Antonio Obá’s Vivid Paintings Illuminate Intimate and Understated Memories

Osman Can Yerebakan
Jan 17, 2023 8:50PM

Portrait of Antonio Obá by Diego Bresani. Courtesy of Antonio Obá

Antonio Obá, Variação sobre Sankofa - Quem toma as rédeas abre caminhos (Variation on Sankofa - Whosoever takes the reins opens the paths), 2021. Photo by Bruno Leão. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.

For Afro-Brazilian artist Antonio Obá, painting is not unlike contenda, believed to be the most difficult type of fight in the Brazilian martial art tradition of capoeira. In this form of combat, one must fight with themselves, “and painting for me has always been that—I get one move in, then get knocked out,” Obá said in an interview with Artsy. “I fight, fall down, and persist in this lonely dispute until the piece is finally born. Each painting of mine is a brawl!”

The Brasília-based artist’s current solo exhibition at Mendes Wood DM in New York, on view through January 21st, brims with the crops of this gentle yet arduous exchange between endurance and letting go, both physically over the canvas and mentally through the works’ fruition. “Outras águas / Other waters” is a fitting title for a show that includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures—all of which Obá created not at his shed studio at the back of his house, but at a SoHo loft a few blocks away from the gallery. For an artist who has long dealt with the idea of place in his work, a change of country, weather, and sound feels like an innate prompt—a promising challenge to explore uncharted reflections of sunlight through a new window or daydreams about lands far in miles, yet near in imagination.

Antonio Obá, Fata Morgana no1, 2022. Photo by Bruno Leão. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.


In Fata Morgana no1 (2022), a toddler plunges into a turquoise blue pool crystallized with sunlight. With arms open wide, his form is elegantly free while a dragonfly—painted in a stark white that contrasts against the wash of shades on the nude child’s brown skin—accompanies the boy on his seconds-long flight above the water. This orchestration of hues extends to the pool’s illumination of light where the very reality of the moment and its fleeting rush coalesce.

“It’s a very familiar and striking feeling for me: being incredibly and unintentionally attentive at the same time,” Obá said. “By allowing yourself to be unpretentiously surprised by something you did not expect—be it in an image, a song, during a trip, throughout the day-to-day, and by experiences completely unrelated to art—you end up giving in and allowing the unexpected to eventually inspire you.”

Antonio Obá, installation view, from left to right, of Orev - pouso (Orev - landing) and um amálgama. Cavaleiro monge - ascendência (an amalgam. Horseman monk - ancestry), both 2022, in “Outras águas / Other waters” at Mendes Wood DM, 2022. Photo by Anita Goes. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.

Orev - pouso (Orev - landing) (2022) also portrays the artist’s sharp attention to variations of light, perhaps the most joyous and surreal reflection on Earth: a rainbow that rises from the ground, reaching outwards into the sky. Obá called light a “defining element of the show,” which he connects to the research he conducts in an almost genealogical method. “I look back to very personal incidents, these intimate memories, and understand them as equally shared human experiences that are not only individual, but also collective,” he said. “As you reflect upon this and you understand this, it is like casting a light onto the aspects that have been overshadowed, forgotten, erased, and I believe that light achieves this poetic dimension.”

The most eye-popping embodiment of luminosity on canvas is also the show’s most spiritually surreal painting, Angelus (2022), which shows a Black man slumped against a tree. Obá bridges the earthly scene with a sense of the otherworldly through the presence of angels, Black children flying around the sheltering tree and an adjacent fire—yet another form of light, dancing while scorching. With faint shades of pastel hues and a glaring white illustrating the flame’s destructive allure, Obá’s color palette draws in the viewer like a moth surrendering to the fire’s inviting swirl. The tree and backdropping sky also glow from this masterful handling of light that feels foreign to this world.

Antonio Obá, Angelus, 2022. Photo by Bruno Leão. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.

For Obá, painting was his given path long before he realized it himself. Although he drew as a teenager in Ceilândia, outside of Brasília, Obá decided to pursue advertising for financial independence. His relationship with paint and paper, however, never ceased. Between learning capoeira and contemplating becoming a priest, he eventually enrolled in an art school and began teaching art at a high school in the underprivileged outskirts of Brasília. He altered his christened surname, de Paula, to the Yoruba word Obá, meaning “king.”

The experience of working with teenagers was fruitful in the formation of Obá’s visual lexicon. “I noticed how teenagers began to experience a process of cultural and social emancipation through their own aesthetic language, for example, through their way of dressing, of doing their hair, or by incorporating aspects that referred to Afro-Brazilian culture,” he recalled. “But obviously it doesn’t stop there, because visual representation is one pathway that allows for emancipation of the consciousness, of who you are within this historical moment and within a historical heritage.”

Antonio Obá, Sankofa: cavaleiro (Sankofa: horseman), 2022. Photo by Bruno Leão. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.

Narrative depth therefore functions like a well in Obá’s work, particularly in paintings that pull viewers in with sinuous scenarios and skillful palette work before revealing their innumerable subjective potentials. Take, for example, Sankofa: cavaleiro (Sankofa: horseman) (2022), in which a young Black man sits backwards on a white horse. An equestrian venture suspended, the human and the stallion seem dormant and introspective as specks of light flicker across the open field and in the man’s eyes.

Oftentimes, Obá’s figures claim their existence in detached and aloof poses that encapsulate a plethora of emotions and modes of being within solitary bodies. “Returning to my family roots, intimate memories, reflections about oneself, all this demarcates an individual attitude, an attitude of the individual, of the alone, of this being,” Obá said. “In this interior hinterland, one observes a character of a solitude, of an observation from a distance, of an observer of his own questions there, but which obviously dialogues with the questions of the world, with the questions of the other.”

Antonio Obá, installation view, from left to right, of Obra em negro (Work in black) and Contenda - dois títeres (Strife - two pawns), both 2022, in “Outras águas / Other waters” at Mendes Wood DM, 2022. Photo by Anita Goes. Courtesy of the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, Brussels, and New York.

Unsurprising for an artist whose command over the canvas is entangled with his cerebral quests, success has found Obá along his transformative path. In addition to “Outras águas / Other waters,” this year will see the 40-year-old artist open a solo show at Pinacoteca de São Paulo in August during the São Paulo Art Biennial, as well as exhibition in the 2023 Liverpool Biennial “uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things.”

In his art practice, Obá gives himself to his paintings. Meanwhile, in Contenda - dois títeres (Strife - two pawns) (2022), a small-scale, red-washed rendition of capoeira practitioners engage with the hardest fight of all.

Osman Can Yerebakan
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