RE: PÚBLICA | The Artist Subverting Brazil's Lady Liberty
Artist José Damasceno portrays República - the national symbol of Brazil - as a haunted figure
Photo: Luke A. Walker
National personifications have always been highly idealized. The archetype for modern democracy was Marianne, the French protector of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Among her many daughters are the Statue of Liberty and the Brazilian Efígie da República—or, more simply, “República”—the face on billions of centavos and reals. But after three years in which Brazil has been wracked by protests, artist José Damasceno has turned that heroine into a vulnerable mortal.
For his new show RE: PÚBLICA, at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, Damasceno made a printed triptych of República faces, and added pupils to her blank stone eyes. The images have been inflated to nearly ten feet by seven, the size of billboards on the London Tube. They tell the story of a woman besieged: at first she stares impassively, but soon she becomes anxious, even suspicious. She’s frozen in her sculpted pose, and only her eyes can hint at a world in flux.
Damasceno spent 2017 traveling through urban Brazil: Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Belo Horizonte. By his estimation, he pasted “hundreds” of these triptychs, in the form of smaller posters, around each city. But no two nations are quite alike, and meu público não é seu publico. London’s St. James’s district is five thousand miles from the streets of Brazil in both literal and cultural terms.
One thing I felt, entering Thomas Dane, was a little embarrassed; I’m hardly the revolutionary República needs. Compare Edel Rodriguez, who decapitated Lady Liberty for a Der Spiegel cover last year, and put her head in Donald Trump’s hand. It was a clarion call to Western liberals: resist the decay, punch the Nazis back! But few visitors to RE: PÚBLICA will be Brazilian—or even realize that this woman is South American, not a cousin from the North, or from the Old World over the sea.
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