In the old church in Amsterdam, in front of the Vater Müller organ and exactly under one of the church’s monumental chandeliers, there are two black square tubs on the floor, like tight ponds in a modern garden. From a distance, they seem filled with only coal, carbon black and whimsical in shape, only closer do the equally black figures emerge between the coals. There are mothers with children, men with capes on their shoulders, angels spreading their wings. Catholic statues of saints, objects of devotion, hide in the mind like tadpoles in dark water.
Whether they have been sacrificed in a sacred fire or buried under rubble, the artist Antonio Obá leaves open, but that they are black is not without significance. Obá was born in Brazil and exhibited not so often outside his own country, but immediately in special places, such as recently with Miriam Cahn and Luc Tuymans in the Pinault collection in Paris. For his work, he draws on Brazilian culture, religion, mystery and history, thus inevitably touching on other cultures that share the famous Brazilian history with the country, often through colonial interference. Behind the black boxes in the Oude Kerk, for example, rises a robust triptych clad in gold foil, with a painting on the left and right and a simple altar in the middle. On it, Obá placed two instruments for drinking: a golden lime, used in Catholic worship, and a bottle containing the gold-colored cachaça, a Brazilian drink made from sugar cane. The title of the installation is Malungo, ‘brother’, referring to the common history of slavery, converting slaves of Africans to Catholicism and the experience of being black in Brazil. The complete historical balance of power, between rich and poor, between white and black, is poured into that lime and that bottle. The black saints are now black saints. More than showing their individual strength, they show how religion was once carved in stone.
For example, Obá’s work is bursting with symbolism that brings different worlds together and is therefore somewhat reminiscent of Remy Jungermans, who has just been awarded the Heineken Prize for Art. Malungo is the only work in the exhibition that is not specifically made for the Oude Kerk, but falls into place with the church’s past (from Roman Catholic to Protestant). In any case, Holland shares a history with Brazil, with ‘Dutch Brazil’ from 1630 to 1654. The Oude Kerk houses the tomb of the sailor Hendrick Corneliszoon Lonck, who was involved in the colony.
The gold in their clothes is like the gold of the church
But Obá’s work is more than illustrative of a story. He is a great painter who knows how to use his paintings spatially. In the dynamics Suspended children for example, a spiral mount of mirrors and hand-painted pennants hanging from steel cables in the middle of the church. Yes, according to the accompanying text, he is referring here to an old religious tradition in West Africa of hanging mirrors and bottles on trees, to drive out evil spirits, and to the terrible practice of Billie Holiday in Strange fruit about hanging African Americans from trees. But look at this ‘tree’ of Obá, and you will see a part of the church reflected in every mirror and a child playing on every pennant. Obá painted dozens of them, boys and girls with a kite, ball or skipping rope, dancing, running, involved in a wagon wheel.
The precision with which Obá captured the children, and the energy he applied to his brush, make each and every one of them worth seeing. A girl’s gold shorts catch the eye along with a boy’s gold blouse that looks like it is jumping off an invisible trampoline. The gold in their clothes is like the gold of the church, chandeliers and organ and is reminiscent of the golden rugs that Sarah van Sonsbeeck once laid on the floor here years ago as a reference to the insulation rugs around the refugees’ bodies. . Gold is a color, a spark that stands for too much, but that everyone can have.
Obá brings new life to the Oude Kerk in a place where corpses have mostly disappeared in the course of history. He hung paintings of ordinary people up between the pillars of the choir, where statues of saints disappeared during the iconoclasm. He placed the trash cans with statues of saints on the graves, some bearing a name, others a number. And the visitor can even run his hands through a field with thousands of gold-colored bells on steel bars. The ring that this gives is a beautiful and reassuring sound and at the same time a disturbance of silence. When the sound stops, the rods wave for a while, a sign of life, a sign of unrest.