It can meander through forests, connect one mud puddle to another, sail across oceans and indicate, “I used to be one of those people, but I’ve grown, I’m a different person now, the road I traveled went from there to here.” Initiation is a crucial concept for the Brazilian artist Antonio Obá (1983). The road he traveled can now be seen in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. That is why he named this exhibition path†
Obá was born in Ceilândia, Brazil, a city in a poor region of Brazil. It was a city that was completely rebuilt in 1976 to stop the proliferation of favelas in the capital Brasilia. A descendant of enslaved people, he developed from a poor environment permeated by Catholic mysteries into an artist known inside and outside Brazil. Despite his background, his work – consisting of paintings, sculptures, performances and installations – is criticized in his homeland for being blasphemous. After a critical performance in 2015 in which Obá clothed a statue of the Virgin Mary in dust and covered his own black body with white powder, in protest against racism and prejudice against minorities in Brazil, he was threatened so much that he fled his native country.
At the exhibition in Amsterdam, his work appears to be more tranquil, poetic, tactile and loving than blasphemous. It’s also fairly modest, which is why the Oude Kerk, with its grandiose main organ, richly carved wooden pews in the choir and the ornate altar itself, isn’t a very nice place for his work. The visual spectacle that the late Gothic architecture offers is simply too overwhelming.
Obá shows six new works, sometimes consisting of several parts. Four of these can be seen in the central church, two in the more intimate Lecture Room. That intimacy immediately works well: Pregacao and Totem are both actually abstract works that, because of their material (rusty nails, a wooden beam, candles burned at different heights), evoke the scent of penance, sacrifice and supplication, but nowhere explicitly make a connection.
With the paintings in the central church it is less easy. Hanging Child for example – at the end of the choir – is a surrealistic canvas, in which a dark, almost naked boy on stilts refers very emphatically to Christ on the cross. Also the baroque triptych MalungoConsisting of two paintings and a small installation with a golden cup and bottle of cachaça, it is full of references to the sacrament of the Eucharist, to saints and, above all, the physical challenges they endured to attain the status of holiness.
The best works in this exhibition are the two installations Suspended Children and Iron Garden† Suspended Children is a spiral construction attached to steel cables of painted banners and mirrors that seem to fall from the ridge of the church like draperies. On the banners paintings of children jumping up. It gives the work a beautiful void, which is further enhanced by the reflections in the mirrors. The installation Iron Garden, just down the road, is definitely the most photogenic. The installation sways like a magical wheat field in the high choir. Walk through that wheat field and touch the slender stalks of steel. The brass bells mounted on the tops of the 2,400 stems make a soft tinkling sound. It’s thin, it’s poetic, you think of the Angelus – once so quietly painted by Van Gogh. But now you also hear other things. You hear a field where the grain crackles after the rain. You’ll hear the sound of the bells dying behind you as you walk the path through the choir. And at the end all that remains is silence.