Sonia Gomes Responds to Her Materials

Fernanda Brenner speaks to the artist about the way her work entangles different times, stories and locations

BY Fernanda Brenner AND Sonia Gomes in Interviews | 09 AUG 23

I’ve followed Sonia Gomes closely for the past year and a half while making the documentary A Film for Sonia Gomes, which I co-directed with Brazilian filmmaker Pedro Marques. Now in her mid-70s, Gomes is surrounded by younger artists and curators, who often refer to her as the godmother of a prominent new generation of Black artists in Brazil. However, it wasn’t always like this. She welcomed me at her ample but cosy São Paulo apartment in early August, surrounded by artworks: some her own; others gifts and exchanged pieces with fellow artists; and still others recent acquisitions from younger, mainly Black, artists from Brazil and abroad.

Fernanda Brenner Sonia, as we speak you are preparing, among other things, a long overdue presentation at the upcoming São Paulo Biennial – your first participation in the event – a solo show at Pinacoteca in Brazil, a gallery exhibition at Mendes Wood DM’s new venue in Paris, an artist’s book for MOMA publishing, all happening in the coming months. How do you feel about it?

Sonia Gomes Tired! But very happy. I wish I could take a few weeks off.

FB Since I have known you – for over 10 years – you’ve said that, and I’ve never seen it happen!

SG You’re right. My work is my life. I am always working, and there is no separation between leisure and studio time, but I have been learning some strategies to live by my own rhythm! Grappling with deadlines is part of the studio routine, but I only do work I feel like doing. The exhibitions are the outcome of what is happening at the studio at a certain point; they are a reunion of everything I am excited about when the invitations come. I have an ongoing process in which linear time does not apply. I think artists’ time is different, and it must be respected. I prefer to live in a spiral time.

Sonia Gomes, Untitled, meu amarelo é ouro series, 2023, fabric, acrylic paint, freshwater pearl and gold leaf on wood, 45 × 52 cm (top) 120 × 18 × 14 cm (bottom). Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, New York; photograph: Edouard Fraipont

FB This is an interesting entry point for your working process; your sculptures carry the entanglement of different times, stories and locations through the combination of multisource materials that arrive at your studio from the hands of others and, more or less, by chance. Some are precious family memories granted to you to become something else; others are ordinary rags picked up in thrift stores or street markets worldwide. Can you tell me a bit about the large object and textile inventory from which your work starts?

SG The materials always tell me what they want to be. I usually separate handcrafted textiles from industrial ones at the studio – laces, embroideries, knitted patterns and synthetic fibres – but in the end, they all overlap in the works. The industrial textiles are more like a colour palette, a set of paints, while the handcrafted pieces are vital for the compositions. You know, when the invitation to the São Paulo Biennial came, there was a conversation about doing a retrospective. The idea of grouping the works according to the year of their making seems unfit for a working process like mine. We went with a different idea as it became clear that a retrospective would not make sense. I was doing torsions in the 2000s, and I am doing them now; one of them might even have a piece of fabric I cut out while making a similar work 20 years ago. Each piece combines stories that cease to matter individually once they become entangled.

Sonia Gomes, 2023. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Pablo Saborido

FB I like to think that you handle time; you touch and reshuffle it. Your body of work contains a multitude of voices, but at the same time, it entirely relies on your own sensibility and decision-making. Does that make sense?

SG Yes, very much. It is what I said before about materials telling me things. They also trigger my working dynamics; the answers and forms come while I handle them. For example, I recently received a group of thick wood logs that immediately prompted me to work. It became the starting point for a new series. The wood came from a farm and was used as an improvised bridge with a cattle grid, and I did subtle interventions with threads and gold leaf on this beautifully aged, rough material. Some other things sit in a drawer for decades until their time to come into play arrives. I’d say my work pledges a reconstruction of storytelling instead of writing capital-H history, in which every stain, cut or wrinkle equally matters.

Sonia Gomes, Tear IV, 2023, collage and mixed media on paper, wooden frame, nails, strings and embroidered laces, 49 × 52 × 7 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, New York; photograph: Bruno Leão

FB The kind of art you produce is often tied to assumptions about origins and biographical particularities: a Black woman born in a small town in the inland of Brazil, producing artworks associated with manual or ‘domestic’ work. You usually speak against this somewhat reductive cliché and the often-racist division between art and craftwork. You are now working on large-scale, complex pieces in major museums and galleries, working with assistants and producers, but your hands are invariably at work. Your body and the materials are constantly in motion as if graciously escaping any attempt at reductive categorization.

SG I am a Black woman working from a peripherical context, and this, of course, informed my working opportunities, methods and ethics. But it is not all; it does not define me. My work saved me; the committed – compulsive even – labour of mending, unknotting, sewing and wrapping existing materials is what keeps me grounded and going. It is my fuel. I always did that; at first, it was clothes and accessories for myself, and that led me to do more abstract work. It was never my plan to become an artist. The first show I did was a catharsis, as if the pieces needed to exist somehow. Nowadays, I receive many people at my studio. I welcome school kids, people from the neighbourhood and numerous art professionals with the same enthusiasm. I feel I have to give back to the world something that was granted to me. I think everything I do should meet its audience, so I keep my doors open. I take pleasure in these exchanges. Before becoming an artist, I had never visited an artist’s studio; this contemporary art vocabulary came much later, and maybe this was important for my freedom, as you said: to avoid constraints and remain in motion.

FB Your work conveys the image of a world in which borders could be traversed as easily as your textile entanglements, as if trauma and violence could be unstitched and reworked towards new unnamed forms of relationships and arrangements. The word ‘healing’ is a bit worn-out these days, but I feel like your works do that beyond any discursive apparatus and didactic strategies; they quietly reveal a restless, searching soul. People feel like spending time in their presence and listening to their stories.

SG It reminds me of something the artist and poet Ricardo Aleixo once asked me when I was worried about my work’s conceptual and political frameworks: ‘Sonia, has any kid ever asked you what your work is about?’ They simply know and feel connected to it. Adults are the ones that seek lectures and straightforward answers.

Sonia Gomes, 2023. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Lita Cequeira

FB Your work is the subject of classroom activities in some public schools around Brazil. One of my favourite moments we captured in the documentary is when you let school kids scavenge through your textile rags in your studio, deliberately demystifying the image of the famous artist they learn about in school.

SG They are always my favourite studio visits!

Main Image: Sonia Gomes, 2023. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Lita Cequeira

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze

Sonia Gomes is an artist. She lives and works in São Paulo, Brazil.