Maria Lira Marques: Recent works, with an essay by curator Rodrigo Moura, features paintings in which the artist uses clay as raw material, creating her own imaginary of the countryside fauna and flora; the result are works that stand out for their organic texture, whose color palette refers to the techniques developed over generations in the Jequitinhonha Valley, place where the artist was born and lives until nowadays.
One shouldn't start writing the text by anything other than where the conversation began.
There, where you are born and receive a name and ground underneath and, if you're lucky, a father and a mother. In Jequitinhonha, the river, the valley – the land divided by the meandering body of water, the river full of fish from the indigenous toponym.
Maria Lira Marques Borges, heiress and neighbor of the Maxakalí, nation of those parts of the northeast of Minas Gerais, grew up, like them, not knowing of any strict boundaries between what is called life or what we identify as art – whether in religion, in festivities, in community organization or in domestic life.
With her father, Tarcisio, she found the first materials she used for sculpture – the beeswax he employed as a shoemaker to cover the thread for sewing leather. With this material, she molded for the first time, felt the creative gesture that came from her hands. Her mother, Odília, daughter of an older Lira, the grandmother after whom the artist was named, makes pieces of raw clay painted with paint purchased in the Araçuaí trade.
In order to reinforce the clay, collected from the riverbank, the mother adds components such as wheat, to bind it, and ash, to improve its burning property — ancient techniques of indigenous and African origin that are passed on from generation to generation. She creates nativity scenes that are offered to neighbors, who keep reminding the madam to prepare the figurines for them at Christmastime, proving their popularity.
In the Araçuaí market, Lira begins having contact with artisans and the techniques they use for the production of ceramic utilities: cylinders, caqueiros, pots, carvings. She observes, inquires, gathers important technical information. Why is it red? Because it's burned. And this gray one? It is the tabatinga. She discovers that corncobs and coconut husks are used to lift the walls of the pots and to give them textures that decorate their surfaces.
Before being called Araçuaí, the village was called Calhaus, due to the presence of various stones in the region, the same quartz pebbles that will appear in Lira's work many years later, as support for her animal paintings. Located right in the middle of the river, the city is a kind of connection point in the Valley. It connects Caraí, Baixa Quente, Itinga, Santana do Araçuaí, Minas Novas, Itamarandiba, small towns that house different ceramic traditions, some that will eventually generate great artists that are recognized in the near future, paving the way for Lira.
In Caraí, Ulisses Pereira Chaves, her sister, Ana Pereira Chaves, and other descendants and family members create a mythological imaginary. In the same city, Noemisa Batista dos Santos, like a chronicler, composes everyday scenes that are so narrative they become quasi photographic. In Santana do Araçuaí, Isabel Mendes Caldeira and Placidina Fernandes do Nascimento reign with their impressive “dolls”, which are true transmutations of the utilitarian pot into very expressive human figures.
In the 1970s, dolls gained the urban centers of the Southeast in exhibitions and craft stores, promoting the cultural wealth of the Jequitinhonha Valley in contrast to its image of a “valley of squalor”. The beauty of the art helps reveal the harshness of the region's residents’ life under the historical omission of the State, which, since the times of the gold and diamond rush, have defined an extractive policy for the Valley. After the mining came the eucalyptus trees, aimed at the production of charcoal and cellulose. It was not until the 21st century, with left-wing federal governments in Brazil, that many of these populations, mainly in rural areas, received basic sanitation and electricity.
It is in this context that Lira begins her trajectory, alongside Frei Chico (Francisco van der Poel, OFM), the Dutch priest who helped her discover her artistic vocation. Together, they founded the choir Trovadores do Vale in 1971 and, later, the Museu de Araçuaí, inaugurated in 2010. As a musicologist, she collected hundreds of hours of recordings of public domain songs, which she performed with the choir, solo or in duets accompanied by the Franciscan friar on the guitar.
In my youth, I watched Lira perform some of these songs on Minas Gerias state TV, with her personal timbre and impeccable tuning. Her impressive figure, sweet and thoughtful at the same time, with her dark skin and braids hanging over her shoulder. I did not imagine that, at that time, she had already been developing such powerful visual work, that although directly linked to the tradition of the so-called “crafts” in the Valley, cannot be defined strictly as part of it.
In the entry dedicated to Lira in the “Pequeno Dicionário da Arte do Povo Brasileiro” [Small Dictionary of the Art of the Brazilian People], Lélia Coelho Frota notes that “unlike potters and pan-makers from Araçuaí, linked to rural environments that belong to female groups or lineages in which making earthenware is the craft of tradition in the off-season, Lira has already emerged with a more urban physiognomy, with a more open field to develop an autonomous expressive language.”
Her first works, which we know above all through reproductions, are small sculptural sets with multiple figures rising from a platform also molded in clay. Among them are a scene from a Flood in Araçauí (1970s), a small Nativity scene with a black baby Jesus (1980s) and an African village in the past (undated), which communicate not only the social inclination of her artistic vision, but also the claim for African and indigenous ancestry as a key to her work.
Around this same time, Lira dedicated herself to the creation of busts and masks. The latter are among her most recognizable works, with the same type of modeling based on hand-opened clay slabs molded with the fingertips. It is a monochromatic ceramic, with physiognomic features furrowed with the use of a dry point and highlighted with darker tones, which provide a dramatic and very simplified expression. These masks bear no resemblance to the work of any other artist I know of in the Valley.
The connection to black art is an option openly declared by the artist. For Lira, “African art seems to be that of people who are fighting: it's all swords, arrows… and when I look at other [European] art, everyone is just sitting there, it seems that there's more tranquility. The other [African] seems to move us more” . Another work from this initial stage, according to the artist, narrates the marginalization she encountered throughout the construction of her artistic career: Help me stand up (undated) appeals, at the same time, to solidarity between people, so that they do not give up on asserting themselves in their fights. This was also the title given to the book published in 1983, with a long testimony by the artist, a fundamental piece in understanding her journey.
In the 1990s, Lira begins another body of work, possibly the most numerous one she has dedicated herself to so far and which she gives the title of My animals from the backlands. These works represent a departure from sculpture to an eminently two-dimensional work. At first sight, what they bring as most fascinating is the creation of an original painting technique, which employs several mineral pigments, the same ones used in ceramics, mixed in a glue-temper firmly applied to the paper. In most cases, the colors are meticulously separated, creating contrasts between earth tones, ochers, oranges and beige. In other works, it is the very mixture of tones that defines a stained background, in a lava-like explosion.
In a second moment, it is the theme itself that stands out clearly. The artist is not wont to the nominative impulses that classify the animals that she copiously portrays in this series of paintings, and for this reason she added the possessive pronoun to her title, making it clear that she is dealing with imaginary animals. They are fish with legs, birds with five legs, quadrupeds with improbable humps - although they may suggest piaus and piranhas, guans and seriemas, cavies and peccaries.
An approximation that seems opportune to me is with works on paper that show the bestiaries that have been circulating for some years in academic publications, documenting extinct animals, kept by tradition and designed by the peoples who speak the Maxacali language, inhabitants of the same region as Lira . Or a parallel could be proposed with the paintings of animals by Chico da Silva from Acre. Or, still, if you think of its ancestral relationship with the cave paintings in the caves of the National Park Cavernas do Peruaçu, in the North of Minas.
In order to try to, even if timidly, define some lines of strength in this work, the third point to be highlighted is composition, which uses a rigorous method of placing the figure in space. First in isolation, then using minimal landscape elements such as lines and flower motifs, and finally in complex diagrams with repeated oval shapes and mandalas. In this system, impressively controlled and economical and, at the same time, almost obsessive, there is a deep underlying communion between land, landscape and fauna, united in matter, treatment and theme. To make things more interesting, some of these figures are put on stones, dispensing with the flat pictorial support and directly adhering to an element displaced from nature.
With dozens of works completed in the last three years, Lira's current production gathered in this exhibition reveals an exemplary breath. The exhibition takes place in a broader context of change in the visual arts circuit in Brazil, in which the efforts of large museums, temporary exhibitions and commercial galleries to expand the ethnic-socio-cultural spectrum of their programs are increasingly notable, especially with regard to authors who, like Lira, have in the African and indigenous cultural heritage the north of their production. This commendable fact cannot be stated without a series of critical reflections, which we can only leave annotated in this presentation, which is already extending itself.
On the one hand, the progress made in extending the canon must be commemorated. Poetics such as Lira's can no longer be framed as isolated cases or within a schematic division between popular artists and scholars. They belong to a broader understanding of our modern process, in which the so-called “popular artists” respond to a series of aspirations different from those of artists in large cities. There is a healthy decentralization, in which the artist is not exclusively a product of the metropolitan elites. A dominant feature in this review of the artist's figure entails understanding the connection between various spheres of life intertwined with art, beyond its strict circuit — and here one should not omit Lira's political militancy, her work as an educator and community leader.
To paraphrase the artist, it is essential to continue the fight so that these efforts go beyond a momentary perspective, understanding them as the beginning of a broader process that takes decades to complete, deposing very old colonial structures. Some final questions cannot escape us: in a context in which the state abandons the promotion of ethnic diversity as public policy, can the execution of these policies by civil society achieve the same effect? Is the art market able to offer any agency for these works to realize their role more fully? Or, on the contrary, does it nullify the disseminating role of this work among the intermediate layers of society, by making it more elitist? Can its inclusion in this context actually contribute, as it should, to our so-called art world becoming more similar to our society?
Some of these questions take on different connotations at the present time, but most of them are as old as the emergence of the works by Lira and many of her peers — which still deserve more critical attention. That they reappear now, brought about by work with such formal impetus and political relevance, is one of the rare fortunes of our time.