Sonia Gomes reflects upon challenges and achievements as a black woman artist
4 Nov 2019, 4:16 pm
INTERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION BY MARINA DIAS TEIXEIRA
PHOTOS BY ALEXANDRE DROBAC
On the occasion of the Black Awareness Month, SP-Arte discussed with black women artists about their production and insertion in the contemporary art system.
To open this series, we visited Sonia Gomes’ studio and interviewed the artist represented by Mendes Wood DM gallery. Originally from Minas Gerais, she established herself both nationally and internationally, and currently lives and works in São Paulo, where she has become a reference for young black artists. Gomes reminds us that: “We don’t make black art, we are black and we work with art, because art is much bigger than these labels.” Check out the full interview below.
What are the challenges of being a black woman artist in Brazil?
Sonia Gomes: When talking about being a woman and black, I place myself first as black. Such is the difficulty. I see women attaining privileged places that black women and men have not attained yet. It is the black people who do not get there, therefore, the difficulty of insertion is much greater. My work carries an important weight that I call “genetic,” since it brings along this identity, with several colors and references. The first reading of someone looking at my production is that it is made by a “woman,” a “black woman.” In Brazil, where European and Eurocentric art are mainly valued, and considering that I am black and my work bears such identity, I encounter a lot of difficulty on the way.
How did the insertion of your work in the art market take place?
The career of the artist is hard for anyone in the whole world. But for black people, it gets even more complicated. For this reason, I faced a lot of difficulty. I am from Belo Horizonte and I have never been represented by a gallery there. Those who believed in my work were Sandra & Márcio Objetos de Arte, more specialized in antiques. It was through them that I grew closer to a more formal art market and ended up arriving to the point where I am now. I first joined Mendes Wood DM, my current gallery, as a guest artist for a solo exhibition. It was only later that they started to formally represent me.
What are the references and influences that permeate your work?
I did not start to do what I do thinking about art. It was a need: I started deconstructing things, making accessories for myself, and this practice ended up acquiring a larger and larger dimension, until it started to be named as “black art,” “contemporary art,” or, in a reductive way, “craftmanship.” I was not worried about these labels, this was just what I was able to make.
My work is life, it’s life movement. Since I first started making my accessories, I would look for movement and three-dimensionality. I like dance very much, and this movement appears in my work, just as when I did African dance and it reflected upon my work. In addition to this influence, there is another one in our country: the diversity. So much mixture, the popular and the scholar going along, the streets, the dialogue with nature, it all comes together.
Decolonial curatorship has been increasingly gaining room in more traditional Brazilian institutional environments. How do you see this? Which paths do we still have to go through?
I am feeling that there is an increasing movement of inclusion. In the exhibition “A nova mão afro-brasileira” [The New Afro-Brazilian Hand], held at Museu Afro Brasil in 2013, I was the only woman, and this was very questioned by women artists back then. Such a thing would not happen today. My gallery, for instance, has four other black artists other than me. Yet, if we take into account that we, black people, are more than half of the population, this proportion is still wrong.
It is important to say that our insertion in the market did not happen thanks to some “godfather,” but rather through resistance. It is an achievement. I hear a lot of people asking about when this “black wave” will pass. It is not a wave, it has come to stay, and good artists simply remain. One cannot speak about Brazilian art without black people. Here we are and there is no way back. This process of achievement is only moving forward. When I was young, it was not a topic of discussion. Now I see younger people with a lot of attitude: they speak, shout, style their hair way up – I even get goosebumps, I find it wonderful. This young movement is being a very important contribution.
How do you observe the importance of the art circuit outside of galleries and institutions? And how do you think the artistic practice is influenced by that?
The alternative circuit has to exist, and it is an important movement. You cannot rely exclusively on galleries. The artist’s need is to show their work, no matter where. I used to present my work at any space that would be open to receive me, whether it was a restaurant or any other place. I don’t have this prejudice of showing my work exclusively at galleries and institutions.
Many other reactions to my production have been taking place beyond the gallery environment. There are many textbooks, state schools, and art educators making new readings of works with children. I feel like I am making this contribution. Of course, every artist wants to sell, because it is a métier, a job like any other one, but these reactions are very positive and nourishing for us.
It is also important to remain alert and to support one another. Even us, who are black, we do not remember of black professionals at times. It is so structural. For this reason, I try to remain alert, and I have already recommended Janaina Barros and Fabiana Lopes to write about my work for two international exhibitions. They are very competent people, we are not doing any social assistance.
In 2015, you were part of the Venice Biennale. In 2018, you had your two first monographic institutional exhibitions in Brazil, one at Masp – Museu de Arte de São Paulo, and the other at Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói. Can you tell us a bit about these milestones of your career?
The Venice Biennale was indeed a milestone. I never had the pretension to become a big artist, of participating in this international exhibition. When I was invited, I even thought it was a prank: “Venice Biennale? Wait, what?”
The assistant curator contacted me after my participation in the exhibition “Feito por brasileiros” [Made by Brazilian], curated by Marc Pottier at Cidade Matarazzo, in 2014. They asked me to talk about my installation in the space and did not say a word for a long time. I thought: “it’s not going to happen this time.” The confirmation of the invitation arrived when I was in South Africa for an exhibition. It was a life-changing experience. On the way back from Venice, I thought: “Wow, my career is consolidated, that’s it. Nothing else is going to happen.”
The invitation for a solo exhibition at MASP was equally a surprise, I had never even been invited to any group shows at the museum. Curators Adriano Pedrosa and Amanda Carneiro believed in me and gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was starting a new series that I wanted to present, appropriating myself of tree branches and trunks I found. One of the things I wanted to do was to open all those curtains at MASP and allow nature in. The garden is beautiful, so I wanted to establish this dialogue between the gardens of Lina Bo Bardi and my work. It was a very nice moment of visibility, and I felt very respected as an artist.
Things happen first abroad: first, the Venice Biennale, then, major Brazilian institutions. But I am glad this is all happening. Each experience is an aggregating element. People are believing in my work, and so much is still happening abroad. I am receiving all of this from the universe with major gratitude.
Do you have any black women artists to recommend?
I did not have much contact with artists in Belo Horizonte. My work was all me, by myself. Here in São Paulo this range has broadened up. And young artists come to me a lot. I try to recommend emerging names: Lidia Lisboa, Janaina Barros, Priscila Rezende, and Renata Felinto. In addition to Rosana Paulino, who is also a reference, and Marga Ledora, who I invited to join me in the exhibition “Casas e Bichos” [Houses and Beasts] at Mendes Wood DM, at the end of last year.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Sonia Gomes (Minas Gerais, 1948) lives and works in São Paulo.
In 2018, the artist had her first major institutional monographic exhibitions in Brazil, at MASP – Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói.
Her works were also part of institutional group exhibitions, such as the 56th Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy (2015); “Entangled,” Turner Contemporary, Margate, United Kingdom (2017); “Revival,” The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, USA (2017); “Art & Textiles – Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art,” Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2013); “Out of Fashion, Textile in International Contemporary Art,” Kunsten – Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, Denmark (2013).