Arts / Brazilian art comes to Canberra

Parma Júnior with his bike installation.

ONE of the great advantages of living in Canberra is the proximity it offers to a cosmopolitan world of art, and a new exhibition opening at the Brazilian Embassy this week is a perfect example.

Curated by the noted Brazilian art expert Sandra Setti, “Contrasts in Brazilian Art” puts together three streams of artistic practice in the huge Latin American country, while intertwining about 30 works by artists Sebastião Mendes, Alemão and designer Parma Júnior, who all have established international reputations.

“CityNews” caught up with the curator and the three artists as they were putting the finishing touches to the show, which will be unveiled tomorrow night (September 7) during celebrations of the Brazilian National Day and will then run until September 17.

Centre stage is a large installation of artistic bicycles created by Júnior, who told “CityNews” that in his work he was “combining two great loves, bicycles and wood”, with which he had grown up with.

Born into the famous wood-making Parma family, he played with tools and cycled for fun, later competing in championships and starting a bicycle collection before completing university degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration. After, he took over production at the family factories, which now produce these bikes for high-end clientele.

Júnior, although described by Setti as a designer, sees his “Wood Bikes” as a combination of refined engineering and artistic decoration in the style of Art Deco, and one bike on display has even been adorned by fellow artist Alemão.

He was quick to assure us that the polished Asian teak in his bikes had been accessed from reforestation programs in the Mata Grosso state. And yes, his bikes are “totally practical” and to prove it, this Sunday he will be taking a Wood Bike ride around Lake Burley Griffin.

Sebastião Mendes

Most senior among the visiting artists is the figurative painter Sebastião Mendes, an artist of indigenous descent who now holds a seat in Brazil’s Academy of fine arts and whose life was illustrated in Leandro Peska’s film, “Life In Colours”.

Mendes’ large format oils on canvas dominate the exhibition with colourful impressions of rural life in Brazil, especially in his birth state, Mato Grosso.

A work by Sebastião Mendes

“The texture of the oil paint and the colours – my main colour is blue – come through in my brushstrokes,” he says as he acknowledges his debt to the seminal neo-realist Brazilian artist, Cândido Portinari and to the unifying tradition of 20th-century modernism.

Although a city dweller these days, Mendes says he regularly goes to the country observing ordinary people, often with huge muscular arms.

A keen student of art history and poetry, which often inspires his art, Mendes quotes Picasso, another of his influences, and shows us how the Picasso-like head in one painting has eyes like the Mona Lisa that follow the viewer around.

His own paintings play with scale, contrasting country people with animals of varying sizes, most notably is a tiny yellow bird from his home state, which is seen in many of his works and is “a little reminder to take care of nature”.

Alemão (Anderson Lemes) with bike-riding kangaroos

At 35 years of age, Alemão (the artistic name of Anderson Lemes) is probably the coolest of the artists, representing urban art and cheerfully admitting to having had some colourful “conversations” with police in his home state of Sao Paolo – “about six times”, when he was a young street artist “decorating” walls in his hometown.

He, like Mendes, has found a place for the Mona Lisa (often with a beard) in his collage and paint multimedia works, although he hastens to say that he didn’t dare take one of those paintings to the Louvre.

“The Surfer” by Alemão.

His work stands in marked contrast to others in this exhibition but do link to Júnior’s in that most involve people or animals on bicycles. In a “dialogue between bikes and painting”, he shows many of his animals complete, while his human beings have parts missing, consistent with his view that “animals are more whole than people”. His bike-riding elephant has gaps, but as he points out, “that’s a domesticated elephant, it’s a kind of critique”.

It’s a long way from street art to exhibiting in the Louvre, and while initially self-taught, the boy diagnosed as dyslexic at age 16 has since seen and read a great deal, now declaring himself influenced by Marcel Duchamp and surrealism. More of his paintings are now held in Italy than in Brazil, he tells us, and he believes he owes his reputation to one particular Italian collector.

In preparation for his visit to Australia, Alemão did some research about this country with a couple of Aussie-specific paintings. One involves bike riding kangaroos and another, a surfboard.

“Contrasts in Brazilian Art” at the Brazilian Embassy, 19 Forster Crescent, Yarralumla, from 9am to 5pm September 8-17. All welcome.

During the 10 days of the exhibition, there will be a meet & greet for art gallery administrators and art enthusiasts, primary school visits, a charity dinner with the artist’s works at the Mercure Canberra hotel, the Parma Wood Bike ride and a painting tutorial at the ANU School of Art & Design.

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