Maria Auxiliadora da Silva (1935-1974), the eldest of 18 children, grew up in São Paulo in a family of humble means but abundant artistic pursuits. Her mother made wood carvings, her father played music and many of their other children also painted, made sculpture or wrote poetry. To make ends meet, Da Silva dropped out of school to work as a domestic servant, but would remain creative, learning embroidery when she was nine years old, and experimenting throughout her adolescence and young adulthood with various materials, from charcoal to colour pencil, gouache and oils. Da Silva’s practice evolved as she met a community of Afro-Brazilian artists, poets and writers, engaged in questions of black consciousness while operating outside established commercial or institutional circuits, often selling their works in outdoor flea markets at Embu das Artes, or in Praça da República in the centre of São Paulo.
In 1981, Da Silva had a show at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), organized by founding director Pietro Maria Bardi. Her work was forgotten for nearly 40 years, until a recent decision by MASP’s new leadership to revisit art histories marginalized by the Brazilian canon. Two years of research unearthed nearly 200 paintings, mostly in private collections in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, 81 of which are on display here.
Maria Auxiliadora is known for her singular technique of mixing domestic oil paint, Wanda repair coating and strands of her own hair. The themes of her works are drawn from her own life, religious beliefs and romantic experiences. Many depict traditional carnival and candomblé dances, some in the countryside, a nostalgic echo to Minas Gerais, the plantation region where she was born. Most strikingly for segregated Brazil, black, white and creole characters cavort in them together. Da Silva’s skill at embroidery is apparent in the various motifs, flowers and stripes of each painted garment. Her women seem strong, with rounded breasts often protruding in relief from the canvas. Other volumes underline a hairdo, a hat or the costume frou-frou of samba kings and queens.
In Offering to Exu (1971), an expressively tense woman kneels in a sacrificial candomblé ceremony at a crossroads, one of the symbols of the Exu spirit who appears before her in hallmark red, black and white. Another spirit, or orixá, is vividly painted in Ogum (1973). The eponymous warrior entity, here depicted as female, with laced pants and blue dress, a dagger and a shield, could be an autobiographical reference: in 1972, da Silva was diagnosed with cancer. Many suspect the toxicity of her paints, which she used obsessively in the six years leading to her death in 1974, when she was only 39. She was painting full-time at last, selling her work to a handful of collectors from the American, Italian, and Swiss consulates, immune from the differential tastes of the established Brazilian elite. If Da Silva’s naïve style won such limited recognition in her time, it is hardly for lack of skill; her characters are so lively, her scenes so vibrant, that they impart a physical energy onto those who study them.
According to her friends and family Da Silva grew reclusively industrious, painting away in her studio or outdoors, talking to herself and her characters. In Self-Portrait (1973), she seems happy, working among the trees. In The Artist’s Studio and Family (1973), fair-haired collectors visit her pink-bricked studio, where her brother Vicente de Paula carves wooden sculpture by her side. Eventually she painted her death: in Wake of the Bride (1974), Da Silva appears recumbent in a coffin, dressed in a long, white lace veil, surrounded by tearful friends and family. Ensconced in flowers, she seems at peace.
Maria Auxiliadora da Silva: 'Daily Life, Painting and Resistance' runs at Museu de Arte de São Paulo until 3 June.
Main image: Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, 'Daily Life, Painting and Resistance', installation view, 2018, Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Courtesy: Museu de Arte de São Paulo; photograph: Eduardo Ortega
First published in Issue 197