“Everything comes from the woods. [...] The wax is made by the bees, the wood comes from the forest... Everything comes from the nature of the world.” —Conceição dos Bugres, 1979
This is the first monographic museum exhibition dedicated to the work of Conceição Freitas da Silva, better known as Conceição dos Bugres (1914-1984), an artist that is central to a more plural understanding of the history of 20th century Brazilian sculpture. Self-taught and of indigenous origin, Conceição became known for her so-called “bugres,” wooden sculptures finished in wax and paint, that she created continuously over three decades, in Mato Grosso do Sul, after moving from Povinho de Santiago, Rio Grande Sul.
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from a quote from the artist taken from a documentary filmed in 1979, used in the epigraph above and on view in a monitor here. Conceição describes how her works take on different shapes and forms as a result of the respect shown to the features of the wood, which “exude wisdom.” Her way of carving is, in fact, determined by the original material itself, according to its characters and contours. A key part of the artist’s work is the selection of tree trunks for the sculptures. From cylindrical pieces of different sizes and circumferences, with the aid of a hatchet, she created figures that she bestowed with proper names, such as Mariquinha, João Grilo and Chiquinho. These names, however, were not recorded in the documentation of the works, and most of the sculptures are untitled and undated.
Although at first glance the works look quite similar, there are distinct choices and elements that make each one unique. The 119 sculptures on exhibit here range in height from 4.5 cm to 115 cm. The grooves in the wood are of different depths and suggest upper and lower limbs, as well as eyes, mouth, nose, fingers and toes. Note the wide variety of hand and arm positions, hair styles and eye expressions, which stare off in different directions. Some sculptures appear to be laughing at the viewer, while others cast a sharp or penetrating gaze. The coloring is also different, whether through the aging of the wax or the use of paint—there are pieces in various tones of grey, ochre and maroon. While others, painted black, were called “negrinhos,” with their hair simulating the tightly curled hair of black people, unlike the bowl cuts that simulate the straight hair of indigenous people.
At a time when indigenous artists are beginning to receive the recognition they deserve, Conceição’s place in the history of art in Brazil has yet to be reaffirmed—this is also one of the reasons for this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. Her work is an extraordinary cut above the rest in Brazilian sculpture. Conceição, like other artists working with geometric abstraction, needed few cuts and lines to give form to her sculptures.
Her cuts, however, instead of abstracting and geometrizing the three-dimensional shapes, decidedly humanized them. In the artist’s words on her “burgres”: “I make them to enjoy their company.”
CURATED BY Amanda Carneiro, Assistent-Curator, MASP; Fernando Oliva, Curator, MASP