Concreto

By Terry Berne, California, USA

Hildebrando de Melo’s colorful, mysterious and always intriguing work fuses the ancient and modern, the individual and collective, nature and a seemingly predatory technology. Straddling the frontier between abstraction and figuration, his paintings often feature schematic, multiple-limbed figures set starkly yet confusingly against mainly neutral backgrounds, and seem to be engaged in titanic acts of creation, struggle or violent destruction. These hieratic, almost robotic figures, anatomically a combination of man and machine, share kinship with both a stridently urban and populist graffiti, and ancient African sculpture, probably of a specifically local variety, reminiscent of representations of ancestral spirits who play a crucial role in local Angolan culture, as manifested in beautiful, terrifying and complexly crafted costumes and masks, some of which recall Hildebrando’s own formidable creatures. One such spirit is Chihongo, the spirit of deceased ancestors who has returned to the world of the living to guide, assist and protect them, and whose participation in rituals such as the mukanda, a months-long initiation rite, may offer a clue to the artist’s divine menagerie. But whatever the origin of Hildebrando’s creatures, and they are surely multiple, they seem to be both a response to the chaos and insecurity of modern life, and an invocation against its underlying violence and unavoidable perils. The vibrant colors, emphatic use of stark contours and sometimes harsh textures, give these paintings an urgent, emotional character. They evoke archetypal dramas, and I detect a critique of technology and the impositions of material progress and modern life, of people victimized by everyday violence, but also by the madness of urban turmoil and the daily struggle for existence. Some of the creatures in the series Concreto (Concrete) seem to me to allude directly to construction cranes, so ubiquitous in our modern cities, and an obvious symbol of the economic and social change which often ignores or rides roughshod over actual human needs and desires. These paintings, then, capture the mythic dimension underlying individual and social action and desire, and offer mappings of social and individual confusion, while others, like Céu Azul (Blue Sky) seem to trace cartographies of survival amid modernity’s bewildering disjunctions. So if at first it seems to be a wholly personal iconography, the artist’s mythical bestiary can be seen to have roots in both contemporary life and ancient tradition.

 

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