Contemporary catholicism and iconography
in Ana Maria Pacheco
By Ellie Lerman
Due to high humidity levels in the RWA (Royal West of England Academy), the only accessible entrance to the Ana Maria Pacheco exhibition is through its back doorway. In light of this slight logistical issue, I found myself fumbling with two thick, flowing, black curtains before managing to enter the space. The back entrance left no time for my eyes to adjust, and I was immediately hit with a complete, cool, darkness. Tentatively, having been warned by the gallery steward not to break any limbs, I rounded the corner and was met with two eerily grotesque sculptures. These pieces were refreshingly unique, a world away from the classical sculptures of antiquity I’d been studying in class that day. And with the lack of any background text (which was placed conveniently at the front of the exhibit), I was left to interpret the sculptures at my own will, unsupported and alone.
The artist, Ana Maria Pacheco, is Brazilian born. Her practice draws inspiration from medieval art, catholic ritual, the Renaissance, and classical mythology. With these rich connections her work is able to time-travel, bouncing back and forth between past medieval issues and present contemporary contexts. Pacheco delicately blends South American and European artistic traditions, creating something of an ‘in-between’ quality in her art which tiptoes across the margins of her practice, dodging definitive categorisation.
The room itself consists of two structurally dominating pieces that face one another, both exploring Brazil’s colonial history. The first piece, Memória Roubada I, was completed in 2001 and consists of a cabinet holding six disembodied heads (with emotions ranging from screaming anger to slight discomfort) peering down at a pierced heart beneath them. The cabinet recalls a Portuguese oratório, a domestic devotional altar that would have contained Saintly relics. Inscribed on the doors of the oratório is an excerpt from a contemporary Brazilian poet Jose Lobo describing the violent fate met by victims of colonisation. Brazil’s colonial history under the Portuguese is fraught with the violence and forced labour of African and indigenous slaves from as far as 1500 until 1815.
‘Eyes poked out
Genitals cut off
Shot in the ears
The pierced heart is a reference to the popular Roman Catholic devotion of The Seven Sorrows of Mary. In this image, the Virgin Mary is portrayed alone and tearful with seven knives piercing her bleeding heart. Each knife represents a sorrow, including the Crucifixion, Christ’s Descent from the Cross, and the Burial of Christ. Surely, it would make logical sense for Pacheco’s piece to hold seven heads, one for each sorrow. However, the cabinet only holds six; suggesting that we as the viewer are the final, missing head. This instantly throws the viewer into a medieval Catholic headspace, intensifying their immersion and resonance with the work. Lastly, Pacheco uses her iconography to create complex connections in her work. She depicts Brazil as Christ, beaten and abused due to colonisation; and herself as a sorrowful Mary, lamenting its pain. In this piece, Pacheco becomes a caring Mother to Brazil.
While Mary is usually depicted broken and alone in Seven Sorrows imagery, Memoria Roubada I has a companion piece, making room for a subtle note of optimism. Memoria Roubada II was made seven years later and shares some similarities with its companion piece. Fifteen small busts stare resolutely forward, heedless to the silver shell beneath them. The ‘fathomless impassivity’ of their expressions jars with the clusters of nails stuck sharply in various degrees of excess into their necks.
The luminescent shell, backlit by the dim spotlights, acts as an ambiguous emblem. In Catholicism, the clam or scallop shell symbolises the divine conception of Christ in the Virgin’s body. This summons imagery of feminine fertility and baptism, a hopeful aspect to the two sombre pieces. When I first encountered this piece, I was reminded of Botticelli’s
Birth of Venus, which depicts the Roman Goddess Venus arising from the sea in a scallop shell.
Pacheco’s figurations of the human face teeter between flesh-pricklingly realistic and vaguely cartoonish, creating an off-putting atmosphere, as if something is slightly missing beneath the sculptures’ expressive faces. This atmosphere is only intensified by the dim lighting of the cool room that has seemingly been transformed into an otherworldly catacomb. So eerily realistic are the heads that when turning back to look at the sculptures, there is a small element of surprise that they haven’t shifted slightly in their places to return my curious gaze. Stepping over the sturdy, paved slate on which the sculptures rest allows for an intensely immersive experience; one step closer and you find yourself face-to-face with Pacheco’s disembodied heads, unsure of how react.
My experience in the Pacheco room complete, I emerged back into the stuffy, well-lit main gallery of the RWA; complete with its replica of the Parthenon frieze and dozy steward. The gallery remained drowsy, slow-moving, and comfortably warm; unchanged by the drastically experimental, sensitive exhibit in the room just around the corner. I left, however, still contemplating Pacheco’s daringly brazen approaches to colonisation and experimentation with Catholic iconography; confident that her work would continue to enrapture me for a considerable amount of time to come.
Ana Maria Pacheco is the RWA’s 2019 Invited Artist. Her work is exhibited until the 2nd of June in the Methuen Gallery. Students get in free.