The Best Shows to See During the São Paulo Biennial

From Iole de Freitas’s works from the 1970s to Carolina Cordeiro’s zinc-coated sculptures

BY Ela Bittencourt in Critic's Guides , Exhibition Reviews | 07 SEP 23

Iole de Freitas

Instituto Moreira Salles São Paulo (IMS-SP)

6 May – 24 September

Iole de Freitas, Glass Pieces, Life Slices, 1975. Courtesy: Coleção Iole de Freitas and IMS Paulista; photograph: Julia Thompson

Three separate exhibitions in São Paulo – at IMS-SP, Institute Tomie Ohtake and Raquel Arnaud Gallery – explore the works of Iole de Freitas, the Brazilian artist who has been associated with the Rio de Janeiro art scene since her first exhibition in 1974, at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. Together, the three shows explore De Freitas’s production across sculpture – for which she is best known – as well as photography, experimental film and installation. The IMS-SP show, curated by the art historian Sônia Salzstein, merits particularly close attention: it traces an exciting yet, until now, little explored stage in De Freitas’s career in the 1970s when, while living in both Milan and New York, she experimented with Super 8 and 16mm film and photography. The composite piece Glass Pieces, Life Slices (1975) is a good example: in six photographs De Freitas distorts spatial relationships, collaging her feet and mouth and using multiple mirror reflections to create surprising, kaleidoscopic effects. The plasticity of body and space are De Freitas’s central preoccupations in this handsomely produced exhibition, which enhances the sense of movement by presenting some of the works on wavy stand-alone supports, rather than walls, inviting visitors to walk around them.

‘Mulheres na Nova Figuração: corpo e posicionamento’

(Woman of New Figuration: Body and Position)


19 August – 21 October

‘Mulheres na Nova Figuração: corpo e posicionamento’ (Women of New Figuration: Body and Position), 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Superfície; photograph: 

Superfície Gallery presents ‘Mulheres na Nova Figuração: corpo e posicionamento’ (Women of New Figuration: Body and Position), an essential show of Brazilian women artists who started out in the 1960s and ’70s, when nova figuração (new figuration) emerged in Brazil. Like the other nova figuración movements throughout Latin America, the Brazilian version depicted the body in a way that combined the lessons of earlier concrete, neo-concrete and American pop art movements. The show, curated by Camila Bechelany and Gustavo Nóbrega, counters the absence of women in the historical new figuration exhibitions, including in the inaugural Opinião 65 (Opinion 65), at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro – MAM/RJ, in 1965, which featured one woman artist, Vilma Pasqualini, alongside 28 men. Sixteen women are featured at Superfíce, from Ana Maria Maiolino, who has held international solo shows, to Anna Bella Geiger and Judith Lauand, both the focus of recent individual exhibitions at Museum of Art of São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, in 2019–20 and 2023 respectively, to artists such as Willma Martins, Regina Vater, Yolanda Freyre and Wanda Pimental, included in past São Paulo Biennials but who still await a more thorough critical examination. The works at Superfície range from the highly political, such as Maiolino’s O Herói (The Hero, 1966), an engraving depicting a skull clad in a military uniform, or Pietra Checcacci’s acrylic painting, Família Brasileira (Brazilian Family, 1967–68) – both satirizing the Brazilian dictatorship and right-wing propaganda – to more intimate pieces like Wanda Pimental’s painting series, ‘Envolvimento’ (Involvement, 1968), in which domestic settings serve as a backdrop for mysterious, solitary scenarios.

Antonio Obá

Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo / Pina Contemporânea

24 June 2023 – 18 February 2024

Antonio Obá, Banhistas nº 3 – Espreita (Bathers n. 3 – Look-out), 2020, installation view. Courtesy: Pinacoteca, São Paulo; photograph: Bruno Leão

With solo shows at the Mendes Wood galleries in New York, Brussels and São Paulo, as well as other exhibitions in Amsterdam and Beijing, Antonio Obá has emerged in the past five years as one of the most talented young Brazilian artists. Obá’s current solo exhibition, ‘Revoada’ (Flock), at Pina Contemporânea – a brand-new exhibition space dedicated primarily to contemporary art, which Pinacoteca opened in March 2023 – highlights Obá’s emphasis on Black individuality and his re-signification of everyday scenes through Afro-Brazilian and other mythologies. Earthy yet timeless, Obá’s paintings, some 20 of which are shown at Pina, exist in complex time and space: for instance, in his oil painting, Fata Morgana no1 (2022), a Black boy leaps into a pool of cerulean water. A small smart phone positioned at the edge of the pool sets the scene as a casual event of a child capturing his image on camera. But the white butterfly, poised on the boy’s leg, and the irregular shadow cast under the boy’s outstretched angelic body, add a sense of foreboding. The painting hangs across from another oil depicting a pool scene, Banhistas nº 3 – Espreita (2020), this time with Black bathers being observed from a distance by an adult male figure wearing a red beret, hinting at a revolutionary past. Throughout the show, Obá introduces lyrical, at times surreal elements into his works, weaving tales that connect contemporary Black life to the histories of passage, enslavement and liberation.

Carolina Cordeiro

Galatea Gallery

2 September – 14 October

‘Carolina Cordeiro ‘o tempo é’ (the time is), 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Galatea, São Paulo; photograph: Ding Musa

Carolina Cordeiro hails from Brazil’s state of Minas Gerais, historically known for its mining of gold and other minerals. Unlike Minas Gerais’s colonial churches, built by the Portuguese with opulently gilded interiors, Cordeiro instead turns to humbler yet nevertheless symbolic materials. For her exhibition at Galatea ‘o tempo é’ (The Time Is), she has created an installation that combines zinc-coated plates and mirrors suspended from the ceiling, as well as small zinc discs laid out on the floor. A minimalist aesthetic and a sense of stillness permeate the show. In her exhibition text, Fernanda Morse references the socio-political connotation of zinc: it being the metal commonly used to make roofs in Brazil’s low-income communities, a reference to both shelter and resilience. Cordeiro’s inspiration in popular culture also informs another piece, to take back what I said (2023), whose title comes from the lyrics of Gilberto Gil’s ‘Retiros espirituais’ (Spiritual Retreats, 1975). Here, small zinc discs scattered on the floor make manifest subtle complexities of words and memory – emotive residue that, like the plates, is permanent, yet, like the oxidizing metal, constantly changes.


Umberto Costa Barros

Marli Matsumoto Contemporânea

26 August – 11 November

Umberto Costa Barros, ‘Where’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Marli Matsumoto Contemporânea; photograph: Edouard Fraipont

A member of the so-called Geracão AI-5 (Generation AI-5) – referring to the constitutional decree that institutionalized repression and censorship during Brazil’s military dictatorship – Umberto Costa Barros’s show at Marli Matsumoto Contemporânea sheds light on a relatively forgotten member of a generation of Brazilian artists who, robbed of opportunities for the formal presentation of his political and avant-garde work, turned to the streets and public spaces to stage interventions. Like the late Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, or his own contemporary, Cildo Meireles, Costa Barros conceived of art not as an object in space but rather an action carried out in an environment. He’s particularly known for staging an intervention in 1969 at the 3rd Salon of Plastic Arts at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where he studied architecture. In the installation – part of his ‘FAUUFRJ69’ series – Costa Barros precariously piled up chairs and other objects outside the designated exhibition space, all of which he found on-site. His show at Marli Matsumoto uses three-dimensional intervention to question the role of an art object and of site-specificity. Costa Barros uses painted fireboard and cotton on wood, as well as cords, to alter the viewers’ perception of the gallery’s rooms – for instance, disturbing the white wall’s rectangular regularity with black cords resembling two halved parallelograms. The show also includes two geometric drawings and a large number of archival images of Costa Barros’s installations from the late 1960s.

Main Image: ‘Mulheres na Nova Figuração: corpo e posicionamento’ (Women of New Figuration: Body and Position), 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Superfície

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.