+ × ÷, Strengthen

Melissa de Oliveira
04/22 - 06/03/23

Melissa de Oliveira's first solo exhibition and also the first individual exhibition at Nonada.

The exhibition featured text by Victor Gorgulho and resumed the partnership that first presented Melissa's work in the collective exhibitions "Escrito no Corpo" at Carpintaria and its continuation at Tanya Bonakdar in NY, both curated by Victor with Keyna Eleison.

The show presented a unique cut of the artist's research involving her perspective on daily life and her life in Morro do Dendê. Delving into the human relationships and social dynamics of this community and its unique aspects due to its geographical location on an island.

Add, multiply, divide, strengthen: photography as a revealer of new and unsuspected alliances, partnerships, and affections.
Since its inception to the present day, photography – beyond playing a furious revolution in our cognitive devices and, therefore, in the way we perceive the world through the sophisticated human optical apparatus – has proven to be a true practice (artistic, albeit not only) capable of guiding and determining historical discourses and legitimizing hegemonic narratives and, consequently, marginalizing many others. For approximately two centuries, we have lived in a world governed by images; today, mostly produced by photographic machines of various types and natures. However, these images are far from innocent or banal. Every image carries with it a myriad of meanings and signifiers, more or less explicit on its surfaces, telling us a bit more deeply about what is impressively printed on paper or in the form of a set of luminous pixels shining on the screen of a smartphone or computer.

In 2019, Melissa de Oliveira began her artistic production by documenting daily life and the inhabitants around Morro do Dendê, on Ilha do Governador, in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro. Born and raised in the community – widely known as one of the most turbulent conflict zones in Rio – Melissa began photographing with a semi-professional digital camera, sufficient for her to embark on a prolific foray into the field of photography. Or, even further, in the field of (always subjective, let us remember) image production.
If historically Dendê has been inscribed in the collective imagination of Rio de Janeiro as one of the most conflicted favelas in the city, it was through Oliveira’s lenses that this territory began to be presented, from then on, through a new and unsuspected perspective, contrary to hegemonic narratives disseminated especially by television news. The speed at which the artist’s photographs gained body, light, and form was symptomatic: both due to the nature of the digital field of image production and the way they are distributed today; mostly on social networks, quickly gaining stratospheric visibility and exposure.

In her early records, Oliveira already defied the obvious logic that targeted Dendê and its residents, subverting typical codes of Rio’s favelas – such as the rule of not capturing the face of those being photographed, a basic code among the hills. She created a broad and consistent set of images that ranged from portraits of her family to shots of anonymous young people lightening their hair around the corners of the favela, as well as the documentation of recurring events there, such as the days of “Grau & Corte,” a kind of motorcycle maneuver battle that turns into a long entertainment show for the community’s inhabitants, occurring throughout a whole day, usually followed by parties and celebratory dances.

After participating in various group exhibitions showcasing selected excerpts from these early works, the artist now gifts us, in her first solo show, with a fine selection of works taken from the different fronts and series to which she has been dedicating herself in recent years. An aspect that has always caught attention since the beginning of her practice is Oliveira’s interest in male figures that often appear as protagonists in her records. However, there is no voyeuristic aspect here or even a sexual tension or anything similar. Opposite to these impulses, the artist sharpens her gaze towards behaviors exhibited by the men themselves, between them, delicately brushing their bodies, torsos, and hands, making gestures and expressing corporealities that occur in the intersections between friendship, partnership, and affection.

A delicate exercise of alterity is established here, precisely triggering the current moment of the carioca artist’s production, in an evident process of technical and conceptual maturation of her practice. Melissa casts a gaze that seeks not to inquire or question the sexual orientation of these men, that is evident. On the contrary, she aims to capture precious – sometimes elusive, and on other occasions more explicit and entirely public – moments where the previously almost inflexible and overly heavy masculinity carried by these men portrayed in her photographs unfolds into a third matter, another masculinity.

It is in the way a father cradles his newborn baby in his arms; it appears in the gentle touch of almost impossible hands of bikers propelling their machines towards the air, in full joyous suspension. It appears in the way a group of friends gathers to lighten their hair, without even needing female hands to give the Midas touch for their heads to become golden trophies, circulating in a crowd.

The hands that wield weapons are the same that caress the other: be it a man or a woman or otherwise – anyway! What we witness when observing the group of photographs selected by the artist for her first solo show is an exponential leap in terms of the delicacy and refinement of her gaze and, no less important, her technical virtues, her sensitivity to formal composition, the frames realized here, the plays of light and colors undertaken, and even beyond… Codes and signs typical of someone operating – undoubtedly – in the field of professional photography – period.

Although extremely young, at the age of 22 with life and experience on the corners, intersections, slopes, and alleys of where she was born, grew up, and discovered her craft, Melissa de Oliveira holds within herself the humility and maturity of an artist who is yet to establish an unavoidable artistic trajectory surrounded by the pains and delights that are hers and that will present themselves along the way. When wielding her lenses in front of a friend, a relative, a stranger, or whoever, the artist knows that she is also holding up a mirror that (laden with pain, but also abundant in pleasures and delights of all kinds) allows her to see herself, be amazed, and constantly discover (rediscover) herself.

So far, Melissa has not been afraid: she holds the key (always) to solve the mathematical equation that unfolds in the game of alterity every time the shutter of her camera eternalizes any moment. Mel knows that looking at the other and everything around her is, in reality, a complex process of adding, multiplying, dividing, and, above all, strengthening. Herself, her own, and anyone else who comes along. As the equation continues to complexify, Melissa will know how to take off her mirrored glasses, clean her two timid eyes, and seek to see the world (again!) as if it were the first time. And then the dance will continue.

Victor Gorgulho