Leonilson´s loss is our gain: transforming stitched words and images of deteriorarion into redemption


Marguerite Itamar Harrison
Smith College

The very thing associated with life is now associated with death….
Susan Sontag

Death…shadows every pleasure.
Edmund White

As contemporary life is increasingly shaped by confrontations with illness and treatment, the idea of healing as distinct from cure is increasingly relevant.
Pulse: Art, Healing and Transformation

Brazilian writer João Silvério Trevisan’s 1997 collection of short fiction entitled Troços e Destroços includes the short story “Altar of Offerings” [Altar de Oferendas]. Its plot consists of an arranged meeting between a visual artist named Bruno and his former girlfriend Sara, for the purpose of informing her that he has AIDS. Although the story accompanies Sara’s point of view, the force of the narrative resides in Bruno’s voice. Toward the beginning of his “confession” he says: “I’m travelling toward death, and I’m aware of it, each second of the day. Each second could be my last. It’s something that only I’m conscious of, each second of the day: This truth about living my death, get it?” (1)

During the course of the conversation, Bruno proves to be profoundly at peace with himself. This serene level of self-understanding is counterbalanced by Sara’s severe struggles with herself: at first in terms of the incompatibility between her pleasurable memories of youth measured against the dissatisfaction with her current status as an upper-middle class (and middle-aged) wife and mother. Also, in the end, by her profoundly self-absorbed sense of loss: her girlhood attraction to Bruno proves to be beyond her reach, a realization that binds her permanently to the present. The sorrowful tears Sara sheds at the story’s conclusion could be easily interpreted as mourning for the loss of Bruno in her life, rather than grieving over his own demise.  By emphasizing Sara’s loss of Bruno, Trevisan—who has written extensively about homosexuality from a Brazilian context—encourages the reader to recognize the universality of loss.  Moreover, Trevisan transforms Bruno’s illness and his ultimate loss, through Bruno’s own peaceable acceptance of his mortality, into a gift, an offering that has the power to redeem us all.

Brazilian visual artist Leonilson, who was born in 1957 and died of AIDS in 1993, would have endorsed João Silvério Trevisan’s choice of a religiously symbolic title for his short story. As a gay artist with a religious upbringing, he would also have sympathized with this textual example of redemption. This essay of introduction to Leonilson’s work as a visual artist was originally written with the intent to question the metaphorical content of his works. (2) As my research progressed, I determined that arguments could be made both for and against this line of inquiry: first, we might assume that Leonilson’s works do not escape a simplistic AIDS metaphor, by agreeing with Lisette Lagnado’s categorization, particularly of his later works, as representing “the allegory of illness.” (3) In a world rigidly (and morally, in the case of AIDS) divided between human beings who are sick and those who are well, the question of survival is no small matter for Leonilson. And yet, whereas his works of art are imbued with personalized references that consciously emphasize daily drama and personal tragedy, they curiously invite the spectator into a universal space that allows for our contemplation of life and death in a composed and serene manner (one that is strangely depersonalized but not dispassionate).

Leonilson’s works—on canvas, paper, or fabric—summon us to undergo a multi-layered process of understanding that allows us to react first as Sara then as Bruno, to use Trevisan’s characters as behavioral models. Through its various stages, Leonilson’s art guides us through this process: first, we are drawn into the artist’s own experience, articulated through the chronological symbology of his works. During this stage we are spectators looking outward, making sense of Leonilson’s experience. This initial step then leads us to a second, self-reflective stage, in which our attention turns inward, into the depths of ourselves where our most intimate losses are revealed. This stage is necessary in order to reach a level of self-recognition that becomes oddly depersonalized, and, ultimately, capable of generating a (hopefully more tolerant) collective memory.

Leonilson’s art offers us the opportunity to free ourselves from a self-pitying defensiveness, and think beyond purely metaphorical interpretations. According to Lisette Lagnado, this path is based on Leonilson’s culturally-grounded activism [29], which fittingly corresponds to what Alberto Sandoval defines within the context of AIDS as a creative stage. (4) Against a mighty epidemic such as AIDS, that forces the question of survival into a divisive role (as in the antithetical opposition Us versus Them), we are led across the dividing waters, to use Leonilson’s own aesthetic language [Lagnado 81].

An obvious example of this crossing of borders is Leonilson’s “Divided Waters” of 1993. This is a piece that juxtaposes simple, two-toned striped cotton with an intricately patterned silk fabric to visually suggest the possibility of breaching boundaries. The Portuguese words “águas divididas,” in black handmade stitches across the striped upper portion of the piece, summon the spectator to perform this task. In other words, we are challenged to cross these divided waters—the artificial parting of the currents of life and death, health and sickness, gay and straight sexuality—by both the power of Leonilson’s words and the simple, palpable appeal of the contrasting materials. In a broader sense, Leonilson’s art envelops us within the realm of the creative, guiding us toward recognition of a communal redemption.

In order to trace the artist’s creative path toward this communal redemption, it is also the purpose of this essay to examine Leonilson’s later works in contrast to his earlier ones. This comparison will underscore the necessity Leonilson felt as artist to reveal himself to us as spectators, in order for us to confront our own pitiable selves, and ultimately, reach some form of collective salvation or transcendence, in which illness is disassociated from punishment [Fries 260]. He accomplished this by making his works increasingly (and, parodoxically) more autobiographical and abstract at the same time, cast in an “overtly spiritual” style [Camhi 70].

From unstretched canvases to objects stitched from assorted fabrics, his later works become malleable forms that literally dispense with formal support. They are capable of existing without a body or skeletal frame to sustain them (or without the artist’s own body as a literal frame of reference). At the same time the body is always present metaphorically [Lagnado 101]. The artist has said that this malleability or suppleness is present in his works in order to correspond literally to his sense of ambiguity [Lagnado 116].

Terminal illness separates Leonilson’s early works from his later “embroideries.” A deadly disease, with all of its social and moral implications, divides the romantic, passionate, and euphoric youth from his decaying, emptying self. In Lisette Lagnado’s words: “Leonilson’s romanticism changes tone when the symptoms of the disease appear” [51]. Furthermore, AIDS conditions Leonilson’s private sense of loss and deterioration, as well as his inevitably public relationship to society.

 Lisette Lagnado’s interviews with the dying artist present a man who was very aware of the deeply prejudiced society in which he lived, as well as conscious (and fearful) of the attitudes of its profoundly phobic and misguided public in regards to AIDS. Although the first cases of AIDS in Brazil had been reported in the early1980s—almost a decade before Leonilson would be diagnosed as HIV-Positive—studies such as A AIDS no Brasil confirm that public awareness was extremely slow in responding to the gravity of the disease [43].

By documenting the first decade of the disease in Brazil, A AIDS no Brasil informs us that in fact the public was misinformed by the media who first cast AIDS as a “mysterious disease” or as a “gay cancer,” with promiscuity often implied as a major factor [93]. Initially, AIDS was regarded as an illness that only affected a fraction of the Brazilian elite who fit a particular profile. This profile encompassed a scant few, who tended to be well traveled, upper/middle-class homosexuals in the arts and entertainment spheres [Ibid. 31]. The fact that the AIDS affliction was perceived as so narrow in scope contributed to the public’s general lack of concern. Moreover, other diseases of epidemic proportions competed with AIDS for governmental and medical attention in Brazil [Ibid. 36].

According to Carmen Dora Guimarães, another crisis developed out of what was perceived initially as a praga gay (the gay plague): an outburst of fear and prejudice [Ibid 218].  For Leonilson, a gay artist in Brazil who lived between 1957 and 1993, perhaps it was too perplexing to escape the allegorical nature of the disease, and for that matter, even the stigma of his sexual orientation. (5) Leonilson has confided: “Parents [in Brazil] are more afraid that their child will be gay than be a gangster. Gay, for the society in which we live, is the lowest of the low” [104]. Such critics as Severino J. Albuquerque have confirmed this belief by concluding that “implications of guilt and isolation [are] widely associated with difference and AIDS in late twentieth-century Brazil” [71].

Leonilson’s 1991 painting “Now and the Opportunities”  [Agora e as oportunidades] conveys the artist’s awareness of society’s rigid hierarchies, and its discrimination toward the types of victims he sees around him. Like the majority of Leonilson’s works, this painting emphasizes an interplay of words and images. Against a white, opaque backdrop signifying silence [Lagnado 51], there is a depiction of a human-totem pole. Moreover, the painting spells out a vertical list of categories, that is, human beings separated into types (or laboratory samples, as Lagnado suggests): blacks, homosexuals, Jews, women, cripples, communists. Similarly, his drawing for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, dated 4 September 1991, includes a comparable list under the title “The Undesirables.” The drawing represents “poisonous” people, such as PWAs (people with AIDS), Indians, communists, prostitutes and gypsies. These “undesirables” are determinedly placed at the bottom of the social ladder. 

Ironically, consciousness of and activism on behalf of AIDS victims only began to occur in Brazil when the disease reached beyond the “undesirables,” to strike a broader spectrum of society. Only then was a national AIDS program formed in Brazil. Furthermore, several non-governmental organizations were created in the late 1980s to respond to the need for AIDS advocacy. These NGOs aimed to fight discrimination and force legislative action. Shortly before his death, Leonilson’s “undesirables”—at least those afflicted with the disease—were theoretically given a modicum of representation.

By the end of 1990 Brazil ranked second only to the U.S. in number of reported AIDS cases in the Americas [Braiterman 60]. According to Lagnado, it was in 1991, the year he was diagnosed as being HIV-Positive, that Leonilson experienced the conflict between public and private approaches to sexuality and intimacy. During this period his works seem to acquire a sense of maturity, of the kind seasoned by suffering. As one of his works attests, there is the realization that “Leo can’t change the world.” Indeed, Ivo Mesquita confirms that an “atmosphere of vulnerability permeates the last phase of Leonilson’s work” [225]. Pleasure and its dangerous thrills, like his “Dangerous Games” of 1989 [Jogos perigosos] is replaced by a need for precaution, accompanied by a sense of tragedy, under death’s watchful eye: “With Her Always Close By,” 1991  [Com ela sempre por perto].

Leonilson’s embroidery on voile “Whatever you wish, Whatever you want, I am here, Ready to Serve You” [O que você desejar, o que você quiser, eu estou aqui, pronto para servi-lo], also of 1991, indicates deferential desire and contrasts with “No One” [Ninguém], the single word in Portuguese (itself suggesting loneliness) stitched upon a delicately pink embroidered pillow. One month before his death (on April 30th, 1993), the Folha de São Paulo printed his drawing of an ostrich, its head buried in the ground. The title of this drawing is: “Modern Sex Is Done Verbally” [Sexo moderno se pratica verbalmente]. In contrast to his previous carefree, passion-driven lifestyle, these works convey deliberate (and often solitary) carefulness. For Leonilson, this represents the point at which sexuality dramatically loses its connection to life and acquires an association with death, as Susan Sontag’s suggests.

Given Brazilian society’s conservatism, it is not surprising that Leonilson chose to participate within the broader realm of an international art scene, as well as to couch personal references to pleasure or pain within a codified system of representation. This codified system includes geographical elements, particularly those that indicate place and that imply connections (as well as separation) between people and/or locations. Thus, bridges, intersecting rivers and tributaries, as well as staircases and ladders feature prominently in Leonilson’s works, as a way of situating both art and artist within more receptive spaces. An example of this search for freedom elsewhere (sexual and otherwise) is Leonilson’s drawing “Marlboro Land is the Promised Land.” At the bottom edge of this drawing the Promised Land contrasts with a Sea of Mud. The drawing’s accompanying verbal commentary claims, with a touch of humor, that in New York he will find the make of car he wants, as well as his choice of sex: “I’m leaving for New York ‘cause there I’m not a friend of the king. There I’ll have the BMW I want and the sex I’ll choose to have” [Mesquita 226].

On a professional level, Leonilson’s art world encompasses an array of influences, best outlined on his canvas piece entitled “So Many are the Truths” [São tantas as verdades], of 1988 [see Illustration 1]. The artist weaves lists of handwritten words, mainly names, in black: a long vertical list down the left-hand side of the canvas, interrupted by a short horizontal list of artists’ names, is counterbalanced on the right-hand side of the canvas by another horizontal list written in the opposite direction. A variety of international and Brazilian names appear on these lists as testimonials to the wide spectrum of his personal influences: references to the visual arts predominate, alongside those corresponding to film, music, and fashion.

By contrast, whereas the list on the right-hand side includes several globally disparate, cosmopolitan place names, the left-hand side consists primarily of words that define Brazil itself. This portion of his artwork becomes a registry of national symbols: minerals (gold, diamonds, iron, emeralds, aluminum) [ouro, diamantes, ferro, esmeraldas, alumínio], topographical features (beaches, forests, mountains, rivers, the Brazilian Pantanal) [praias, florestas, montanhas, rios, Pantanal], and urban elements (buildings, factories, parks, traffic) [prédios, fábricas, parques, trânsito], as well as domestic icons (coffee, cocoa, parrots) [café, cacau, papagaio]. Because these references appear in Portuguese, they seem to correspond to Leonilson’s personal summary of the essence of Brazil. These native symbols (almost bordering on stereotype) seem as if they were selected precisely in order for the artist to assimilate them easily into a broader, more global context. Indeed Bill Hinchberger uses the word syncretic to define aspects of Leonilson’s oeuvre, which among other things “incorporat[e] spiritual elements of his childhood Catholicism and sophisticated influences from the international art world.”

We might choose to interpret the metaphorical content of Leonilson’s works as corresponding to the existence of an artist’s personal symbolism. This self-referential symbolism is manifest through the combination of visual and verbal elements that span multiple phases of the artist’s work. Repeated objects, figures, words, and colors, at first whimsical and ironic (such as in his “Dinosaur and Rabbit” [Dinossauro e coelho] from 1980), gradually become more poetic and symbolic (such as his “The Fisher of Words” of 1986), and, finally, more enigmatic and serious (such as “Bad Boy, Fragile Soul” of 1990).

These art objects—predominantly pieces of cloth stitched with words—often represent references to the artist himself, by way of his initials, age, and vital statistics such as height and weight. In appearance they are reminiscent of scars, or lesions. As in his 1991 “34 with scars” [34 com scars], the body is emblematic of his work [see Illustration 2]. Furthermore, according to Adriano Pedrosa, the heart is its recurring theme, often depicted in flames, as in his 1991 “The Fisher of Pearls” [Lagnado 21]. Written symbols drawn or sewn on or into the works themselves, as well as words, sometimes in languages other than the artist’s native Portuguese, are incorporated cryptically into the work, or appear provocatively in the title. These poetic components are often clues to Leonilson himself. They guide us to the artist. They are clues that reveal to us his emotions and thought patterns. Moreover, to use one of Leonilson’s recurring symbols, he is the fisher who reels in the spectator on his art-rendered hook.

It is possible, thus, to interpret Leonilson’s later works as reflections of the aesthetic trajectory of a dying artist taking stock of a lifetime of personal, national, and artistic influences. Leonilson’s use of fabrics and handwoven words, for instance, betrays his artistic roots, grounded in familial and geographical elements. In other words, son of a cloth merchant and a seamstress, Leonilson’s upbringing was deeply connected to the ubiquitous sewing room at home. Moreover, although Leonilson did not remain in his native Northeast Brazil, he was intimately drawn to that part of the country, in appreciation of its heritage rich in handicrafts. For that matter, it is well documented that he was also attracted to other forms of handiwork, such as that of the American Shakers.

It is important to briefly situate Leonilson’s artworks within the scope of Brazilian art. There are several artists whose work can be seen as complementary to Leonilson’s style during the second half of the twentieth century. These influences fall into two categories: the first refers to artists who were of an older generation, whose art served as inspiration to Leonilson; the second refers to some of Leonilson’s own peers.

As precursors, two artists in particular merit discussion: Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) and Lygia Clark (1920-1988). Among their many major contributions to contemporary Brazilian art, Oiticica and Clark were artists from the 1960s who pioneered the use of ephemeral or tactile objects associated with mutability and spectator participation. (6) Hélio Oiticica, in particular, created works of art from the combination of words and cloth. He transformed homemade articles of clothing into his Parangolé capes, for example, which not only incorporated words or slogans but also depended on body movement.

Like Oiticica, Lygia Clark’s works were directed outwardly toward the spectator and became increasingly contingent upon the spectator’s responses. Her “Body Nostalgia” series [Nostalgia do Corpo] that spanned several decades, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing through the 70s and 80s, pushed art into the realm of therapy, precisely because it encouraged the spectator to assume a more active role. It demanded that the spectator become the subject of her/his own experience, particularly in terms of her/his own body, often in relation to other bodies. Although Bill Hinchberger cursorily makes the connection between Leonilson and Lygia Clark in terms of the intellectual content of their works, it is this emphasis on the body that is most significant. Moreover, Leonilson’s ability to aesthetically shift the focus from the artist’s body to the spectator’s own sensory cognition is a tribute to Oiticica’s and Clark’s artistic legacy.

Leonilson came of age as a visual artist during the “effervescent” decade of the 1980s in Brazil. (7) The medium of painting dominated this period of Brazilian art in an atmosphere of pleasure that mirrored the vitality of Leonilson’s own work (and lifestyle) during this phase. During the second half of the 1980s, this emphasis on the pleasures of painting gradually yielded to more poetic and metaphysical representations; also, surface compositions evolved into three-dimensional objects. The work of two of Leonilson’s contemporaries illustrates these two tendencies: that of Daniel Senise (b. 1955) and Leda Catunda (b. 1961), respectively.

In the early 1990s, not only did Leda Catunda’s work acquire a three-dimensional quality but, like Leonilson, she began constructing her artworks out of fabric. Examples of her works from this period are “The Liver” [O fígado] from 1990, a mixed media piece on canvas with fabric and formica, and “Orange Tongues” [Línguas Laranjas], from 1991. Paulo Herkenhoff has emphasized Leda Catunda’s tactile references and use of irony in her works of this period [87-88].Yet, Catunda’s works convey no intimate clues that link art and artist in a mutual dependence, as is the case with Leonilson. In other words, Leonilson has made it possible for us to become acquainted with him (even after his death) through the act of viewing his artworks.

This mutual dependency aside, Leonilson’s artistic trajectory contradicts certain reductionist criticism of the type present in Leslie Camhi’s review for the Village Voice, of the 1996 MOMA exhibition, which included works by Brazilian Leonilson and German-born Oliver Herring. Entitled “Sewing Circles,” the author suggests in rather generic terms—reducing Leonilson’s multi-suggestive encounters to harbingers of mortality—that both Herring and Leonilson “have resurrected domestic, feminine processes as aesthetic strategies for managing issues of mortality.” Camhi elaborates further upon Leonilson’s later works by stating the following: “[it] recall[s] a bride’s trousseau, except that the artist prepared them for his own encounter with mortality” [70].

Art critics have remarked that Leonilson’s works, particularly of the latter years, seem to combine a growing sense of self (in inescapable response to the disease) together with a certain abstraction (in a literal distancing imposed by bodily deterioration). The latter is confirmed by Lisette Lagnado, who in discussing Leonilson’s embroideries of his last phase, suggests that as his physical self faded away, his works became self-portraits without the figure [57]. During Leonilson’s late period—corresponding to a condensed time between the end of 1992 and the first part of 1993—a decreasing number of works (with the exception of those submitted to the Folha de São Paulo) relies on the seemingly more spontaneous and fluid medium of drawing on paper. Rather paradoxically, as his body was deteriorating rapidly in a losing race against time, the artist laboriously devoted himself to works that appear to require more physical effort. It is a reminder of the artist’s presence: his own hand has literally (and manually) produced the object.

These embroideries increasingly take the form of recognizable shapes and objects—mainly items of clothing—that represent the body, and more aptly, the body’s absence. Transparent, gauzy fabric such as voile evident in “Fertility, Consistency, Silence” [Fertilidade, Coerência, Silêncio], 1991, or sensually tactile material such as velvet (in “J.L 35” of 1993, for instance), remind us of this absence by demanding that we focus on our own sensations. We, thus, face the desire to see (through) to the body underneath, the need to touch what’s beneath the cloth.

Leonilson thus juxtaposes very intimate elements with steps that distance him from our voyeuristic gaze, by factoring in the viewer’s own emotions and responses. Reminiscent of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, Leonilson shifts the focus from himself to the spectator. By doing so, he creates ways in which his work transforms his loss into our redemption. Moreover, he transfers his personal experiences to the viewer, in order to allow us to recognize our communal responsibilities in this age of disease. This is perhaps best explained through Leonilson’s work “El Puerto” [The Port], of 1992, which combines two relatively simple devices to great effect [see Illustration 3]. A striped cloth embroidered with the name “Leo,” plus Leonilson’s age, height, weight, and the words “El Puerto” curtains a small mirror. In Jessica Morgan’s biographical essay on Leonilson in the 2003 exhibition catalog Pulse: Art, Healing, and Transformation, she offers an explanation for the covered mirror as reflecting “perhaps the horror induced by the reflection of sickness’s ravaging effect” [111]. Beyond this self-referential interpretation, I believe that Leonilson is playing with the idea that a mirror is just another kind of map—signifying by reflection a reality beyond itself—by daring the viewer to lift the curtain and find his or her own face. The work is aptly named, for like a roadmap, “El Puerto” guides the viewer to the experience of another person in another place and time. The port thus represents the “allegory of the artist’s body” [Lagnado 63]. According to Lisette Lagnado, we are challenged to question: “But for a sick man whose body is emptying, what does it mean to look in the mirror? What does it mean for a (hypothetically) healthy observer to plunge into this gaze?” [61-62]. Moreover, she concludes with further queries: “Rather than just experiencing Leonilson, we are swept into the depths of the mirror. Where should the observer be placed so as not to look at the work askance? What is the viewer’s ethical position?” [63]. This form of questioning places the spectator in direct, mirror-like confrontation with her/himself.

A discussion of Leonilson’s later works must undoubtedly conclude with the artist’s last piece, which he did not live to see exhibited. As Leonilson’s work frequently equated the body with a temple, it is fitting to conclude with his Morumbi Chapel installation, in São Paulo. The installation was exhibited for the first time posthumously, the same year Leonilson died. In this installation, he masterfully interwove corporeal and spiritual matters.

What were the elements he selected for the interior of this "modest early 19th-century chapel made of lath and plaster mixed with gravel from a river bed”? There are three parts to this installation: the first part consists of two chairs placed side-by-side at the rear of the chapel. Two white shirts, worn from use and with extra-long sleeves obviously stitched from different materials, cover the backs of the chairs. Each shirt carries a chest-high embroidered inscription referring to “false morality” and “the good- hearted.” The second part consists of a single chair, voluminously draped in cloth, in candy-striped material—like an overflowing skirt—over the seat and legs, and in white over the back. The words “Los delicias” interrupt the immaculate white. The masculine article “Los” is coupled with “Delicias,” a feminine noun in Spanish, to create ambiguity. According to Lagnado this deliberate linguistic gender-bending transforms pleasure into a masculine desire [49]. At the very least, it forces us to stumble over the words, giving our minds, in addition to our senses, time to contemplate our own desires.

The final piece of the installation consists of a simple wrought-iron clothes rack, on which two items of clothing hang, on wire hangers [see Illustration 4]. One of them, with the inscription “Lazarus” consists of two white shirts joined at the hems with the seams visible, so that they look like reflections of each other. Again, the idea of reflection seems to suggest transcendence and redemption. The sleeves of the bottom shirt scrape the tiled floor. The other piece is an extra-long deep-orange skirt covered in white, gauzy voile. Although the waist stands out as a band of vivid-orange, and the bottom hem drags the same rich color along the floor, the sheer white predominates, as if reiterating the white of the Lazarus piece. In their deliberate juxtaposition of materials and dematerialization, these art objects serve as reliquaries, which are particularly poignant within this religious setting.

And just as the Catholic reliquaries of Leonilson’s childhood were intended to intercede spiritually between the supplicant and his God, so are these dematerialized artworks intended to serve as corporeal links spanning the void between deceased creator and living spectator. As such, these final works may be seen as half-metaphors, still referring beyond themselves, but referring to a benign nothingness, to the void after life in which there is no moral judgment, only the dignified emptiness of garments that no body will fill.  


(1). This translation from Trevisan’s short story is mine. The original text reads as follows: “Estou vivendo minha viagem para a morte e sei disso, a cada segundo. Cada segundo que pode ser o último. É uma coisa que só eu sei, a cada segundo. Essa verdade de viver a minha morte, você entende?” [124]

(2). A shorter version of this essay was presented at the 1999 NEMLA conference in Pittsburgh. The title of the session was “Beyond Metaphor: The Representation of AIDS.”

(3). Lagnado divides Leonilson’s work into three distinct phases: the first phase corresponds to his early years, between 1983-88, in which he sought aesthetic definition through the “pleasure of painting.” The second phase consisted of the years between 1989 and 1991, in which the artist settled on the subject of “abandonment” and established his inclination toward romantic values. During the third phase, between 1991-93, the “allegory of illness” dominated his language completely [29].

(4). Alberto Sandoval’s definition of this creative stage refers specifically to the evolution of gay theater on AIDS in the U.S. This third stage corresponds to a period when “AIDS theatre moves from propaganda to creative theatrical and poetic forms” [Albuquerque 70].

(5). This prejudice is confirmed by a cover article on homosexuality entitled “O mundo gay rasga as fantasias,” in an issue of the Brazilian news magazine Veja, coincidentally published the same month as Leonilson’s death.

(6). London-based critic Guy Brett has written two succinct essays on Oiticica and Clark for Art in America, one entitled “Hélio Oiticica: Reverie and Revolt,” 77:1 (Jan. 1989), 110-120 & 163; and another entitled “Lygia Clark: In Search of the Body,” 82:7 (July 1994), 56-63 & 108.

(7). The word “effervescence” is used by Brazilian art critic Aracy Amaral in the exhibition catalog Br 80: pintura Brasil década 80 to describe Brazilian painting of the 1980s. During the decade of the 80s in Brazil, artists like Leonilson articulated new pictorial vocabularies, experimented with new techniques and materials, applied intense colors to create voluptuous surfaces, and eliminated structural supports, among other things. [Modern Brazilian Painting 17; see 45 for an annotated bibliography of the exhibition catalog].



1.      Leonilson, São Tantas as Verdades [So Many Are the Truths], 1988, Acrylic and stones on canvas, 213 x 106 cm. Coll. Elizabeth Ryland Esteve, São Paulo.

2.      Leonilson, 34 com Scars [34 with Scars], 1991, Acrylic and embroidery on voile, 41 x 31 cm, MoMA Collection, New York.

3.      Leonilson, El Puerto [The Port], 1992, Embroidery on cloth on mirror, 23 x 18 cm. Coll. Família Bezerra Dias, São Paulo.

4.      Leonilson, Sem Título [Untitled], 1993, Installation at Morumbi Chapel, São Paulo, Embroidery on sewn shirt and voile, steel hanger and iron frame. Coll. Família Bezerra Dias, São Paulo.


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Braiterman, Jared. “Brazilian Government Funds Explicit AIDS Education Booklets.” Advocate (May 7, 1991), 60-63.

Camhi, Leslie. “Oliver Herring and Leonilson: Sewing Circle.” Village Voice, 70.

Fries, Kenny. “AIDS and Its Metaphors: A Conversation with Susan Sontag.” In Conversations with Susan Sontag. Edited by Leland Poague. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, 255-260.

Herkenhoff, Paulo. “The Contemporary Art of Brazil: Theoretical Constructs.” In Ultramodern: The Art of Contemporary Brazil. Washington, DC: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1993, 34-109.

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Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico, Latin American Institute, 1997.

“O mundo gay rasga as fantasias.” Veja (12 May 1993), 52-59. 

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Germany: Steidl Publishers and Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2003. 

Trevisan, João Silvério. “Altar de Oferendas.” In Troços e Destroços. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1997, 117-130.

White, Edmund. “Aesthetics and Loss.” Artforum, (Jan. 1987), 131-137.