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Hélio Oiticica


Hélio Oiticica was a Brazilian performance artist, painter and sculptor. His work stands out for its experimentalism and inventiveness in its constant attempt to blend art and life.  His experiments, which require active public participation, are largely accompanied by theoretical expositions, often in the form of texts, commentaries and poems.


In 2006, the gallery held a solo Oiticica exhibition of ten “Parangole Capes” created in 1979 for the Recife Festival. Rather than simply present the static objects, the scenography by Daniela Thomas allowed the visitor to see them in use: a video shot on a closed São Paulo overpass showed members of the Vai-Vai carnival club dancing clothed in the capes.

In parallel with the exhibition, the gallery launched a catalogue put together by Carlito Carvalhosa with photographs by Gui Paganini and a previously unpublished text by the British critic Guy Brett. “Drawing inspiration from the aristocratic and grassroots alike, the ‘Parangolé Capes’ are, at once, cloaks and rags”, he wrote.

Click here for the texts by Paulo Bruscky and Guy Brett.

Textos Helio

Hélio Oiticica and the Parangolé Capes in Recife

Paulo Bruscky


In the middle of June, 1979, Hélio Oiticica came to Recife at my invitation to take part in the Second Winter Festival of the Catholic University of Pernambuco. Oiticica gave a lecture illustrated with slides about his personal development and his art. In addition he organized an event with ten parangolé capes in the courtyard of the university and in the Pátio São Pedro in the city centre. I was standing beside him and was able to witness how happy he was to see the public putting on his parangolé capes and dancing in them, for the first time in Brazil. Similar events took place in London in 1969 and in Pamplona in 1972.


These were unforgettable weeks when we talked at length about art and his life and work. On one occasion Jomard Muniz de Britto, Alm Andrade, Jota Medeiros, Oiticica and I sat till daybreak exchanging ideas in a bar on the hill of Conceição. Hélio told me that one of his sources of inspiration for the parangolé cape project occurred when he was on a bus passing through the Botanical Garden and saw a garbage collector take a large plastic sack, make two holes in it for his arms and one for his head and put it on to protect himself from the rain.


His letter of 12.07.1979, published in this catalogue, sheds light on his conception of the parangolés. Oiticica asked me to take note of the first people to use the parangolés, so this could be preserved in his records. At about this time I got him a ticket to travel from Recife to Manaus, where he visited his brother César before returning to Rio de Janeiro.

The ten parangolés made in Recife were exhibited and worn in 1981 in Porto Alegre in the Espaço NO, by request of Vera Chaves Barcellos. In June 1986, as Coordinator of the Cultural Foundation of the City of Recife, I inaugurated the Multimedia Auditorium Hélio Oiticica in the Aloísio Magalhães Metropolitan Art Gallery. The presentation of Hélio Oiticica’s parangolé capes is of the utmost importance because this was one of the few works that he produced in Brazil after his long period in New York and shortly before he died in Rio de Janeiro in March 1980, eight months after the event.


Capas d'Agora (Capes 'o Now)

Guy Brett

Every text on Hélio Oiticica should somehow try to work its way back from the objects which survive him, which are now described, exhibited, catalogued, bought and sold as his ‘work’, to the live act that he conceived these objects for. The objects associated with Oiticica’s notion of Parangolé took the form of banners, or flags, or capes, or tents. He knew that and welcomed the association, while pointing out that this was not the crux of the matter. He called them ‘trans-objects’, and when they were put to use by living people they became: “no longer the objects as they were previously known, but a relation which transforms what was known into new knowledge and what still remains to be learnt, a dimension we would call the unknown, the remnant which remains open to the imagination which re-creates itself upon the work”.


And he continued in characteristically paradoxical style: “what emerges in the continuous spectator-work contact will therefore be conditioned by the character of the work, itself unconditioned. Hence, there is a conditioned-unconditioned relationship in the continuous apprehension of the work”. 


These statements come from Oiticica’s earliest writing specifically on the subject of Parangolé. Later, when he was in New York, he returned to the theme in the more compressed, suggestive and graphic texts he produced in that city. This was a textual means of trying to take the open, living, ‘embodying’ role of the object beyond contradiction and antithesis:


CAPEcondition ( concrete extension of wearing-embodying )




(no longer as search for sensory non-conditionings

erecting new experimentalism)

CAPES MADE ON THE BODY were/belonged as an extreme state to the

first premises of experimentalism of the sensorial unconditioned:

the body moving over itself; construct-embody empty cocoon

loose extension which re-embodies itself whenever worn


CAPES o’now:


garment-concretions whose ‘little totality’ void is made for wearing

that which is sensory object but cannot be reduced to such:

the previous contradiction non-conditioned / “naturalism of doing” does not

appear: explorable units without thought-out foreknowledge

more open without concern for ‘corporal significations’.

‘sensory non-conditionings’, etc.


Here he mentions ‘capes made on the body’. As we know from Oiticica’s letter to Paulo Bruscky of 12th July 1979, accepting Bruscky’s invitation to stage a Parangolé event in Recife, the structures built on the body would be improvised by the  participants themselves out of a plain coloured length of cloth which they would fix together with pins. This was to be the third time he had experimented with made-on-the-body capes, the other two being in Sussex, England, in 1969 and Pamplona, Spain in 1972 (hence his joke in the letter about the adaptability of his idea to totally different environments!). Made-on-the-body capes, therefore, remained a constant through years in which the character of the Parangolé cape changed considerably.


These changes can perhaps be grouped in four episodes. First, the pure colour capes of the early 1960s as an extraordinary leap from Oiticica’s painterly  experiments in “manifestations of colour in environmental space”  - Relevo Espacial, Núcleo (Spatial Relief, Nucleus, etc.) -  to a new space centered on the body in motion. Soon after came the socio-political, activist, poetic capes of the mid-1960s, introducing words as well as a wider range of materials, epitomised in the title (and painted words) of one of the capes made in collaboration with Nildo of Mangueira: Cape 11, Incorporo a Revolta (“I Embody Revolt”), 1967. This series ranged from the simple (such as Cape 8, Capa da Liberdade, 1966, made with Rubens Gerchman, a few pieces of cloth hung from the shoulder to reveal and hide the word ‘liberty’ in the irrepressible exuberance of the participant’s dance); to the complex (capes paying homage to friends, and evoking states of living, more individual and elaborate both as regards their physical structure and their metaphorical meanings). The dialectic of wearing/watching in the Parangolé event also developed.


Next came capes that emerged during Oiticica’s years in New York: starker, more abstract pieces that both reflect a harsher urban environment and generate a play between naked body, transparency, veiling and void (Cape 23, M’Way Ke, 1972, or the wrapping of Waly Salomão’s scarlet-painted face in Parangolé de Cabeça (Head Parangolé, 1976). Voids, to be animated by the individual participant’s imagination, accompany Oiticica’s theory of the Supra-sensorial, itself an effort to counter the consumption of his work merely at the level of imagery that he saw as a feature of the reception of his Tropicália ensemble of 1967. Finally there is the body-covering made in the last year of his life, which he called Bólide Poema A Tua na Minha  (Poem Bolide Yours by Mine), 1980, which I will return to in a moment.


Oiticica described his Made on the Body experiment as “very simple”. Nevertheless his letter to Bruscky is full of precise instructions and is wholly  characteristic of his attention to detail. Out of the plain 3-meter length of fabric “each person must build on the body a structure, uniting the edges and extremes with safety pins”. He stresses that each cape should be removable without disturbing the pins, so that it can be handed on to someone else, who will ‘wear’ it and activate it in a completely different way. This seems to be the essence of the proposition. Oiticica emphasises the desirability of participation by a heterogeneous public, underlining the word and ending the sentence: “OK?” It is a perfect example of what he meant by “the continuous spectator-work contact … conditioned by the character of the work, itself unconditioned”; and what Mário Pedrosa must have been referring to when he described work of the Brazilian avant-garde in the 1960s as “the experimental exercise of freedom”. We must be greatly indebted to Paulo Bruscky for inviting Hélio Oiticica to Recife and, though it was not strictly speaking essential to the concept, carefully preserving  the Parangolé capes made during the event. 

I was not in Pamplona when Oiticica was there, and I somehow missed the made-on-the-body event in Britain - among other things this latter must have pre-empted the British punks’ later cult of the safety-pin!. The role of the safety-pin is crucial. With complete economy it produces the articulated cocoon out of the flat plane. There seems to be a correspondence between these improvised capes and another strand in Oiticica’s late work, the return to certain constructivist principles in the maquettes for new architectural Penetrables to be called Invenção da Cor (Invention of Colour), 1977-78. The modulations of light and space created by sliding panels and opening and closing sides of cubes correspond to the body’s movement in Parangolé. He called the architectural models Invenção da Cor “because it is no longer structure-colour-painting, or sculptural-architectural application of colours: it is colour in suspension: we rest in colour”. 

The two strands echo in one another, and confirm Oiticica’s pursuit of liberty across every convention and category that frames our sensory being-in-the- world, from the hand-held, to the bodily, to the shelter, to the environmental whole. Such a search can be recognised in terms that he himself in his early writings ascribed to Mondrian, and to Mondrian’s dream of the dissolution of art into life. It would be “neither the mural nor applied art, but something expressive, which would be like the ‘beauty of life’, something he could not define because it did not yet exist”. 

Yet this could never be an unambiguous, positivist agenda. The precarious Parangolé, as something ‘made on the body’, must have reached deep into Oiticica’s imaginative core. There it became one of the vehicles for a meditation on the unavoidable paradox of experience. There is only a fine line between all opposed pairs.  In its simplest form the Parangolé itself was a kind of membrane, a veil, which rests on the interface between the living body and the sense of sight. To see is primordially a dialectic of experiences each contradicting the other, a continuous play between the revealing and the veiling of the world, of reality.


So many of Oiticica’s propositions seem to be two opposite things at once. Drawing on both aristocratic and popular inspirations, the Parangolé Capes are simultaneously robes and rags. Referring to form, they are logically structured and spontaneously wild. In terms of universal experience, they become a means of outward-turning declaration and inward-turning self-absorption, freedom and entrapment. At some further level they may also suggest the beginning and end of life, simultaneously the amniotic sac of the unborn baby and the winding sheet of the departed. It is almost uncanny the way A Tua na Minha, a beautiful encapsulation of reciprocity made in the last year of his life, was both a ‘warm-up for Carnival’, potentially full of life, “a sensuality measurer”, he called it, “to test people’s sensuality”, and at the same time, in its dark veiling, can hardly help being seen as a shroud, a premonition of his untimely death.

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