me. I think they are subtle characteristics that invigorate the diligence and affection that I have observed in these storage process over the years.
In the text, this documentation to which I refer is not only related to Miriam’s documentation, but also to the idea of historical documentation proposed by Le Goff. He sought to question the gaps left by what is known as historical documentation, questioning its hiatuses and forgetfulness. I bring try to question precisely the narrative of this history which made a point of not including certain artists. I tried to build my text around the intricacies of the ideas Le Goff proposes, but in an intentionally subjective way. I tried to emphasize how this personal archive offers us slightly more than an institutional archive — engendered by pragmaticity — would be capable of. Miriam’s collection of documents allows us to observe her trajectory from a subjective and personal point of view, precisely because it was hers.
A good example is the case of Miriam and Ivan Serpa. During our research, we heard from many people that the two knew each other, and some even reiterated the cordiality between them. In contact with the MAM–Rio archives, I was able to confirm Miriam’s enrollment in one of the classes taught by Serpa at the museum in 1962. In the comings and goings with the file, I found the brochure of the vernissage of one of Miriam’s exhibitions, on which Serpa had drawn — I won’t dwell on this (I think I’ve already done so sufficiently in my text for the catalogue) — but what enchants me in this document is the affection that its existence implies. It presupposes presence, dialogue, exchange, something that the institutional collections would not be able to reveal.
If I am allowed to digress, the parallelism of this whole situation always seems so curious to me: to discover, during a research process that aimed to question historical gaps, a collection of documents that offered all the content for the review of one of those exposed gaps.
BM: In this same sense, one of the great marks of the current exhibition is to present Da Silva not as a naif artist, as she was being characterized, but as an artist full of intentionality and with academic training. How did the discovery of this file help in the movement to break the stereotyping of her work?
ACSL: The discovery of the archive corroborated much of what we already imagined, underpinned many of our suspicions. From the beginning Bernardo and I looked at the paintings for hours on end, intuitively noticing the transgressive gestures present in the compositions and reiterating details that emerge in the paintings when confronted with the notions — with which we had already encountered — of ingenuity and purity, often used to describe Miriam’s work. Through the paintings, we suspected a provocative, humorous and shrewd artist, an image that the archive helped us consolidate.
I think a good example is Miriam’s teenage sketchbooks. The discovery of these older notebooks showed us her ability to represent in the “conventional” way, from the point of view of Western academic art. I remember opening one of the notebooks and noticing a drawing called “São João”, from 1952. A lot was already there: the taste for popular festivities, meticulous dresses, dancing couples and even the inclusion of the title in the upper corner of the composition. Certainly there have been shifts in her work, but there were many drawings that pointed to motes that would later be repeated in her paintings. There was already a taste for the elaboration of costumes, makeup and lush hair, as well as themes such as parties and shows, playing cards, actresses and singers.
These indications of Miriam’s attention to vernacular culture and the forms of representation of women as early as the 1950s, heralded the latency of these striking characteristics in her painting over the years. Therefore, painting the way she does thirty years later can only be a choice, and, as such, its meaning and implications must be accounted for. This data, in my view, points to Miriam’s affections and can be useful in dismantling the idea of “ingenuity”. What if Miriam was guided not by innocence, but by her intentionality, freedom and transgression?
I really hope that the archive can be useful in discussing stereotypes in the analysis of Miriam’s delightful work. I hope that this research work inspires a revisitation to her production and encourages the questioning of the many justifications used in the classification of her work as “naif”, “ingenuous” or “popular”. Much remains to be discussed about these very narrow categories. It is a terminology that seems to me not very efficient, since it is always surrounded by a constellation of preconceived notions that cloud a more careful and powerful analysis of the works.
BM: In a History of Brazilian Art (in capital letters) in which the consecrated names of the second half of the 20th century are constantly revisited, their documentation, files and traces constantly analyzed for each detail, what you feel it signifies the fact of Da Silva’s archive has been largely unknown to researchers until the recent moment?
ACSL: I think that a simple answer to that question would not be possible. First off, this exacerbated focus on some themes and artists is a problem in the historiographical narrative in general. These gaps can be caused by a myriad of different factors — from limits of access to material, to the excessive reproduction of the same core of discussions.
It is true that the reproduction of the same nucleus of discussions about the same set of canons, which are repeated year after year, has resulted in many negligences. This is to say that, in a very general way, the art system and historiography were not very kind to the female artists, nor to the racialized ones, nor to the artists who they insisted on classifying as “popular”. There have been advances in this direction, but they are recent, in addition to not being enough.
The fact that Miriam was categorized as a popular artist made her a kind of “other” to the modern subject, unimportant and without nuance, and which therefore did not justify study. This “other” is easily understood and assimilated because it is “simple” and “naif”. Much can be concluded from these superficial classifications, which seem to justify the absence of substantial research and review of trajectories. And once research is deemed unnecessary, the collections loose their accuracy and the primary sources become unimportant. Superficiality is seen as enough.
Perhaps I could sense that much of what was unknown about Miriam remained so for so long due to the exhaustion of the same core of analysis, which has been repeated gradually over the years. However, I do not think it is so simple, or better: it would not be such an easy task to point out the reason for this ignorance of Miriam’s archive. To answer that, I think that a complete revision of the artist’s collection and a thorough review of the historiography of Brazilian art during that period would be necessary, in order to raise the hypothesis of exclusion of this archive.
It is also worth mentioning that my text was a momentary reading of this collection of documents. It was an experimental processing mechanism, hence the term metabolize. Because of this procedural nature, I think that any watertight conclusion from that first reading would be a bit premature.