Adriana Varejao is one of Brazil’s most important living artists. She is primarily a painter but has also worked in other mediums such as sculpture, photography, and video installations. She engages with the legacy of colonialism in a variety of forms, exploring the ornate style that came to Brazil with the conquistadors. She has stated that “Painting is my root, just as Brazil is.”
Varejao was born in Rio de Janeiro, but her parents moved to Brasilia when she was two years old. Accompanying her nutritionist mother on hospital visits, Varejao witnessed the inequality Brasilia created. She now lives and works in Rio.
She explores the complex artistic and political history of Brazil in her sculptural paintings and floor-based sculptural works. Her large-scale paintings are inspired by Mexican ceramic tiles (‘talaveras’), and her sculptures are made from polyurethane, painted to resemble tiled walls but whose insides are revealed as bloody innards. She combines cornerstones of her unique aesthetic: Baroque decorations, Portuguese tiles, architectural ruins, and human flesh. Her work often focuses on skin, its various colorations, and tattoos.
One of Varejao’s most iconic pieces is her 1996 oil and polyurethane painting on canvas “Pele (Skin).” She paints three torn pieces of flesh, each decorated with an ornate tattoo. They are placed upon a grid of tiles, depicted in paint. (Often tiles are literal components of an art piece.) In this work colonialism is made explicit by the references to the ‘azulejos’ of Portugal, the predominantly blue-on-white tiles that decorate buildings and that were brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists. Here Varejao’s tiled background has been leeched of its Baroque blue decorative color and looks like a grid. The tile wall is decorated by tattooed human skin, which appears to have been torn from two human hands and a human back. They adorn the wall like hunting trophies and give the work its name – “Pele.” Images on the tattoos show Catholic religious iconography of angels and Mary holding the infant Jesus.
The relief of glistening flesh has become one of Varejao’s signature images, which invokes both violence and the celebrated Carnival of her native Brazil. The figurative tattoos on the flesh show Baroque constructions with religious references, found in churches, convents, and cloisters of colonial Brazil. Her use of the tattooed skin, also shown in one of her works from 1995, explores the idea that tattoos were often associated with tribal cultures during the colonial era.
Her works imply some of the problematic aspects of colonization and even implicate the Catholic Church as she invokes the beauty of the Baroque, often considered the first ‘global’ style because of its presence in the Americas, Africa, and Asia during the time of European colonial expansion. She creates a confluence of forms in her paintings and sculptures that she sees as a metaphor for modern Brazil and the world.
Her work has appeared in group exhibitions at the 2011 Guggenheim Exhibition, the Venice Biennale, Sao Paulo Bienal, Liverpool Biennale, and Sydney Biennale. She has had solo exhibitions in galleries in London, Sao Paulo, Paris, Lisbon, Switzerland, and the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Her largest show to date was with New York’s Gagosian Gallery in early 2020. Her work is in the collections of the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, and MoCA San Diego, among others.