WHAT’S GOING ON: Crowded, colorful scenes show rural life in Paraguay with intense candor and brutal hilarity. Reminiscent of Breugel the Elder, Robert Crumb and other bards of satirical ugliness, Fidel Fernandoz’s paintings are striking at the first look, and reveal many deeper layers upon close inspection—some uproariously funny, others severely unsettling, and some likely unavailable to the viewer not familiar with Paraguay’s quotidian politics or its rural reality. Tightly arranged figures in allegorical motion give off a crippling sense of claustrophobia. But this is nothing compared to the revelations that seemingly harmless paintings hold. Look closer, and a man washing a small boy’s underwear in a basin quickly turns from an attentive parental figure to a predator.
WHO MADE IT: Fidel Fernández is a self-taught artist who comes from a small town on the north of the country and currently resides in the rural area close to the Parana River. He has enjoyed an array of group and personal exhibitions since the mid-00s in his career. Fernández also received the prestigious Matisse Prize in 2013, an award for artists given out by Alliance Française in Paraguay, and traveled to Paris with his works. When asked about his plans upon return from Paris, the artist responded: “I think I’ll go planting cassava with my dad.” In one photograph of the artist, he is wearing a t-shirt that says, “Paraguay doesn’t end on Calle Ultima,” alluding to Avenida Defensores del Chaco, commonly considered the country’s main thoroughfare. And this thesis runs through Fernández’s whole work: in a state where periods of economic boom after the end of the extensive dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner have propelled the cities to prosperity, the rural regions remain underrepresented and left to their own devices. And who else can depict this subject more masterfully than a painter who lives in the countryside and works on a farm?
WHY DO WE CARE: We love self-taught artists, staunchly political art, and paintings that demand your attention to detail and allow you to spend a vast amount of time studying the canvas. Fernández checks all the right boxes here, and discovering him on the internet might well be one of the most significant finds we’ve had in the Supamodu art section so far. As the need for unapologetic political criticism grows and swells in all cultural outlets, the art market with its capitalist politics, immovable hierarchy, and stringent ideologies can be a wet blanket for those seeking pure ideas. So to see an artist who delivers staggering, vast works of grotesque realism that meticulously capture every small detail of being underprivileged, is a refreshing treat.
WHY YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION: Paraguay is a country shrouded in abstractions and generalizations, where human rights fall through the cracks in incessant stability. It’s riddled with corruption and shadowy deals, as recent news reports show, while the liberties of women, indigenous citizens, queer people, and rural communities are often disregarded, as the dispatches detailing deforestation and severe anti-abortion laws show. Thankfully, when all else fails, art helps find truth in the twilights. And being able to look at Paraguay through the body of work of an artist, especially one who is preoccupied with giving the spotlight to the people, is priceless. It’s made even more valuable because of the raw, unhinged humor with which Fernández approaches those he depicts. He’s one of them, his characters are sometimes friends or products of inside jokes, and this doesn’t allow for any classist separation between the artist and his subjects. He never patronizes or pities, instead portraying how levels of abuse and mistreatment intersect, shift, and reinforce each other. The gnarly carnival of Fernández’s paintings is elaborate but represents a straightforward concept: everything in the society is connected, and nothing exists outside of the system. Therefore, there is no one untouched, and everyone is responsible.
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