Returning home:
fabulations on

migratory forms  

Cristiana Tejo, 2022

When Ascânio MMM arrived in Brazil in 1959, Brasília was on the verge of inauguration. “The capital of hope”, as it was nicknamed by André Maulraux, represented the apex of a modernisation project of Brazilian architecture that had drawn the world’s attention since the 1940s, especially after the exhibition and catalogue publication of Brazilian builds: architecture new and old 1652–1942 by Philip L. Goodwin (with photography by G. E. Kidder Smith), organised by the Museum of Modern Art of New York, in 1943. Versions of the exhibition toured several US and Brazilian cities, as well as Canada, Mexico, and England, but it was the publication that served to promote it abroad, including in Portugal. Despite its rarity in local libraries, "Brazil builds" had a major impact on Portuguese architecture, to the point that architect Maurício de Vasconcellos called it the “second Vignola”.[1] The atmosphere of architectural experimentation in Brazil was far removed from the conservatism that reigned in Salazar’s Portugal, which attracted the attention and enthusiasm of the more progressive Portuguese architects. According to Nuno Portas in his book A evolução da arquitectura moderna em Portugal: uma interpretação (1978), one of the foundations of the Oporto School of Architecture was the “teachings of Le Corbusier, seen above all through their Brazilian reflex.”[2] This influence is neither widely known nor recognised on either side of the Atlantic. As Boaventura de Sousa Santos reminds us,[3] Portugal occupies a semi-peripheral position in the modern capitalist system of the world, and this may explain both the disinterest of the former metropolis in assuming this influence of the former colony and the former colony seeking validation in the hegemonic centres, ignoring its “insignificant” coloniser. 

In his indispensable study on Ascânio's trajectory, Paulo Herkenhoff[4] recounts the artist’s first contact with modern architecture in Fão, his hometown in Northern Portugal. This was the Ofir House (1951) designed by the architect Armênio Taveira Losa (1908 – 1088) and visited by a teenage Ascânio.[5] The open internal space, the positioning of the house on the land and the modern furniture drew a stark contrast against traditional Portuguese architecture and especially the aesthetics fostered by the Salazar regime. It may not be unreasonable to speculate that Ascânio found Brazil before immigrating; that the crossing he felt upon entering that modernist house anticipated the kind of sensitive and political experience he would live through in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s.

Although aware of the importance of Ascânio MMM to contemporary Brazilian art, I had only seen his work in catalogues and books or from inside moving taxis when visiting a Cidade Maravilhosa, Rio de Janeiro. I had not had the opportunity to regard his works at length until December 2020, at Galeria 111 in Lisbon, a few days before another strict lockdown was imposed due to the third wave of Covid-19. This tardy encounter, which occurred in the country of origin of this leading name in contemporary Brazilian sculpture and where I have lived for some years, and at a time of dramatic social, political and spatial transformation, impacted my experience and grasp of his most recent works.

Writing about art at a time of intense social debate and seeking to decolonise the parameters and methodologies of art history and theories is a complex but necessary undertaking. This process, which has been underway in Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanic countries for some time, has taken Brazil by storm in the last three years and is beginning to reach Portugal, the country with the longest colonial history and suffering from a severe state of denial of its past. Understanding the intertwined histories of Brazil and Portugal from the perspective of Fernand Braudel’s longue durée (long-term) approach to history[6] may constitute a key to elucidating the structures of our coloniality[7] in Portuguese because this is a puzzle whose pieces have been geographically scattered and some of their traces erased. I am therefore interested in connecting some of these loose threads in the circulation and exchanges between (at least) these two countries, not least because Ascânio MMM is a notable agent in this relationship. As Herkenhoff also recalls, Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Ascânio represent a triad of Portuguese origin of major importance to the contemporary Brazilian art scene, whose presence in Rio de Janeiro has helped sustain the city’s role as a space for cultural exchange between the two countries.

Statistics for the main groups of immigrants to Brazil show that from 1870 to 1972 the Portuguese were the most numerous community of new arrivals, representing 31.1% of all immigrants, followed by Italians (30.3%), Japanese (4.6%) and Germans (4.2%).[8] Despite these data, Portuguese presence in Brazil is almost invisible not only in the historical narratives of the 20th century, but primarily in Brazilian art historiography when compared to Italian, German and Japanese elements. The profile of the Portuguese immigrants may be a second factor in this invisibility (the leading social group was made up of low-skilled workers and merchants), in addition to the coloniality and its contemporary developments. Ascânio’s family fitted this migratory profile – his first job in Rio de Janeiro being in commerce, but within a few years he started attending the Escola Nacional de Belas Artes (National School of Fine Arts), and subsequently the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo (School of Architecture and Urban Planning) and often frequented the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (a social hub for young artists). In this fruitful environment, the artist was exposed to a range of knowledge that structured his research, such as neo-concretism, abstraction and architecture, and he became part of the artistic landscape of the Brazilian neo-avant-garde. Despite the backdrop of the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship in the first two decades of his career, in Brazil he found a fertile ground for the development and experimentation of his research.

Looking at a more recent work by Ascânio MMM requires us to view it as another stage in the construction of a building that has already lasted almost 60 years. What we see in 2022 is the result of a reasoning borne out of the underlying constructive principles and rigour of the architecture that has been developing in new directions based on the experience of making. Every stage of his creative process takes place in the studio, from the design and scale models of the works to their final execution. For many years, Ascânio did not even have any assistants. In a kind of pedagogy of the art object, the work ensues from this direct contact with the practicalities of the making of each piece. In one of our first conversations over Zoom,[9] he recalled the wonder he felt at Alexander Calder’s craftsmanship of construction. Becoming aware of this reference and its working methodology reminded me of Richard Senett’s comments on craftsmanship and the Western prejudice against the connection between hand and head:

Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; [...] The Craftsman explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.[10]

The destigmatisation of the relationship between mind (the rational) and hand (the manual) can help us to decompartmentalise the body according to the Western perspective. Ascânio does not use a computer to design his works; while he traces with pencil on paper, in a slow gesture, he thinks and speculates. The corporeality in his work begins, therefore, in the tactile experience of tracing and continues in the handling of the material, which in the case of his most recent production is aluminium,[11] a metal associated with civil construction and industry. Although the result brings to mind industrial parts, its assembly passes through the hands (and mind) of the artist. The making of the work Quacors 21, for example, involved the incorporation of the back of the piece. When exhibited, his pictorial sculptures (or should that be sculptural paintings?) engage the spectators’ corporeality. Even the Quacors that are positioned closer to the wall require the active participation of our body, for there is a rhythmic question that emerges in the spatialization and distribution of colours in the modules of the works. If we stand in front of Quacors 18 from a certain distance, our view is directed towards the lightness of the hollowed modular structure. The screws, which serve a dual purpose (structural and visual), exert a smooth cadence. But there is another subtle element that contributes to the rhythmic feeling: the yellow, blue and grey colours applied to the side faces of some modules. The vibrant presence of the colours grows sharper as we approach the work. However, not only back and forth, but also sideways movements are necessary. Our movements enable us to perceive the rhythm created by the set of shape, structure and colours distributed on the large square.

The term quacors is a portmanteau of the Portuguese words for squares (quadrado) and colours (cores), to openly express the elementary issues of the series. The basic unit is the 5cm square module which is attached by 5.08mm screws to other modules to form geometric shapes within the large square. The artist uses industrial material that follows international tables and this also impacts on the colours – thirty tones in all. However, the number of possible combinations increases with the play between empty and full, that is, when colours are membranes (envelope) or bodies (core). Sometimes the membranes are insulating, forming lines that delimit, separate spaces. The grey colour of the structure captures and reflects the colours of the surroundings, absorbing the external space. Occasionally it encapsulates its own space. There is also the relationship between the shine (of the aluminium) and the opacity of the other colours. Quacors brings new layers to Herkenhoff’s assertion that colour is form in Ascânio’s sculptures.

In the middle of the gallery are the Prisms, works of a more architectural nature, also based on aluminium modules. In geometry, prisms are geometric solids composed of bases, faces, edges, vertices, and diagonals. However, the word also carries a figurative sense that means point of view, aspect and perspective. Perhaps because they represent the starting point of Ascânio MMM’s trajectory and because I saw them for the first time in Portugal, the artist’s former home and where I currently live, I identified them with elements of a house: door (square prism – Prism 2), window (pentagonal prism – Prism 3) and staircase (triangular prism – Prism 4). This constellation of works has no added colours and its dynamic resides in the chain of modules that generate the aforementioned shapes. They are distributed diagonally and vertically, in the overlapping layers that form wefts and in the base support. Of the three sculptures, Prism 3 and Prism 4 rest on the edge of the modules, almost suspended, floating in mid-air. Prism 2, meanwhile, is seated at the base of the square, which conveys a sense of solidity. This is the only piece we can enter. The structure consists of two entrances that form a short corridor that reminds us of an architecture of containment, of body discipline: prison, bars. Would it be too simplistic to associate this construction with the Portugal of Ascânio MMM’s childhood and youth or with the current political environment in Brazil? Just like the Ofir House, the vast space around the prisms allows our body to explore them freely. 

The set of Quacors and Prisms, the latest stage of this immense and solid building that Ascânio MMM has carefully erected over almost six decades, will be shown for the first time in Belo Horizonte, a city that welcomed Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural experiments, in the bicentennial year of Brazil’s independence and the centenary of the Modern Art Week. In this setting, the presence of these works seems to illuminate not only the path of one of Brazil’s great artists, but, moreover, the intricate crossovers that constitute the history of art in our country.

 

Notes

[1] Ramos, Tania Beisi; Matos, Madalena Cunha. Recepção da arquitectura moderna brasileira em Portugal: registos de uma leitura. 6th Docomomo Brasil Seminar, 2005, p. 7. 

[2] Id., p. 15.

[3] Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. A gramática do tempo: para uma nova cultura política. São Paulo: Cortez, 2010.

[4] Herkenhoff, Paulo. Ascânio MMM: Poética da Razão. São Paulo: BEI Comunicação, 2012.

[5] Ib., p. 24.

[6] According to Braudel, long-term history spans the time frame of structures that last for centuries. From this perspective, we can conceive that colonial history persists in durable structures. Aníbal Quijano (2009) has taught that although coloniality is linked to colonialism, it is deeper and more enduring than the latter. It is underpinned by the imposition of ethnic and racial classification as the basis of the global pattern of capitalist power.

[7] Quijano, Aníbal. Colonialidade do poder e classificação social. In: Meneses, Maria Paula; Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (orgs.). Epistemologias do Sul. Coimbra: G.C. Gráfica de Coimbra, 2009.

[8] Lesser, Jeffrey. A invenção da brasilidade: identidade nacional, etnicidade e políticas de imigração. São Paulo: Unesp, 2015.

[9] Conversation held on 5 August 2021.

[10] Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University, 2008, p. 9,

[11] Material used by Ascânio MMM since the 1990s in his pieces for open spaces.