"I was at the National Art Gallery today, where an exhibition from Brazil was being mounted - very disturbing images indeed ..." a friend emailed to me in May. The following day I had the opportunity to talk with artist Carlos Henrique de Mello Carvalho about his 18 unusual paintings, which he had brought to Namibia at the invitation of the Brazilian Embassy.
Why only faces of women?
Walking into the gallery to meet the young artist, I was immediately intrigued by the huge images hanging in the entrance hall. All of them depicted faces of beautiful women - in drab colours, painted on tattered pieces of canvas with frayed edges in uneven shapes. Many faces were cut, torn and covered with bruises and stitches. Why only faces? And why only women? were my first questions.
"For me, the beauty of a woman is concentrated in her face," Carlos explained. "The rest I leave to people's imagination. And what I want to show is so much more disturbing and shocking with women; with men it's not the same message."
Carlos started painting women's faces six years ago, while still at university - at that time mostly faces of friends. But he began asking himself: How have artists before me, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries, depicted women in their art? How does my work fit into their tradition?
Men as viewers and owners of art
He applied for a research scholarship and soon came upon art critic John Berger's influential essay Ways of Seeing, in which Berger investigated the artistic portrayal of women over the past centuries. Berger came to the conclusion that, traditionally, most artists have painted female figures with a male viewer in mind; they painted women to expose them to the 'male gaze'
Nude women, in particular, have therefore been depicted as passive figures, without their own stories, accessible and desirable, posed in a way to please or entice the male spectator. They do not capture the essence of the individual woman, but are, according to Berger, portrayed for men to "gain reassurance of their manhood" - both as a spectator and as an owner of art.
Of course there were masters, Berger admits, who created unique images of particular women, showing their love and respect for their female subjects, but this was a rarity. Most paintings of female figures only seem to be about the woman portrayed, but they are not: they are all about the male painter and the male viewer.
Nakedness and nudity
Berger makes an interesting distinction between naked and nude. A naked woman, he writes, is naked and at the same time remains completely herself, without feeling used and without being viewed as an object. A nude woman is also naked, but she has become an object to be gazed at, an object of pleasure, sexuality or power. Images of nude women reveal what the artist or, in modern times, what the photographer or filmmaker wants the viewer to see.
This representation of women has, according to Berger, continued until today and has found its culmination and perversion in the modern media and commercial advertisements. Nude or half-nude women are exposed ubiquitously to the public eye, used to create certain feelings, mainly in men, in order to sell a product or an idea.
Challenging the objectification of women
In reponse to this tradition, Carlos began to paint images that would force the viewers of his art to look behind the masks, facades and smooth surfaces of beautiful women. "I wanted to challenge this idea of woman as an object to be looked at," he explained. "I therefore paint the faces of women in a very different way. First of all I do not use clean canvas, but tarpaulin that has been used to cover loaded trucks and that has travelled all over my country. It is full of tears and patches, dirty and damaged; it has been exposed to wind and weather, and it has a history just like the women 1 paint.
"Then I paint well known faces from photos, advertisements, or of popular singers and actresses onto this canvas. First I paint them beautiful and perfect, contemplating and affirming their beauty in a traditional way. But then, as a second step, I destroy my own work. I cut through it, make rips and tears, and thereby deconstruct it. So my work portrays my idea of a beautiful woman, but at the same time I am destroying it.
"As a third step," Carlos continued, "I try to stitch the image back together again, but not in a way that reconstructs and heals. The rough stitches with strips of leather and rubber from old tyres make the destruction even more visible. They allure to hardiness on the one hand, but may also create associations of power and sexual violence. In the end everything is visible: the original face, the tears and cuts, and the stitches."
Exposing the male gaze
"My art is not simply a process of deconstructing and reconstructing," emphasised Carlos. "I like to go deeper than that. I like to make visible the condition of gender in our society. I want to show something that is very disturbing with respect to women and the tradition of art."
By cutting into the women's faces, opening them up and showing parts of their inside, even behind the stitches, Carlos forces the male viewer of his art to focus on the woman on the canvas instead of on himself as a spectator. And he reveals his subjects as women with a history, as women with wounds and stitches and destroyed masks; he shows women naked, not nude
Erika von Wietersheim, Sister Namibia Magazine 2009
¿Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios?, no, ajenas al filme de Almodóvar, instaladas en estados de tristeza, angustia, depresión, sus rostros ante el observador reflejan en tonalidades verdosas, violetas, ocres, agonía de género o simplemente condición humana.
Gratificante es que Carlos Carvalho, nuestro artista brasileño, no expone condicionado por el estereotipo mundial de país del carnaval y la alegría, ese cliché que cada año mueve a millones. Aquí vemos un conjunto desgarrado, unido por una pena secreta compartida, las causas no interesan, pueden ser múltiples porque importa en esta representación la voluntad de mostrar situaciones opuestas al acoso publicitario de la comunicación de masas, obcecada por el objetivo del consumo apoyado en carnadas placenteras.
Procediendo de gamas cálidas y oscuras impregnadas en retazos de carpas de camión, extrae del soporte deteriorado por el uso y la intemperie los rostros como metáforas que surgen de la penumbra tal apariciones veladas inquietantes, presentes a través del pigmento muy diluido y suave, reposado con el cuido con que se aborda el dolor, donde sólo resalta el collage de tiras a modo de cicatrices o delineando contornos, costuras de hilos gruesos uniendo heridas y velos delicados extendidos cual tramas de luz.
Al lado del silencio, fuera del grito estentóreo tremendo, las imágenes condensan más sonidos, algo de la música del vals triste de Sibelius, danza de semblantes femeninos apropiados por el autor y hermanados con los temas de: Münch, Shegel, Lucien Freud, rostros que desde sus retazos o fragmentos se dejan ver y sentir.
Se oye una canción lejana: Azul, la mañana es azul, señal de que un día vendrás, llora Orfeo Negro en la mañana de carnaval.
Dramáticas e intensas se muestran las pinturas de Carlos Carvalho, en Galería Códice el próximo miércoles 3 de septiembre a las 7:00 p.m
David Ocón, La Prensa Nicaraguense 2008.