For decades, sculptor Sonia Gomes worked in relative isolation in the northern Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. Now, she is among the first Afro-Brazilian women to have solo exhibitions at the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro, on view through November 25, and the Lina Bo Bardi-designed Museu de Arte de São Paulo opening in November. A luminary among her peers, Gomes was included in the 2015 Venice Biennial and Hauser and Wirth’s massive show of women sculptors which inaugurated the gallery’s LA venue in 2016. Earlier this year, Gomes welcomed Sara Roffino to her apartment and studio in São Paulo. The two spoke about the evolution of her practice, her early visual memories and how she knew she was an artist.
The first time I saw your work was two years ago at Mendes Wood in São Paulo. Yes, that was when it was in glass room at the gallery. It was the work made of clothing. I always work with materials that I appropriate—things that exists before I make the work.
Where do you find these materials? Everyone asks this. The material comes to me. Many of the works I’ve made only exist because the material came to me. The piece I made for the Mercosul Biennial came to be because when I was in the Venice Biennial someone who lives in the interior of Rio who I didn’t know told me they had a 50-year-old wedding dress and asked if they could give it to me. It was an enormous dress. When these materials come they bring the history of the people that they belonged to and I give a new significance to them. This person had held onto this dress for 50 years and then they gave it to me. Her name was Maria dos Anjos. I would never plan to make a work and then go out to the store to buy a wedding dress to transform into a sculpture. From the moment the material arrives in my life, I feel a responsibility for it and to the person who it came from.
How long have you been working this way? I’ve always had this need. I started by making things for myself, taking clothing apart and making it into something else to use. I never said, “I’m going to be an artist.” It just happened.
When did you realize you were an artist? I’m from the interior of Brazil and I didn’t have a lot of contact with the art world. Brazil is a little closed off, especially the interior. I never consider myself an artist because I didn’t know how to make figurative drawings. I always made things with my hands and people said I was an artist, but I would say, no, I’m not, I don’t know how to draw. This was how I thought until I took the first art class at the Guignard School in Belo Horizonte and my teacher explained that I was making contemporary art. That was where I understood the possibility of what I could do and I started to make without fear.
Do you have visual memories from your childhood that have stayed with you or that you that you think have influenced your practice? My grandmother was black, she was a sorceress and would bless people with a branch of a plant called Arruda. It was a ritual she would perform and the memory of it is really strong for me. Since then I’ve always been interested in craft—in things made by hand and folk art and festivals and the rituals and churches and processions.
Did you participate in these events? I participated when I was a child and a teenager. It was a little complicated for me because I was raised in a white family, in white culture and the Catholic church. My mother died when I was three years old and my parents weren’t married. My mom’s family was very poor so my grandfather took me to my father’s family and that was where I was raised, but I was always drawn to the African aesthetic and to witchcraft. I thought it was all very beautiful. I was fascinated by it and it’s a strong reference in my work now.
Were there other artists in Brazil or elsewhere with whom you were in conversation? Nobody. I was aware of popular art and I saw African magazines, but again, I really never thought of myself as an artist. My interest has always been in material. My work is very Brazilian because it’s a mix of high art and popular art. I’m from Belo Horizonte, but I’m not known there as an artist. There were just a few people who believed in my work. Two of them were antiquarians, Sandra and Marcio, who have a space in the city that deals a lot in Brazilian baroque works. For 15 years they invested in my work and supported me because they see a link between my work and the baroque art that was made in Brazil.
What are you presenting at Niterói and MASP? Can you tell me a bit about these exhibitions? In Niteroi it’s a retrospective of my career. The exhibition unites works from all of my periods. I am very happy to see all those moments together, woven like in a fabric. For MASP, I’m doing something different and new. I’ve been working a lot with wood lately. I’m obsessed with life in all its forms. I’ve embroidered in tree trunks and thought a lot about the rhythm of the installations.