Sonia Gomes has been making radically intimate, fabric-based sculpture for three decades, in defiance of racism, ageism, and misogyny. Her story is the stuff of which art world myths are made, a story in which, against all odds, rags turn to riches, obscurity to worldwide recognition. Through intensely focused labor and commitment, she has beaten the system; in 2015, at the age of 67, she gained international recognition when the late curator Okwui Enwezor included her work in the Venice Biennale.
Gomes was born in 1948 in Minas Gerais, the last Brazilian state to outlaw slavery. Although always drawn to art-making, she did not formally begin her artistic practice until later in life. In 1994, when she was 45, she left behind a law career to attend the Guignard School, a university of fine arts in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, using art to re-examine childhood experiences that marked her deeply: “My life story is my work…I left an extremely poor environment; my grandmother was too poor to raise me, so she took me to my father’s family who were better off…I did not receive any affection there.” Gomes’s white industrialist father (who never married her Black mother) raised her as a Catholic and paid for the university education that resulted in her law degree; there, his influence seems to have ended. Gomes locates the source of her imagination and creativity in the influence of her grandmother—a seamstress and practitioner of Candomblé: “My grandmother was Black; she was a sorceress and would bless people with a branch of a plant called arruda. It was a ritual she would perform, and the memory of it is really strong for me. Since then, I’ve always been interested in craft—in things made by hand and folk art and the festivals, rituals, churches, and processions.”
Gomes’s painstakingly physical practice combines stitching, sewing, embroidering, tearing, layering, and wrapping—domestic practices that define her dually as an artisan and an artist. She reclaims Afro-Brazilian traditions and women’s handwork in works consisting of found and donated textiles combined with furniture, driftwood, or wire, as well as tree trunks and branches; the softness and malleability of her fabrics intertwine with and complement the rigidity of the wooden materials. Her extensive body of work also includes large, asymmetrical fabric assemblages and more rigid constructions that resemble tightly compressed, swollen, and uneven bundles of colorful fabrics. These biomorphic and multidimensional structures imply absent bodies, including her own: “Sometimes I think my work might look like my insides because it’s extremely visceral.” Layered with the ghostly presences of the people who once owned these altered garments and scraps of fabric, Gomes’s work transforms fabric, thread, and found and gifted objects, revitalizing cast-offs and moving them from a denigrated plane of existence to the sphere of personal meaning and culture.
Rather than regarding fabrics and other objects as mere materials, Gomes thinks of them as receptacles of past experiences, containers of memory. She explains, “Many of the works I’ve made only exist because the material came to me…someone told me they had a 50-year-old wedding dress and asked if they could give it to me. It was enormous. When these materials come, they bring the history of the people that they belonged to, and I give a new significance to them…I would never plan to make a work and then go out to the store to buy a wedding dress to transform into a sculpture. From the moment the material arrives in my life, I feel a responsibility for it and to the person who it came from.”
Through a spontaneous and casual practice of deconstructing and reassembling everyday objects, Gomes reconstitutes neglected, discarded, forgotten, or once-treasured materials in ways that generate powerful metaphorical meanings. Although her processes modify her materials to a point that strips them of their original function, some of the reconstituted scraps resonate with just perceptible origins. Other elements, such as a sky-blue tablecloth with white embroidered flowers that once belonged to a friend’s grandmother and fragments of gold lamé from a Carnival costume, are subsumed in her objects, their color and surface textures taking over, and leaving behind any utilitarian past.
Gomes installs her work on walls and floors and suspends it from ceilings, often creating meandering pathways for viewers to traverse—there’s always an unexpected spatial element. She says, “I always sought nonconformity with things that are established.” She’s frequently inspired by literature; and her recurrent use of bird cages alludes to emancipatory struggles and the poetry of Maya Angelou, whose verses inspired the title and concept of “Still I Rise,” Gomes’s 2018 solo exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Art.
Gomes’s work can be seen as an extension of drawing, in which threads, seams, stitches, and patterns twist, overlap, and wind. Wire, fabric strips, branches, and a host of other linear elements are woven into three-dimensional objects containing compressed layers of color and texture that unfold spatially. All of her objects expose their rawness, the evidence of their own fabrication. Because her constructions are full of voids, they enter into a dialogue with surrounding space, and with each other. Accumulation and intensely physical compression—the piling on of layers, details, types of stitching, and fabrics—is the driving force behind this wildly expressive work. The orchestration of all these elements, however, also represents hundreds of carefully thought-out choices. Gomes’s work demands a deliberate balance between total spontaneity and strategic winnowing-out; her immense restraint is particularly clear in the more monochromatic pieces.
Gomes always knew the rules would be different for her. She says: “My work is Black, it is feminine, and it is marginal. I am a rebel. I never worried about masking or stifling anything that might or might not fit standards of what is called art.” She also refuses the label of “activist-artist,” and though she notes the growing acceptance for Black artists in Brazil—“You can’t talk about Brazilian art without talking about Black people…we’re the ones changing things, with our persistence and our resistance”—she does not call on her work to be concerned with social, political, or economic conditions; for her, it is an intimate affair, something personal. Her labor in the studio becomes a poetic act. Gomes’s assemblages may assert long-ignored narratives of women and people of color, but they also embody the universal desire for objects that appeal to the senses and embody memory.