Bárbara Balaclava
Moacir dos Anjos

Over the course of a decade Thiago Martins de Melo has developed a work in painting that lies between attractive and strange, one of the most unique of his generation in Brazil. Almost always made in oil on large-format canvases, his works display nothing of the restrained abstract expression that has marked the work of many Brazilian painters since the 1950s. Nor do they bear any traces of the eulogistic and placid depiction of native characters and landscapes, so dear to Brazilian modernist paintings, including those now active in this tradition. His paintings, like those of a few others in Brazil, are couched on their own unique bases in terms of both their making and their subject. They are made with quick, powerful brushstrokes that build up enough paint on the surface to create vibrantly colorful uneven reliefs of raised and flat areas, echoing an expressionist lineage which, although critically recognized, has never been hegemonically affirmed in Brazil. The artist resorts to this procedure of construction to deal with the gravity and urgency of the themes that affect and matter to him: the violences which the powers that be have historically imposed on those who remain outside the norms they establish or who challenge the privileges of class, color and gender which they enjoy. In particular, his works have to do with the abuses committed for centuries against the populations of indigenous and black origins in Brazil. They are paintings that articulate and mingle form and content to narrate painful, fragmented and inconclusive histories. Histories which are not, however, only about the annihilation of the other subjugated by force, but also about resistances.

Over the course of the years, no matter how much Thiago Martins de Melo has increased the dimensions of his canvases, they are incapable, on their own, of narrating the complex events involving many characters and facts that he wishes to convey. For this reason, they have begun to include objects displayed on the walls or the floor, physically articulated, or not, with the canvas. This enlarged use of the space is clearly seen in the group of paintings, sculptures and various things that make up the work entitled Martyrdom (2014) [pp. 138-41]. On two large canvases, over a nearly flat background depicting the landscape of Amazonia, the artist painted the faces of many men and women who have been killed in the struggle against the ceaseless symbolic and material devastation inflicted by those who see nothing in that region except opportunities for quick and hefty profits, whether through the extraction of minerals, predatory lumbering, or the use of forest land for agricultural projects. The unbounded violence waged against anyone who opposes this private aim (often with governmental support) is also alluded to by the many sculpted heads of black, indigenous and mestizo people encircled in barbed wire and attached to vertical structures that look like instruments of martyrdom decorated with weapons and chainsaws. The fact that the structures also resemble totem poles suggests, however, that the struggle has not yet been lost, and that the conflict of flesh and spirit is bound to continue. This suggestion is reinforced by the figures of Indians who seem to guard the environment, making it not only a record of massive violences, but also a way of honoring those who will never bow to those who destroy forms of ancestral life.

The strategy of letting the paintings overflow into the space was, however, not enough to achieve his aim of contradicting accepted histories and official aims. Therefore, Thiago Martins de Melo’s constructions have increasingly involved moving images. Taking his own paintings as an archive of scenes, the artist began to articulate photographs of fragments of many of them in stop-motion animated short films, thus introducing what even the canvases and large-scale objects could not contain. Shown on monitors embedded in the paintings, these animations have expanded their narrative capacity over time, transforming them into hybrid, open, expressive forms. It is in the film Bárbara balaclava (2016) [pp. 257-73], however, that Thiago Martins de Melo takes a further step in the voracity of speech conveyed by his work, and in his desire to expand the meanings of his pictorial production even when it is not materially exhibited. Lasting a little less than a quarter of an hour, the short film was made by editing and animating partial images of nearly four thousand small-format paintings and a few others in his usual large-format size, which the artist made especially for being used in this project.

If Bárbara balaclava condenses and enlarges the narrative ambition that Thiago Martins de Melo has demonstrated over the course of his oeuvre, it also presents the same, though firmer, desire to challenge narratives that justify or normalize practices of domination in Brazil. In this sense, the film can be understood as the sketch of a counter-history of Brazil, made more from suggestions or fragments than from an organized and unified discourse. Even so, the torrents of images that arise one after another in the work clearly reference the causes and consequences of the inequalities on which the country was founded and is sustained. The film’s title refers to the fabric masks (originally used for protection from the cold) that are used to hide the identity of police in repressive actions and, especially, the faces of those who rise up against the institutionalized forms of social violence and need to protect themselves from retaliations by the powers that be. They thus serve to protect the identity of those who are considered pariahs or barbarians by laws and conventions – as implied, not without ambiguity, in the work’s title. The identity of those who paradoxically hide their faces in order to fight for their right to be seen and heard.

In a vertiginous editing of images, accompanied by a visceral soundtrack, Bárbara balaclava shows scenes of conflict and confrontation in Brazil’s recent and distant histories. It goes forward and backward in time to shed light on the longstanding nature of the processes of violent domination which for centuries on end have expropriated the material and symbolic wealth of the country’s native populations. In parallel with this, it also points to the mechanisms of corporal and psychic subjugation inflicted on the millions of black women and men enslaved in Brazil’s past and which, transmuted into open or dissimulated racial discrimination, reaches their current descendants. By composing this frayed social panel, Thiago Martins de Melo inscribes contemporary disputes for lands or ideas within a persistent narrative of exclusions and (figured and physical) erasings that have been recurrent ever since the country’s outset. Simultaneously, however, it mobilizes memories, myths, beliefs, rituals, sex and everything that resists death and strengthens bodies to tell an insistent history of insurrection by those peoples and by all who have forged alliances and links with them. By approaching traditions and cosmogonies that are not subordinated to the colonizing norms of yesterday and today, the artist presents the continuous thread, throughout the centuries, of a revolting potential that resists pain and defies weapons. He presents mythic warriors who are alternatingly or concomitantly Indians and black people, men and women, in the carnal and spiritual, barbarous and civilized. They use other balaclavas as tactical instruments of struggle and combat a destiny that was imposed on them as immutable. By making temporal articulations between paintings and sounds, the film unsettles disputes and points to damages inflicted on many. It is a film that ignores and subverts that which is given and which is, for this very reason, political.