Of Seams and Stories

The Art of Sonia Gomes

Conversation recorded on September 10, 2020

This panel discussion focuses on the oeuvre of São Paulo-based artist Sonia Gomes, marking her first exhibition with Pace Gallery.

As the first Black woman to obtain a monographic show at the São Paulo Museum of Art in 2018, Gomes is a barrier-breaking figure widely celebrated for her textile-based, abstract art. Bringing together curatorial perspectives from both the US and Brazil, the panel will examine various aspects of Gomes’s work, from its preoccupation with memory and recovery of feminized crafts to its dialogue with popular and sacred Afro-Brazilian traditions. The panel includes curators Vivian Crockett, Fabiana Lopes, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, and Keyna Eleison in a conversation moderated by Michaëla Mohrmann, Associate Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery.

Learn more about Sonia Gomes

Part I

Michaëla Mohrmann (MM): Hi, everyone, I'm Michaëla Mohrmann, the Associate Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery. Thank you for being here. It is my pleasure to welcome you to our panel Of Seams and Stories: The Art of Sonia Gomes, an event organized in conjunction with Pace's current exhibition, Sonia Gomes/Marina Perez Simão, which will run until October 4th at our pop-up East Hampton location. Gomes, who is based in São Paulo, joined the gallery earlier this year and is widely celebrated for her art, which combines secondhand textiles with everyday materials such as furniture, driftwood, and wire to create abstract works that reclaim Afro-Brazilian traditions and feminized crafts from the margins of history. As the first Afro-Brazilian woman artist to have a monographic show at the São Paulo Museum of Art, Gomes is also a barrier-breaking figure who has described her work as Black, feminine, and marginal, and herself as a rebel. Before introducing our distinguished panelists, I'd like to point out to you that we will be taking questions at the end of our conversation, so please use Zoom's Q&A feature during our talk to share your questions with us. So, without further ado, I'd like to introduce Vivian Crockett, who is the Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art and whose work focuses on the art of the Americas as well as African and Latinx diasporas. We are also joined by Keyna Eleison, who is the new artistic director of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, and Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro who has worked as the curator of the 33rd São Paolo Biennial and director and chief curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Fabiana Lopes, who is a wonderful independent curator and writer who just curated the 12th Mercosul Biennial, will join us a little later. She's experiencing some technical difficulties so we're going to start without her.

With all this said, let's get right to it. So, of late, there's been a lot of renewed scholarly and curatorial interest in artists who work with textiles and whose practices are based in handiwork, such as sewing, weaving, and knitting. It has led to exhibitions that examine how this type of art intersects with feminism, populism, grassroot activism, queer theory, and many other subjects. Just right now, for example, in New York, we have a show titled Taking a Thread for a Walk at MoMA, as well as Abrigo at the American Society, featuring the work of Feliciano Centurión. So, with all this in mind, how can we begin to situate Sonia's work within this increasingly complex and expanding landscape of textile art? And in your eyes, what constitutes the specificity of her work, of her textile-based practice?

Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (GPB): Okay, no one's jumping in, I will have to do it. So, I think that you're right that there has been this kind of revival or recovery of textiles as a kind of alternative history. And as you say, it's very broadly encompassing these very large and complex ideas. I think one of the risks is that we're kind of creating this category of textiles and then we're ramming all of these other questions into it. So, it's feminist, and it's queer, and it's different, it's racial, and it's all that. Of course, it's all those things, but it also has, I think, its own specificity. I think what I really appreciate, for example, about the show you have currently, it's you know, it's a solo artist. What is it specifically about Sonia Gomes and her practice that is similar and different from all those others? I think that that question of specificity is sort of really the core question, or the heart of the question, because if I compare, for example, you mentioned Feliciano Centurión, his practice was very different. He was appropriating sort of mass-produced kitsch materials using text as a very explicit strategy to talk about things that are not normally spoken about. I think in Sonia's work, we have a very different sense, there's a relationship to the recovery of abandoned material, but there's not that same textual, explicit, sort of declarative term. I think the work is much more subtle. It's much more, perhaps, inward-looking. I think there's many different ways to look at it. But I'd like to invite my co-panelists to chime in, too, now that I broke the ice.

MM: Thank you for doing that!

GPB: Sure.

Vivian Crockett (VC): I appreciate you doing that. Yeah, I mean, I think I struggle a little bit with the kind of lumping, the same way that Gabriel is talking about, of artists who work in textiles kind of all together in the same way that, you know, not all painters engage with the same questions, not all people working in sculpture. There's a lot of different questions to consider and I think Sonia Gomes is so responsive to her materials in a particular way that that is where I think the conversation lies. I think she is so resistant to kind of binary positionings and there is in Cecilia Fajardo-Hill's essay on her, she talks about this notion of soft politics, which comes from Pennina Barnett. It's this idea of the "and/and" it's not an "and/or" and I think even in the conversation around textiles and related traditions, there's still this kind of binaristic thinking and I think a very strong reliance on the notion of the textile as connected to the feminine. I think we can talk about the kind of feminist connotations of those practices, but how are we reinscribing a gender binary and a binaristic kind of thinking in relationship to not only gender, but also these notions of "high art," so to speak, and textile traditions, which we're already trying to disrupt. How do we recreate outliers by defining these various "outliers" to the canons of art?

Keyna Eleison (KE): Yes, I like to thank you all to start this conversation, and this for me is very important around the textiles, because nobody asks about the textile with the paintings, because we paint in textiles and it's not called it around us. When I see Sonia's work, I see a sculptural work. I see how she used the color and the space and sometimes even the sound, because it fills the places that are around, so that this kind of way of thinking we can do around just breaking this thinking around this closed word around this. “This is a sculpture, this is textiles.” Of course, we can talk around this, but we can put these to add, like Vivian said, “and/and.” With Sonia this is a very good example to observe. We can put her inside of a European story of art and can understand, you can see influence of Michelangelo and you can see influence of music and you can see influence in how this works with her as an artist. I think this is very important around when we watch the work with Sonia Gomes.

MM: So, you guys mentioned the importance of her materials, and I think that just for people in the audience who don't really know, she uses fabrics that are second hand or gifted to her. She does a lot of research and sort of thrift shops to find these. She is very aware of the stories that are associated with these fabrics. She talks about them as carriers of stories and is very sensitive to their emotional charge. What is your view of the type of storytelling that she's proposing through this use of this material? How do you understand her preoccupation with memory in particular?

KE: Well, this I can jump [into]. Around this, I like to put the light inside of one thing, around the biography, more around the memories, you know, like how we can put our biography, our connections around the people that made us do something or another thing. I think it's very interesting how the biography of her, because she is a Black woman, so every work that she does is racialized and feminized. So, her biography itself is inside of her work. For me it's very interesting how I can see of course, how this can be. She can play this game. Like alright, this is all my biography, too, you know, yes, I have memory, but which work is not around the memory. For me, the interesting around this that we can put, assume this kind of biography inside of the work.

MM: I think what's interesting to me, and this is just my... I keep thinking about Saidiya Hartman's writings, she wrote something about the autobiographical example, and she argues that it's not a form of navel-gazing, but it's actually a way of accessing processes that have shaped history and society and that are often not recognized, that get erased or repressed. I feel like there's something about that with Sonia's work a little bit. I wish Fabiana was here because she's written about how she's from Caetanópolis, which was one of the first cities in Brazil to have a factory for textiles. The factory was founded in the 1870s, so slavery was still being used to create these textiles. In particular, Black women were exploited there. So, Sonia has said things like, I'm going to just quote her here, that, "My sewing makes a mark. I make sure I leave the seams exposed. The seams are a mark of my work. The seams are the acknowledgment of sewing, not that kind of sewing that no one sees." And so, this idea of bringing back to light things that have been lost, but that can only really be accessed through personal memory, personal stories, an existence that has been marked by a legacy of violence and exploitation. So, that is also kind of how I see her work a little bit. I don't know if Vivian or Gabriel, you have any thoughts on her use of textiles?

VC: Well, I think she, I mean, the way that she described, Keyna uses this notion of sound and she talks about kind of listening to the materials, which I think is a beautiful, poetic way of talking about her practice. This notion that she might start off working on something and have some ideas, some kind of starting point, but then the material really dictates whether or not it's going to be hung, whether it's going to go on the floor, whether it's going to be stuffed, whether it's going to be more loose. And this kind of openness, that kind of porous quality, I think is something that we could apply to lots of different kinds of artistic practices. This idea that the artist is responding directly to the materials that they're working with and that can affect the kind of end result. Even when she talks about her work, she says a lot of her work is unfinished, which is why a lot of the works sometimes are part of series that have very, very evocative titles for the series. But the individual works don't necessarily need titles because they're part of a larger kind of logic and that they have the potential to then be integrated into something else in the future, which I think is really incredible.

GPB: I think that on this question of storytelling, one thing that really struck me when I was reading through all the materials that you sent us ahead of the critical writing on her, I think every text, except for one, told the same story of her background about the house with no floor and the house with the floor, like every one. It was incredible how all the text kind of touched on that topic. I guess what I was wondering is if this storytelling, we've tended to focus it a lot on that specific anecdote. And what I was thinking about was what were the potentials to think about storytelling in terms of the materials, which I think Vivian just referred to, the idea that, you know, they tell their own stories. They kind of develop with their own sort of energy within there. And then also thinking the storytelling of the viewer. So, what is it that we bring to the work? Because none of us have that exact same experience, but what is it that we project into it? I think that to me, the interesting thing about these works is how they can bring together these multiple stories, not just be the vehicle for sort of the telling of a biography. I think that's really important. I think the fact that these works are all abstract invites that even more. There's no specific reference. There's no representation of that. It's all done at the symbolic level and I think by doing that, it allows, in a sort of web-like way, these other stories to intertwine in it. That's something that I think is a little bit lost to me in the critical readings. That they tend to just go kind of straight to the biography and then kind of, “and here’s the work,” and I think the beauty of the work is actually its ability to weave together multiple strands.

MM: Yeah, I hear what you're saying about the opacity of the work, essentially. I think that she really wants to preserve that as well as the open-endedness. I keep thinking about how, you know, there are certain things that are lost and unrecoverable. This also goes back to this multisensorial aspect to her work you mentioned like the textures, but there's also smell. I was reading more about her work and apparently early on she was using rue, a plant, and putting it into her work, incorporating it, because the smell reminded her of her grandmother, who was such a central figure, the person who taught her how to sew, who took care of her until she was six years old before handing her off to her white father, who had a very different background and gave her a very different type of upbringing. But, you know, this notion of the smell and how the smell brings back this imprinted memory, I think is what she's trying to access and how it's always a little inaccessible even to her. Like even her own biography, as much as she can create a clear narrative for us to digest, there are also gaps that can't be filled and learning to mourn that thing, learning to care for that gap, respecting it, letting it have a place within the work is really important to her.

VC: I’m going to pause you there, Mica, because I think I also struggle a little bit with the biographical framing, which I think often happens a lot with artists of color, with Black artists, with women artists. But in her case, I think her biography, people frame it in lots of different ways. Some people like the kind of neat, again, binary of her Black mother and her white father. But there's a layer of childhood trauma, what she experienced was trauma. And maybe those words aren’t often used, but her experience is so intense, and I think it's important to kind of parse that out. This idea that she was born out of a relationship that was informal. It was out of wedlock, which at that time means something, signifies something, and that there was a clear power dynamic that her mother was working, was employed in the household and had a sexual relationship with the man who is her father. But she actually didn't really have this kind of emotional connection to her father or her father's family when she goes to live there. These kinds of descriptions and the way that she narrates, I think, especially Júlia Rebouças who has interviewed her so many times and, you know, shout out to her for the ways that I think she's been in really beautiful dialogue with Sonia. She talks about being surrounded by fabric because she's growing up in this town where the textile industry is so present and this kind of notion of her, the identification that she felt with these fabrics, like she says that she was never touched by her father, by her father's family. She didn't have that kind of level of affection and that she turned to these materials. She would play with kind of these bundles of fabric as a way of kind of connecting with something and I think that that still exists in her practice. The fact that people donate materials to her, she finds materials, but then there's people who are like, this belonged to my grandmother can you make something with it? And the way that she carries on the legacy of other people's memories, even if she doesn't quite understand the intricacies of that story, that's a huge level of trust that people place in her. They want to see what she does with those materials and I think that's really powerful.

KE: Yes. Yes. And even with this too, I’d like to talk about one word that you said, Michaëla, which is opacity, because sometimes being transparent is not good. Sometimes we need to lose something, to protect, to cover when we think around the fabric, sometimes we don't talk. We need secrets to create something. And it's not around a material thing, it’s how to build, to connect things. I’d just like to jump into this word, because for me it was very strong.

MM: I think that's very spot on. I think right now we're seeing in particular how Black experiences and Black bodies are instrumentalized, the images of Black suffering, in particular, how they can be co-opted and how there's the way that empathy kind of fails us by creating a more narcissistic dynamic where, I mean, given the history of how Black bodies have been put at the service of white pleasure. I think that preserving that opacity is definitely a form of resistance. In fact, Paulo Nazareth wrote this beautiful text on her work and he, at one point, I think he talks about—this is maybe where we can find some of the optimism in her work despite the presence of trauma—he talks about her work as a place where, he uses the word “aquilombam” which I think comes from quilombo.

KE: Yes.

MM: Which is the communities of runaway slaves, therefore, havens, places of safety and alternate modes of social organization and labor in opposition to colonialism and capitalism. He describes her work as these banners where people can gather "aquilomban” and form these sort of quilombos and he uses the word resistance. This is a place of resistance.

KE: Just to add this, and just talk with you, because quilombo is a word that became a verb. So, it’s very important to understand that this was a place that became a movement, because a quilombo, when you put the “A,” you become a movement and to understand that this place can be a movement, can be a verb, can be, you know, it's around life.

MM: Yeah. I mean, and movement is a central part of her work, actually. Again, I wish Fabiana could be with us right now because she was just speaking to Juliana, Sonia's assistant, and finding out about her process a little bit. So, I don't know how much you've heard about her process or got to glimpse it, but I recently got to interview her, and she was telling me that it's really a physical process, almost like a dance. I just wanted to hear maybe some of your thoughts on the physicality of her work, on the sense of motion. Its connections, perhaps, to Afro-Brazilian forms of dancing and rituals that are a part of the everyday life of Brazil.

KE: Well, I'm jumping, I’m jumping in, but the one thing that is very important to us to understand now in 2020, it's around these Afro and Afro-diaspora words because, you know, as a Brazilian and probably in the US it’s the same way, we have the same historical time in Brazil as Europeans, but we didn't come here because we wanted to. And when we come back, when our thinking just... When the movement, when the structure brings us back to Africa as a country, not as a continent with many things, it's a movement that we need to say isn't working like this, we already are this diasporic work, diasporic body, diasporic intellectual. It's very important to brief this around because it's not possible to understand this kind of work in another language which is not a diasporic language. It’s very, very interesting for me to understand. This is movement. This is physical. This is a kind of intelligence that Eurocentric thoughts made it, split it, and as we can understand that this can put it together. It's one thing, this kind of mind and dream, body, and soul. This is something, it's very European work, that we now can understand, that can make sense, but it's not only around sense that we live and work and do and being physical doesn’t break the intellectual work of her. For me, of course, it doesn't break but makes stronger, because she assumes this physicality of the work.

MM: Yeah, if I can turn to an image that I have, I kind of already shared it with you guys, but that I wanted to bring in to sort of help people visualize... I'm going to share my screen because I think it goes back to this question of movement and European traditions versus an African diaspora understanding of her work. There's a lot that people emphasize for self-taught status, of course. Even though she's went to art school and she's clearly responding to canonical European and North American artists, and in a work like this one, I think this whole question of motion and action, the way that that has been coded as heroic and masculine in a North American context, how she's maybe giving a comment on that sort of riposte to that understanding, framing of movement with her own very different take on movement and physicality. I don't know if you have any comments on this type of work or if there are other artists that you find useful in understanding her work, or that you think are important to her practice, whether in or out of Brazil.

VC: Yeah, and I know she says that she doesn't have specific artistic reference and that she's not necessarily responding to certain traditions and that she's her own kind of artistic voice. I do want to emphasize that before I do make these kinds of comparisons. But one person that's come to mind a lot for me about her work is Senga Nengudi, who is about to have a show at MASP and knowing that Sonia was also the first living Black woman to have a show at MASP is a huge deal. And now Senga’s work. I wish their shows had been kind of simultaneous, but I think there's also this idea, you know, Sonia fits in the histories of the Afro-Atlantics, but she also could fit very easily in histories of dance, thinking about the ways that MASP organizes monograph exhibitions around these thematic concepts. So, Senga also being of the same kind of generation as Sonia, I think is an important kind of parallel and also coming from a background in dance. She was and is a dancer, and working with Maren Hassinger and the way that she turned to materials that she had on hand, this way that the kind of pantyhose that she uses could be a direct referent to her own body and the ways that she's kind of manipulating that and subjectivizing space, to borrow Cecilia's term here, for Sonia, the way that she can kind of manipulate space and evoke movement and have lots of different referents on hand for something that looks non-referential and abstract but in fact, we can read bodies, and we can read movement, and we can read the process of the making, because I think, as much as Pace Gallery and the art world wants to think along the logic of a finished product, a product of an artwork. Right. I think Sonia also thinks about her work in relationship to the process. It's an active thing always, even if there is a kind of manifestation that is an artwork at the end of the process of making.

MM: Yeah, and I think it's kind of why I also brought in these images of the work, the way that she installs her work, how it orchestrates space. Let me bring some of these images to light here. I mean, we can see how this particular work. I'm just going to go to slide view. So, we have Vôo, which is, you know, as it's currently in our gallery in East Hampton. But we can also see how it is here on the right installed in nature, in this sort of courtyard on a tree and part of a greater assemblage of a piece. We also have her installation at the Casa de Vidro where here she's really responding to the architecture of Lina Bo Bardi. This is the tree that is at the center of the house and she's installed her work there, too. So, you know, really subverting the distinction between inside and outside, which is already part of the architecture. We can think also of how she lives with these works, how for many years before she exhibited, she was making this, and this is her studio. We can see sort of the continuity almost between everyday objects and the work. And then finally, I love this photograph because I think it captures all the challenges of trying to exhibit her work in a sort of traditional way. If we want to consider the glass, Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easel, as like, the official way that MASP likes to present works in its permanent collection. So, let me go back to you. What are your thoughts on the sort of address to the viewer that these installations encourage or perform?

GPB: I would maybe go back to that beautiful word you used, which Keyna picked up, which was opacity, and I think that for me, when they're placed in these situations, what you have is this really interesting vulnerability. So, it's not an opacity that is dense and closed and hidden, which is how we tend to think of opacity. But an opacity that is about being open and being somehow temporal or being contingent. I think that that placing in the outdoors, especially whether the contingencies are there, something, it might rain, somebody might walk by, they might hit it, an animal might come through it. To me, that invitation for the sort of open-ended status of the work is what makes it so compelling. The fact that she's responsible for half of it and then it's the process of handing it over, even in its display to a situation that will multiply and sort of finish the authorship somehow. So, I find that very connected to this idea of opacity, but opacity as something that is fragile, open-ended, and literally with the open space, which is something that's so common in her works. More than half the work is empty space and I think that is intentional.

MM: Yeah, I love this notion of vulnerability that you bring up, because my experience of encountering this work at MASP and at Casa de Vidro, especially when I saw that piece on the tree, was almost like feeling like I was no longer at the center of the work. The way that a traditional... like if you think of a painting with perspective, the way that it centers you as this viewer who has total visual omniscience, I feel like the way that her work is so open to nature outside, you know, it sort of makes the architecture of Bo Bardi erupt to this outside in a way that is perhaps even more radical than what the architect had originally envisioned. To me, that pushes me to be in a position of vulnerability where I am just one of many things in the world that Sonia is erecting for us. I don't know if any of you guys have other comments on her architectural interventions, really.

VC: Yeah, I would say, in the ways that I've heard her describing this process, it's not that there's the interior of the Casa de Vidro and the outside, it's this extension. It's this notion that the outside is in dialogue, which was something that Lina Bo Bardi’s interested in and I think something Sonia is thinking about. She's not trying to imitate nature in her manipulations, but rather be in dialogue and understand the ongoing co-presence of the outside and inside. Yeah, I just think back to this other kind of biographical anecdote, but I think it's so interesting to think about... Oh Fabiana is back! Maybe I’ll stop there and have her speak a little bit because I did want to backtrack also to think about this question that you asked around movement and her relationship to movement and maybe Fabiana can weigh in with what she heard from the perspective of Sonia's assistant. Yeah, I'm also curious to see what other kind of connections to other artists that my fellow panelists see with her work, because I think that's a really interesting node to explore.

MM: Fabiana, do you need a minute to orient yourself and catch your breath or are you ready to jump in? I don't know if you've heard any of the topics we were talking about....I think we can't hear you. We can't hear you.

GBP: We can't hear you.

VC: It might be the microphone settings, the privacy settings.

KE: Hmmm, maybe she needs to leave and come back again.

MM: Oh, okay, that's a shame. Oh, we love you.

KE: It’s a shame, such a shame. But I want to add around what Gabriel and Vivian said around the Sonia work. When we showed the work in Casa de Vidro and the Para de Kooning, it’s very interesting when she put the literature, the work of Sonia Gomes put us in literature, because we said around the movement of the body, we said around the sound, but have a kind of literature that brings us to the work in Casa de Vidro, Still I Rise, and brings us to Maya Angelou. I don't know if she wants us to understand this poem or understand that Maya Angelou is she too or, brings to it, as a curator, brings to me this understanding that that amazing historical weight inside of her made us understand many things. But above that Still I Rise. For me it's very interesting around this. When Sonia did Para de Kooning [To de Kooning], because it is a huge, strong part of the history of art, and she is inside of the history of art. Like: I am inside of this world. This is for you. For me it is very interesting how she put inside of us this kind of literature, and I like to see around literature because we need to read this, you know. It's something that I wanted, I needed to add in our talk.

VC: No, thank you for adding that. I think it's such an important part, and I have a few Sonia quotes, gems, that I hope to... maybe we'll end up with some Sonia quotes. But yeah, I think this question is really important also, around Para de Kooning, which I also thought about as...our understanding of European modernism, too. It's this notion of, I don't know, it's always like artists of color always positioned as responding to that in some way. But that work would not exist were it not for the continent of Africa, if it were not for African diasporic notions and knowledge and colonialism and imperialism. Those are part of that encounter inherently. Our understanding has suppressed that, and history has suppressed that. But that is a huge part of what influenced artists like de Kooning, not the other way around. So, Sonia in a way is being like: here, here, darling. Here's a restructuring of that power dynamic that shouldn't have been that way to begin with.

MM: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there, and I think with the de Kooning piece in particular, the way that she's also...apart from being a sort of intervention into our very linear and narrow understanding of what constitutes modern art and who's determined that, I think there's also a bit of a commentary there about her own practice. This came up for me when I was last talking to her and she described drawing as a huge part of her practice, like almost as the bedrock, and the way that she thinks of her sculptures as these lines in space, like it's a form of drawing in a three-dimensional space. And the way that de Kooning himself in his own career went from painting to sculpture and drawing, all of that in in a way that every single time he was, like, praised for switching his medium. I think that she's also kind of deciding that she's going to have that prerogative, that she's not just working with textiles, she's not just a sculptor. She's also thinking of her work in terms of painting, in terms of drawing, and she's looking at a figure like de Kooning and saying, well, if we allow these artists to step out of this box and be “and, and, and,” like me too. She is also, I think, aligning herself with him, it's both a way of subverting him, but also of empowering herself and taking some of that power. So, I mean, yeah, I completely agree with you. Gabriel?

GPB: Yeah. I mean, what I find interesting about that de Kooning piece is that it's not a simple binary opposition. You know, like de Kooning is bad and we are good. It's a piece's completely ambiguous. It's like, is it “to” as in “fuck you,” is it “to” as in “I'm giving you a gift?” Is it to say “I'm taking something back?” There are so many complexities in that relationship. And that is left as sort of unsaid but deeply implicit in the object. But I was thinking, when you're talking about the painting, sculpture, and sort of that tradition, the kind of obvious historical reference for me was Ferreira Gullar and his idea of the non-object. So, in ‘59, when he talks about the non-object, he really talks about wanting to break this dichotomy between sculpture and painting, that there is an object that is a non-object that occupies this completely different space. I think there's a line we could also draw into that specific tradition of the relationship with nature, with the body, with the line, with the temporal. All of those were worked through very, very famously by now in Neo-concretism and it's not trying to put all Brazilian art into that Neo-concrete line, which is a really tedious exercise. But I think that this there's at least a sort of a tinge of that with so many other things that are going on in the work. But it's not trying to say that's the one or even the most important, but I think it is present.

VC: My brain couldn't help but go there either, so I appreciate you bringing that up, because when we were looking at the images yesterday, I instantly went to...of course, my mind always goes to Oiticica because I like eat, sleep, dream Oiticica, but like the homage to Mondrian. This kind of strange Bólides that has a sculptural form and it has this fabric that's kind of coming out of it, it looks like a Molotov that you throw. So, it has this kind of movement quality to it and the kind of parallels that I would say, problematic parallels, that are drawn sometimes between that Bólide and the parangoles. And so, I think that's very much present. But then I love this idea that Gabriel is talking about, the kind of ambiguity in Sonia's title, because with Oiticica it’s s an homage to Mondrian, this “para” I think is much more open-ended, which is nice to explore.

MM: Yeah, definitely.

KE: And if we can still play, it can also be “stop de Kooning”, because para can “stop de Kooning” too.

MM: Oh, that's wonderful. Well, okay, so we are nearing the end of our time before we have to go to Q&A, because we want to give usually about fifteen minutes or so. Are there any other comments or insights or things that you wanted to share that I didn’t explicitly ask you about?

KE: Oh, my, so many things.

MM: I know, we have very limited amount of time.

VC: I wanted to share just a couple of quotes from Sonia before we open it up and maybe that will open it up into some questions. But there is one that I think relates to some of the things we've talked about that really struck me, and she says, “Thanks to recognition [and this is a sign of this] I'm in a circle of privilege, but my work is marginal and remains as such because what marginalizes it is beyond the walls of the museum. It can be at MoMA, but it still remains marginal because we are talking about the work as a body, not as a place,” which I think is really incredible and I think ties to this other quote that says, “My work does not raise a political flag, but it is extremely political because the body is political. Art is the body. The racism is present in my life directly because of my body, which reflects in my work. The color, the mantles, the knots, all reflect Africa and Brazil. Reflect the Black. It is an aesthetic, but it is the result of a subjectivity. I do not use aesthetics as a political tool. My body is political. The ancestral is reflected in the work. It is not an intention of mine to make Black art. I do it because I am Black, because it reflects my body, my history.”

MM: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting because you were talking about Oiticica and this notion of marginality, I've always been a little troubled by the... She talks about flags too, about Oiticica’s banner with Cara de Cavalo’s dead body and the message to be a hero, be marginal. Do you think there's a relationship there? Is there a connection there? I mean, you're the Oiticica expert. Do you also feel like it's maybe problematic? I mean, I understand that he was close to Cara de Cavalo, but I mean, how do you... Is this a false connection or do you think that there's a little bit of like, this is part of the history that she's thinking about?

VC: I wouldn't go there with this. I don't think... I think this is her space. Like, let's para, para Oiticica! Yeah, but we can talk about that on another occasion. But yeah, I think her vocation of marginalizing does apply in that sense. It’s kind of the marginal beyond the kind of scope of marginal to the canon, but marginal as a kind of social-political condition I think is interrelated in that sense.

KE: I just remembered, it just came to me, when you bring us to this quote and when I talked about the literature that Sonia’s making brings to me and to us, I just remembered Pina Bausch because it's not around only the movement, but how work inside of an institution, which is the dance and now we’re talking about art, can understand in this peculiar but everyday life movement and of course, is around being racialized and feminized in this binary world. It's around this, of course, and how these movements inside of her make this part of the art. When she puts the art in the world, I think she brings something. I just remembered her because the company that she made, it is around this movement, but everyone that is inside of the group, to be a Pina Bausch dancer, you need to know the classic ballet. You need to understand the classic ballet to be inside of, to dance together, to think around together. And I just put that together because we have this...she doesn't live this European, North American, this occidental, split way of life to understand how she can work. This is very strong of her. And of course, it is marginal, but is inside of, it’s understanding where is this center. This for me is very strong on her and I just wanted to add more.

MM: Okay, actually we have a comment from Fabiana. This may be a way of getting her to be a little bit more a part of this despite the difficulties, but she was saying that in line with Gabriel’s thinking on the non-object: “Maybe when we think of her practice in general, it may give way to a different set of questions to engage with her work that would go beyond her biography, for example.” Is she still connected through the chat?

VC: It would be great to have her chat in, we have a very shy audience here. No questions. But yeah, I mean, I'm curious what other kinds of...not to compare her strictly to other artists, but I personally like the exercise of thinking about, what would you maybe put in a room with Sonia's work as a form of asking new questions, maybe beyond biography. So, I'm wondering if Gabriel or Keyna have any ideas around that? I was thinking a lot about Mestre Didi also but knowing that for Sonia, the kind of spiritual dimension isn't necessarily connected to a kind of religion or strictly kind of that form of ritual, but is more of a larger, open-ended notion of spirituality. But I think a lot about his objects in relationship to her work or someone like Tunga or maybe other references that you guys have.

GPB: I think more than specific reference, I think Fabiana’s question is kind of like else? How else do we approach things? I think part of our problem is we want to see these objects as carriers, as ventriloquizes of cultures, traditions, positions, political ideologies. And I think one of the ways to think about it is with this question of experience and the relationship with the object. I think we still, within this critique, we're trying to do the Western rational predominance. We are constantly doing it, too, because we're constantly saying, what does this work mean? What do they want to do? What does it actually mean when I take what they want to do and contrast it? And I think one of the most radical ways, and it's one of the simplest way is to talk about our experience with it, because that is something that is potentially emancipating, is something that is complex and dirty and mixed and absolutely subjective, because we see these works with our body, with our eyes, with our nose, with all of these things, too. So anyway, I just think that in a sense, when we have these conversations, we’re simultaneously wanting to exit a set of references and at the same time using them. So, I feel that we're constantly right on that edge and I don't know what the solution is and obviously I don't have it. But I do think it's something to do with experience. That's as far as I could say.

MM: No, I think there's definitely been, I think in a lot of the literature, actually, I was surprised to see that her work is usually paired or discussed in comparison with Artur Bispo do Rosario, which is, I think, a really problematic comparison as an outsider artist who is not dealing with the history of art the way that she is and is operating from a totally different context. I mean, I don’t want to speak for Fabiana, but I know that she's written about this, and she's definitely discussed her work in relation to Rosana Paulino, for example, and these questions of memory. There's also an aspect of textile and handywork to Rosana's work. Janaina Barros and Lidia Lisboa, I think, was the other person that she was citing, as other contemporary artists in Brazil who are kind of dealing with similar themes or materials and approaches to art making.

But I mean, the performative, I think is actually perhaps...I feel like that was very spot on when you brought that up, Vivian, actually. I don't think people have really discussed her work in relation to other artists who are concerned with the performative. Keyna, I don't know if you also have some, like an imaginary group exhibition with Sonia's work.

KE: I'm just this crazy person that thinks around the curatorial thing. Like I remember thinking about Pina Bausch, and I’m starting to remember movies, because for me it's around a thinking. I remember Kurosawa when I see Sonia Gomes because the way that she works with the Oriental way, but connected with Occidental way, it's because I can understand that this literature that brings us the art for me is very open-minded. For me, yes, I have a lot to just bring to this, but I will think more.

MM: We have one question coming in and also a comment from Fabiana, so let me get to the question first. “Can you speak a little more to the role of performance and perceived ritual within the work and its construction? You mentioned they remain open works somehow and not merely static or mute. Is that the role of the performance within the work, the twist, turn, and social histories embodied within the textiles, ‘bodies’ inferred and used?” Should I re-read that?

VC: Yeah, and I think there's a few more questions and we don't have that much time, so should we throw in all the questions and see which ones we can answer?

MM: Let me see what Fabiana’s... I just lost the window where she was commenting as well. Here we go. So, she says, “Each series kind of requires a set of questions. If we think about the bundles, all the objects that we may find hidden, a doll, a needle, et cetera, performative. Sonia comments on how her drawing practice improved after doing one year of dance with Benjamin Abras.” Okay, so she's commenting on two things. I mean, we haven't really discussed all the objects that are hidden within the work, which almost kind of suggests this process of engaging with the work and taking them out and finding them, which would be a participatory dimension that I'm not sure is allowed. I guess it's just there for us to know that it's there. This goes back to this notion of the secret that you were bringing up, Keyna. I can re-read the other question that we got, I mean, regarding the performance and the ritual within the work, unless that's not interesting for you guys to...

VC: There is a couple, I've just seen some more questions here. There is one about asking us to actually talk about the work, I think it’s an important part, to look at some of the images in the PowerPoint before we go.

MM: Yeah, I mean I’m not seeing those questions I wonder why...

VC: Someone asked about her education.

MM: Oh, I see. They are saying, “I wonder if you guys could talk about her education, Escola Guignard, in terms of Keyna speaking about being inside and outside Occidental ways of thinking.” Do we know anything about the Guignard school?

VC: I don't know much specifically about that school, but I think it's interesting that she talks about going to go to school in her forties. Right. This idea that she goes to reinforce what she's already doing to almost... It's like this kind of process of validating, and I know so many artists, I have so many friends who have gone back for MFAs just so that they have the degree that says “I know the things that I already know,” but it's just a kind of strange dance that artists often have to do. And I think it's connected also to this idea of drawing, like the fact that part of what discouraged her earlier on from identifying as an artist is that she didn't draw that kind of traditional, classical, fine art framework. But in fact, through that experience, learning and having it affirm that what you do is art, what you're drawing is drawing, and that there's many ways to kind of arrive at art making.

KE: Yeah, and the interesting thing around this drawing thing, because when we draw, when we start to draw, we are kids. It's a movement to bring the world to our hands, when you can understand that you can keep the world with your hand. When you're a grown-up person and start to understand this is the kind of power, not only in that kind of intellectual ritual and let me bring this word for this. It's very interesting, and how the movement is to split the things is already said. You know, like if you have this, “I don't know how to draw, I'm not good at drawing.” But it's just the way that you put the world in your hand. And this movement brings us to this word artist. This work brings us to this because you can put your hand and show what is the world with your hand. And that starts with the drawing, it starts with the movement that we make very naturally. I don't like this word natural.

MM: I think it's also very interesting that during this moment of quarantine, this period of lockdown, Sonia went back to drawing. She was explaining to me that she just did many drawings, in part, in collaboration with Marina Perez Simão. When they were together at a farm, they sort of fed off each other's creative energies and created a series of drawings. But she also, in her own studio was doing her drawings. There's a certain amount of almost like a... This is also part of the performativity of the work but she kind of enters a state of automatism or trance where she's creating these shapes and she was telling me that there were a lot of circles, and she doesn't really know why that was the shape that was popping up right now, but that she is still kind of working through it, through drawing, before she even gets to sculpture where maybe some of these forms might be echoed. I have maybe time for one more question. Oh, it’s for Keyna, “I would like to ask Keyna about how she sees the fact that Sonia got broadly recognized as an important artist, as an elder woman, and how this is like a rule mostly for Black women in Brazil. As an example, we have also Lucia Laguna and Rosana Paulino.”

KE: Well, this is not a rule in Brazil. And let me tell this, this I know. Of course it is important to phrase it. It is not only about what I feel, because as a curator, I could understand that I am a very, very, very late and already working and thinking about art and I already have one thought around this. And then when they say, oh, I'm a curator and I couldn’t understand that this is something that's why I wasn't thinking that I could be a curator, and this is only around me. But after that I have this structure. Well, as a curator, how can I keep being a curator, living with this, working around this, doing around this? Well, now we can understand more that you cannot do this alone. We need to understand the structure and make the connection and make it around friendship and bring one diasporic way of thinking that it's aquilombar.

MM: I love it.

KE: I have one word in Brazil that is pagode. That I read to my great friend, pagode, it's something that people can think it's around the party. It's not only around the party, it is how to bring together a lot, a lot of intelligence together. Because we need to eat, we need to dance, we need to drink, we need to talk. And in the end of this, we need to bring something to the world. Sometimes it is a samba, sometimes it is a child. Sometimes it's heart. We have many things. It's a movement to bring that that makes us understand that doing a pagode, you can make the world work, you know.

VC: Pagode in East Hampton!

MM: Well, we're out of time, so I think this is a great note to end on. Thank you so much to each and every one of you for participating today in this conversation and for everybody out there for tuning in. Keep checking our website for future events that will be happening through our Pace Live channels.

KE: Thank you for the invitation and it was great to be with you, Vivian and Gabriel, and I miss Fabiana a lot.

GPB: We all did. We should probably call her back.

MM: Yeah. Thank you so much. Bye!

Part II

Michaëla Mohrmann (MM): Fabiana, thank you again for joining us the second time. So, the first time, I believe you got to listen to the entire panel, but because of the technical difficulties, couldn't really chime in and share your thoughts on certain topics that we discussed. So, I wanted to give you the opportunity now, in a sort of brief ten- to fifteen-minute conversation, to share some of your thoughts, and some of the first things that I'd like to discuss with you has to do with Sonia's process of making these works, because it's my understanding that you got to speak to her assistant, Juliana, and have a little bit more insight into what her studio activities are like when she's actively creating this work. So, yeah, tell me what your insights were.

Fabiana Lopes (FL): Before jumping to what Juliana said, I think one of the things I've been thinking, what I think is important, when we think about Sonia's textile-based practice, is thinking of what she does with it. I think maybe sometimes we have a set of questions that don't guide us or take us from that, what is it that she does? What she does is repurposing? Usually clothing, right. And in this process, what I notice is that she has a practice of undoing and then redoing. I think if we carefully look at what is it that she does when she's undoing, it may give us some window about what is it that she's doing. What is her practice about? For instance, the process of undoing...and I think we mentioned something about listening to the object. And I think Sonia uses a phrase which is I'm experimenting the fabric. So, I don't know, she received a gift, a dress, and she said, “I was figuring out what to do” and she doesn't use the word listening, but she said, “I was experimenting.” I was asking, “Experimenting, what do you mean?" "Well, I'm trying to see how the fabric is, how the dress is." In the case of this specific dress, which is the wedding gown. And the word that she used was Portuguese, sobrio, it was serious, it was serious. It was kind of intact. I couldn't do just everything with that. So then when we look at the pictures, I just saw the pictures, and I see the way she was, “When I was undoing it, I was still experimenting.” So, I think just paying attention to these details of her practice can give us some windows. And the same with the process of redoing. Redoing, when she's doing her own object, because if we think, for instance, about the bundle series, As Trouxas, that's a process. It's a specific process, a process that seems to have to do with accumulation, you could say, adding layers, because it's lots of layers, lots of layers until it's done. Right? But if we think about the Torções, the twist, then it’s something else, the one that she does around the wire, and then it's something else. If we think about the series that she does with the wood, which is not just wood, it's like a piece of the tree, it's not just the regular wood that you go and buy.

MM: It's driftwood, often reclaimed wood, a wood that has a history, that's actually... It goes to water, to the elements.

FL: Yes. Or the trunk. What is that called?

MM: Like the roots in the trunk.

FL: The roots, so it takes you to what she does, how she applies or uses the fabric with those pieces of objects. If we think about the cages, I think each of those series, what she does with the cages...

MM: There's something really emancipatory about that gesture of breaking them open.

FL: I really think that's important to slow down and think about her process in each of these parts of her practice, the undoing, undoing the cage to remake something else. Right. And the one originally. Then going to your question, when I was talking to Juliana...

MM: Well, let me just comment on, because I think what you're saying is super interesting to think about this undoing, because a lot of the materials that she's getting are mass-produced, are textiles that were made in the factories and we've already described a little bit in the panel some of the history of those factories within Caetanópolis in Brazil. It's interesting to me that it's, you know, she uses the word intervention a lot when she's describing her practice. So, it's like taking these mass-produced products. There's such a machine quality to them that really hides a lot of the labor, the human labor that's behind them, and then she brings back in the hand, like her personal touch, and the irregularities that come with that. I feel like I love this sort of tension that the work, as a result, creates, because with the cages, for example, it becomes very apparent. You have this structure that is there, that is architectural, almost. It completely erupts with her textiles, and then I think in a way, what she's doing to the space of the cage when you look at her installation works, in the way that they also intervene in the architecture, it's almost like a mise en abyme of that. So, there's this multiple layering that happens with her work.

FL: Yes, and I think it's important, so this word of intervention, multiple layers. If we think about architectural structure, what she does, when we think about the cage, but what she does with her work in the space, it's not just lying dead, she really does an intervention with the space outside. If we think of Casa de Vidro, what happened there, how she decided to hang the work inside but then there was a work outside going around a tree. All this relationship that for her is...she mentioned in the conversation that I had with her last year, she was saying how it’s important for her, this relationship with nature, with the outside, if we think, for instance, in the installation at MASP, also works were directly on the floor. There were very specific decisions about how it's supposed to be presented. There was no separation, no indication of "don't get close." She was just mentioning that it's important that people look at work, that there's no barriers between the public and the work, and she was even saying, “it seems that it's delicate but it's a very strong work, so it can handle.” So, all of those very specific, thoughtful decisions, and at MASP when you were going, it was not a super big gallery, and it was all glass. But there's a little garden, then you go, then there's like a gaiola [cage]... incredible.

MM: Do you think there's a little bit of an anti-modernism to all this? Because I keep thinking about the symbolism of the grid, which is part of textiles, just like the weave of a lot of these fabrics. Also, in a lot of these cages that we see, they have these bars, these orthogonal lines that structure them, and the way that she comes in and disrupts that. I think you can see that in a lot of other textile-based practices in the work of Latin-American artists who I think come up with an alternate grid. A grid that emerges from weaving, that is irregular and goes against the sort of hyper-rational grid that you have articulated by a lot of European artists, you know, beginning with perspective. I wonder if there's a little bit of that also at work, maybe not in a conscious manner, but it's almost like it suggests that there a little bit.

FL: I don't know if it's an anti-modernist, per se, as you're saying, that is conscious, but I think it's the type of work and seeing other artists, that really invite us to rethink what we think is a modernist grid or a modernist take on work, for instance. Yes, I do think those... That's a type of practice. It's a practice for instance that kind of invites you to think... Gabriel was making a point about the non-object. For me, it's a very interesting thing, which is a specific discussion when we are thinking about the artistic production from Brazil and what does it mean. It's really taking a step further and going back to the things, because her objects are things, right, when you look at it, what is it to think about things? I think that's the invitation. And in the sense, I think we could think of attention, of how there's a way that we are used to think about the artistic production from Brazil and there are many, many artists who come from a different tradition, obviously. Right. They are bringing other ways to look at it. So, I think it could be very productive to think, not to define this as anti- anything, but to think about this. Are there ways that this work allows us to think about the artistic production from Brazil, for instance, from Latin America in a more expensive way, I do think.

MM: Tell me more about what you saw, what you discussed with Juliana? Because I feel like we never got to it.

FL: Well, I, had this conversation with the artist, with Sonia as well. So last year I went there not for an interview, but for a coffee, because then that's different, we need to talk... And also, it's going to be formal, but then there's not a set of specific questions. Also, this is where you obviously have the opportunity to hear about details that you wouldn't otherwise. It was a coffee, a four-hour coffee. Also because, Michaëla, when I came back to Brazil in 2014, and I started doing studio pieces with artists, I figured that I couldn't do it the way that I was used to doing it in the US. Being Brazilian, living in Brazil for, I don't know, over thirty years, I kind of forgot it for a little bit. So, I started with this very structured “let's talk about the work.” And it did not work, so then I entered this other mode, which is my original mode, so to speak. So, just to explain to you, that's the conversation that I've been having, and one of the conversations, I’m always in conversation with, for instance, Juliana dos Santos who has been, for a few months now, working as Sonia's assistant. We were actually chatting, and I said, you know, “I'm super intrigued by Sonia's process,” and we were talking specifically about the set of work, the Torções, so she was explaining to me how it's a process that Sonia the "torções," it’s a twist, there's a base, which is the wire, it's a malleable wire. And Juliana was saying, “you know, it's not just going. She goes and she feels.” So those words would come again, she experiments with the wire. Then there's a moment that she's going to make a decision on which way she wants it to go, but she also wants to feel which way it wants to go. I wanted to do that because it's wire, it's malleable, but it's wire. So, the way she does it, Juliana was saying, that it’s very physical, sometimes puts her body into trying to "torcer."

MM: Yeah, to twist... That push and pull dynamic, the negotiation with the material that happens really reminds me. I mean, going back to this, like the non-object, it makes me think of like the "Bichos" for a lot of Lygia Clark's work, where you can bend it and there’s hinges that allow you to manipulate the material but it will only go so far. Like, you also kind of have to respect the structure to a certain degree that's already in place. So, it's not an infinite amount of possibilities. There's a little bit of that too here, this negotiation with the material, this finding a way where her will is being expressed. But it's also in dialogue or in response to what the material is doing.

FL: Yes, and Juliana was talking about the body, because we need to do that with the body. And it's not forcing the wire into something, but really a tension, negotiation, with how we are going to do it. She said, “sometimes I go strong and get frustrated,” and she said “no, that's not about strength, it's about a feeling and going with it.” But also, after that, this is like the bones of the work. But then we have all the fabric that goes on it and then the decisions, after she covers it with the fabric, all the decisions and Juliana used the word, because she was saying, “well, first is the wire, which is the bones and then the fabrics that gives the volume, the decisions about the volume.” And then she said, “and then comes the painting”. “What do you mean by painting?” "Oh, we call it painting the final touch, the decisions about colors. It's so many, it's the fabrics that we use, the textures going too much in that direction, so let's come to another direction.” Or the colors, all the layers, or the level of transparency, or not transparency. What's showing, what's not showing. There's a lot of objects also, right, that we find in the work. I'm also intrigued by this idea of... The question that I would pursue, I keep on pursuing... So, if she's using the word "painting" for the process of superposition or superposition of layers, of play, decision of play with colors, composition, really. So, how does it expand my ideas of painting? Right, and for me, it makes sense because there are other artists that I would be thinking the same way when I think about, let's say, Lidia Lisbôa, which is fabric, but it's crocheted fabric, so the specific ways that she deals with colors, the type of composition that she does reminds me what you do when you're thinking about painting. Those things are also for us to remind us, because sometimes you go too much on one, the biography, and two, ideas of instinct, you know, intuition. It's always there, but we don't go into practice conscious decisions going back with this because that's not going the way that I want to do, the same things that you are doing on a painting or other types of sculpture. I think it's very important for us to just allow ourselves to go into those, maybe because we don't know what to do with those objects. That's why we get so much wired or placing in her biography. The practice has so much for us to really slow down and say, well, let's see how it's done. Where the work, the object, the thing takes us.

MM: [00:18:No, I think that's an excellent point because you're right that there ends up being this over-dependency on the biography and sometimes the reading of her work becomes overdetermined by these questions of race and politics and there are these really wonderful quotes that were shared during our talk. But I think it's also important to remember that, well, when I was talking to Sonia, I asked her point-blank, do you see a certain populist politics to your work? And she was very clear. She said, “no, for me, that comes after.” It's part of a discourse, but when she's creating it's a space of radical freedom for her during which she doesn't really think about all these questions, she's just really engaging more with the medium and the way that that category of medium can be complicated. We have to pay attention to that, too and we also have to respect that space that she's carving out for herself. We only have a couple of minutes left, actually, I think we're already over the time. So, I want to give you the opportunity to share any last thoughts that you had based on what you heard during the conversation.

FL: Yeah, I think it was good what we discussed now, the only thing, I think the only point that I would make that this is work, a practice, that is offering us the possibility of really slowing down, engaging with it and see where, what are the questions that it allows us to ask? What is the point that it allows us to make about the work? I think it's such a, it's a very original process, practice, that Sonia has, and then I'm using the word practice because I also think this word gives us the chance to think about different things, even more expanded. If you just think about the object, the specific object that she does, what is it? What is Sonia Gomes's practice? What it teaches us or tells us or what are the questions that it allows us to think about?

MM: Well, thank you so much, Fabiana. It was really great to hear your thoughts on this. I hope we'll have other opportunities to keep talking about this work.

FL: Yes, for sure. Thank you.

MM: Bye, take care.

Videos — Of Seams and Stories: The Art of Sonia Gomes, Sep 30, 2020