Born in Fortaleza, in the north-east of Brazil, Leonilson lived in São Paulo from early childhood until his death in 1993. His early works, from the period between 1983 and 1988, were primarily figurative paintings, largely influenced by the transavantguardia group of Italian painters active in the early 1980s, although he also made sculptures and produced drawings in pen and ink. He developed a strong personal narrative as his work progressed, incorporating images that alluded to the conflict between his gay sexuality and his Catholic heritage. He first incorporated sewing and embroidery into his works in 1989, influenced by the work of the untrained Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario (1909-1989) as well as by Shaker work he had seen on a trip to America. After discovering he was HIV positive in 1991 and due to the subsequent decline in his health, Leonilson’s painting practice waned and he began working exclusively on embroidered works. The Penelope dates from the last year of his life.
Like all of Leonilson’s fabric works, The Penelope is unstretched and pinned directly to the wall, lending it the appearance of a religious or political banner, although a frilled skirting at the bottom of the work, as on a decorative curtain, implies a domestic reference. The work is made up of 10 panels of various diaphanous fabrics, netting and voile, overlaid and patchworked together. The fabrics used are subtly different in colour, ranging from white to cream to pale blue, and Leonilson’s hand-sewing takes the form of a large, uneven running stitch in dark embroidery thread. Along the one side of the panel, Leonilson has embroidered the title of the work and the small motif of an empty chair.
The Penelope referred to in the title is the wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus left Penelope to fight in the Trojan War. When, at the end of ten years of hostilities, Odysseus did not return with the other princes of Greece, she was beleaguered by suitors telling her that Odysseus was shipwrecked and begging her to remarry. Distraught, Penelope tells the men that before she can remarry, she must finish weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Penelope works all day on her weaving, but each night she secretly unpicks her day’s work so it will never be completed.
In the original Portuguese title of the work, O Penelope, Leonilson has deliberately paired the masculine article, O, with the feminine noun. The artist uses this device frequently in titling his works, subverting the boundaries between male and female domains, in a way that echoes his claiming of needlework away from its traditionally female associations.
Jessica Morgan (ed), Pulse: Art, Healing and Transformation, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2003
Projects 53: Oliver Herring and Leonilson, exhibition pamphlet, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996
Lisette Lagnado, Leonilson: São tantas as verdades / So many are the truths, exhibition catalogue, Galeria de Arte do SESI, São Paulo, 1995