Jota Eu vim de lá
MT Projetos de Arte, Rio de Janeiro 4 September – 3 October
There has been a major push in the past year among Brazil’s commercial galleries to represent the work of young Black artists. This has been a long time coming in the Black-majority country. Elian Almeida, who paints Black figures transposed to the pages of Vogue magazine, has started to exhibit with Nara Roesler; Maxwell Alexandre, whose work addresses Rio de Janeiro street culture, is represented by A Gentil Carioca; Panmela Castro (best known for her street murals) currently has a show of her oil portraits and other works at Galeria Luisa Strina. Many of these new signings were being proudly shown o at the recent Art Rio fair. What was noteworthy, as I walked the aisles of the beachside exhibition centre, was not the quality, which varies (those above are on the better end of the spectrum, but frankly I’d plump for improved representation even if a few duds are promoted), but the uniformity: every newly signed Black artist seems to be a figurative painter. It is easy to be cynical: for collectors and gallerists, how else would your rich friends know you were a newfound ally in the post- landscape?
With that in mind, I approached this debut show by Jota with a bit of trepidation. Born Johnny Alexandre Gomes, the twenty-year-old artist lives in the Chapadão, one of Rio’s largest favelas, and only started painting recently. Posting his work on Instagram – depictions of friends, girlfriends and family, parties and police violence – he soon drew the attention of Rio curators Ademar Britto and Pablo Leon de la Barra, both of whom have strong track records in championing artists from underrepresented parts of society. It is the latter who has staged Eu vim de lá (I came from there) at a collector-run studio and project space in Rio’s centre.
Some scenes from the approximately two dozen acrylic-on-canvas works (plus a couple of paintings on wood) are simple and familiar in their composition: in Seleção Dos Crias (all works 2021) a group of six friends nonchalantly pose in football shirts, a couple making hand gestures. Other paintings borrow from the imagery of rap: from a series of works titled
Por Pura Sobrevivência (For sheer survival), one canvas depicts a young topless Black man, one beringed hand covering his eyes, the other pointing to two rows of gold teeth he shows o through a wide smile. Police violence often looms: Bala Achada (Found bullet) shows a group carrying a bloodied makeshift stretcher
through a favela that is on fire. Heavily armed police close in. There are tender scenes too: a boy points his phone out the window while his mother reads from a book, the Bible we assume, given the painting’s title, Deus nos guarde e nos proteja (God keep us and protect us). In Festival a group of kids fly the handmade paper kites that are ubiquitous to a Brazilian childhood; sitting on the beach (Brazil’s great equaliser), a boy and girl close in for a kiss in a painting titled Pequenas Alegrias Da Vida (Little joys of life).
Yet what makes Jota’s work stand out is the oddity of the perspective he employs amidst the gritty realism. Heads are often slightly too large for bodies, the sports brand logos are outsized and can appear to float o the T-shirts onto which they would be embroidered or printed. Whatever the scene, the eye is invariably drawn to the swooshes and crocodiles of consumer culture. In Bailão (Party), an early work on wood (salvaged from Jota’s day job on construction sites), the Lacoste logo is plastered over the eyes of a boy and a twerking girl, anonymising the subjects. In another canvas we see two friends, both in Nike-branded football shirts, one with a gold chain and big spli. They are tucked behind a wall while a gratied police car rolls past in the background. Yet this scene is queered by the face of the young man not smoking, his hair bleached blonde, but his eyes and nose obscured by a painted-on ‘crazy face’ emoji. There is a sense of detachment to these stylistic flourishes, in which life in the favela becomes a social-media fever-dream of logos and poses.
Jota also frequently employs religious symbolism. Lined up dancing, the partying crowd in Baile do Egito edição especial (Egyptian baile special edition), the way they are gathered together is reminiscent of the disciples in Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495–98). In Pique final de ano (New Year’s energy) two boys, one bleaching the other’s hair, stare at a huge star in the sky above; this painting itself then appears hung in the bedroom of Acordando ao som De Mc Rodson (Waking to the sound of Rodson), next to a to its left showing a trinity of men brandishing guns, the titular funk musician centre. In Fé (Faith) the symbolism is explicit: two men and an older woman pray under a picture of Jesus; Fé blindada (Protected by faith) shows a man in a crown of thorns and a leopard-print shirt, open to reveal three stab wounds.
Jota’s work moves beyond mere figurative representation of Blackness and economic deprivation to pose a postmodern question of social performativity. The paintings, with equal humour and gravitas, show consumer culture, religion and the forces of the state pushing individuals to act out roles, which then, in the tight-knit community of the favela, are reinforced internally. They remind me of the almost cartoonish characters of the favela funk s, whose lifestyle of money, guns and girls is both real and performed: a persona acted for their legions of fans. For those on the outside looking in, Jota’s work documents his lived experience of favela life and, intoxicatingly, the image of favela life too. Oliver Basciano