We’re officially well into fall but stepping into Mariane Ibrahim gallery feels like summer. Large-scale paintings featuring images of Brazilian beach life fill the space with light, bright colors and an elevated mood. Families hang out in the sun, couples nestled under striped umbrellas, children play in the sand and pets lounge beside sunbeds and coolers enjoying the weather. Elsewhere, girls absorb themselves in books or tan along the shoreline, with waves gently crashing at their feet. Electrifying purple, intense fuchsia, fiery orange and bright turquoise collide bringing to life beach scenes that epitomize the sheer joy found in moments of freedom and leisure.
Each of the nine paintings features dark-skinned Black people of diverse genders, body types and relationships—all are featured in a serene state of relaxation (enjoying a day at the beach) and they all have one thing in common: they look away from the viewer. Their gaze never reaches out of the canvas. Invested in whatever activity they choose to take on—be it staring at the ocean, basking in the sun, or casually smoking—they seem to be minding their own business. They don’t seek your approval—they don’t need it either.
That’s exactly No Martins’ point. In order to challenge Brazil’s racial democracy, he allows his subjects to reclaim their self worth—a sense of agency that comes in stark juxtaposition with the often marginalized perception of Black Brazilians in society at large. You see, disparities stemming from gender, race and socioeconomic class look different under the hot Brazilian sun. But is water and salt enough to wash away pressing issues such as territorial disputes, accessibility, racial prejudices, the looming shadow of mortality, and the disproportionate incarceration rates of Black Brazilians? Not even remotely so. But Martins’ work bringing those matters to the forefront sure makes a difference. His exhibition aptly titled “Encontros Políticos (Political Encounters)… Part 2” serves that purpose in a “we-need-to-talk-about-it” way.
In an effort to capture Black Brazilian reality at its essence, Martins investigates the intricate dynamics of Afro-Brazilians’ urban daily life, which of course includes the beach—a key symbol of Brazilian cultural heritage. To do so, he has to dive into the haunting legacies of the country’s colonial past first. The more one pays attention to the details, the more obvious the connections between past and present, struggles and triumphs become.
Within the playful innocence of childhood in “Continuidade (2023),” Martins makes a loud statement: as children play in the sun under the watchful eye of their grandparents, a beach toy vendor appears in the background. His cart features a reimagined Brazilian flag—the original motto is “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) reflecting state-sanctioned control, as evidenced by Brazil’s twenty-one-year military dictatorship, while Martins’ rendition proclaims “Progresso é liberdade ao povo” (Progress is freedom for the people), emphasizing freedom over progress—the artist’s point is made crystal clear and it highlights the inherent right of Black Brazilians to joy, rest and non-politicized humanity.
This theme of societal critique continues in “Vendedores (2023),” where beach vendors, emblematic of Brazil’s informal economy, take a moment’s respite. As they converse, three young women venture into the Atlantic, a poignant reminder of the economic disparities and limited opportunities available to many, especially Black Brazilians, in a nation grappling with its complex socio-political landscape. Elsewhere, a group of friends are gathered around in a circle. They hang out chatting, laughing, smoking—snacks and drinks reveal a picnic of sorts. Behind them, a red flag reading “DANGER.” High hazard is imminent. Safety is compromised—in a sense, so is freedom.
The deeper the viewer looks into the canvas, the more they realize that this exhibition is not just an exploration of Black Brazilian identity but also a call to action urging society to address its biases and work toward a more inclusive and equitable future. Martins’ work boldly confronts the entrenched racism and classism permeating society. It argues that true progress lies in freedom, not order. And it underscores the imperative for Black Brazilians to carve out their own definitions of humanity. Maybe this way the nation will find genuine peace.
“No Martins: Encontros Políticos (Political Encounters)… Part 2” is on view at Mariane Ibrahim, 437 North Paulina through October 28.