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Leonilson’s earlier works were mainly colourful figurative paintings inspired by the Italian transavanguardia movement, though he also admired Lygia Clark’s and Hélio Oiticica’s textile experiments. By 1991, weakened by ill-health, he was working exclusively with fabric. In the original Portuguese title, O Penélope, Leonilson paired a masculine article with a feminine name to subvert gender boundaries and challenge needlework’s traditionally female associations. The embroidered words, ‘SECRET – SILENCE – SENTINEL – THE PENELOPE’, evoke the tension and isolation felt by someone coping with AIDS through reference to a Classical story of deferral and hope.

June 2013