Flávio Cerqueira, a sculptor of meanings
By Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
Introduction: the marble and the myrtle, or how to mold and turn solid
The Jesuit priest Antônio Vieira (1608–1697), who arrived in Brazil in 1614, dedicated his life to the task of catechizing the heathens of this new land: a Portuguese America. At a moment when the church was beset with difficulties in Europe, expanding the Christian faith among the indigenous peoples of the New World, and thus revitalizing Catholicism, was one of the aims of that cleric, who established direct contact with the native populations of Brazil. Father Vieira gradually became an opponent of the exploitation and enslavement of the Indians, and moreover began to doubt the work of the European colonizer. For this reason, in his “Fragmento do Sermão do Espírito Santo” [Fragment of the Sermon of the Holy Ghost] (1657), instead of praising the success of the colonization, the Jesuit recognizes the opposite: how painstakingly difficult it was to “bring the true faith” to these scattered inhabitants of the Land of Brazil.
There is an especially significant passage in this sermon, in which the priest describes the dissimilarities between two materials – marble and myrtle. Based on them, he goes on to establish parallels between the coexistence and clashing of two different cultures: that of the colonists and that of the indigenous people. In his sermon, Vieira begins by establishing a differentiation between new-Christians and old-Christians. He then goes on to explore another category of differences: between the solid, unbreakable faith of the Europeans and the alleged passivity and malleability of the native people of Brazil. Evangelizing the pagans in Europe was a difficult, arduous and costly task; however, the result of this work remained forever, strong and rigid like white marble. On the other hand, catechizing the “people of these Lands of Brazil” was an altogether different sort of work. It was like taming a myrtle, a medium-size malleable shrub that was amenable to being pruned and immediately took on the shape that one wanted, but would also, at the first opportunity, revert back to its original form.
This was and still is a powerful image for thinking about and defining the Amerindian people, who appeared easy to catechize, but would quickly return to their so-called “original and primitive” state. Certainly, the Tupinambá Indians resisted the teachings of the Jesuits and the recruiting that the “karaibas” imposed on them, giving a particular meaning to the new faith – “translating” into their own terms what they were taught. This was, in the apt expression by Arcadio Dias-Quinones, a from of brega [dealing with / coping with / working through something]: against the military advantage of the colonists, the important thing was to negotiate what was possible, and not give up what was, in fact, unnegotiable. For this reason, as shown by anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the instability of the Indians “obliged” the priest to carry out a continuous re-evangelization. Thus, the instability was converted into the most constant aspect of the relationship with these populations.
But there are other comparisons to establish. Marble statues are made of inexpensive and supposedly eternal material and, not by coincidence, were particularly used to exalt the memory of great statesmen and noblemen (rarely women), or members of the Church and the papacy. Difficult to sculpt, the works became eternal in the form they finally received. On the other hand, with the myrtle it seemed entirely the opposite – it was easy to mold, but its new form did not last long, as it would soon return to its initial shape.
This comparison and contrast became an easily understood and remembered metaphor in the colonization process. On the one hand, the supposed superiority of the European represented by the marble – a material understood as noble, dignified and perennial, as Occidental civilization should be. On the other, the submission of the native peoples who, despite that they did not often directly oppose the colonization, also did not passively conform with the annulling of their knowledge, their philosophies and their faith: they showed in practice that they were men of myrtle. For this reason, they adapted whenever they could. In this case, “adapting” meant reacting and rebelling, or not blindly adopting the faith of the other – which in itself indicates that there was nothing pacific and tranquil in the contact between the European and the American heathens.
Even after the intervening centuries, the Sermão do Padre Vieira still serves to introduce a further twist in the concepts. In our case, it helps not only to compare and contrast the differences between marble and myrtle, but also to reflect on the art of sculpting. What work is involved in the art of giving form to the raw material? What sort of skill is needed for selecting the necessary material and the ideal temperature for giving life to a space previously empty of meanings?
To me it seems that Flávio Cerqueira, with his beautiful, consistent sculptural work, expresses by, with an about bronze, while also inverting previous meanings, which, for being so naturalized, give rise to estrangement when they are handled in such a peculiar way – they lie outside the norm and outside the convention constructed over time.
Thus, instead of affirming canonic divisions of art history, the artist subverts them, already in the choice of the characters he sculpts. In the first place, he goes back to using the complex sculptural genre, little explored by the new generations, who seem to react not only to the high price of the material, but also to the process of specialized work that this medium demands. Second, it must be noted that bronze, since the end of the 19th century, has been little used in Brazilian figurative works. It is no longer in vogue.
But there is yet another inversion that should be noted: Flávio selects the bronze not to depict official protagonists of Brazilian history – kings, princes, emperors, archbishops or governors. He prefers protagonists from everyday life, in the case of this exhibition, women, elevated in their daily gestures.
Flávio’s figures are also not sculpted with veristic features, nor in 1:1 scale with the characters that inspired them. They bear no sense, therefore, of being copies of the real; they are always a product of the imagination. Art with art.
Moreover, if the bronze, when finished, is a solid and rigid material, during the process of the work’s development it is readily moldable. In this light we see that, with his consistent sculptural choices, Flávio Cerqueira destroys the economy between hard and soft, between what is born to be eternal and that which remains to be adapted, and creates an art that is simultaneously adaptable and perennial; resistant and tough, but also flexible. Marble and myrtle.
This equation – an interplay between solidity and adaptability – makes Flávio Cerqueira’s work a sort of conversation that the marble has with the myrtle; it is not about polarization or dichotomy. In the process of making his works, what is mobile becomes rigid, eternal, in a process in which the artist becomes a sculptor of meanings.
The process: on the color of new bronze
Unlike the other exhibitions by Flávio Cerqueira, in this one the figurative space is focused definitively on the feminine world. Depicted at different ages and in a wide range of situations, young girls, teenage girls and older women exercise a right that is fundamental to them: freedom. The freedom to fly, to listen, to play, to paint graffiti, to look at the stars, to be alone or in company. Freedom to say yes, but also to blare out a resounding no.
The material was already known to Flávio Cerqueira: bronze – a series of metallic alloys based on copper and tin, along with variable proportions of elements such as zinc, aluminum, antimony, nickel, phosphorus, lead, and others, which result in characteristics that are superior to those of pure copper alone.
The process works as though the combination of various alloys somehow disguised its common origin: the copper. The metalsmiths soon noted that the use of copper was unviable, due to the high demand for the metal and the resulting high price of the product. Mixing it with tin increased the volume of the material, resulting in a greater supply and, consequently, a more commercially viable product.
Not by chance, the term “bronze” comes from the Persian biring, which means “copper.” The discovery of this alloy – basically a mixture of copper with tin – was so fundamental that it gave origin to a period in history known as the “Bronze Age,” which began in the Middle East, around 3300 BC. The weapons and tools were made of bronze, as were also the statues of the rulers. They also took advantage of the different colors of the material, which, when polished, could have the yellowish glow of gold, a tone much used in the sculptures of that time.
But its great popularity owed much to the alloy’s strength, and its resistance to atmospheric corrosion. Coupled to these was its relative ease of casting, along with its potential to be finely finished (ushering in improvements in polishing techniques) and its great richness of colors.
As mentioned above, during the process of casting, the material is malleable. Actually, bronze is only fluid when heated to 1300°C. So the worker and artist make preparations, seeking the ideal form, before it is finalized. The sculpture is made literally in the heat of the moment, as the result of a meaningful process that is not only expressed in the final material.
Bronze is a noble material like marble. But while the work with marble involves the extraction of material, in the work with bronze, material is added, as though the metal were, somehow, stabilized based on its combination with other elements, including the artist’s hands. From that point onward, and after it is cooled, it enters a “mummy-like state”: it no longer changes, even with the passage of time. And if in Europe the technique served to “mummify” nobility and authorities – to thus eternalize them – around Brazil it was little used, due to the high price and difficulties of its production. Nevertheless, it was used in pieces for ornamentation in baroque churches, and in busts of our emperors.
In Flávio’s case, influenced by the baroque and by the possibilities of the technique, he took bronze “off the pedestal,” to apply it to scenes of a more commonplace sort, full of beauty and feeling. His objects have a smaller than life-size scale. They grow, however, in the situations they present and represent.
Art does not have any commitment to verism, only to itself. For this reason, each work that composes this exhibition is like a short story. That is, each one bears a tale, which begins and ends with it. It is true that every tale is contained in itself. In this exhibition, however, because of the conversation that the sculptures establish among themselves, it is possible to say that there exists a certain internal structure, shared in common by the various artworks, which invite dialogue. They open themselves, and none is cut off from the others.
Macunaíma, the fictional character invented by Mario de Andrade and who is an integral part of the modernist movement of São Paulo, said that the natives had the “color of new bronze.” They were dark, but they could also be light toned. They were malleable, because they made war, but also alliances. They ate, but they could also be eaten. In this sense, in this exhibition, each visitor is invited in the condition of a co-author, because the stories told here do not have a fixed ending; they remain in dialogue with other narratives of so many “others and others” that live in each of us.
The Artworks: Shortcuts to Freedom
According to Indian mythology, the world was created many times. And each time it took a different form. Moreover, as soon as it was finished, the new world rested on the back of a turtle. And this process was repeated uninterruptedly: with each new world, a new “further down turtle” arose and supported another new world. Thus, each world was different but similar, as it was related, but also profoundly separate, in the difference that it established with the others.
“Freedom” was a very precious word in Brazil during the slavery era, which for more than four centuries maintained the same system and which, moreover, became naturalized. Freedom was, therefore, a difficult good to achieve and even more complicated to maintain. With the Republic – a system of government based mainly on two concepts, equality and liberty – the reality was not substantially changed in this country.
But with Abolition – which came in May 1888, with a short, conservative and noninclusive law – the black populations had to construct their own arrangements and forms of emancipation. Black newspapers, activism, schools, mobilizations and political movements represented ways of making freedom a broader reality, while upgrading democracy. We know, however, that we are far from that utopia, in a country that still practices genocide against blacks and where black women are the major victims of violence and rape.
But in Atalho para a Liberdade [Shortcut to Freedom], Flávio Cerqueira, as is his custom, inverts the most obvious pathways and routes. To begin, the artist revolutionizes our visual logic. The bronze, a very heavy material, looks tenuous insofar as it is supposedly suspended by three balloons. The seemingly lightweight girl closes her eyes, raises her arms, as though she were floating – as the path to freedom would have to be. With her, everything seems to fly, with the bronze unexpectedly revealed as rarefied.
The link that connects the balloons with the body of the character is her hair, raised up to become something like a stout rope. From below, one can only see her shoes, tennis shoes, in a contemporary version of this sort of symbol par excellence of freedom in Brazil. As is widely known, during the period of slavery one of the ways of distinguishing the ladies from their attendants was to look at their feet: only the former wore shoes. For this reason, with the arrival of the late-coming freedom in Brazil, many formerly enslaved people, both men and women, bought shoes, and were unable to wear them, as they were so unaccustomed to that, and instead wore them as a sort of trophy, slung over their shoulders.
Also in this sculpture they appear like trophies. After all, their soles are what is seen the most from below the work. Thus, if in general the soles of shoes are basically made to be invisible – not to be seen – in this case they take on a prime importance. They are what touch on reality.
In this world, it is they, the shoes, which are the “shortcut,” the shortest path “to freedom.” As far as the rest goes, everything is bronze: the three balloons, the thick hair raised in a sort of cone shape, the face looking upward like that of a baroque angel, the clothing that floats in the air, the winglike arms. Lightness made from weight.
Como se o silêncio dissesse tudo
In this sculpture, whose title means “As though the silence said everything,” half of a woman’s body is spotlighted, in an enigmatic way. Carefully configured hair, thick eyebrows, closed eyes looking downward reveal someone concentrated on her work. The expression is serene, with the mouths of two cups pressed over her ears. What is it that our protagonist is so attentively listening to?
Looking carefully, we see the outlines of another enigma. In this scene, we can glimpse a reference to a traditional game played with cups and string. The problem is that we don’t know what our protagonist is asking, and much less the answer that she wants to hear. This is to say, she is in a situation where hearing is difficult, with interruptions and a lot of noise.
Perhaps she wants to escape from this world, to concentrate on another one, her imagination. But we cannot know for sure, as there are not enough clues. What remains is the doubt that is often more productive than an affirmation.
We are standing before a black woman who harbors a secret. Every artwork bears secret – that which insists on not being revealed at first sight. Or perhaps this is a sculpture that is more closely akin to the open structure of a short story. It is up to the observer to find its meaning and close the circle of the story.
For her part, the woman appears overly absorbed in her secret. Perhaps she is listening to the awesome sound of silence?
Cansei de aceitar assim
A girl, with her beautiful body well delineated, is leaning backward against a prominent sign where we read the word “STOP.” The meaning contained in the word is sufficiently strong and conventional to not leave any sort of doubt. It is a sort of order, a warning, not to go further. It is not even necessary to read it, in order to know what the message is. With a stately posture, she is holding her body erect, her hair tied up, her right leg slightly bent and a gaze that seems to be looking into the future.
Flávio says that this was the only work he produced with the aid of a live model. There are, therefore, questions from the history of art present in this work. But, in this case, instead of a submissive, passive position, of someone just there to be looked at, this girl has an active and unavoidable role in the work. In this sense, she is also the author of this sculpture.
Cansei de aceitar assim [I’m Tired of Accepting Like That] purposely subverts the conventions of this genre. In sculptural production there is a great predominance of depictions of men, who are generally well-known figures, with their features carefully represented. In the case of women, not only are there fewer works dedicated to them, but even these are normally nude, anonymous and unknown girls; they are nothing more than models.
We therefore see that the posture here is political – an interpretation that is consistent with the work’s title. In a country like Brazil, in which for a long time the existence of true cultures of rape and sexual violence against women, especially black women, was not recognized and much less reported, this work, for all its artful beauty, also serves the double function: it warns, challenges, invites, but also charms.
This is a full but “unavailable” body. A proud body and one that decides to show itself, rather than one that is somehow compelled to do so.
But this is also a story of limits. Of “stop,” right there, no more. A work made by a male artist, but one who denounces aggressions in this country in which misogyny is a language and a recurrent form of admonition, and where the term “feminicide” did not enter the dictionary until 2015.
“Stop right there,” because that is the limit, as a model and reality; a model made into reality.
Better together (or “two is a double”)
A sort of crossbar delimits a field of possibilities. Erect, one woman/girl, with less femininized features, supports another on her shoulders. The former is standing on a crate which, though made of bronze, looks like wood. Like a theater of the absurd, the second girl is resting her hand on the wall, and is using paint to write on this white surface the phrase “Better together.” In her hand she is holding a roller also made a bronze, but which looks like it is made of wood and sponge, challenging the space. A space made of freedom: of a force that arises in double, in two.
This situation and the sentence shed light on the context that is then projected: two is always better. Placed in the setting of this exhibition, in which there are many strong women, shown all together, the phrase is even more meaningful: together we are much stronger and we fight for freedom.
The scene is nearly a summary of the many meanings present in this show. A união faz a força [From Union Comes Power] the popular phrase goes. Or then again “ninguém larga a mão de ninguém” [keep tight hold of each other’s hand], a phrase intoned by activist and city councilwoman Marielle Franco, assassinated in cold blood in March 2018.
Para dar nome às coisas
Everything began with the phrase: “to study is to give a name to the things.” This phrase echoed a saying by ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who once stated that things are first classified, to then gain meaning, not the other way around. This concept is also present in the famous book by Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, in which the philosopher examines the meaning of the classifications.
Humans are beings that classify things, who aim to name everything and thus understand. And this is the drive that took form in the work that Flávio Cerqueira titled Para dar nome às coisas [To Give a Name to the Things].
In this highly touching sculpture, we see a teenage girl with her body tilted slightly forward, just enough so that she can better use the object she is holding in her hands: a spyglass. Absorbed in this action, she has lost all awareness of herself, trying to observe a world she does not know; outside of the place she is at. The telescope leads to other galaxies, to distant places, and reveals the desire to search for what is different, the unknown.
It also reveals the activity of the scientist who, based on his or her knowledge, and recognition, aims to name – and thus invent – stars, comets and planets. This impulse is part of humanity itself, which yields to the luxury of “discovering” that which often already existed even before humankind. It is also part of the curious attitude of the girl who escapes from her context based on the gesture of inaugurating something new: a form of freedom. A hiding place, a form of escape.
As Paulinho da Viola sang: “as coisas estão no mundo só que eu preciso aprender” [the things are in the world, I just need to learn them].
Um mundo de cada vez
The title of this work, Um mundo de cada vez [One World at a Time] is actually what is presented by each of the sculptures featured in the show. As in all good tales, these short stories do not come together with an instruction manual or an easy solution; rather, it is as though we will find them closed off in their own meaningful deliriums.
Through the mastery of Flávio Cerqueira, this exhibition presents many stories in just one. A story adeptly arranged between the marble and the bronze, among women united in their protagonism, in their struggle for freedom. This is a strong utopia in this country that is still fighting for equality and searching for its democracy.
Freedom is a theme that binds together all the artworks present in this exhibition. A girl who escapes from her world equipped only with her balloons that carry her up toward outer space; a teenage girl who dreams about a place beyond the frontiers that she knows; two girls who find the space of expression, together, and reveal that the good change needs to be collective; a girl who holds the symbol of “STOP” in her hands, but who, paradoxically, gains a sense of autonomy; a lady who listens to her two cups and thus achieves her freedom, far from everything and from everyone.
It is impossible to not make a parallel with the period in which we are living. All of these female characters seem to be looking for some sort of escape, searching for a hypothetical change, a new situation, an exit from this phase of reclusion and social distancing.
While there are many different “tales” built into the sculptures, they share in common this undisguised desire for a freedom that goes beyond particular contexts: freedom in relation to a determined situation; freedom in the search for another physical space.
In a stifled Brazil, squeezed under a certain cover of forgetfulness and invisibility, especially in regard to black people, the sculptures by Flávio Cerqueira assert a demand for freedom. Together, but different, they are the expression of an oppressive context, but are also the representation and projection of myriad possibilities for a better world, to which one can escape.
In this sense, they are also converted into symbols of this country that may seem as malleable as the process of production in bronze, but as rigid as the final sculptures. They are thus apt symbols of this nation that needs to be refounded, to be born “each time around,” in order to root out the racism which, being a naturalized practice in Brazil, bars it from achieving its republican form.
 VIEIRA, Antônio. “Fragmento do Sermão do Espírito Santo” (1657). Available at: http://www.dominiopublico.gov.br/pesquisa/DetalheObraForm.do?select_action=&co_obra=16396 (retrieved January 25, 2021).
 DIAS-QUINONES, Arcadio. A arte de bregar e outros ensaios. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018.
 VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo B. A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios de antropologia. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2002.
 LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude. O pensamento selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2016.
 FOUCAULT, Michel. As palavras e as coisas. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1985.