These days, conversations about Brazil may include expressions such as “economic crisis,” “bribery,” “coup,” or “impeachment.” Unrest may be the encompassing word to describe the waves of crisis that have crashed over the country. But while the economy collapses, there is still some hope in the volatile art market: Galeria Nara Roesler, one of the most distinguished galleries in Brazil, just launched a space in New York.
In times like these, a Brazilian like me, living abroad, strives for a sense of normality. Upon escaping the busy streets of the Flower District and entering Nara Roesler’s space, you will not find art that refers to the crisis in Brazil; instead, Brazilian artist Cao Guimarães’s solo, Drift, is a show about childhood and old age.
Curated by Moacir dos Anjos, Drift is Guimarães’s first solo show in New York, though his works have been shown before in the city; he was recently featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Contemporary Art reinstallation Scenes for a New Heritage. Guimarães has become internationally recognized for documentaries that create narratives out of poetic images and sound, the latter often assigned to O Grivo, an artist collective known in Brazil for its experimentations with contemporary music.
The compact Nara Roesler gallery opens up to two large screens located at the back of the room, with the remaining seven short films displayed on TV monitors equipped with headphones, occupying the two longer and opposite walls of the space. One of the large screens plays “From the Window of My Room” (2004), where a boy and a girl fight in a rainstorm: the boy is taller, skinnier, and perhaps older than the girl, who is shorter and chubby, with her hair arranged in high little pigtails. They both wear colorful shorts and have their dark-skinned chests exposed, probably because of the warm weather in Maranhão, in the northeast of Brazil. The children’s “battleground” is an unpaved street, soaked due to heavy rain: footprints and tires created a pattern of mud and puddles for the kids to fight in. You can almost feel the wet ground on which they fall when the girl sprints towards the boy to kick him, or the raindrops and mud that glue to their skin, now refreshed from the steamy weather. Because some parts of the film seem to be played in slow motion, you can see the precision of the children’s punching, their arms’ entanglement, the boy’s laughter, and the subtle smile on the girl’s face when he locks her in his grip for a while. The soundtrack plays along to their movements: the sounds of thunderstorms, wind, and raindrops recede or intensify, depending on the rhythm of the kids’ confrontation. Adults could see this as just another silly fight, but the soundtrack tells you otherwise: this is the ultimate fight, one that can define these kids’ relationship to their bodies, and perhaps gender. It’s one of those fights where you can still feel the pain inflicted by a blow, or the joy of laughter.
On the other large screen, “Prayer” (2016) focuses on the hands of an elderly black woman: she wears golden bracelets and emerald-like rings on her long, aging fingers. She is drumming them over a chair’s arm; this image, juxtaposed to the sound of delicate piano tunes, suggests she’s a musician. The suggestion is confirmed when we see an old photograph of her in her youth, holding a clarinet, among other players. The soundtrack sometimes clears to reveal the woman’s voice whispering an almost inaudible prayer in Portuguese. She pulls a crucifix necklace off her neck. She twists her fingers: they tell you she is eager, waiting for something. While the piano tunes play — even though it’s not clear what she’s doing — you learn the shapes of her hands, the flowery patterns of her dress, the texture of her pink sweater. By the end, she finally smiles, saying in her soft voice: “Sir, you’re ready.” It’s a moment of enchantment: as an elder, she offers a blessing to the artist, who’s offscreen.
“Chitchat” (2016) is an interview with two elders, a woman and her brother, both from Minas Gerais, Brazil. Their modesty and witty dialogues are so charismatic that the artist let them talk without much interference. These siblings evoke the gendered competitions seen in the kids’ fight, here transmuted into funny quarrels about their day to day: they tease each other about their relationship as siblings, talk about the past and what they do with their time, like house work, cooking, or embroidery — stories about “nothing” that could often bore adults, but that invite children’s minds to adventure. While “Chitchat” discloses what old age can be, “Grampa” (2016) is a fable-like piece that titillates our imagination. In this piece, an off-screen character reminisces about his grandparents. His gravelly voice is so evocative and his memories are so filled with tenderness that you are compelled to be hypnotized by the mysterious tick-tocking soundtrack and images of cotton-grass tufts flying, traveling across the lawn and woods, into the shadows, adrift.
This is a show about affection, about times in life — childhood and old age — when you choose to be foolish, tell long stories, dance against the music, and wait or fight to no end. But this is also a show about the politics of buen vivir, “good living” — against the nonsenses of adulthood, such as pursuing the “correct” path, choosing between good or bad. These images and stories serve as reminders of ways of life that, even as adults, we could choose to have.
As I left the gallery back to the busy streets of New York, it was as if I had left a soothing capsule that transported me to the Brazil I enjoy belonging to: a country in which modest people move on with their lives the best way they can. Even though these temporal states of being are not unspoiled by the ups and downs of society, they offer us a somewhat universal power — of a simple life — that may outlast anything from upheavals in Brazil to the chaos and burning ambitions of the streets of New York.
Cao Guimarães: Drift continues at Galeria Nara Roesler (47 West 28th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 29. Visits to the gallery are by appointment only.