Tree of Life: Sonia Gomes’ Sculptures Connect Architecture and Nature

At Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Casa de Vidro, São Paulo, hand-woven sculptures inhabit the buildings, incorporating tree trunks and branches

Sonia Gomes (b. 1948) is a late-comer to the art-world: she was a practising lawyer until her mid-40s, and she began achieving commercial success only about ten years ago for her signature mix of found domestic objects and fabrics in hand-woven abstract sculptures and mobiles. ‘Still I Rise’, her exhibition named for Maya Angelou’s eponymous 1978 poem and held concurrently at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) and Casa de Vidro, features a new body of work, Raiz (Root, 2018), incorporating tree trunks and branches.

Completed in 1951, Casa de Vidro served as the residence for its architect, Lina Bo Bardi, and her husband, Pietro Bo Bardi – a patron of the arts and the founding director of MASP – until his death in 1999. A modernist glass box raised on pilotis atop a hill clad in tropical vegetation, it was Bo Bardi’s most iconic design, until her 1968 new design for MASP: a vast, rectangular glass shell, suspended in brackets, sheltering a public plaza at the vibrant core of São Paulo.

Sonia Gomes, ‘Still I Rise’, exhibition view at Casa de Vidro, São Paulo. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo/Brussels/New York; photograph: Bruno Leão

The first artwork on display at Casa de Vidro, in the garden, links the architectural volume of the house with its natural environment. Made especially for the exhibition, the untitled sculpture consists of a snaking rope with different lengths of coloured yarns and cloth twisted around it at intersections, which trails like a vine from one of the pilotis, along the roots and up the trunk of a 70-year-old African Fig tree. Bo Bardi planted this tree so it would grow through a square outdoor atrium, spreading high over the centre of the house, its canopy visible from different interior angles. Gomes has referenced this alternation of indoor-outdoor space at MASP by installing an earlier work also titled Lugar para um corpo (Place for a body, 2014) – a mass of rope, wire and coloured cloth, knotted and sewn around a birdcage – in an outdoor plant bed, where it is visible through the glass corner windows of an interior gallery.

The floor-to-ceiling-glass windows that wrap the main living area at Casa de Vidro were designed to open fully, diffusing the physical boundaries of house and garden. Inside this space, where the majority of the show’s artworks are displayed, a selection of paintings and figurative sculptures from Bo Bardi’s personal collection further highlights the transparency of the building, the play between geometries in its design, positive and negative spaces in both architecture and sculpture, as well as the contrast between Gomes’s works and classical art. Gomes’s moderately scaled colourful sculptures are mostly set on the pale-blue tiled floor or propped against and tied to the pilotis that rhythmically slice the room. Two have been set on tables.

Sonia Gomes, ‘Still I Rise’, exhibition view at Casa de Vidro, São Paulo. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo/Brussels/New York; photograph: Bruno Leão

These alluring sculptures entice viewers to walk around and sometimes over them, observing their singular shapes from different angles. In some, the knotted and stitched fabric bundles and ropes seem to engulf or bulge out from tree branches like colourful sap; others resemble strange burrowing critters or body parts clawing through the wood. While their context allows a dialogue between the work, nature and a domestic setting, it also focusses attention on their material qualities, Gomes’s play with full and empty volumes and the repetition and alternation between their forms – both contrasting with and complementary to the pure geometry of Bo Bardi’s modernist design. At MASP, the tension and weight of Gomes’s works is most striking: their unusual contortions, formed from twisted wires and soft netting, convey a sense of bodily struggle and discomfort in their own taught fabric skins.

One of the most intriguing artworks of the show, on display at Casa de Vidro, Cordão dos Mentecaptos (Chord of the Dim-witted, 2018) comprises an unusually-shaped branch with a large central dent and phallic textile bulges fastened above it. Hooked to the edge of a round green jasper table, designed by Bo Bardi in homage to Mies van der Rohe, it faces one of the windows through which Gomes’s untitled vine can be seen. With ‘Still I Rise’, Gomes seems to acknowledge the power structures with which unruly creativity often struggles and which it can ultimately overcome.

Sonia Gomes, ‘Still I Rise’ runs at Museu de Arte de São Paulo and Casa de Vidro, São Paulo, until 10 March 2019.

Main image: Sonia Gomes, ‘Still I Rise’, exhibition view at Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo/Brussels/New York; photograph: Bruno Leão

Camila Belchior is an independent writer, art historian and critic, based in São Paulo.

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019

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