Ex­hibit in for­mer psy­chi­atric ward cel­e­brates famed Brazil­ian artist


When Arthur Bispo do Rosario needed art sup­plies within the psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion where he lived, he’d barter cig­a­rettes or trade fa­vors with the guards. When that didn’t work, he’d some­times rough up fel­low in­mates and snatch away their be­long­ings.

Bispo do Rosario, who was di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia, trans­formed vir­tu­ally any­thing he could get his hands on — by any means pos­si­ble — into art. And he did it for decades, nearly un­rec­og­nized un­til the last years of his life.

A new ex­hi­bi­tion of his works has just opened the in­sti­tu­tion where he lived: a Rio de Janeiro psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion once no­to­ri­ous for ram­pant abuses.

For Bispo do Rosario, the men­tal ward’s stan­dard-is­sue blan­kets be­came wall hang­ings, heavy with dense scrib­blings of em­broi­dery, which he made out of thread stripped from in­mates’ uni­forms. His pil­fered a bounty of flip flops and slip­pers, forks and spoons, plas­tic combs and other house­hold ba­sics that be­came breath­tak­ing, sur­real col­lages.

Wooden boxes, old vine­gar bot­tles and used mar­malade jars snatched from the trash dur­ing his pe­ri­odic trips away from the in­sti­tu­tion meta­mor­phosed into sculp­tures of minia­ture chicken coops, cars and other ev­ery­day ob­jects he saw within the walls of his con­strained world. He even fab­ri­cated some of his own tools out of trash and found ob­jects.

Ob­ses­sive, Ex­ces­sive, Haunt­ing

and Over­whelm­ing

Ob­ses­sive, ex­ces­sive, haunt­ing and over­whelm­ing, Bispo do Rosario’s work would even­tu­ally cat­a­pult him to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim — even as he lived out his days within the Colo­nia Ju­liano Mor­eira in­sti­tu­tion.

“He used art as a way to turn con­fine­ment into free­dom,” said Raquel Fer­nan­des, direc­tor of the Bispo do Rosario Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, adding that Bispo do Rosario is widely con­sid­ered one of Brazil’s five most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary artists. His work has twice been fea­tured at the Venice Bi­en­nale.

More than 100 of Bispo do Rosario’s 800-plus works are on dis­play at the mu­seum, which is tucked in­side the grounds of the sprawl­ing Colo­nia where more than 5,000 pa­tients were once locked away un­der of­ten-hor­rific con­di­tions. A 1980 tele­vi­sion ex­pose on the in­sti­tu­tion led to its grad­ual phase-out, with most pa­tients be­ing sent back to their fam­i­lies or to other in­sti­tu­tions, although around 300 mostly geri­atric pa­tients still live on the premises. Bispo do Rosario died there in 1989.

The son of a car­pen­ter, Bispo do Rosario was born in 1909 in the re­mote, north­east­ern town of Ja­paratuba. Lit­tle is known about his child­hood, but an of­fi­cial reg­is­ter shows him join­ing a Naval train­ing academy in 1925. Af­ter mov­ing to Rio, he en­listed in the Navy and served for nine years, while cap­i­tal­iz­ing on his im­pos­ing physique to pur­sue a ca­reer in boxing.

In 1938, he had the first of what he would de­scribe as “rev­e­la­tions,” mys­ti­cal ap­pari­tions that psy­chi­a­trists would later di­ag­nose as acute schiz­o­phrenic episodes. A stint in a Rio de Janeiro men­tal hos­pi­tal was the first of sev­eral, cul­mi­nat­ing in his 1964-1989 stay at the Colo­nia Ju­liano Mor­eira.

“He came to ac­cept this was his place,” said direc­tor Fer­nan­des, adding that the artist grad­u­ally filled the ward with his mush­room­ing art col­lec­tion. “He turned it into his gallery, his ate­lier and his ar­chive all at once.”

Vis­i­tors to the Colo­nia, which has seen much of its grounds swal­lowed up by en­croach­ing slums over the past decades, can still see the cell where Bispo de Rosario spent seven years in near-soli­tary con­fine­ment of his own vo­li­tion. In a dank cor­ner of a crum­bling hall that once housed the most ag­i­tated pa­tients, the tiny cell is il­lu­mi­nated by two small win­dows fit­ted with iron bars.

In­side soli­tary he had an­other rev­e­la­tion: Voices told him his mission was to cat­a­log all things on earth ahead of judg­ment day. Hence the sculp­tures of ev­ery­day ob­jects — a sling­shot, pli­ers, a mouse­trap, a paint roller, a ma­chete — en­tirely swathed in em­broi­dery.

“He didn’t ac­cept med­i­ca­tion, didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the art ther­apy work­shops, re­ally kept to him­self,” said Fer­nan­des. “But all that time, he was cre­at­ing, just cre­at­ing.”

Mu­seum vis­i­tor El­ton Ri­biero said he was im­pressed by the trans­for­ma­tive power on dis­play in the ex­hibit.

“We know what the men­tal wards in Brazil were like at that time. There was so much vi­o­lence, so much suf­fer­ing,” said Ribeiro, a 30-year-old psy­chol­o­gist. His work “was the way he found for him to live in all that.”


1. Mixed me­dia pieces by Brazil­ian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario, “Duas Vas­souras e rodo,” left, and “Cranio,” are dis­played at the Bispo do Rosario Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Tues­day, March 31. 2. This cor­ri­dor in the Colo­nia Ju­liano Mor­eira psy­chi­atric in­sti­tu­tion leads to the room where Brazil­ian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario lived, in Rio de Janeiro on Tues­day. 3. “Eu vim,” a wear­able art piece by Brazil­ian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario is dis­played at the Bispo do Rosario Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Rio de Janeiro on Tues­day.

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