Adriana Varejão is a Brazilian multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Her works include very different medias such as painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and photography that she uses to draw up tensions surrounding questions of gender and ethnicity in her country.
Life and Career
Throughout a variety of medias such as oil painting, installations, and drawings, Varejão talks about the perception of race in Brazil in the 21th century. Usually she starts with a canvas, and then she adds other materials, sometimes porcelain or ceramics. Many of her works appropriate the use of azulejos (the traditional Portuguese blue tiles) and maps to show the colonial legacies in Brazil. The use of azulejos in Varejão’s art is transcultural as well as “transmedial” since it created a link to the historical influence of Portugal to contemporary aspects of Brazilian society.
The are some evident references in Varejão’s works, such as the effects of colonialism of Brazil, art history, and illusion. In general, her work alludes to an expansion and a transformation of cultural identity. To her is by understanding the past that we can understand the present. Some art critics have commented that her style calls up a metaphorical retelling and reimagination of the history of Brazil in reference to Portugal.
As an example of it, there is Proposal for a Catechesis: Part I Diptych: Death and Dismemberment (1993). In this work the artist incorporates azulejos to evoke a fundamental aspect of Brazilian modernist art, the anthropophagy, or a type of cultural cannibalism which consists in absorbing and incorporating foreign influences into native Brazilian culture and art. Other references to this theory can be found in her series Línguas e Cortes, in English Tongues and Incisions (1997-2003), in which Varejão guide the attention of the viewer to the tongue, the instrument of the speech, as a symbol of cannibalism, and for taste, using it to criticise colonial history. Or in Ruína de Charque – Nova Capela (2000-2004), that juxtapose structural uniformity and stability against human destruction. It consists of bisected azulejos filled with human organs. With these images, the artist comments on postcolonial Brazilian social structure and implies that colonially influenced order is built upon violence and human destruction.
Her work entitled Polvo, that was exhibited in 2014 at Lehman Maupin, examines the norm of defining race in terms of the colour of the skin; for it, she combines colour theory and casta, which is a social theory that was popular in European paintings on Brazil’s conquest. This work is a series of almost identical self-portraits displayed with individualised titles that explained the differences among them. The titles were generated by the 1976 Brazilian census, which asked for the first time to Brazilians to give their definitions of their own skin tone.
There were answers like “branquinha” or “morenão” (that could be translated to English as “snow-white” and “big black dude”). Using the skin-tone palettes and texture painting techniques, Varejão evokes the body, more of that, she evokes the marks of historical violence on it, even if there is no body portrayed explicitly.
- She was an artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2004.
- Varejão created a work that was on the exterior of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, the temporary structure in which the swimming events of the 2016 Summer Olympics were held in Rio.
- Her works can be found in collections around the world, such as Guggenheim in New York, Tate Modern in London, or the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
- In 2008 she won from French Ministry of Culture the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres medal. And in 2011, she won from Brazilian Ministry of Culture the Order of Cultural Merit.