Sim, Maria Nepomuceno's first exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair, features dynamic floor- and wall-based sculptures. These new works expand upon the Rio de Janeiro-based artist's methods of rope weaving and straw braiding, in which pre-existing and found elements such as branches, seed pods, playful ceramic forms and paint brushes merge with the organic forms of the sculptures. Nepomuceno's works are chromatically, culturally and metaphorically rich, suggesting animals, plants, the human body and landscapes ranging from the microscopic to the macroscopic. She discusses her ideas, methods and influences.
First of all, tell us about the title of exhibition.
"Sim, which means yes in Portuguese, is a word I like very much. It ties in with the ideas for the show, such as beginnings, things being created and expanded. It also makes reference to Yoko Ono's famous text piece, which she showed in London when she and John Lennon first met. It's affirmative but of course it's also very subjective."
We could all use some affirmation right now…
"Yes, I think we are in a moment in the world where things are going along a certain path and it feels very retrogressive. The first piece you see in this exhibition is very much like a birth, a generation of life, with beads radiating outwards. Most of the pieces in the exhibition have a deliberate crack or fault, or they contain a piece of ceramic or fibreglass that appears to split open. There is very much this idea of something that, at one moment, went wrong or failed, and it had another chance. I want the work to have a spirit of possibility and of generosity."
What is the seed pod at the centre of the first work in the exhibition?
"It's a cabaça. Indigenous people use it a lot. They cut the cabaça open and make it into bowls. It relates to the ceramic forms I use, which are like containers or receptacles with openings that have this hyperbolic or elliptical shape, which means by implication they are expanding to infinity."
The scale of the work in Sim is very different from your last piece in London, Cosmic Teta, which extended through levels of the Barbican Centre. Do smaller works require a different process?
"When the work is smaller, the beads become smaller too, so it doesn't take less time to produce but there's more precision in the process. There is always a lot of mathematics behind the work, a lot of counting, but at the moment the work is ready that disappears and it becomes very organic. It was so nice to work on this scale, because it's the scale of small animals, of babies, of something small and young that you care for. It's a different way of working, different than on a bigger work, which is more on the scale of landscape, with a completely different relationship with the body. This was a very intimate process, consisting of many hours in the studio. It had a different rhythm."
Do you have certain habits or rituals when you work? Do you listen to music, for example?
"No, because I get very distracted. I need silence. And then I stay for hours and hours just observing and thinking. I like very much to create in my mind, without drawing."
Is that because you don't want to fix your ideas in two dimensions?
"Yes, I think so. I like to think about coming from the mind straight to the material. It's interesting because when you look at indigenous cultures, they don't use drawing as a medium very much, they go directly to the three dimensional. The fundamentals of my work are similar."
There are a number of paint brushes in these new works. Where do they come from?
"I started painting very early, studying in Rio at the School of Visual Arts. Also, I had an uncle who was a painter. He taught me how to use inks and how to mix colours. He was really my first teacher. What's interesting about painting is that I miss the materials of painting more than the subject. There isn't anything I need to say in painting that I can't say in sculpture but the materials of painting are very important for me. It's also because my uncle died when I was fifteen years old. He left me his brushes, paints and papers, so the heritage of those materials is very important to me."
Your works seem to come together rather like words in a sentence, I was wondering if literary references are important?
"There is a very famous novel, Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade, about a man who was born very lazy and always in a hammock but at the same time always tricking people, like a malandro. Really, he's smarter than anyone. Andrade talks about the origin of Brazilian people, our miscegenation, our way of living, our love of pleasure and my work also has something to do with this. I like to think that the work is also a little bit relaxed, that it loves to rest. But I like to have balance as well, so there is a spirit of relaxedness but at the same time something that creates tension. The tendency for my work, because it's soft, is to be on the floor. I'm always trying to create strategies that take the work off the floor. In this case there are these openings, like mouths or suckers, that look as if they are trying to climb the wall."
Your sculptures are very labour-intensive and encourage close and extended scrutiny in the viewer. How important is the relationship to time in your work?
"Mine is such a handmade practice that people become very interested in time in relation to my work - how long did it take to make this or that? I never know exactly but I see how important it is to put time into the work because people will spend time with it. It's like catching time and giving it to the viewer - I think of my work as a redistribution of time."
Interview: Martin Coomer
Portrait: Robert Glowacki