The work of Mario Cravo Neto has long been under-appreciated on British shores. Despite long being a celebrated figure of contemporary Brazilian photography at home and abroad – having exhibited extensively in South America and the United States as well as at the Recontre d’Arles – the photographer, who died in 2009, hasn’t been exposed to British audiences to the same extent.
The first UK solo exhibition of his work has recently gone on show at London’s Autograph ABP, under the auspices of the gallery director Mark Sealy and guest curator Gabriela Salgado. I visited the gallery as the show was being installed as Salgado explained what makes Mario Cravo Neto such an essential figure in Brazilian art.
“MY IDEA FROM NOW ON IS TO DEVELOP THAT TRANSITION BETWEEN THE INERT OBJECT AND THE SACRED OBJECT. IT IS SIMPLY A RELIGIOUS POSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY THAT I WISH TO ADOPT.” – MARIO CRAVO NETO
Cultural tastes may have had a part to play in his long absence from these shores, with Cravo Neto’s idiosyncratic studio portraits perhaps not appealing to what were considered traditional British photographic concerns. “Conceptual photography or photojournalism seemed to be the genres more palatable to the British,” Salgado tells me. “Britain can be an iconoclastic country, where religious or sacred images become quite rare.”
The son of acclaimed sculptor Mario Cravo, he originally planned on following in his father’s formidable footsteps. But in 1964, when his father relocated the family to Germany to participate in an artist-in-residence program, the teenage Cravo Neto discovered the joys of photography.
He returned to Brazil, winning an award at the first Art Biennial of Bahia and enjoying his first solo exhibition. He moved to New York to refine his work, studying under conceptual artist Jack Krueger at the Art Students League and beginning to be published and exhibited more widely.
But in 1975, just as Cravo Neto’s career was beginning to blossom, he was involved in a serious car accident. Though left bedridden for a year, this was a turning point in his process. While recuperating he began to experiment, and being confined to controlled spaces led him towards a signature practice that was both rigorous and ecstatically spiritual.
Cravo Neto was from Bahia, the state that was the point of entry for millions of African slaves between the 19th and 19th century. The state capital Salvador was founded as the nation’s capital by the Portuguese in 1549 and the scar tissue of this painful, knotty heritage still remains.
His work, which identifies and honours Brazil’s potent jumble of African spiritualities and European Catholicism, is informed by this colonial and diasporic legacy spanning centuries. Cravo Neto pays specific attention to Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian form of worship springing from traditional west African Yoruba culture.
“He was a practitioner of the religion himself, which makes him very respectful.” Salgado says. “He goes into this world with knowledge of what he’s trying to convey, so all the elements in the pictures have a symbolic meaning.” Cravo Neto frequently would incorporate birds – roosters, doves, swans, guinea fowls – into his photos, not as mere props, each laden with their own meaning and used for certain rituals.
“They are codified images. They are not the gaze of someone who finds this exotic, they are the work of someone who is practicing his spirituality through images. This is the difference.”
This is clearly evident in The Eternal Now, the first of Cravo Neto’s series’ that the exhibition draws from.
“You have to understand that Mario Cravo Neto’s path towards photography starts with him being a sculptor, like his father,” says Salgado. “When you look at The Eternal Now portraits composed in a studio, you can tell that they have a very strong sense of space and composition proper of sculpture, something you don’t commonly see when you look at studio photography.”
The monochrome images play with light and shade to tremendous effect; when describing Cravo Neto’s photographs, famed Brazilian composer, poet and political activist Caetano Veloso said that his subjects seemed to be “caressed by the serene expectation of light” – the source of the exhibition’s title.
“THEY ARE NOT THE GAZE OF SOMEONE WHO FINDS THIS EXOTIC, THEY ARE THE WORK OF SOMEONE WHO IS PRACTICING HIS SPIRITUALITY THROUGH IMAGES.”
The Eternal Now is his most well-known series, and there is a clear thematic link that makes Autograph ABP a fitting environment for these images. “There’s an obvious connection with the work of Autograph ABP co-founder Rotimi Fane-Kayode, who also left a strong legacy of portraits charged with traditional Yoruba symbology. When Mark [Sealy] met him and saw his work for the first time over 20 years ago, he immediately connected the two aesthetically and conceptually.”
To showcase Cravo Neto’s wide command of styles, Salgado also includes images from Laróyè, the street photography series produced in the 2000s during the latter part of his career. These vibrant, sensuous images convey the huge mix of cultures, ethnicities, languages and religious traditions in Salvador.
The freewheeling, unguarded sense of liberation isn’t a nod to the kineticism of, say, Gary Winogrand’s classic New York images – it acknowledges the debauched spark of Èsù, a trickster spirit and overseer of cross roads. In the image below, he photographs a wrestler in protective headgear, but the use of red (a colour attribute of Èsù) and the physical characteristics hints at a representation of the entity.
“My idea from now on is to develop that transition between the inert object and the sacred object. It is simply a religious position in photography that I wish to adopt,” Cravo Neto once said. In constant search of transcendence through the image, his work manages to be both sanctified but incredibly earthly and in touch with the body.
As Salgado concludes, “despite being a white man involved in something whose roots lie in pre-Christian animist traditions in West Africa, there’s no detachment. He’s completely implicated.
It asks interesting questions about who has the right to represent. [For Mario Cravo Neto] race can be secondary, culture can be secondary – spirituality can cross these bridges and help people connect.”
A Serene Expectation of Light is on at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place until 2 April 2016. Entrance is free. autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/mario-cravo-neto
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