In a rented studio in SoHo, where he was finishing two paintings for his New York show at the Mendes Wood DM gallery opening November 16, Antonio Obá explained the importance for him of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts that originated among enslaved people and, after the end of slavery, was for a time prohibited.
Obá is the younger of two children. His father was a propane tank delivery man and his mother a housewife who worked part-time as a cook and manicurist. Growing up in Ceilândia, an agricultural suburb of Brasilia, he was always drawing. “I never thought that something I did so naturally would become my way of living,” he said. But in high school, he was given access to canvas and paint for the first time. He chose to portray capoeira.
“It’s a dance and a fight without touching,” he said. “It’s very harmonious, a very slow movement with no impact or shock. It was a manifestation of resistance to slavery.” His paintings were included in an exhibition of student art in a gallery in Brasilia. “The work caused an emotional reaction in other people,” he recalled.
Intrigued by art but uncertain that it could financially support him, he enrolled in a course in advertising at the Catholic University of Brasilia and painted in his free time. “Studying advertising, I was completely unhappy and dissatisfied,” he said. A friend who was in the journalism program wrote an article for the university newspaper about Obá’s paintings. Reading it, Obá could envision his life as an artist. He quit the advertising program and transferred to an art college.
He was teaching art at a school open to students of all ages as well as developing his own practice. His paintings were heavily influenced by artists he admired, including Francis Bacon and Chinese calligraphers. “I started asking myself, ‘Where am in this work?’” he said. “I began feeling this inner discomfort and stopped making work for a while.”
Obá working on an untitled, in-progress work for his upcoming exhibition.
Then he took up the practice of capoeira himself. “It was, in a way, determinative,” said Obá, “it was a corporeal relation that was awakened in me. I was raised in a Christian tradition where you recognize your body not by moving it but by denying it. To start capoeira helped me to not only recognize and understand my body but the other person’s body dancing with me. It was putting myself in a vulnerable position on purpose.”
He was also reclaiming his African heritage in a society that has sought to dilute Black culture. “I was taking back an ancestral body from this tradition that acknowledges the body, and also the other body, in an interplay,” he said. “I felt a need to change the focus of my research to look at my origins.”
Raised as a Catholic boy who played music in church and “almost became a priest,” he had been christened Antonio de Paula. He replaced the Christian surname with Obá, which means “king” in the Yoruba language of West Africa. “It was a self-baptism,” he said. “The enslaved people that came on ships, one of the first experiences they went through while being bought was to have their original names substituted by the name of a saint. For me, the taking of a new name became a critical position for resistance.”
He had found his subject. “I began diving into the genealogy of my family, coming out of a small familial circle to reach a larger realm related to the generational history of Brazil and the issue of miscegenation,” he said. “I arrived at a more complete picture of nineteenth century eugenics, the persecution of Afro-Brazilian traditions and the overall violence—not only physical but symbolic—on the Black body.” He painted figures that were unmistakably Black. “Why does it seem so strange to see a Black body?” he said. “If you have a tradition that has always been erasing and whitening an identity for centuries, it’s not by signing a paper that this is all of a sudden going to end.”
The counterpoint to his assertion of pride is the acceptance of vulnerability. In 2013, he did three performances in which he ground up a statue of the Virgin Mary and poured the white powder over his naked body. “The performance was a way of reclaiming the body and the ancestry of this body, and adding the political and historical context,” he said. “This celebration of the nude body in this performance was not gratuitous. It was to put myself naked in a story that made me vulnerable. Historically, enslaved people were sold nude.” Four years after he staged the piece in a museum, edited videos of it were circulated on the Internet by right-wing politicians. The reaction was so hostile that Obá left his home in Brasilia and lived for four months in London and Brussels. “What is uncomfortable is how this is used, and that as an artist it is something I can’t control,” he said. “I and several artists in Brazil learned that the hard way.”
He said he values the immediacy, compressed time frame and “surprise element” of performance, but the practice of painting also delivers the unexpected. “I never have a predefined idea of what will happen in the end,” he said. “During the process of painting, the image will reveal itself.”
One of the paintings he made in New York started with photographs that he found by chance. It depicts a Black man dreaming in a hammock, his face recognizably Obá’s own. A flurry of white moths is descending on him. “I saw images of an entomologist in the Amazon Forest who found a moth that feeds on the tears of birds and alligators,” he said. “As a mixed Black man, to put my face there is a necessary and obvious decision. It’s a very strong self-reference, telling a subjective fable for an emotional state. It comes from a particular point of view, but because they’re emotions, they’re accessible to other people.” Weeping that provides nourishment—it is a powerful metaphor for Obá’s exploration of Afro-Brazilian history, and more broadly, for an artist’s stripping away all defenses in service to his art.