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Stray Gods | Deuses Extraviados at Galeria Graça Brandão

Contemporary and sacred art, is this relationship (still) possible?

In an attempt to answer this question, the exhibition Stray Gods | Deuses Extraviados, inaugurated on January 24 at Galeria Graça Brandão in Lisbon, extends and updates the dialogue between art and religion, distancing itself from the glorious past.

If, since the dawn of time, the religious realm has fueled artistic production, with its zenith taking place in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this hegemony has now been lost, partly due to the progressive advance of science over religion and the extremely fast technological development.

“God is dead!”, declared the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, pointing to the end of religiosity and the advent of a “new era”, in which man would become the centre as the definer of rules and values. Nevertheless, this did not stop Pope John Paul II from saying, in a letter addressed to artists, the church’s willingness to keep the dialogue flowing between art and religion, a message welcomed by some but disregarded by most.

Interested in understanding what artists think, Marta Mestre and Gonçalo Pena, the exhibition’s organizers, have gathered thirteen different approaches whose origins are distributed geographically between Lisbon, Porto and Brazil. The different works are related in a more or less personal, more or less distant (but unquestionable important) way to religious-related issues which, in its etymology, refers to the Latin expressions “religatio” or “relation”.

Stray gods, lost gods, based on a notion of being blind to faith, or not, the exhibition derived from Ursula Zangger’s photographic records during Albuquerque Mendes’s ritual performed in 1976 in Póvoa do Varzim during the III International Meeting of Art in Portugal. In this ritual, titled “The Three Deaths of St. John the Baptist”, Albuquerque Mendes walked the streets of the northern city wearing robes in everything similar to the ecclesiastic garments, carrying a processional stretcher on his back.

Leading the procession, he suddenly ingested a white paint can. A gesture that implies a critique of the painting values in a post-revolutionary context, referencing the Christian consubstantiation, in which God’s body and blood are found in bread and wine.

In addition to the ritual records and also another work also on display, Albuquerque Mendes has designed a new piece: a plate with wet bread surrounded by candles placed on the gallery floor. It is a reference to a pagan religiosity, summoning offerings to the orishas or to other spiritual entities commonly found in Afro-Brazilian ritualistic endeavours. These offerings are often seen at the crossroads of several cities in Brazil, where the artist has lived for a long period.

In order to establish the exhibition’s overall leitmotif, besides Albuquerque Mendes’s work, marked by research between the sacred and the profane, Sara Morgado Santos’ creation has also a significant role and one of her pieces shares its name with the exhibition title. The artist’s body of work references issues related to religiosity and its symbolic existential realms, such as interiority, fear and guilt. Two generations and different practices that find common ground in sacrosanct questionings.

Therefore, the exhibition Stray Gods | Deuses Extraviados has the intent to establish some kind of primordial question, pointing out to the relationship between art and religion. This bond was once vital for artistic production, and it has been vanishing gradually, particularly during the twentieth century, when it was relegated to a secondary role, with God himself being is replaced. Karl Marx describes this transformation of the religious God into a new God, the capital.

This return can find its metaphor on the cave’s imagery, a symbol of birth, of the maternal womb and place where initiation rituals happen, and it also may symbolize a passage into the underworld, establishing itself an antechamber of access to an underground world. The presence of a work by Joaquim Rodrigo is no coincidence, whose effort is found between representation and abstraction, where figures are reduced to signs. The canvas refers to African prehistoric parietal painting and to the Aboriginal realm that the artist finds interesting.

Likewise, the exhibition begins with a piece by the Brazilian artist Sofia Borges, which represents a kind of personal mythology, where a play takes place inside a cave composed of fragments of cropped photographs.

On the other hand, the works of the Portuguese Bernardo Simões Correia and the Brazilian Cristiano Lenhardt are centred on the idea of ​​recovering spirituality under the scope of contemporaneity, associating the New Age movement that suggests a new moral psychological and social framework, standing against the orthodoxy and conservatism of organized religions.

Bernardo Simões Correia invokes odd, totemic objects, symbols of the sacred or the profane within a given collectivity, connecting them with the inscription “if we burn, you burn with us”. A tragic and threatening notion of collective, which inverts the joyful and entertaining idea associated with the figures displayed as pottery vessels.

Superquadra-Sací, of the three videos created by Cristiano Lenhardt, is the one that stands out the most, where the artist denies the order and the idea of ​​progress associated with the rationality of the urban plan implemented in the 50s by the architect Lúcio Costa, in the futuristic Brazilian city, Brasília, in which we find the housing blocks known as “superquadras”, through the popular Brazilian figure of Saci-Pererê.

It establishes a disruptive encounter between a hopeful and progressive faith, marked by the reason associated with a brand-new city plan, and well-known figure of popular culture and archaic Brazilian mythologies, a one-legged black man with a red hat, ready to “bring the raucous”. Interestingly, Brasília’s urban plan is cross-shaped, in other words, it resembles a crossroads, a flow, a connection.

Daniel Barroca’s Dripping Hand is perhaps the exhibition’s most disturbing part and its historical component is more enhanced. A hollow ceramic hand hanging from the ceiling is found suspended in the air and filled with black paint. Strained by the weight of the paint and by gravity, due to its fragility, it gets broken and the liquid starts to drip over a small amount of sand on the floor.

Daniel Barroca’s hand refers to the narrative found in chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, in which the hand of God appears during the great feast organized by the Babylonian king, Belshazzar, writing with fire on the wall words that announce the kingdom’s destruction, “Mene Mene Tequel Parsim”. Immediately after, the whole city of Babylon is levelled. “If we burn, you burn with us”, Bernardo Simões Correia would say.

Here and there, the walls of the exhibition are covered with wallpapers and different patterns. The duo Von Calhau proposed three drawings with references to sacred materials and their depiction is visually close to pictograms. Since they are repeated incessantly, they constitute a mantra-like visual game.

Luísa Mota recovers this ritualistic seriality with the piece Goddess Women Silk Piece. It is a 23-meter printed silk stripe that, according to the artist, allows the transfer of energetic qualities when used by someone whom she designates as the activator. The activator should place one end of the silk stripe over the head, pulling it to the sides with both hands, with repeated movements where the arms are raised and lowered, so that the entire length of the tissue runs through that person’s body.

The exhibition’s inauguration witnessed a performance that exemplified the aforementioned. The audience was confronted with different body-scaled figures, mostly female, goddesses, deeply colourful, who kept emerging and vanishing, depending on the movement the activator arms. An absorbing and hypnotizing effect, one that yet again refers to the idea of ​​repetition often associated with rituals and religious mantras.

Perhaps the example of a clear reference to the “sacred contemporary”, in addition to André Poejo’s St. Francis and the Stigmata video, are Leonardo Rito’s paintings which accurately depict biblical narratives. On the other hand, Luisa Jacinto’s play evokes religion in an abstract attempt, in an answer that comes from within the painting itself; on the canvas, a ladder that ascends to something that cannot be seen, which goes beyond its own physical boundaries. The painting, from which a black colour is drenched with subtleties and speculative architectures, distances itself from the body of work we know of the artist. This “unthinking painting” has motivated his choice as part of the exhibition.

Different energies around the notion of religiosity in contemporary art are gathered in the efforts of thirteen artists, from different geographies and generations, most of them never seen before in Lisbon, a reason among many to visit the exhibition.

Until March 16 at Galeria Graça Brandão, in Lisbon.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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