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Curator

Initiation to the work of Chico Tabibuia
by Thais Rivitti

Chico Tabibuia is Francisco Moraes da Silva (1936-2007), born in Aldeia Velha, in the municipality of Silva Jardim, in the hinterland of Rio de Janeiro state.1 He learned how to sculpt in an self-taught manner, with some influence of his maternal grandfather, who was a carpenter.2 For most of his life he was a lumberjack, cutting and selling wood from the region of the São João River. The name Tabibuia refers to the type of tree he cut, the tabebuia, popularly known in the southeastern region of Brazil, as ipê.3 Although from an early age he had shown an interest in sculpting, it was in the late 1970s that he did it so regularly. Along his youth, from the age of 13 to 17, he attended Macumba rituals.4 Even though he converted to the evangelical Assembly of God, the experience in Macumba rituals became very present in his work, especially since 1984, when he made his first Exus, which would become his most recognized work.
I make this brief biographical introduction, taking care that the tasty – although sometimes very hard – peculiarities of the life of Chico Tabibuia do not take all the space reserved to this text. I would rather be able to formulate a couple of questions to help thinking about his work these days, when it has been gaining ground and arousing interest in the more institutionalized artistic milieu. It seems to me that his work, though he has intrigued and seduced countless art critics and curators, has still barely been seen altogether and hardly even analyzed by specialists.
My first impression, upon seeing the works of Tabibuia, was that they had tremendous strength. This force had, on the one hand, a certain hardness in the making of the works themselves: figures with long faces, angular chins, glazed eyes, semi-open mouths, geometric noses and, of course, enormous genitals. All these characteristics led me to perceive a rustic sculpture, without the delicacy of subtle finishes. I noticed a certain lack of accommodation of bodies to space, his pieces seemed hard, as if planted or stuck on the ground. It was not just the phallus of the images that pointed vectorially forward or down. But, monolithic and upright the sculptures as a whole had the same rigidity as the erect limb.
It added to that, the certainty that I was before objects of worship. There was something in the presence of these works that, even inside the white cube of the art gallery, told me of the religious context to which they belonged. They were anthropomorphic, not human beings: one was missing the torso, the other had many heads, almost none of them had an arm. Often they looked like two or more fused figures, the fruit of a hallucinated imagination, mythological beings. I was impressed by the fact that afterwards, when I went to collectors’ houses, I could see that this effect was also visible in these environments. In one house, I was greeted by an impressive Exu made by Tabibuia right in the entrance hall. Characteristically, in the cults, Exu is the first orixá to receive offerings, the first to be established, usually, in a settlement outside the worship site. The arrangement of the sculpture in the foyer seemed to obey this religious rule: Exu comes first and outside. At a later point in the research, I found in the seminal book by Paulo Pardal5 the following suggestion made by the author, who also organized some shows by the artist: “For the scheduled exhibition of Tabibuia at UERJ I proposed a higher platform – symbolizing an altar – with a group of ‘sacis’ and ‘exus’ around Lucifer, the king of the latter, according to Chico”.6 Here we also see how Pardal himself seems to want to experience a disposition of the works in accordance with religious conventions: there was something in them that demanded this movement.
Evidently these two very strong features in the work of Tabibuia, a formal one (rigid structure, monolithic and inclosure in itself) and another perhaps more conceptual (the fact that they are objects impregnated with religious load) diverge from the paths traced by contemporary art. The history of art, as it is thought until now, except for rare opposing efforts, ends up locating this type of production, of which Tabibuia would be a representative, at the beginning of a story that would have “evolved” much since then. The interest of these “exotic” objects produced by him would thus be only historical. However, what the approach to the works of Tabibuia seems to require is that we think them from another point of view. A less Eurocentric point of view, which takes into account the world of the artist, his conceptual imagination, his experience and thought. The question then becomes: how to do it?
One of the attentive readings of the work of Tabibuia, is the one of the critic Frederico Morais. In a passage, he seeks to describe how the artist proceeded at work: “In his creative process of ritualistic backgrounds, Tabibuia always starts from the torso and remains in it. The work is a one-piece and without fitting. Extras are very rare. There is only roughing. Naked wood, treated only with chisel and hammer. Very rare presence of color, absent almost always grooves, turning and other decorative distractions. The choice of the raw material and fidelity to the original volumetric of the tree trunk delimit its expressive field, circumscribing the form”.7 In fact, the sculptures of Tabibuia that I have been able to look at more closely correspond to this description. Except for the phalluses, the pipes, the horns and the oars (in the boats), I did not see other elements later attached to them. No obvious collages or fittings are observed. As Frederico Morais comments: the final form of the works is inscribed in the chosen subject. This observation connects with what comes next, in another context.
In his book, Paulo Pardal brings some accounts of how Tabibuia told stories of each of his works. On an Exu (ixum, as he put it) he said: “This inxum lived on the São João river when the river made its return [before being rectified]; as he does not like the straight line [of the river], he leaned against a tree on the island of Rato where Tabibuia took it”.8 We may suppose that Tabibuia saw the exu hidden in the tree next to the rectified section of the river, cut the tree and “took” the exu from within, carving it in the trunk. Another story, also taken from the reports of Paulo Pardal, is that of Viadinha: “Seu Alcides, owner of Zé Eris’s farm, and his administrator, Seu Ireno, are on a farm that has many hunters who have not discovered a viadinha [little female deer]. It has a female deer body, a doll’s head, a horse’s neck, a pig’s foot, a horse’s hand, an ox’s scrotum, a deer vagina, a mango tail. It was I who discovered this viada [female deer] in the bush, which was lying on a 400cm tree root and 20cm sway. The leaves is the same as a house. This female deer with sleep so slow and with the head in the root”.
As we can see from these accounts, for Tabibuia, the exus, sacis, black women and beasts are embedded in nature, they live in the trunks and tree roots, therefore in the wood that he uses as the material of his sculptures. What the artist does is less to invent them than find them (analogously, I believe, as a medium, in a session of umbanda, can receive Exu). In this sense, we can see it as the opposite of the modern sculptor. The modern sculptor shapes the material in a tense struggle with the limits (weight, density, amplitude) of each material. Increasingly modern sculpture has been opening up into space, ceasing to be understood as a closed body in itself. Since Tabibuia reveals what already inhabits its subject matter, the formal limits of his works are given a priori. While one's work is expansive, that of the other is introverted.
Even when European art most closely approached a critique of rationality, opposing the idea of domination of nature, questioning the very notion of “enlightenment” – surrealism perhaps represents all this better – it did so through a school, a vanguard, a program. Consider the works of Tabibuia present in this exhibition: their exus, sacis and other beings. Let us now recall the sculptures of the Brazilian Maria Martins – linked to the surrealists – of the series “Amazônia”: Yara, Boto, among other enchanted beings of Brazilian folklore. In the work of Martins, folklore is quoted, represented, translated into the language of modern sculpture. It is not experienced, lived or incarnated as in the sculptures of Tabibuia. And I say this without prejudice of one or the other, only to draw attention to these different points of view, or perspectives. Certainly, anthropology is the field that is aware of this difference of viewpoints. Viveiros de Castro, writing from that field in Metafísicas Canibais asks: "What happens when one takes the native thought seriously? When the anthropologist’s purpose is no longer to explain, interpret, contextualize, rationalize this thought but rather to use it, draw its consequences, and see what effects it can have on ours?”.10
I am not suggesting that Tabibuia is an Indian-equivalent figure for our art history. Even because indigenous art itself may already occupy this space. However, it seems urgent to me to recognize the otherness which, in relation to the canons, his presence represents. At a time when the art world seems to be wanting to dissolve frontiers, the challenge that Chico Tabibuia’s work (and other artists’) poses to us is of great proportions. It is necessary to refuse watertight categories and include what has already been seen as “folk art” in contemporary art museum exhibitions. But to do so, one must rethink how the works of Tabibuia operate (and how they may be) within museums and galleries. It is also necessary – for those who are going to live with his work – to reinstate the importance of approaching African and indigenous matrix thinking, because all this is at stake and is relevant to their understanding of the world.11 There is much to be done, but this initiation has been stated.

1 As the artist birth certificate was issued much later, it is prudent to take the date of his birth, October 20, 1936, with some caution.
2 His grandfather built flour houses, corn meals, pestles, troughs, and canoes. It is notable the presence of some of these forms in the work of Tabibuia.
3 The sculptures of Tabibuia, however, are not made with the tabebuia wood as one might think. Among the woods used by the sculptor, the researcher Paulo Pardal mentions: cedar, jack fruit tree, vinhático, donkey blood (braúna), oiticica, among others.
4 The designation “Macumba”n to name the Brazilian religion of an African matrix based on the Yorubá religion is common in Rio de Janeiro (as “Candomblé” is more commonly used in Bahia).
5 PARDAL, Paulo. The Magic-erotic Sculpture of Chico Tabibuia. Rio de Janeiro: UERJ-ERCA, 1989. The book continues to be a primordial source of research and reflection on the artist. This is because Pardal was close to the artist, collecting reports, accompanying his work and also helping him to make this activity economically feasible (as we know, Chico Tabibuia came from an extremely poor family).
6 PARDAL, Paulo, op. cit., p. 48
7 Frederico Morais. "Chico Tabibuia: will of form". Revista da Galeria Nara Roesler, n. 2, April 1996.
8 PARDAL, Paulo, op. cit., p. 47.
9 PARDAL, Paulo, op. cit., p. 138.
10 VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. Metafisicas Canibais. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2015, p. 227.
11 It is interesting to think that when Tabibuia worked as a lumberjack, he spent more time camping in the woods than at home with his family. The way he builds the stories of his works often brings the point of view of the figures portrayed. For example, the History of Exu-Capeta begins “I was taken from the allotment called Bosque do Garguá”. All of these are relevant data to be considered in future research.