Adriana Varejão’s paintings bleed. Torn maps bulge with exposed gore and the organs that lay beneath the leathery surface. Pools of blood spill across clean, orderly tiles, devoid of any human presence. Great pieces of skin and bone dangle from meat hooks and hang nailed in rows. Her paintings are visceral and emotional, assaulting the viewer like a knife slipped between the ribs, the blade twisting deeper in the wound as the finer details jump out upon closer inspection. The work is as unsettling as it is fitting—it seems to represent the exposed insides of a dismembered culture, one torn apart and rearranged by foreign hands, poached for its meat and left to rot.
Varejão, already renowned for her work in her native Brazil, blends historical, ethnographic, and anthropological themes in her paintings, which are defined by their unity under one overarching theme: anthropophagy, the consumption of human flesh. During the 16th century, European colonizers’ histories depicted the indigenous Brazilian peoples as savages in need of resocialization. These assumptions are reclaimed in Varejão’s art, the primal violence used to illustrate the hypocrisy of Brazil’s Portuguese conquerors, who themselves attempted to consume a culture and absorb it into their own.
Beyond its response to Brazil’s brutal history of colonization, the artist’s work examines the perpetual reconstruction of race. A provocative piece titled “Polvo Oil Colors (Tintas Polvos)” (2013) was inspired by thirty-three responses to a 1976 government census that asked participants to classify their own skin color. The answers were creative, ranging from “coffee with milk” to “sun-kissed,” and Varejão interpreted each as a flesh-toned shade of oil paint, all packaged in labeled tubes and arranged in a wooden box. The result is a charming exploration of variation in skin color and the subjectivity of race.
Whereas “Polvo,” flirting with the dimensions of what defines race, succeeds in provoking interesting examinations of identity, other pieces in the same thematic series seem to cross over, somewhat ironically, into exploitation. In “Eye Witnesses X, Y, and Z,” Varejão alters her own skin color, facial features, and clothing to depict herself as Chinese, Arabic, and indigenous Brazilian. Each portrait has an eye torn out and displayed in a glass case, the extraction echoing the violence done to members of each race in the course of Brazil’s history. In these portraits, according to assistant curator Anna Stothart, Varejão intends to “reclaim the bodies that were devalued in casta paintings [a method of determining racial “purity” during the rise of racial intermixing in the 17th and18th centuries] and paints them in a style typically reserved for the aristocracy.”
Whatever her intentions, the faces, skin colors, and bodies of people of races other than the artist’s own are not hers to reclaim, nor are their experiences within the spectrum of the artist’s own modern societal position. Even the self-portraits that accompany the “Polvo” project—in which the artist paints herself with skin colors ranging from brown to deep black, smack with discomfort of a different kind from that which her other works produce—especially in the context of America’s own history of racial tension and white caricature of black bodies, and the current country-wide discourse on the issue of discrimination and institutionalized racism.
Engaging in the global discourse on race requires an ability to sustain an open mind and to understand that there are circumstances of privilege that will continue to separate groups of people. At times, Varejão seems to understand this separation. At other times, she seems to cross it. This is not to say that her collection is without merit; the pieces she does right speak to deep, painful truths that have been felt by displaced peoples for hundreds of years.
Varejão’s exhibition is needed in Boston right now, and is an important addition to the city’s growing sense of cultural diversity and global curatorship. The images are loud and irrepressible; they speak to the recent explosion of action in response to the United States’ continuing oppression and silencing of people of color. The violent depictions may serve to shed a light on the ugly reality of colonialism, as well as this country’s own hypocrisy in denying human rights to people with darker skin when whiteness itself was never a trait of the indigenous population. Varejão’s work is not safe, nor is it meant to be passively regarded—it is incendiary and exceedingly relevant to the times, and hopefully, it will challenge minds and incite conversation as America moves forward into an era of great social upheaval.
ADRIANA VAREJÃO. INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 100 NORTHERN AVE., BOSTON. ON VIEW THROUGH APRIL 2015. FOR MUSEUM HOURS AND ADMISSION PRICES, VISIT ICABOSTON.ORG