Sonia Gomes Crafts Bold Textile Works from Strangers’ Treasures
By: Jacqui Palumbo
In her São Paolo studio, artist Sonia Gomes moves from one sculpture to the next, wrapping cloth and bending wire to make abstracted forms imbued with memory. Rather than working on one piece at a time, she assesses them as a group. Her works become living assemblages of textiles, wood, stone, and found objects that hang from the ceiling, recline on the floor, and fan out across walls like an ecosystem of textured, colorful organisms.
Gomes’s series of pendulum-like swathed structures, Acordes Naturais (2018), recalls the shapes of animals hanging from vines or slender trees. An untitled work from the same year features colorful fabric-bound wire arcing over sculptural driftwood.
Now 72, the Afro-Brazilian sculptor fills her studio space with secondhand fabrics that hang on mounted wire screens: tablecloths, handkerchiefs, scarves, scraps of garments, and even a wedding gown, all gifted to the artist by people who have been moved by her work.
“They arrive and then I listen to them,” she said, via email, about the gifts. “There is a process of observing and feeling what each item is offering as an element of composition. This process of listening to the material tells me where it wants to go and what it wants to be. For me, it is an intimate process with the matter of things; I feel the volume, texture, weight, color.”
In a profile published by the New York Times this past summer, Gomes, photographed in frayed denim gauchos and with violet blue hair, pulled out two scarves tucked away in a cardboard box. Enclosed was a handwritten note from the sender: “The thought that a small part of me could become a part of your work really inspires me and makes me smile.”
Gomes treasures these textiles—they each have their own history, sometimes spanning generations. She explained that what people are really offering her are their stories. “I feel that when people give me these items, they are bestowing a great responsibility on me, a sort of plea asking me not to let them die,” she said. “It is life in transformation.”
Histories converge through the artist’s hands as she stitches and knots fragments of fabrics together. In Memória (2004), for example, a multitude of textiles join together and stretch open like the wingspan of a bird.
This past summer marked a milestone in Gomes’s career, as galleries Pace and Blum & Poe both announced their representation of her work, in collaboration with her Brazilian gallery, Mendes Wood DM. In the fall, she exhibited in a two-person show with painter Marina Perez Simão at Pace’s temporary space in East Hampton. Next year, she’ll have her first in-person solo show with Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, followed by her first solo show with Pace in Manhattan in 2022.
This late-career representation from major galleries follows a decade of increasing buzz surrounding her practice. Gomes, who worked as a lawyer until she was well into her forties, participated in her first institutional group show in 2013, when she was included in A Nova Mão Afro-Brasileira [The New Afro-Brazilian Hand] at Museu Afro Brasil in São Paulo. In 2015, she was the only Brazilian artist featured in the central exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Two years later, she exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., as well as Turner Contemporary in Margate, England. Her first major solo museum show, in 2018, was also a first for the Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP): Gomes was the first living Afro-Brazilian female artist to receive a survey of her work at the institution.
The sculptor’s heritage threads through her artworks—the influence of Brazilian dance can be seen in the energy of her forms, as well as the allusion to sacred, spiritual objects used in Brazilian African rites performed by her grandmother, who was a shaman, according to Pace.
Gomes grew up in the former textile town of Caetanópolis, and her practice with secondhand fabrics was foretold in clothes she remixed and the jewelry she fashioned while she was coming of age. Breathing new life into used items has always been central to her creative endeavors and speaks both to her background and to issues of sustainability more broadly.
“Brazilian people are very used to working with what they already have,” she said. “I work with what I have and with things that arrive to me. I feel there is an ancestral heritage behind what I do and that my work touches on elements of our African heritage as Brazilians.”
When Gomes was drawn away from her law career and into the art world, she attended Guignard University of Art of Minas Gerais. Early on, before she began receiving materials from around the world, she frequented thrift stores looking for clothes, objects, and hand-embroidered textiles, particularly those that spoke to local artisanal traditions.
“For me, handmade things are very precious, but I see that handicraft is doomed to disappear because of the increasingly digital context in which we live,” she said. “Nothing can replace artisanal making—it has soul.”
For a long time Gomes considered herself a craft artist—a genre that has more recently gained respect in contemporary art but has long struggled to shed its image as a lesser, “feminine” practice. In Brazil, that image has racial connotations as well. “The general view in Brazil is that Afro-descendants make craft even if what he or she does is art,” Gomes said in a recent interview.
But all of the attributes of Gomes’s artmaking that have historically been looked down upon are the very things that have invigorated her sculptures with a bold vitality and drawn a growing audience to her work.
“My work is black, it is feminine, and it is marginal,” Gomes told curator Solange Farkas for a 2018 monograph. “I am a rebel. I never worried about masking or stifling anything that might or might not fit standards of what is called art.”