On ViewAmericas Society
Que en nuestras almas no entre el terror
(May fear not enter our souls)
In 1992, Paraguayan artist Feliciano Centurión (1962–1996) used cherry-red yarn to embroider this phrase on a small rectangle of white cloth. The same red yarn trims the interior curves of the rectangle’s orange pinstripe border. The embroidered cloth floats within a larger swatch of woolly, charcoal textile, itself bordered by thick, sewn strips of red fabric. Together, these concentric frames signal an effort to protect the sentiment within—much as cellular membranes fight to maintain the integrity of the vital materials they harbor.
Three decades later—with incertitude, anxiety, and illness permeating each day—Centurión’s work resonates deeply, proffering both courageous perspective and tender wisdom. Abrigo, Centurión’s first solo exhibition in a United States institution, opened in February at the Americas Society Art Gallery, curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro. While the gallery is currently closed, one can access a virtual tour, the exhibition catalogue, and an accompanying documentary on the Americas Society’s website.
Born in San Ignacio, Paraguay, Centurión spent his childhood immersed in craft. His sisters, mother, aunts, and grandmother—who sewed, embroidered, crocheted, and wove—captivated him with their efforts. What’s more, Paraguay’s villages are known for their unique fiber-based folk art traditions, which include ñandutí (a Guaraní word that translates to “white of spider,” or spider web), a delicate lace comprised of adjoining roundels, and ao po’i (Guaraní for “fine cloth”), woven cotton textiles incorporating embroidery. Despite broad societal pride for these traditions, a deep gendering of craft forbade male pursuit of any activity associated with female domesticity; thus, Centurión withheld his enthusiasm.
While the artist’s home life was relatively tranquil, Paraguay at large teemed with political brutality and social injustice. Having barely recovered from three devastating wars—the War of the Triple Alliance (1864 – 70), the Chaco War (1932 – 35), and the Paraguayan Civil War (1947)—the nation succumbed to Alfredo Stroessner’s 35 year authoritarian regime, which began in 1954. Stroessner consolidated and legitimized his power by modifying Paraguay’s Constitution and conspiring with the armed forces. His government paired quotidian violence with tactics of oppression, which silenced and paralyzed the country’s citizens.
With his expressive possibilities as a gay, artistically inclined man squelched, Centurión left Paraguay for Buenos Aires, where he enrolled at the National Academy of Fine Arts Prilidiano Pueyrredón. Contrary to the plight of Paraguayans, the population of mid-1980s Argentina—which had just emerged from a (US backed) civic-military dictatorship—enjoyed the renewed personal and political freedoms of restored democracy. Counterculture blossomed, and Centurión could finally be open with his sexuality. It is with this idea of personal sanctuary that the exhibition title, Abrigo, engages. In Spanish the word has multiple meanings: it can be used to reference a place of refuge; it can also mean “overcoat”—as in a garment used to shield one’s body from the cold; al abrigo de translates to “in the care of” (a particular person); and the verb abrigar can be used to mean “cherish” or “keep” (hope).
In Buenos Aires, Centurión became involved with the Centro Cultural Ricardo Rojas, where young artists including Marcelo Pombo, Liliana Maresca, and Omar Schiliro, created expressive, irreverent work that often incorporated kitsch and queer aesthetics. Immersed in this milieu, Centurión revisited his childhood affinity for items and craft practices related to female domesticity; he began to crochet, to sew and embroider on aprons and pillowcases, and in particular, to paint on cheaply made, patterned blankets purchased from inexpensive local markets.
Centurión’s blankets from the 1990s—embellished with images of river and sea creatures—enliven the exhibition’s first gallery with their bold palettes and squirming imagery. Surubí, a work from 1992, demonstrates the strong connection Centurión maintained with his country of origin. The title and visual subject reference a type of catfish widely consumed in Paraguay and native to the Paraguay River. Here, the fish’s thick, sleek body arcs vitally against salmon-and-black plaid textile. The artist enhanced the plaid pattern with painted, transparent white squares and diagonal stripes in teal. These additions transform the fabric into a fishing net, and renders the surubí freshly-caught. The work exemplifies Centurión’s adroit synthesis of fabricated and organic, sophisticated concept and low-brow material.
In Buenos Aires, Centurión resided and worked in San Telmo, a neighborhood home to vibrant immigrant and artist communities. He drew strength from this multi-cultural environment and from his tightly-knit, inclusive groups of friends and colleagues. An utterly delightful work from the 1990s, displayed across three pedestals at the center of the first gallery (surrounded by the aquatic blankets) embodies an ethos of mutual affection, and the pleasure of shared humor. Titled Familia de dinosaurios (Family of Dinosaurs), the installation comprises an assembly of plastic toy dinosaurs plus a horse, a zebra, and a deer. The dinosaurs—eyes blood-shot and mouths baring pointy teeth—and their quadruped friends, are clothed in delicately crocheted garments: a baby-pink jacket, a flowing blue-and-white striped skirt, an ivory cape with small flowers, a sweet, shoulder-bearing sundress, a nightgown with plenty of room for a long, muscular tail. The artist lovingly finished each of these garments with buttons, pom-poms, or yarn and satin bows, creating a couture that is concurrently darling and cozy.
Works in the following gallery provide glimpses into Centurión’s personal and spiritual growth during this era. An array of small tapestries with brightly colored borders, hung salon-style along a kelly-green wall, evoke a blossoming garden. Centurión embroidered each work with a poetic phrase incorporating flora and paradise, such as Florece mi corazón (My Heart Flowers) (1992) and Las flores llenan de perfume (The Flowers Fill with Perfume) (1995). Yet there are also references to the loneliness and fragility of immigrant life (Paraguayans in particular, with an extensive history of domestic labor migration, often face discrimination in Argentina). Far from his Paraguayan family and friends, Centurión’s flowering garden incorporates words like Añoranza (Longing) (n.d.) and Corazón marchito (Withered Heart) (1994).
The third and final gallery of the exhibition is heartbreaking—containing, almost exclusively, work that Centurión created in the final year of his life, as he suffered from AIDS-related illnesses. Upon entering the gallery viewers are confronted by Cordero sacrificado (Sacrificial Lamb) (1996), a terribly explicit memento mori imparting the injustice of untimely death. Here, at the center of a forest-green blanket, lies a small, white lamb—its half-moon eye peacefully closed—with a dagger through its neck. The animal’s body curls atop a surging stone pyramid that conjures pre-Columbian sacrifice. Comet-like strokes of yellow paint, which radiate from the lamb’s body, imbue the image with cosmic energy.
The rest of the works in the gallery, noticeably reduced in scale, evince Centurión’s failing health. Neatly embroidered phrases read, alternately, “I am alive!” and “I am a soul in pain.” Despite this palpable frailty, Mon Ross’s 2016 documentary Abrazo íntimo al natural (Intimate Embrace Au Natural)—shown in a darkened corner of the room—informs the viewer that the artist’s resignation was luminous and brave. In camera footage, Centurión radiates a remarkable, childlike glee. Frame after frame train on his warm gaze, dazzling smile, and glossy black curls. In photographs he figures in groups, large and small, always embracing or embraced by others. It is impossible to detect anguish in his visage or posture.
One work in the final gallery contains the image of a small pink cross, above which Centurión embroidered the phrase, “renazco a cada instante,” “I am reborn at every moment” (1995). To feel renewed in deep crisis by faith, creation, and love. To be carried forward by small joys, to allow these joys the fullness and purity of our appreciation. This is art, personified.