Djanira Motta e Silva, known as Djanira, was a Brazilian artist who worked in many mediums. She made oil paintings, woodcuts, drawings, and engravings. She worked with textiles, made tapestries, illustrated books, designed mosaics, and painted murals and ceramic tiles. She portrayed the daily life of Brazil’s people, documenting their work in the country and in the city as well as their customs and festivals. “Everything I am, I owe to the people. I do not abandon my common roots as a woman and as an artist.”
Djanira was born to a humble family in San Paulo, Brazil. She started to paint in her twenties while working as a street vendor in Sao Paulo. She was hospitalized for tuberculosis and after being released worked as the landlord in a house she rented in Rio de Janeiro. This house or ‘pension’ was not only a source of income but became a home to artists and writers who inspired her to paint. With the exception of a night drawing class at the Liceu de Artes e Oficios she was self-taught.
Her way of portraying the people of Brazil has been described as naive, primitive, and folkloric. People are presented without any facial features with their figures reduced to their most basic forms. She depicted people interlocked in social interactions and at leisure, defined by what they do and by their social class.
While she was inspired by the art of Pieter Bruegel the Elder whose work she saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she traveled to New York City in 1945, she produced art that was distinctly Brazilian. She used vibrant, bold, solid colors without shading or shadows. Her works were immobile, flat, geometric, and still. Her use of symmetry and flat perspective made her art resemble cut-paper art found in folk cultures in Brazil as well as in Mexico and Central American countries.
Djanira married in 1952, and in the following two years she visited the Soviet Union. Her social practice was shown in her portrayal of industrial workers and the factories in which they worked. In the 1970s, she went to the Santa Catarina coal mines to see how the miners lived. Deeply religious her works depicted religious figures and Catholic themes. She became a lay nun in the Third Order of Carmelites in 1972.
In 1955, she painted her controversial “Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador.” She painted Christ not as a traditionally accepted white man, but as a black man. Christ is tied to a post and is being whipped in a public square in Salvador, Brazil’s first capital and one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. People in 18th century attire walk by. The post, that Christ is tied to, bears the coat of arms of Imperial Brazil, the symbol of European colonization. Public buildings, city houses, and Catholic churches surround this scene. The presence of several churches shows their complicity in the violence inflicted on black people. Violence was so common in colonial times that the faceless passers-by are indifferent to it.
Djanira travelled often and visited different regions of Brazil. She documented ethnic customs of Afrobrazilians and Indigenous tribes. Not only did she paint Christ, saints, and Catholic themes, she also painted pre-Christian figures and customs. She turned all of them into psychedelic and atypical portraits of Christ, saints, and ethnic gods. Her works had anthropological meaning as she showed the symbols, colors, and traditions of Indigenous, African, and Portuguese people and their impact on the diversity of modern Brazilian culture.
The last individual exhibition during her lifetime was in 1977 at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro. In 2019, there was the first large monographic exhibition of 90 of her works at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP).