“Myth is the nothing that is everything.”
When asked directly about his late friend Agnaldo, Aurelino answers “Agnaldo isn’t dead, he’s still around, fooling all of us…”. And then, he shuts within himself again, muttering confusing sentences and talking about apparently meaningless numbers, but that are in fact the measures of his shack’s door at Ondina slum, in Salvador. The shack is as simple as can be: bare brick wall and precariously roofed. There is one piece of work being made, a painting on wood partially completed, little pots of poor quality paint and fragments of objects collected from the street, such as soda caps, coins, broken school rulers and squares; all piled over half a dozen bricks which constitute a “table”. There is only a rather old couch, and no room for anything else.
There, Aurelino sleeps, lives and paints, amid wretched houses, yet so close to the beaches of Salvador’s bay, some of which are visited by Aurelino’s neighbours. Others are frequented by the socio-economic elite, segregated from the rest of the population by a material abyss, living a completely different, wealthy and prosperous life, similar to that in the 16th century Bahia, the times of the sugar cane nobility, such as the renowned Garcia-D’Ávila who is said to have had a property the size of Portugal.
But, where are Aurelino’s works? That’s the first enigma. It has been long that notorious art dealers, antiquarians and gallerists from Salvador acquire Aurelino’s works for insignificant sums, in exchange for food, cigarettes or more paints and canvases – nothing actually worthy of his work. Nothing that could provide him medical treatment, a decent living or anything of the sort: just enough to fuel their respective collections. With barely no understanding of reality, Aurelino paints because that’s what he does – it’s how he expresses himself.
Aurelino arose in the midst of a cultural ebullition moment in Salvador. During the second half of the 1950s, the dean of the Universidade da Bahia was Edgar Santos, who was cleverly able to channel the urban expansionist euphoria that was taking over Brazil and the intellectuals’ belief that it was possible to design a new project for the country, to give Brazilian culture, economy and society a new face, distant from that of the colonial elites, but also different from the Cold War global models – capitalists and communists. This euphoria was expressed in the visual arts, music, architecture and in the cinema. Edgar Santos gathered in the university the most brilliant minds he’d had access to: the Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, German maestro Joachim Koelrroeter, Portuguese philosopher Agostinho da Silva, playwright Martim Gonçalves, among others.
During this period, the offspring of this new ‘school’, the disciples of these minds assembled in Salvador, some of the greatest exponents of Brazilian culture in the following years came from Bahia: film director Glauber Rocha, musicians Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania, sculptor Agnaldo, engraver and sculptor Emanoel Araújo, poet Waly Salomão e anthropologist Roberto Pinho. Young, they also had in common their libertarian ideas, the idea of creating a culture free frim archaic formalisms – and so they did, changing Brazilian creativeness forever.
Aurelino worked with Agnaldo as assistants do sculptor Mario Cravo Jr. Agnaldo soon emerged as an unique talent drawing attention not only from his boss, but consequently from architect Lina Bo Bardi – who, along with her husband Pietro M. Bardi, was responsible for the genesis of Latin America’s most important museum (the MASP), as well as unlimited actions aiming at the appreciation of Brazilian art. Agnaldo presented Lina to his colleague Aurelino, and she was very impressed, not only with his work, but also probably with his mental condition as well. Despite his schizophrenia, Lina hired Aurelino to work as a janitor at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, located in the Teatro Castro Alves’ foyer. Aurelino never became a very good employee; however, while Lina was there, he was able to keep painting. After Lina had to leave Bahia – along with great part of the intellectuals who were there – due to the repression imposed by the military regime that followed the 1964’s coup, Aurelino had various jobs, from janitor to bus collector. Agnaldo had died in 1962.
Aurelino became increasingly isolated within himself, losing contact with reality, which worsened his ‘insanity’ up to its current state, in which he needs to be aided by close relatives, cohabitants of the same shack he lives in. His financial situation has deteriorated and he has since then experienced misery.
In his painting, Aurelino shows a notable influence of the city and of urban life. All the confluence of signals present in the architecture and geography of the city of Salvador are deeply rooted in his work. An essentially baroque city: a place where the miserable and nobles coexist; where there are 365 catholic churches as well as countless religious expressions of different natures – pagans -, such as the Candomblé; a city with geological division, separating the upper part from the lower end. Finally, besides all that, or because of it, it´s the city where baroque art, architecture and poetry blossomed more powerfully in Brazil. An eminently black city, like a palimpsest Bantu, Nagô e Iorubá.
However, the city’s features translates into Aurelino’s work in a most creative way, through signs – like, fish, bus, sea, church and cross -, sometimes paper collage and objects, but mostly through geometry. His work represents the essence of constructive art, which alternates signs and geometry, but not resorting to abstraction like the representatives of constructive art that arose in 1950’s Brazil. Aurelino could be described as being in the same line as Torres Garcia, if it wasn’t for the fact that he has never seen or heard about Torres Garcia nor about any other constructivist artist, the form is intuitive and imaginary – the unconscious recreates the whole path that the Uruguayan master had built with the aid of research and theory, from nature he abstracts the geometry. Aurelino is no Garcia Torres, neither Volpi. But Aurelino is also a colourist, and just like every colourist, he has his own colours that are nobody else´s.
And Aurelino paints, paints his colourful constructivist art, amid utter deprivation, Aurelino’s art inhabits him, and pours itself out through his paintings showing how he perceives the reality that surrounds him. Aurelino is, first of all, an artist of the imaginary, just like Artur Bispo do Rosário – they don’t fit into labels such as ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’, ‘naïf’ or ‘primitive’. Proof of that, in his imaginary, Agnaldo hasn’t died.
João Grinspum Ferraz
João is a PhD Candidate in History at PUC-SP. He holds an MA in Political Sciences by Universidade de São Paulo.