In the mid-twentieth century, Brazil’s multishaded racial democracy may have looked good compared to Jim Crow policies in the United States, but lately, bolstered by the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the “tropical Trump,” racism in Brazil has violently worsened. In a country where about half the population is nonwhite, three-quarters of the victims of police killings are black.
This was the grim context for the exhibition “Social Signs,” displaying four of Brazilian artist No Martins’s large, brightly colored figurative paintings. His black-skinned subjects include a defiant-looking mother standing protectively over her two children in Dia do descobrimento(Day of Discovery), 2019, evidently in no mood to celebrate Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral’s “discovery” of her country. Após ler as notícias (After Reading the News), 2020, presents a seated older man in a vivid red sports shirt wearing an inscrutable, unsmiling expression as he lays aside the day’s newspaper. In Estratagema (Strategem), 2020, identical twins (or clones?) ponder the impossible opening move of a chess game whose pieces are uniformly white. The exhibition’s largest work, Campo minado (self-portrait) (Mine Field [Self-Portrait]), 2019, showed the standing artist from the back, his hands up against the wall—placing the implicated gallery viewer in the empowered position of a police officer. The artist’s prone body is surrounded by a scattered assortment of signs and symbols, including an off-balance scales of justice and a no-entry sign with the artist’s own dreadlocked, walking silhouette—in lieu of a generic striding stick figure—inscribed behind the thick red diagonal line.
Words by: Gilda Williams