Sonia Gomes: I Rise

I'm a Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide

7. September 2019 - 22. February 2020

For Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes, I Rise – I’m a Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide is the first solo show at a European institution. The exhibition begins with its first part at Salon Berlin and continues with a second part at Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, from October 12, 2019, through March 8, 2020.

Bodies hung upside-down, twisted into one another, recalling lynching victims or wilting vegetation. Nerve paths, mental maps, dreamcatchers: Sonia Gomes’ biomorphic sculptures have a worrying, magical presence. Born in 1948 to an unmarried black mother and white father in Caetanópolis, a center of the Brazilian textile industry, Gomes grew up, after the early death of her mother, in the Catholic family of her grandfather. But the African culture and spirituality of her mother and grandmother, as well as an interest in rituals, processions, and myths, made a lasting impact on her life and her later work as an artist. As a teenager, Gomes began deconstructing textiles and items of clothing to create her own style and to make both items for practical use and craft objects. Only at the age of 40, however, when she attended the Guignard University of Art in Belo Horizonte, did she decide, with the support of a teacher, to make a career in contemporary art. Today, following her participation in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, she is among Brazil’s most influential artists.

In her work, Gomes uses a wide range of found materials and objects given to her as gifts, such as old textiles, driftwood, furniture, or wool, to make sculptures and large-scale installations. In this way, she combines craft techniques traditionally associated with women, such as embroidery, wrapping, sewing, and binding, with many different references, drawing on the folk art and spiritual African traditions, the formal idiom of Surrealism, Brazilian modernism, and current contemporary art. At the same time, there are often links to the culture of the Black Atlantic, a hybrid and polyphonic Afro-diasporic “counterculture to modernity,” described by the cultural historian Paul Gilroy in 1993 as “not specifically African, American, Caribbean or European, but all of these at once.”

“Sonia Gomes' textile works develop a distinctiveness, formal virtuosity, and materiality comparable with those of Louise Bourgeois. They are incredibly powerful, but they also possess a poetic magic that had me enchanted straight away. Although Gomes has no direct political involvement in the Afro-Brazilian movement, her work renders the black, female body visible and with it (personal) history. Gomes gives us a sense of the importance of questioning grand narratives with their privileges and hierarchies - and of working for more justice and humanity," says Patricia Kamp, artistic director of Salon Berlin and curator of the exhibition.

I Rise – I’m a Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide brings together works from the early 2000s through Gomes’ current mixed-media sculptures. The exhibition’s poetic title is inspired by passages from the poem of the same name by Afro-American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1928–2014). Still I Rise is a hymn of protest against racism, sexual violence, the marginalization of black women, and the history of slavery. The show documents the way she uses traditional craft techniques to create objects that combine extreme physicality with the sacred and transcendental. Especially in her more recent work, Gomes makes many-layered references to suppression and violence, but also to the existential cycle of life and death. The tangled chain hung from the ceiling in Cordão dos Mentecaptos (2016), for example, looks like a symbiosis of umbilical chord, climbing plant, and worry beads, while its title, The Fool’s Chord, refers to both slavery and colonial carnival customs. The organ-like forms dangling in a net in Hiato (2019) are also ambivalent. They could hint at a nest or a grave, a mother’s body or barren seeds and intestines. At first glance, sculptures like Aninhado (2019) or Picaré (2018) seem to be about the captive, tormented female body. Squeezed into cages, stretched or twisted to their limits, Gomes’ surreal figures nonetheless resist physical violence and victimhood with all their might, signaling escape, new departures, and the kind of spiritual resilience evoked by Maya Angelou in the opening lines of Still I Rise: You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I'll rise.

To accompany the exhibitions in Berlin and Baden-Baden, a catalogue will be published by Edition Cantz including installation shots as well as an introductory text about the artist, her life and work.

The exhibition is accompanied by a presentation of the Rwandan Daughters project (2019) by German photographer Olaf Heine that addresses the collective and personal consequences of the Rwandan genocide and the sexual violence inflicted on women in times of war.

Rwandan Daughters

by Olaf Heine

7. September 2019 - 22. February 2020

Almost a million people fell victim to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, around 250,000 women were raped. Today, perpetrators and victims live as next-door neighbors. And while women have become more influential within Rwandan society over the past 25 years, the rape victims and their children are still often marginalized, living with the stigma of widows and orphans. Today, it is the daughters of the raped women in particular who support their traumatized mothers and fight against this stigma—with incomparable courage and boundless optimism in a society marked by major trauma and authoritarian rule.

Rwandan Daughters is a tribute to the power of these women. In these expressive pictures, German photographer Olaf Heine (born 1968) has made portraits of the mothers and daughters of Rwanda—side by side at the scene of the crime. Sometimes the gaze of mother and daughter goes in different directions, sometimes they touch each other gently. Even a slight smile would be a lie. But the resemblance between their faces speaks of their connectedness and thus their shared hope of being able to leave the past behind. The natural settings often feel peaceable, while the urban space keeps the deprivation and the hurt alive. Nonetheless: crimes took place in all of these locations.

For the viewer, the Rwandan Daughters project is touching and unsettling in equal measure.
It was made between 2017 and 2018 in close cooperation with ‘ora’, a children’s aid organization that has been working in Rwanda for years. A moving and intense project about memory, it celebrates the strength of Rwanda’s women. “How is it possible to develop love for a child who reminds you every day of the worst time of your life?” asks Heine. His documentation also shows that it is not always possible to forget and that mother-daughter relationships are not always unproblematic. In spite of this, the strength and willpower of these women build bridges to carry them over the horrors of the past.

“Systematic violence against women is a recurring means of male-dominated warfare—as today’s political discussions are making increasingly clear. But for too long, this aspect has been marginalized by the big debates about weapons technology and their destructive impact,” says Patricia Kamp, curator of the exhibition and artistic director of Salon Berlin. “We hope that Olaf Heine’s striking and subtle pictures can help to raise awareness of these problems, for there is much to be done here. As well as the issue of genuine help for the victims, the question of prosecuting perpetrators must also be addressed with far greater urgency.”

On the book Rwandan Daughters

Heine’s latest book, also titled Rwandan Daughters, was published in the spring. As well as the photographs, it contains various essays and short texts by the women themselves in which they describe how they deal with what they have experienced. (March 2019, Hatje Cantz, texts by Matthias Harder, Andrea Jeska, Antje Stahl, Olaf Heine, German/English, 208 pages, 78 plates, hardback, 24.80 x 33.50 cm, 60 euros, ISBN 978-3-7757-4547-5).

On Olaf Heine’s work
The photographer Olaf Heine came to prominence through his work with internationally known recording artists like U2, Sting, and Coldplay, through his portraits of actors like Daniel Brühl, Thomas Kretschmann, and Don Cheadle, and through his photographic engagement with the work of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Today, Heine works as a photographer and director.
Born in Hanover in 1968, he studied photography and design at the Lette-Verein in Berlin. His photographs have been published on countless album covers, in international magazines, and in the books Leaving the Comfort Zone (2008), I Love You but I’ve Chosen Rock (2010), Brazil (2014), and Rwandan Daughters (2019), as well as featuring in exhibitions at Camera Work (Berlin), Folkwang Museum (Essen), Noorderlicht (Groningen), and Icon Gallery (Los Angeles).