Flashback: for a five-year period from 1967 to 1972, a cultural movement dominated the streets of Brazil. It arose at the time of the repressive military regime and has been described as a “burst of sunshine”. It dawned light on music, literature, art, amongst other artistic fields. Its name? Tropicália, and for its short-lived prominence, it was characterised by liberationist optimism. Tropicália was hailed as a symbol of political resistance. This movement brought with it bright-coloured art, vibrant abstract patterns, tropical wildlife, and kitsch aesthetics that illustrate everyday objects.
Fast-forward: 21st century Brazilian artist Ana Elisa Egreja is creating paintings that find resonance in magical realism. The process by which they are produced is unparalleled and remarkable. Egreja stages seemingly surreal situations, photographs them and reproduces these photographs without the help of a projection on her blank canvas. She applies strokes that give a hyper-realistic impression and embeds personal details on these life-like scaled canvases. When combined, these elements make you feel as though you are stepping into the scene as a viewer.
What is interesting to note is that while these works are utterly unique in their process and outcomes, parallels can be drawn between Ana Elisa Egreja’s art and Tropicália, which was prevalent in her native country forty years prior. Though her works are not particularly or straightforwardly politically charged, visual motifs from the movement are omnipresent in her works.
Embracing multi-disciplinary art
It is no secret that Ana Elisa Egreja’s creative process is one that utilises several forms of art: from staging to photographing, from filmmaking to painting, there are many dimensions to Egreja’s practice. Although her paintings may seem at first glance like the “finished product”, this multi disciplinary method creates layers to her work in a similar capacity to Brazilian Tropicália.
Tropicália was a multi disciplinary movement in which artists turned to a variety of subjects together with local and international inspiration to produce unprecedented hybrid forms that were distinctively Brazilian. The fact that Tropicália permeated such a wide range of areas, each building on each other, exemplifies how Egreja has also incorporated a variety of mediums to create a unique outcome.
Putting kitsch in the spotlight
In a recent interview with ARTUNER, Ana Elisa Egreja describes her work as “being kitsch and familiar and nonsense at the same time”. The self-aware reference to the kitsch aestheticism she employs in her art is fascinating, as it subconsciously alludes to the same aesthetic dominant in Tropicália art.
By painting scenes with kitsch subjects (i.e. the bathroom objects in Banheiro Beje, 2017), the viewer engages with a familiar setting. It is only once the viewer is absorbed by the piece that they can notice its anomalies. In this case, the absence of any reflected figure in the central mirror evokes nonsense, since the painting’s perspective represents the view at mirror level. A comparable phenomenon occurs in Uma Galinha na Escada (2017) with the chicken portrait in the heart of a domestic setting. The vibrant colours and everyday objects used in a variety of Tropicália artworks pieces (i.e. fruit, vegetation, etc.) are echoed in Egreja’s work.
In spite of the fact that the kitsch aesthetics in Tropicália served a different and more political purpose, they were still a primary aspect of the movement. By using common forms and bright colours, the familiarity of these images help the works become accessible and therefore create dialogue with the audience.
Prominent Brazilian musician and political activist Caetano Veloso released an album at the time of the Tropicália movement. His self-titled album’s artwork is a valuable example of kitsch artwork that would have helped shape this movement. Its key “kitsch” characteristics are its bright colours, the stylised font, and the composition which features Veloso’s photographed portrait embraced by the drawing of a woman.
In both Tropicália art and Ana Elisa Egreja’s artworks, kitsch is used to familiarise and attract a wide audience, but both have profound and complex deeper undertones.
Ana Elisa Egreja’s large-scale illusionistic interiors occupy the canvas using architectural dimensions. The awe-inspiring effect this has on viewers is deliberate, as Egreja explains that she “use[s] the scale precisely to cause this sensation of entering into the painting. And, obviously, another important factor for this sensation is the fact that her painting is realistic.” This inevitably creates engagement with the viewer.
Similarly, art created in the Tropicália period encouraged interaction with the viewer. Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica who created an installation at the 1967 “New Brazilian Objectivity” exhibit placed sand, trees, gravel, fabric panels and a cage holding two live parrots on display for people to walk through and experience first-hand. This installation was intended to emulate an atmosphere found in the Brazilian favelas and contrasts it with the Brazil’s nature and modernist architecture.
Though Egreja’s and Oiticica’s art are very different in form, they share an interactive spirit meant to involve the viewer in the art and delve into the scenes before them. Indeed, the audience’s participation in the story that is being told, as well as a sense of ephemerality are essential components of both the Brazilian artistic movement and Egreja’s practice.
Egreja’s work draws on her cultural heritage while creating an idiosyncratic outcome. The subtle parallels in Ana Elisa Egreja’s work and Brazilian Tropicália can attest to how similar themes and concepts can take drastically different forms.