On ViewAmericas Society
All Existing Materials on Earth
January 25–May 20, 2023
Bispo Do Rosário: All Existing Materials on Earth is not the unruly display the exhibition’s title would have you believe. Born in Brazil in 1909, Arthur Bispo do Rosário spent much of his life confined to mental institutions after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. At the age of 29, he had a vision that God chose him to create a comprehensive catalog of the world, including all its inhabitants and their possessions, as a way of preserving the universe and its people for Judgement Day. This vision inspired his life's work and shaped the distinct style and content of his art. More than simply a survey of the artist’s extensive output, the Americas Society’s exhibition lays out a narrative that elucidates the artist's personal history, hybrid spiritual beliefs, and expansive worldview.
Opening the exhibition, Bispo’s hand-embroidered “Roupas (garments),” which he referred to as “uniforms,” reveal the everyday modes he used to negotiate and express his ambitious mandate from God. His most emblematic piece, Untitled [Manto da apresentação (Annunciation garment)] (n.d.), which he intended to wear on Judgement Day, is embroidered with everyday objects and abstract designs that manifest his acute attention to detail, while the inside displays the names of people he encountered during his life, including doctors, nurses, patients, and friends. It is flanked by two regalia jackets embellished with stitched sashes, service stripes, stars, and other insignia. On the star-studded Untitled [“Eu vi Cristo” (I saw Christ)] (n.d.), he detailed the story, date, and time of his 1938 mission that heralded the start of his 50-year “encyclopedic endeavor.” These uniforms recall the time he spent in the Brazilian navy, but more affectingly disclose Bispo’s regimental mandate to carry out his project like some form of dutiful charge, an idea present in his precise linework.
Bispo’s formal rigor comes into focus in his fabric reconstructions of everyday objects such as scissors, lamps, and paint rollers, each embroidered with the object’s name and serial number that corresponds to a catalog system that reaches almost 1000 items. He used sheets, blankets, towels, or any piece of rag he could get his hands on, and even unraveled patients’ uniforms into blue thread for sewing material. These sculptural objects are neighbored by his “Vitrines,” panels of found objects he acquired through collecting and exchanging with others in the Colônia Juliano Moreira, a psychiatric facility destination for the homeless and mentally ill, where Bispo spent much of his life. On the far back wall of the Americas Society, a tapestry of his “Vitrines” panels lined with conga shoes, plastic combs, and mugs replicates Bispo’s systematic syntax. Nearby hangs a self-made chessboard and pieces (he was a great chess player), a powerful example of the convergence of structure and playfulness in his practice.
At first glance, the scope of Bispo’s project may seem incompatible with the institutional confinement in which he lived. After all, how could a man both deemed mentally disconnected from reality and systematically excluded from the world possibly hope to map it in its entirety? And yet, Bispo's project seems to represent a kind of triumph over the very conditions that engendered it. By using his embroideries to express his own unique perspective on the world, he could assert a sense of agency and autonomy in the face of an environment that was designed to strip him of these very qualities.
His “Estandartes (Banners)” deepen this paradox. Some banners feature text and statements that express a sense of purpose and determination, such as “Eu preciso dessas palavra escritas” (“I need these words written”), which highlights the urgency to preserve his memories while confined in an environment that suppressed individuality. Other “Estandartes'' are adorned with a diverse range of modern iconographies, from lively carousels and playgrounds to massive military warships and national embassies. This rich imagery reflects a perspective that extends beyond that of an inmate who is alienated from the world in a psychiatric institution.
It is tempting to think of Bispo’s work, like that of other artists conventionally grouped under the parameters of the “Outsider” or other approximate synonyms, as launching back and forth from the margins of society to the forefront of artistic innovation. But such a simplistic view misses the complexity and depth of his artistry. He did not consider himself an artist and rejected any conventional models of creative production. Bispo’s work transcends the boundaries of traditional art historical categories and embodies a unique synthesis of the real and fantastical, as well as the material and symbolic. By recreating the world within the confines of his cell, he surmounted the exclusionary principle of his hospitalization. In this sense, his project can be seen as a form of cultural subversion that challenges the very idea of what it means to be institutionalized.