Antonio Obá, "Specular Variations – Narcissus", from the series "Room with Mirrors", 2017

“A persisting lack”: Cinara Barbosa writes about the work of Antonio Obá

PIPA Prize 2017 Finalist Antonio Obá invited researcher and independent curator Cinara Barbosa to write a text on his works, his artistic practices and concerns. The text, which was compiled in the series of exclusive texts for the PIPA Prize 2017 catalogue, addresses recurrent themes in Obá’s production, that often discusses issues related to Afro-Brazilian culture and religion and race.

Barbosa emphasizes the dialogue that Obá’s work establishes between the history and the past of the artist his own with a whole repertoire of cultural and historical symbolism. She also reflects on how the artist explores the body and the concept of performance, which blends in with the idea of ritual. The curator also comments on the work “Ambience with mirrors”, exhibited at the PIPA Prize 2017 Finalists’ Exhibition: “upon the suggestion that it is impossible to see anything out of the image blur, the search for a self-image in the reflection questions the concepts of original or learned memory”, she writes.

A persisting lack

“When to create has more to do with stubbornness than with inspiration”

 Cinara Barbosa

An update of our colonial past through its domestic rituals and the training of enslaved bodies echoes today, and lead us to reflect on the historical consequences of social amalgamation. Engaging in an autobiography of cultural and genealogical nature – his own a personal history – Antonio Obá puts us in a place of conscious danger. He demonstrates that his redemption will always be licentious, or better yet, a settling of accounts with himself, given the absence of recent daily living and family references that go beyond the body phenotype. He questions human behaviour and decision-making policies which can be strategically expressed in the mystic and religious universe.

The artist allows the renewal of the sacred art theme, which is barely perceived in a hurried visit – one must insist and dig deeper. The performance entitled “Receita de como fazer um santo” [Recipe for making a saint] sums up the attributes used in his artistic production. The performance includes objects, the body and paintings that also refer to the synthesis of paintings, installations and performances. The themes suggested in the titles of the works include religious representation, the black mythic sexuality or the ambivalence of gender, private servitude, cultural and racial ‘eugenics’ (turning white), the purging of traumas, and the reconstruction of the present by the ritualistic manipulation of objects.

Obá leads us to reflect, as well, on the concept of ‘performance-ritual’that prevails in most of his work. If every performance, in general, reveals ritualistic principles, the artist specifically evokes and establishes the rite as a theme as well. The scenes have a purging and appeasement effect on the viewers.

The body is there, both as reason and as matter, questioning eroticism and stigmas of identity. Therefore, physical fitness is another element in his work. Muscle tone and a strong, vigorous body meet requirements of the design of every performance. Just like in “Malungo: rito para uma missa preta” [Malungo: ritual for a black mass], in which the artist, while indulging himself with a liter of cachaça in a chalice just like the ones used in Catholic masses, repeatedly makes the sign of the cross with macerated charcoal in his own body, generating, as a result, the exhaustion of limits, to claim a leading devotional role typical of the Congolese masses. In Obá’s point of view, this is “syncretism as seen by the perspective of personal negritude”. In other circumstances, it is the naked body itself that is exposed and offered as a sacrifice. The exploitation of the black body, seen both as mechanical and manual labour and as part of the sexual exoticism, is thus revealed.

Subject to slander and opportunist interpretations because of the hypocrisy of political-religious groups trying to win their “herd”; and constituencies with a moral discourse that encourages terror and intellectual impoverishment, some works are reduced to attacks on symbols of the Catholic religion, disrespect for the image of Our Lady of Aparecida, or the indecency of the naked body. This is because understanding the comments of a black artist, a Catholic with strong family ties whose provocation aims at highlighting the overwhelming presence of colonialist, Catholic, slavery-based societies in the formation of the Brazilian people, is of no interest at all. And, for that end, he cuts in his own flesh and inflicts himself the pain of such a review.

Antonio Obá’s artistic look allows us to realise us that ´transfiguring´ deals with the search for the autonomy of desire and decision-making ability by the identification that has been usurped from him. The artist questions the critical development processes of religious and cultural heretical self-acceptance. He puts his own marks to the test, so that we are conscious of the fact that we repeatedly create an intimate relationship with what we want and what might not exist in practice, but rather what persists as a lack.

Reminiscences and absences are the central points of the series entitled “Ambiente com espelhos” [“Room with mirrors”], specially designed for the Pipa Prize 2017 finalists’ exhibition. A set of five pairs of frames and screens, distributed in space and hung on the walls, establishes at the same time successive dialogues and confrontations.

The first relationship can be noticed between each diptych. On one side, a non-framed canvas; on the other, a framed plate of iron, standing in for a mirror. The raw cotton canvas absorbs presences. They are parts of the body, but may as well be emotions and family or cultural memories. Every mark and every memory, positioned to the left, disappears on the right, demanding an image that we can make of ourselves by means of the rusty plate. A mirror that barely reflects an image is the shield of vision, a reflection that does not serve exteriority, suggesting we look within ourselves.

A link is also created between the diptychs in space. The title of the series warns us that we are in an environment, and must examine it. We must notice its broad context. For a moment, we see a specific place in the room. Architecture’s historical legacy of the ‘halls of mirrors´ is related to their design and use as the venues for political meetings and assertion of power. However, as a decorative structure, it also produces devices and metaphors for the illusion of what we see, according to our position in the room. In this experiment, partly invoked here by the work, when the body changes position in space, visual perception is also changed.

The work entitled “Variações especulares – Narciso”; [“Specular variations – Narcissus], positioned at the back of the room, on the wall between two confronting rows, highlights the issue of ambivalence of dialog and occasional clashes. It is as if the object played back everything that it absorbs. It refers to the multiple points of view generated by the positioning of the body. On closer examination, if you stand in front of the oratory frame supporting the iron plate, the spectral mirror invokes the subject’s individualization. Now, in this intimate relationship, you can ask if there is something that you are able to see. Upon the suggestion that it is impossible to see anything out of the image blur, the search for a self-image in the reflection questions the concepts of original or learned memory. Strictly speaking, the word ‘specular’ is related to anything reflecting light, an assumed evaluation, or even a vague consideration about something or someone. It is related to the concept of opinion based on one’s own ideas and interests. As a state of flux, flashes of the present appear as a way of questioning the possibilities of cognitive transformation about circumstances of ‘being in the world’. The artist himself who says in his poem, as if in prayer:

I am path
I shall be
be me
without anticipating
see me

Written language is a recurrent manifestation in Antonio Obá’s artistic production process. In his early works, this can be seen in his interest in calligraphy drawing, then it comes back as the testimonial or, at times, almost descriptive content he gives to some titles, or even through the inscription of words over his works. In many of his words, as in the poem above, he reveals how much the impelling force of its production is based on wanting to keep up with the others, being in their shoes, repositioning himself and seeing what there is in fact to be seen but is not immediately presented. Critical reviews, even if by means or art, are perhaps for just a few men of faith.


Cinara Barbosa is a researcher and independent curator. PhD and MD in Art from the University of Brasilia (UnB), Cinara is the associate curator of the Elefante Centro Cultural, Brasília.

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