As he would later tell the story, Arthur Bispo do Rosario was 29 years old when he received his first vision. In the backyard of the house where he lived in Rio de Janeiro, three days before Christmas in 1938, seven angels came to him.
Bispo left the house and wandered the streets of the city for two days before heading to a monastery where he introduced himself as “the one who has come to judge the living and the dead”. The monks called the police and Bispo was soon diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He had previously spent time in the Brazilian Navy, as a competitive boxer and finally as a master after injuring his leg.
Now he would never live outside a mental institution again. But the outside world continued to live in him. In the asylum, where he spent half a century, the voices in his head told Bispo his life’s mission: to create images of everything under the sun so that he could present them to God on Judgment Day. Like a version of Noah’s Ark, he set out to forge a sample of everything the world had to offer, from everyday objects like shoes and cups, to abstract concepts like nations and ideas. This inventory is in the form of sculpture and embroidery.
Bispo do Rosario: All existing materials on Earth
Curated by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, Ricardo Rezende and Javier Telles with Tie Jojima
24 January – 20 May 2023
A selection of some 1,000 works that Bispo produced during his lifetime has been on display at the Americas Society gallery since this January, the first exhibition of its size and scope ever organized outside of Brazil. It will include what is perhaps Bispo’s most important work, the mantle of representation (Annunciation garment), a mantle that he intended to wear on Judgment Day. Designed to be worn over the head like a poncho, it is embroidered on the outside with everyday objects and abstract figures, and on the inside with the names of everyone he has met – nurses, doctors, fellow patients, friends.
It is not known where Bispo learned his trade. Perhaps he took cues from his home state of Sergipe, where there is a tradition of female embroiderers – or perhaps he picked it up during his time in the navy.
It is clear that this exhibition shows the breadth of Bispo’s abilities and vision. There are jackets embroidered with the story of his vision from 1938. There are banners, banners littered with everything from maps of his sanctuary, to images of the human body, to country names. There are also sculptures of everyday objects that he wraps in the same threads he uses to sew clothes and flags.
The exhibition also elucidates the richness and complexity of Bispo’s spiritual experience, characteristic of Brazilian religious culture. Although he created his works for what is believed to be the Christian God, his works also reflect Afro-Brazilian religious beliefs – including, for example, a messenger deity called Exu, capable of traveling between worlds.
One thing we do know is that Bispo did not see himself as an artist. He saw his creation as a job that was ordered to him by voices he heard, and he did not like to be away from them. Only once in his life did he allow parts of his work to leave the asylum for exhibition.
But despite this reluctance, it is as an artist that he continues to live on in Brazilian culture, posing questions that are still debated today about artistic creation and expression—about what counts as art, where art comes from, and where it belongs.
Tags: Art exhibition, Brazilian art, culture
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