Menelaw Sete, alias Jorge do Nascimento Ramos, has the extraordinary ability to constantly surprise us. He surprises us with his swiftly and expertly painted canvases, discovering and allowing us to discover his attitude to showing the things, the people, the colours, the scenes and the life of his city: Bahia.
Bahia is a special city, as unique and surprising as Menelaw Sete’s painting. It is impossible to define it in just a few words because, starting from its very name São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, the city is a complex and varied reality where the smells, flavours and colours of its African roots blend with the charm of the great bay, unmysteriously flaunting is beauty, and a radiance that defines the horizon with a strong feeling both of nostalgia and distance. Nostalgia (saudade) and distance of the coastline on the opposite shore. The shore of another continent. I mean Africa, of course.
Jorge Amado, the writer from Bahia who sung the life of the people of this Brazilian region, describes how “the heart and soul of the baiano life is to be found in the oldest part of the city, the most dynamic and charming… all the richness of the baiano’s charm and courtesy, all the infinite poverty, the drama and the magic, are born and thrive in this ancient part of town… Largo do Pelourinho, from the whipping post where black slaves were flogged… this Whipping Post Square is grand and illustrious: its beauty is made of stones and suffering… the paving stones are as black as the slaves who placed them there; but when the midday sun glistens more intensely, they take on blood-coloured shimmer…” And it is in this very heart of the city, throbbing with music and images, throbbing with capoeira and candomblé, where black ladies dressed in white fry acarajé in dendê oil, it is right in this very heart that Menelaw Sete has his studio, and it is from this very heart that he draws all his pictorial energy and activates the collective imagination of the life of this city. I remember stepping out of his studio in the Pelourinho and thinking that if Picasso or Matisse had ever visited Bahia they would never have left, perhaps “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” would have become “As Mocinhas da Bahia” and “La Danse” would have become “A Roda de Samba” or “Capoeira”. Menelaw Sete bestows on his paintings a special form of life, a special vision of the world: I’d say, perceptively happy, or better, vitally loving.
He paints the life of his people in happy terms, as it, in fact, is. And he does it with abundant, swift, strong and decisive gestures and with a richness of vocabulary that conjugates all the themes of love: family, children, festivities, music and musicians, sex, women, maternity, embraces and kisses… it is love of life that is central to his paintings. A love that is painted with natural fluidity and knowledgeable skill, where the painterly yield is simultaneously surprise and wonder. Menelaw Sete’s ample vocabulary is not, however, the only element that delivers the strength and the flavour of his images. Menelaw Sete has always looked beyond the horizon of that sea, he has crossed it with his gaze and with his imagination, he has accomplished it through a gestural technique that he observed in a certain European pictorial application. And so his works encompass all the sunshine of Bahia as well as a certain African motif and finally all the teachings of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. With the strength of a mural that has been re-elaborated by a chromatic opening, he conveys all the insight that these two great masters of European painting had, directly or indirectly, of African cultures.
After all, Matisse’s African travels were an important influence on his painting, as Picasso’s observation of the volumetric essence of African sculpture contributed to the totality of his strength.
And speaking of figurative essence, this could also be said of the figures and portraits by Amedeo Modigliani.
Menelaw Sete knows all of this well, and he demonstrates it in every piece of his work. Yet every time turns his gaze back to his Bahia.This is the great ability that Menelaw Sete develops with his painting. It is as if he were casting a cross-eyed look on the great history of European painting and at the same time, while moving between figurative and abstract art, conjugating all the visual culture of Bahia with the history of European art.
What characterises his art is his brave evocation of the visual styles of these great masters. He evokes musical choruses like the song of birds.
Choruses that merge, capture each other and elaborate a new visual language, a new vision of the image that passes through the web of these great adventures in the history of painting. With his use of colour and distinctive brushstroke Menelaw Sete has been associated with Picasso and Matisse without falling into the easy trap of citation, without repeating subjects and concepts. Rather, he has observed with great discipline and had the immense courage to measure himself against them. In terms of citation he avoids the thematic influence, he instinctively avoids the obvious references, and above all avoids the manner.
And let’s be honest, that is no easy feat! The outcome is the result of an extraordinary graft, where colours and brushstrokes create the true cosmogony of Bahia, where everything has its rightful place and where the love that these people have for life is translated into painting, into images and scenes, into a vitality that emanates from every pore of the canvass that Menelaw Sete grants us. Through his painting we are taken on a journey through history and geography, through time and space, through lives and emotions. This is the central element that is bestowed to our eyes. The expression of this vitality is turned into painting with brushstrokes and colours which, looked at closely, remind us of a world that passes from Carybé’s Orixá to Jorge Amado’s enamoured vision. To this visual and cultural complexity Menelaw Sete provides a response on a par with a blend that is knowledgeable and culturally similar to that of the Brazilian people, in particular of the people of Bahia. Where European, African and Native Indian cultures are happily open to mingling, embracing and thus to loving. These are the reasons for the expressive singularity of his painting, where recollections and choruses compose a vision and express it with the greatest of all human sentiments: love.
And Menelaw Sete is an extraordinary painter of this sentiment, because his visionary nature stimulates us and leads us towards a visual horizon which, like an entire existence, unites everything.
THE “BRAZILIANNESS” OF MENELAW SETE'S PAINTING
The greatest expression of Menelaw Sete’s work is his innovative ability to transpose a particular reality, references which occurred in the 19th century with the breaking up of the fundamental rules which supported the creation a work of art. Such references can be perceived in his work, but they only confirm his contemporaneity. One could look at his his paintings by discussing Cubism and Neo-Impressionism, however to base an analysis on these movements alone is not enough for a deeper understanding of his work.
One can detect the Afro-Brazilian culture in his work, a tropical-flavoured use of colour and even the figurative elements that the artist employs to compose his symphonies belong to his world and to his surroundings.
It would thus be restrictive to base an appreciation on old school (painting) lessons that, although well understood, the artist has been able to transform into an exceedingly current reality, thus creating a particular historical identity and poetic theory. The greatest influence on Brazilian modern art was Expressionism, especially with the arrival of the Russian artist Lassar Segai, without forgetting works by Portinari, Tarsila do Amaral and, above all, Cavalcanti who portrayed scenes of Brazilian reality, a sort of social complaint.
Of course other movements came after this one, but the strong tradition of figurative painting has existed in Brazil since as far back as the time of the empire. Menelaw follows this tradition, however he does not repeat lessons, he teaches others. It is true that he uses cubist forms, but he adds a certain “Brazilianness” and breaks out from his own boundaries. In other pieces of work he recalls an expressionism that enchants through its colour, its figures and how it elaborates its theme. Known as the “Brazilian Picasso” I would say that Menelaw actually goes well beyond his moniker, creating a truly Brazilian art, a mixture of races and colours. Just as
Picasso succeeded in expressing his own ideas and intentions, Menelaw seeks - like any artist concerned with the creation of works of art should - to establish his own pictorial language, and he does so with precision.
He lives in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, and more precisely in the historical centre of Pelourinho, a national artistic heritage recognised by Unesco. His work, to which he is so totally dedicated to, can be seen in his studio in Rua João de Deus. As recognition of his work and of his creative journey an exhibition hall with his name was inaugurated at Sciacca Terme, Sicily, in July 2003. He is the first Bahian and Brazilian artist to receive this honour.
If there is order in chaos, then Menelaw Sete is a witness
Plastic shape and brilliant coloours; these are certainly what drws one's attention when an admirer finds himself face with the work of Menelaw Sete, a Brazilian artist who carrier the spirit of the life of his country in his veins.
But on looking more carefully we notice that the pictorial and gesture immediacy of Sete's canvases hide symbolic and surreal messages through images linked to awreness, to dream states, to imagination brought to the surface only by the force of creative vitality.
To the observer's eyes appear faces, bodies and figures, seen through impossible somatic forms, free af any irthogonal rule. They are works which conceal deep apprehension which is - to understand it better - the concave or convex mirror of human condition without rules and without certainty, of which we are eyewitnesses. But at the same time they are the semiotic-chromatic report of the triumphs of free expression brought to an extreme bondary, to the limits which exceed the informal by far. But these works are also the expressive vehicle breaking the area of solitude, indiference, indolence or a relationship which is only superficial in itself.
How many questions are ponderes on seeing these great canvasses! To which father, natural or putative can we attribute this painting of spirit? Certainly, there is something of a certain Pablo Ruiz, called Picasso between the folds of the creative material of this resteless Brazilian artist. But can Sete be considered as one who carries on the last Picassian gesture?Picasso began his dispering way of anatomic shapes by observing African anthropological works. The difference between Menelaw Sete and Picasso (in order to insist on the comparison) is simply that Sete comes into the world of art seventy years after the creator of "Guernica" and the Minotaur forms. The Brazilian artist stats with the psycological presuppion, all tied to medited and impulsivefacts, spread moreover by merit of Sigmund Freud rather than by artistic primogenitures. It is clear that in his works there is centainty and historic and geographic restlessness of South America that " cultures which have been lived" by the artist.
The intuitive element which guides Menelaw Sete's hand and which upsets all the pigmented rules is, hower, the colour, for the way he renders the medium of his instict, in the reconstruction of the space and subject on the canvas. It is perfectly coherent with his entropy of shapes and colours ("there is order in chaos" Einstein) so much so as to become the act of painting, prime funcion, pure psychic fact, perfectly allusive value.
So here the great chromatic backgrounds are slashed with veils of coulor, always with general shades and intensify, with great instintive virtuositySete manages to visualize what we are not able to, it is unknown to us, it is irrational for us. All this thanks to two great unified elements, the expressive force and "light of colours" which emanates from the painted surface. It is certainly not a light which shows an aspect or a detail. On the contrary, by brighteining the somatic features, they are very often scaled off, taking away the recognizable geometry, freeing them of their typical shell of behaviour. Sometimes the mass of plastic obtained after calming the creative wind, seems to come from the background of the work, taking on an understandable shape and colour, thanks to inherent, magnetic luminosity which moulds the subject in the very guts of the scene and gives it life.