Robson Cezar, Saludos Amigos!
This exuberantly glamorous figure, alive with animation and ready to run, is the Brazilian artist and Spitalfields resident, Robson Cezar, whom I featured last year when he exhibited his bronze sculptures. Now he is staging “Saludos Amigos,” for one night only at the Hanbury Hall in Hanbury St this Thursday. In 1942, Walt Disney travelled to Rio to make “Saludos Amigos,” a pop portrait of Latin America, and in the same spirit, Robson has gathered together South American artists in London to create a new “Saludos Amigos,” curating an exhibition as a representation of some of the cultures that comprise the continent today.
The East End has a special significance for Robson Cezar because it was here in 1969, that Helio Oiticica, exiled by the military government of Brazil, staged his “Tropicalia” exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. This show introduced Tropicalia to the international art scene as the major Brazilian cultural movement of the twentieth century. Singers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were also exiled, and the influx of Brazilians enriched the London scene of the nineteen sixties. Oiticica recreated a favela in the Whitechapel Gallery complete with a billiard table where local youths could come and play, though he found them to be a“tough bunch” – a quality which can only have added to the authenticity of the favela for visitors.
Helio Oiticica was photographed in Spitalfields in 1969, with a sheepskin coat slung across his shoulder, looking the picture of an exile in a foreign land of dereliction. “The swinging loneliness of the world,” he termed it. As a Brazilian, used to several showers every day, he was appalled by to discover that in England people bathed once a week, and turned down a room in Hackney without a shower because he would have to use the Hackney Baths. Yet in London, he and Caetano Veloso discovered the liberty to develop as artists that they were denied in their own country. They loved to travel around upon the top of London buses together and Caetano Veloso wrote a ballad of freedom that began, “Walking down Portobello Road to the sound of Reggae, I’m alive!”
Robson Cezar was born in a favela in 1967, where he grew up listening to the music of Tropicalia that incarnated the spirit of liberation which arose at this time. His story is quite different to that of Helio Oiticica, yet equally dramatic. Once Robson’s elder brother and sister crossed illegally into the USA, he managed to obtain a visa as an artist to show a picture in an exhibition in New York. With remarkable courage and presence of mind, he stayed on for eight years, earning a living as a painter and decorator, while taking part-time courses at The Art Students’ League where exile George Grosz had studied, over half a century earlier. Like any of the millions of illegal aliens there, Robson could have been deported without notice, if stopped by the police, yet, through hard work and tenacity, he managed to thrive until the events of 9/11 took away his income.
A chance meeting led to the opportunity of a personal sponsorship, and in 2002 Robson came to the UK where he spent five years in art education, culminating in a Sculpture Fellowship at Chelsea College of Art last year. Robson’s personal project is to create a new “Tropicalia” that explores his experience as an artist living outside his mother country. “Everything is a product of my journey to this place,” he says plainly, rolling his deep brown eyes in emphasis. Calling himself a sculptor, yet working in a variety of media, Robson makes vivid bronze sculptures in a classical style that Rodin would recognise, alongside all kinds of pictures and short films.
“I choose to see Tropicalia as a cultural salad where anything can be mixed,” explained Robson, turning contemplative and outlining his personal manifesto, “I have lived from the generation of Helio Oiticica and Caetano Veloso and I am the product of it. To understand that I am the inheritor of their works and ideas fills me with power and energy as an artist. It allows me to disregard the idea that I am an artist from the “margins” and enables me to place myself at the centre of my world. This is what allows me to think I can create my own interpretation of Tropicalia, here and now, because like Helio Oiticica, art is a means of survival for me.”
In “Saludos Amigos,” Robson is showing a selection of his intricate and witty bottlecap pictures, using caps collected by Sandra Esqulant of The Golden Heart in Commercial St. These beautiful works use thousands of bottlecaps to create mind-boggling trompe l’oeil effects that replicate something of the experience of drinking the contents of the bottles. With song titles or names as simple texts, the poverty of materials in these pictures is directly in contrast to the richness and intriguing sophistication of the effect, which can be affectionate, comic or disorienting by turns.
Of especial interest is the picture he created as a tribute to Sandra Esqulant, the beloved mother figure to all East End artists, exhibited here for the first time. Using bottlecaps from The Golden Heart, Robson made a sparkly golden heart with her name across it, expressing the affection of all those in Spitalfields, and presented to her as a gesture of consolation at the time her husband Dennis died last year.
Forty years on, Robson Cezar has discovered a different East End to the place that Helio Oiticica knew. Taking the opportunity of all the galleries here today, Robson stages several shows each year, famous for the diversity of art and free-flowing caipirinhas that turn the openings into high-spirited parties. And I am sure “Saludos Amigos” will be no exception tomorrow, because, after the long journey he made to get to this point, Robson Cezar has plenty to celebrate.
From the song “Splish Splash” by Roberto Carlos
Helio Oiticica, Spitalfields 1969
Robson Cezar, Spitalfields 2009
A tribute to Sandra Esqulant, landlady of The Golden Heart
Robson & Sandra
You may like to visit Robson’s website to follow his new work www.robsoncezar.com