Sonia Gomes I Rise – I’m a Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide
by Elda Oreto
Sonia Gomes never considered a career as an artist. She discovered her vocation by accident, long after she thought herself established in another occupation. Almost as if she had found her way after a long off-piste run. I rise – I’m a Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide is Sonia Gomes’ first exhibition in Germany, it is on display at the Salon Berlin, the Berlin exhibition space of the Frieder Burda Museum, in Baden-Baden (museum-frieder-burda.de/de/home). The show is curated by Patricia Kamp, artistic director and curator of the space which displays, apart from Gomes’ works, installations, sculptures and art from to 2000 onwards. The installations insinuate themselves into the space like organic creatures: they crawl on the floor, climb up the walls or hang in balance down from the ceiling. Everything is in motion.
Cordão dos Mentecaptos (2016), is a carnival image in which a long line of fabric – supported by barbed wire and padded with various types of cloth – that resembles a snake or an umbilical cord, winds through the room. In Hiato (2019) two nets padded with fabric and resembling stuffed bags and lumpy knots, hang from the ceiling, counterbalancing one another. Aninhado (2019) is a cage folded and forcibly fastened to the root of a tree. Picaré (2018), from the Raíz series, is a huge tree trunk that the artist salvaged from a river and to which she attached a fishing net and other fabrics. The relationship her artwork establishes between different elements is not always an easy one. Indeed, the elements are forced together with deliberate violence, recalling the poses of certain athletes or acrobats.
On the wall there is a poem by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” (1978), which was also the title of the exhibition Gomes held at the same time at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and at the Casa de Vidro. The relationship between poetry and sculpture is fundamental to Gomes’ practice. All of her materials are used or found by chance, they have already their own history and they have been affected by the actions and movements of other subects. Everything is permeated by the very rich Afro-Brazilian spiritual and religious heritage. “It’s a job of building stories and lives and time,” the artist says, and this becomes evident if we consider that weaving and writing have one thing in common: they create connections. There is always an element at the border between life and death, between the end and the rebirth. Twisted, nervous, dream-like disturbing objects that combine a good and a bad characteristics. A chemistry of feelings in which, at some point, it is impossible to identify differences.
Sonia Gomes was born in Caetanopolis, a Brazilian municipality, in 1948, from a marriage between an Afro-Brazilian woman and a white man. She grew up with her father’s Catholic family, after the premature death of her mother. But the influence of African culture persists in her life and strongly affects her work. Sonia Gomes worked in her father’s textile factory alongside the seamstresses. They all worked busily in the factory, like the women in Diego Velázquez’s painting, Las Hilanderas. The humid heat of the tropical jungle, the sounds of birds with unknown names and the noise of the water filled her afternoons, as Sonia hemmed, cut, and sewed. But Gomes knew that she would never be a seamstress. She did things her way, with no specific purpose or direction. On the recommendation of a friend, she enrolled in the Guignard Art School and, at the age of 40, she embarked on a completely new, unexpected path. She began exploring other possibilities beyond the classic media of art and experimented by mixing fabrics and leaves, tree trunks and colors. Fabric, silk, cotton, lace and bright colors all merged with wood, metal cages and fishing nets.
Gomes doesn’t like to label her work, so she does not call it contemporary. But it is through contemporary art that she has discovered to be an artist. “Sometimes my job resembles my innards,” says Gomes, describing the most organic and intuitive aspect of her practice, which also has a strong aesthetic and formal component. She makes her art out of necessity, or she would have gone mad, she says. Art is a way to discover life, without worrying about the commercial aspect of her work, Gomes has always focused on honesty: for her, art is truth. Even though Gomes does not belong to one specific artistic movement, with her work, she supports the Afro-Brazilian political movement, and now that her work has gained visibility, she believes it is important to give her contribution.
Gomes feels that there is a great deal of distrust in Afro-Brazilian artists. Racism today is real and cruel, she says. If there is a law about it, that also means that a prejudice exists. So she uses each work as a chance to support her cause. In her art, Gomes combines African tradition and surrealism. Many elements of her work recall Brazilian modernism, contemporary art and the practice of Louis Bourgeois’ – including a strange parallelism between her life story and his. At the same time, there are references to the Black Atlantic, an Afro-diasporic counterculture described by Paul Gilroy in 1993 as “not specifically African, American, Caribbean or European but all of them together.”
Represented by the Mendes Wood DM Gallery, Gomes held her first major institutional monographic exhibitions in 2018 in Brazil, at the MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo) and at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói. Her work has also been included in institutional collective exhibitions such as the 56th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2015); Entangled: Threads and Making, Turner Contemporary, Margate, United Kingdom (2017); Revival, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., USA (2017); Art & Textiles: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany (2013); and Out of Fashion. Textile in International Contemporary Art, Kunsten – Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, Denmark (2013).
Salon Berlin is a forum for international contemporary art, a showroom and an experimental space of the Frieder Burda Museum. Salon Berlin is closely connected with the museum program and the internationally renowned Frieder Burda Collection, which focuses on modernism and contemporary art and now includes around 1000 paintings, sculptures, objects, photographs and works on paper. The collection is based in Baden-Baden, in the museum designed by the architect Richard Maier and inaugurated in 2004. It is managed by the Frieder Burda Foundation, founded in 1998.