When Sonia Gomes, one of the most underrated artists working in Brazil today, was invited by Okwui Enwezor to be part of his Venice Biennale exhibition in 2015, many more famous members of the Brazilian art world scratched their heads and asked, “Who?” Since that time, however, her reputation has grown both abroad and in her home country, where she had solo museum shows in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in 2018. The 70-year-old, Afro-Brazilian artist, who lives and works in São Paulo, recently had her first solo show outside of her homeland, the exhibition “The Silence of Color.”
Best known for freestanding and hanging sculptures made from found and gifted fabric, thread, and wire, Gomes was born in Caetanópolis, a center for the Brazilian textile industry. After careers in education and law, when she found creative outlets in drawing and colorfully customizing her clothes, she started taking classes at the Guignard School of Art in Belo Horizonte. In 1994, at age 45, Gomes had a solo show of abstract paintings in the nearby Casa de Cultura de Sete Lagoas; but it would be another decade before she exhibited her more intuitive sculptural works, altered furniture, and drawings on wood at a local antique shop and gallery.
Those enigmatic works—the kinds of things that she had been making since childhood and continues to make today—eventually brought her international attention. At the Brussels outpost of Mendes Wood DM, a Brazilian gallery that has been showing her work in São Paulo since 2011 and more recently in New York, Gomes exhibited a dozen fabric sculptures, a pair of paintings on planks of wood, and two works on paper. Spread over two floors of a former Art Nouveau residence in the old part of the city, the poetic pieces were intriguingly placed in antique cabinets and niches, displayed in front of fireplaces and within smaller chambers, and positioned at the corner of a landing on the stairs.
The earliest work in the show, an untitled wall piece (2005), presented a twisting and turning network of wires covered with various bits of fabric, lace, stitching, and binding in an earthy red, black, and brown palette. On the floor below were two newer sculptures from the “Raiz” series: Timbre (2018), a patchwork of fabric and sewing bound to a found piece of wood from a ship mooring, and Correnteza (2018), which consists of a pair of cocoon-like, patterned fabric forms attached to a tree branch. The two outer limbs of the weathered branch are corded together to give the softness of the material and the hardness of the wood a compelling tension.
Nearby, a small work on paper, Made in Brussels (2017), seemed right at home with its collage mix of laces and stitching, along with drawn and painted biomorphic and curvilinear forms somewhat reminiscent of Art Nouveau designs. Visible through an arched doorway, O silêncio da cor (The Silence of Color, 2019) was suspended from the ceiling at the top of the stairs. Organically structured from an assemblage of white fabrics and laces clustered over more pieces of old clothing and entwined by woven cords, the piece resembles a squid or bunch of bleached intestines hanging in a neighborhood market.
Similarly, the seven hanging sculptures that make up Acordes Naturais (2018) consist purely of intuitively assembled and composed clothing, lace, thread, and wire. But unlike the cluster of monochromatic textiles in O silêncio da cor, the color-saturated and patterned fabrics employed in Acordes Naturais give the related components unique characteristics, like the individual members of a family or community. Aninhado (2019), meanwhile, seemed abandoned on the landing of a staircase between floors. Consisting of a crumpled bird cage joined to a gnarly tree branch with ropes and stitched bundles of fabric, it could be read as a visual metaphor for someone wanting to be free yet still clinging to his or her roots. Fascinated by both Brazilian folk art and Afro-Brazilian religious traditions related to witchcraft (her grandmother was a sorceress who would bless people with a branch), Gomes has always felt a sense of responsibility for the clothing and objects that friends and strangers have given her to transform. “When these materials come they bring the history of the people that they belonged to and I give a new significance to them,” Gomes told Sara Roffino in a 2018 interview in Cultured magazine. Even though Gomes never considered herself an artist in her early years, and many of her Brazilian colleagues were reluctant to recognize her as such when they first heard her name, the magic that she performs with materials transforms them into works that are uniquely her own, and entirely universal in their appeal.