Angelo Augusto Milani (b. 1958) is a Brazilian mixed-media artist who investigates the creative potentials of found materials, as well as domestic and industrial “refuse” (in Portuguese, “refugo”). He frames his installation practice in opposition to classical sculpture in basic principle: instead of echoing notions that it is the removal of material that reveals the artwork, Milani enjoys exploring the possibilities of accumulation and excess. In our interview, the artist recalls experimenting with apparently useless objects since his youth, as he put together dissimilar (dispares, in Portuguese) and interesting elements and nailed them to his room door, aiming for “a visual provocation, most often abstract; an uncommon vibration”. This developed into a practice marked by the “constant search for a form that provokes a feeling of strangeness [estranhamento], of something not easily recognisable.”
As with his definition of sculpture, Milani’s work challenges us to reconsider the figure of the artist as creator. In line with ideas of the artist as someone who assists the materials transition from one life stage to another (Hallam and Ingold in Making and Growing), Milani told me that he collects objects and materials until one of them “asks for a new opportunity of existence”. According to him, in this new phase of the object’s life, part of the “history of the has-been is impressed onto the object”, but the aim is for it to be “transformed rather than evident.”
The artist believes that the path to creation is found together between the artist and the material, which he imbues with agency in this collaborative relationship. In fact, co-creation is a running theme in his practice. A mechanical engineer by degree, Milani moved to the small mountainous town of São Bento do Sapucaí, in the south-eastern state of São Paulo, with his wife, the artist Cláudia Villar. In partnership, they rebuilt two chapels into mosaics of fragments of found objects, a bric-a-brac overlay onto a 20th century small religious structure.
Angelo told me that the motivation for this creation was the excess of material, as Claudia collected fragments of saint figurines that had been abandoned by their faithful, until this reached the point of congestion. It was out of this accumulation that a process of resignification emerged; an exercise in making, unmaking and re-making. This process was a collaborative one, shaped by the two artists, their colleagues, apprentices and assistants – and perhaps also indirectly by the different sources of the objects that were reconfigured to create a dense visual scene of collective worship and the social ritualising of death. Chapels of this kind are traditionally built in this region to honour the passing of loved ones and are often used to house objects that belonged to the deceased, as well as pieces of broken small religious statues, whose disposal is thought to bring bad luck. According to Milani, popular belief or superstition that throwing out a broken image causes bad luck is linked to people believing that something holy is still in the pieces – hence why they bury them, leave them in chapels or dispose of them in rivers. He says: “I use the images to try and create something that people may identify as elements of their own culture, which are unusually placed, but recognisable – leading to an emotional response”. It is curious how in spite of the unorthodox arrangements within the chapel, which indeed could be interpreted as the visual provocations the artist is interested in, the popular reception of the chapels is very positive, as people of a traditional religiosity see their faith represented.
I visited the smaller chapel earlier this year. It is set on the side of a road leading up to the town’s natural landmark called Pedra do Baú. The outside of the chapel is decorated with ‘bandeirinhas’, the geometric shapes that characterise an important Brazilian religious feast called Festa de São João (Feast of Saint John) – more popularly known as ‘Festa Junina’. The particular aesthetics of Festa Junina, manifested in crafted objects such as balões de São João, decorative flags and costuming, have made it into fine art environments in the paintings of Alfredo Volpi (1896-1988), an Italian naturalised Brazilian painter of canonical status, and Djanira da Motta e Silva (1914-1979), a largely self-taught artist whose historically relegated work has recently been honoured in a retrospective show in São Paulo’s largest art museum, MASP. The side outer walls of the chapel are covered in abstract mosaic panels initially designed for an installation in a chapel in the city of São Paulo.
Upon entering, one is immersed in the dense landscape of objects; in this layering of materials, visual information and meanings. Pieces of tiles in different colours and patterns, fragments of the town’s architecture, fit into each other and frame the plethora of statuettes in their niches. Religious iconography is both reinforced and put on its head as the objects are clearly interrelated, but in completely new ways. A beheaded Jesus becomes part of a framed image of Saint George. The bust of one saint is placed over the body of another so often that the figures in fact blend together. Mismatched cherubs with broken off hands or arms watch over the chapel’s inside, their disposition in a sequence highlighting the variations and similarities across religious statuary. A mandala of statuettes of Nossa Senhora Aparecida shows the many forms this religious symbol can take in different materials and scales - each one the object of a specific devotion, a reminder of the highly personalised as well as collective nature of religiosity. Broken off painted porcelain surrounds trademarked angels, their ‘fine art’ label reminds us of their circulation as commodities, while the thick layer of dust over it tells a different story. Keys, buttons, pieces of glass, shards of tiles, chains, metal nails, fake flowers and beads galore are scattered around the conjunctive mass that connects the figures. Bases of cups and small mirrors create waves on the mortar. Some trinkets used to fill every space of the composition were made by children in crafting workshops. Fragments of jewellery and a toy butterfly adorn an enshrouded saint. Another figure is enveloped by a swarm of beaded butterflies from children’s jewellery making kits, interspersed with traditional blue and white tiles – traditional features in Brazil in connection to Portuguese colonial architecture, which have become part of a fine art vocabulary by the hands of contemporary artist Adriana Varejão.
The chapel’s nativity scene is re-imagined here with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, three crucified figures of different sizes and fake flowers. This makes up the main altarpiece, onto which it seems visitors have added their own contributions. On the walls, Jesus is shown in many forms. As a fragment of a bust, he emerges out of mosaic tiles with a bead for an eye. In a collection of chipped crucifixes framed by shards of tiles and the base of a glass, the statue itself seems to hang from two metal sticks which form the core of its arm, this skeleton revealed by the broken off ceramic. Metal lamp covers are placed onto his face(s) like an extended crown of thorns. Another crucified figure, with its metal structure exposed, seems to swim amongst entangled rosaries. The repetition of items representing the same figures is surely unorthodox, but it does evoke a kind of omnipresence. Simultaneously, we are reminded of the plurality of devotion in its many (physical) forms and the unifying, mass-made aspect of faith.
The dialogue established between the pieces as part of the mosaic is extended beyond this chapel, through another small religious building across town and the walls of the school Genésio Candido Pereira. In collaboration with the students, poems were chosen to be written in mosaic across the school’s outside walls, the light of the tiles catching the eye of those passing through the town’s main street. The art of putting words together takes on a new dimension. “Art exists because life does not suffice”, reads one of them, now an homage to its author, Brazilian artist and neo-concretism pioneer, Ferreira Gullar.