In Juri, Brazilian artist Pedro Neves’s first solo exhibition abroad, he presents a new body of work as a result of his reflections on the significant role of traditional knowledge in preserving native ecosystems. Neves, a prominent emerging artist in the vigorous and captivating contemporary art scene in his home country, is informed by both his family’s relationship with the environment of his native state Maranhão, in Northeastern Brazil, and their migratory movements in search of better living conditions. Over the years, they moved throughout Mata dos Cocais, a forest, abundant in babaçu palm trees, situated between the lush Amazon rainforest and the savannas of the Cerrado.
His family established an intimate connection with that native plant, known for its versatile uses, and up to this day an essential source of sustenance and income for many indigenous peoples and local traditional communities. Neves’s great-grandfather, Sebastião Carapuça, was a descendant from the Canela indigenous people, a guardian of traditional technologies, and well-versed in the region’s soil and climate features. Always followed by the women of the family— Pedro’s grandmother and great-grandmother, both named Maria, and Dona Célia, the artist's mother, who used to collect and crack babaçu fruit to make oil out of the seeds — the Carapuça family carved out a life honoring everything the land provided them.
Pedro Neves created these new paintings over the past months aiming to construct a visual archive based on his family legacy. The research is grounded in his family documents, stories shared by his mother, and memorabilia. This first collection of work is part of an extensive study that is a counterpoint to the Eurocentric gaze of Bavarian writer Carl von Martius. Since his 19th century colonial expedition with naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix, von Martius has established a hegemonic narrative about the fauna and flora from Maranhão.
Três Marias I and Três Marias II, Neves captures the life cycle and uses of the babaçu palm. In Três Marias I, we see the roof of a palhoça, a type of hut common in hot regions in Brazil, produced by babaçu palm leaves. It appears to float, creating a mysterious atmosphere. Could the lack of a ground in the painting allude to the family's wanderings? In Três Marias II, he portrays a moment before the extraction of the leaves: three slender palm trees with lush leaves, loaded with coconuts and kernels. The background differs slightly from the previous one, with irregular brushstrokes gradually varying the shade of yellow. Despite the absence of human figures, the titles echo the names of Neves's female family members - Dona Célia, his mother, who grew up believing Maria was also her name.
The circular patterns present in Form I and Form II resemble abstract renderings of palhoças but could also be associated with the bottom of fruit baskets, produced with the same raw material. The repetition of the gesture in creating the looped figures mirrors the daily work endured by his great grandfather who for years braid straw to produce roofs and other pieces of handcraft.
In the journals written by von Martius, which also served as a reference for Neves, the botanist not only recorded the biopiracy practiced by him and his crew, but also shared detailed information on two young indigenous children, who were kidnapped by them - a Miranha girl, they forcibly named Isabella and a Juri teenager. Both were from ethnicities believed to have been annihilated. The paintings Isabella, Armadilha, and Espelho, depict the period when the youths were kept as hostages in Bavaria. They assume a ghostly and melancholic energy, perhaps signaling their struggle adapting to a world and way of life they did not choose. These figures also refer to youkai, traditional Japanese supernatural entities that are also part of the array of influences in Neves’s artistic practice.
In Juri, the painting that borrows its name from the exhibition, Neves portrays the abducted teenager during von Martius and Spix’s colonial expedition. However, a doubt comes up here, it is uncertain whether Neves offers in the painting reparation for the "unpayable debt" the world, as we know it, owes to indigenous peoples, especially to the victim himself, or if he portrayed a moment before the young man's life was shattered. In any case, the beautiful entanglement in this painting suggests there is no separation between humanity and nature. It offers an alternative image to the moments of suffering imposed by the colonial archive on young the Juri.
Trovador reintroduces a palhoça, but this time it appears to depict its interior. The lines on the surface, resembling woven babaçu straw, enhance this perception, creating a sense of depth on the canvas. A human figure, the local minstrel, is portrayed holding an accordion inside of the dwelling.
This body of work reflects Pedro Neves's interest in constructing a visual repertoire capable of generating images that go beyond those established by dominant narratives. While he aligns himself with a growing number of artists aiming to reorganize or dismantle colonial archives, Neves skillfully achieves his endeavor without allowing the horrors of the past to permeate his artistic practice. Instead, he centralizes care and the harmonious relationships that his family and other traditional communities have developed with their surroundings. In doing so, Neves contributes to a broader movement of artists seeking alternative perspectives that challenge and reshape established narratives, emphasizing a connection to his heritage and his harmonious kinship.
– Words by Frederico Pellhacin
Pedro Neves (b. 1997 - Imperatriz, MA, Brazil) held his latest solo exhibition, Tripa, at Portas Vilaseca Galeria in 2022. In 2023, after being awarded the 3rd Décio Noviello Prize for Visual Arts, Neves presented the same exhibition in an expanded version at the Palácio das Artes, in Belo Horizonte, curated by Amanda Carneiro. More recently, he participated in the Bolsa Pampulha Residency Program – one of the most important and prestigious artistic residencies in Brazil – the Angola AIR Residency Programme, in the city of Luanda. Recent group exhibitions include Whispers From the South, Lamb Gallery, London, UK; Dos Brasis, Sesc Belenzinho, São Paulo, Brazil; The Dance, Luce Gallery, Turin, Italy; Quilombo: life, problems and aspirations of black people, Inhotim, Brumadinho, MG, Brazil; Botar Fe, Museum of Arts and Crafts, Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil; among others. His works are part of the institutional collections of the Inimá de Paula Museum, in Belo Horizonte, MG and Inhotim, in Brumadinho, MG. Neves lives and works in Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil.