Inspired by Hellenistic poetry and medieval alchemy, Brazilian artist Tunga created sculptures, installations, and performances over the past three decades that made him one of Brazil’s best known and most influential artists. Acclaimed for his imaginative and sensuous works using unorthodox materials and novel means of display, plus erotically charged performances that sometimes featured dozens of nude performers, Tunga was a pioneer. He remained conscious, however, of his work’s position among the traditions of Western art, and of his place within Latin America’s avant-garde. He showed all over the world, and was, notably, the first contemporary artist invited to create an exhibition for the Louvre in Paris—“The Meeting of Two Worlds,” 2005. He had been ill for the last year, but his death from cancer on June 6 at age 64, in Rio de Janeiro, seemed sudden and shocking to many.
Since his passing, a myriad of art-world tributes have appeared in the international press as well as on social media. Many regard Tunga, born Antônio José de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão, as an “artist’s artist.” Proof of that assessment came in the form of recent emails to A.i.A. from a number of his art-world friends following a memorial service they attended June 15 at the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, a contemporary art museum and vast sculpture park located in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. A large pavilion devoted to Tunga’s work opened there in September 2012.
“Tunga was essential to the development of contemporary Brazilian art,” artist Beatriz Milhazes wrote. “His work influenced a generation, including artists such as Jac Leirner and Ernesto Neto. Tunga was an alchemist, an eternal inventor. His ever-changing process was organic. He made his life his work, and his work his life. He was a performer, a character without limits, always ‘acting.’ It feels strange to consider that we will no longer see him circulating in the art world.”
Representative of a younger generation of Brazilian artists, Nuno Ramos added, “Tunga brought lots of fresh air to Brazilian art. I’d describe his legacy as a unique mix of Brazilian constructivism and pure imagination. He brought forth images in a way that no one before him did. To my mind, he used two main forces as organizing principals in his work: a kind of recycled entropic energy—the sense of Mobius movement that he learned from [leading Brazilian Constructivist and Tropicália artist] Lygia Clark—and a centrifugal force that his imagination allowed him to access. This was something absolutely original.”
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