Mendes Wood’s “TBT” shows Paulo Nazareth‘s first solo exhibition at the gallery: ‘Notícias da América’, from 2012.
“In one photo from the Americas trip, the artist holds a sign reading ‘My image of exotic man for sale’. Nazareth’s art is one that embraces the world outside the gallery, but mines art’s own history in the process: it’s a practice based on contradictions and complications and an extremely poetic delivery.”
– Oliver Basciano for ArtReview Magazine, 2012
Kiki Mazzucchelli wrote this on the occasion of Paulo Nazareth’s Noticias de America project. The following text was published in 2012 on Paulo Nazareth’s first monograph:
My first contact with the work of Paulo Nazareth was in mid-2008 when I was a member of a group of critics at the Centro Cultural de São Paulo. Once a year, we would receive portfolios that had been chosen by the panel of the traditional Exhibition Program. These had to be carefully examined and then we would select some of our favorites to be included in the exhibition the following year and write a critical essay. I vividly remember the feeling I had that year when examining the chaotic contents of one of the envelopes. It contained a dozen leaflets roughly printed on newsprint, with bilingual, even trilingual texts (in fact the translations themselves were somewhat inaccurate, probably the work of Google Translate); invitations to solo and group exhibitions; some postcards, nothing with any further explanation. There were just a few loose sheets that were some kind of attempt at creating a portfolio that would comply with institutional expectations and a series of images of performances and installations whose complexity somehow seemed to surpass the limits of the format.
More than self-contained individual pieces of work, the work he presented was just one of the many manifestations of larger-scale projects, whose reach in time and geography is closely linked to the artist’s experience. Then came the realization that I was before something very unique — a work that was reclaiming some of the procedures and aesthetic values of conceptual experimentalism from the 1970s in a perceptive and humorous way. At the same time, it provided a historical foundation and biographical approach to the issue of race, a subject that while pressing, is practically inexistent in current debates surrounding Brazilian contemporary art.
From this chance encounter, I began to discover Paulo Nazareth’s vast artistic production, which he diligently and obsessively documents in blogs. In his blogs, one becomes aware of the scope and ambition of his work. There are the giveaways on newsprint, which play a fundamental role in the design and circulation of many of his projects. In general, they document fleeting or everyday situations and this low-cost graphic production which is distributed for free on the streets or at exhibition spaces, or marketed as art, at amazingly affordable prices, allows for the dissemination of the ideas and issues raised by Nazareth to a public that very often has little contact with contemporary art production. In an earlier series (2005-07), the inscription Aqui é Arte (Here is Art) appears on the top of the giveaway. One or more pictures document specific situations found in public spaces, which the artist hails as works of art through what he calls “conceptual decrees”, all duly dated. Sometimes they even state the validity of the decree and the period in which the situation in question occurs. The short texts that accompany these publications are written in a way that imitates strictly scientific and objective language, although the content is purely subjective and poetic. In some cases they are relatively simple instructions, reminiscent of Fluxus event scores:
“At Avenida Dr. Otacílio Negrão de Lima, number 17397, Pampulha, Belo Horizonte MG/ Brazil, there is a wall with a hole in it through which you can see the trees growing during the rainy season.
Month: January Validity: Undetermined.” Or:
“Month: January Validity: Undetermined
Between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., go to the Pampulha dam between Avenidas Presidente Antonio Carlos and D. Pedro I, Belo Horizonte, MG / Brazil. Stand exactly on top of the drain that goes to Córrego da Onça, a bird will pass under your feet.”
On other occasions, the text is rather more speculative in nature, provoking reflections that point to other aspects that will unfold, allowing one to catch a glimpse of the elegance of his writing, for example when he identifies an elephant through a hole in the wall:
On Av. Portugal near to Via Brasil, through a hole in the wall, you can see an elephant on a chain tied up to nothing. His body sways as he if he were dancing, they say he sleeps standing up; there’s also a camel with fallen humps. The camel is from the Middle East and can go for days without drinking water. The elephants are from Asia and Africa, and they have a good memory. The Asian elephant is hard-working, helps a man with his tasks, the African one is bad-tempered, no good for work, but its teeth are worth a lot on the market, that’s why it ends up toothless (without its teeth).”
The rhizomatic proliferation of themes and images in distinct works is a striking feature of Nazareth’s work. It is, therefore, no surprise that the figure of the elephant reappears in a series of works and actions under the overall title Elephant Tooth (2007). The artist explains that before the unexpected encounter with the elephant behind the wall, he had already felt a desire to lose a tooth, although the fall that resulted in the loss of one of his incisors only occurred after this encounter. At this point, he identifies himself with elephants that lose their valuable ivory tusks to hunters, just like them, he was toothless. He writes a sort of treatise in which he uses the etymological origin of the word “Benguela” (toothless) to draw reflections on teeth (or the lack thereof) in human beings and elephants. This allows him to bring together subjects as diverse as the illegal trade in ivory — after the ban on hunting elephants — and the continued existence of slave labor in our society.
“For centuries elephants had their teeth removed, due to the high value of their teeth, which are made from a hard, white and opaque substance (dentine) called ivory. Before the days of plastic, the teeth were used to make refined billiard balls, a type of snooker. It is only when they are young that their teeth contain enamel. Elephants have to be killed to obtain their teeth. Their carcasses are left to the birds of prey. The 1855 law that came into force before the abolition of slavery gave freedom to slaves over the age of 60 when they had lost their teeth and were no longer of any use for work. Due to a rapid decline in the elephant population, the slaughter of elephants and the trade in their teeth were prohibited. The illegal hunting and trade in their teeth still continue, just like the trade-in black slaves continued after abolition.”
By interlinking these scraps of information, Nazareth suggests there is a sort of equivalence between the atrocious way in which elephants and the African people were treated historically as goods by European explorers. However, what is more, interesting is that this equivalence manifests itself in the artist himself taking the form of an animal. In a further development of the theme, he goes out into the street with his mouth wide open, unable to talk, flaunting his toothless mouth and distributing giveaways “to anyone who’s there: civil construction workers, bakers, and confectioners” as he himself explains. In another iteration of the same theme, he carves a votive timber in the shape of a tooth and takes it to the Catedral de Aparecida do Norte as an offering for an unfulfilled vow. Finally, almost to bring the long cycle to a close, he receives a prosthetic tooth in which the dentist inserts white gold with a porcelain cap. It is impossible to ignore the allegory: the artist now has a tooth made from valuable material just like the elephant’s valuable ivory. He explains this outcome thus: “The idea seemed interesting as it reminded me of a wandering uncle of mine who had one or more gold teeth in his mouth.”
This statement points to the two other pillars of Nazareth’s work: biographical information and his itinerant nature. His ancestors on his mother’s side were Krenak, an indigenous group, and Italian and black on his father’s side, so it is inevitable, therefore, that when he talks about himself and his rich family history, he often touches on the issue of race in Brazil. The delicate way in which he does this is almost as poetic as it is political, as he brings together personal stories, historical facts and shrewd observations on the places occupied by individuals of different races in contemporary societies. In one of these giveaways, he tells how his indigenous grandmother, Nazareth Cassiano de Jesus, was considered crazy, as her behavior was not thought to be socially appropriate. No one heard from her again as she ended up being admitted to a mental hospital. A little later, he comments that many black Americans do not know from which African people they are descended and he tells how his own relatives forget who the first black man was in the family, despite managing to remember their Italian heritage well. He tackles this blotting out of the past in many of his projects, not only in order to reconstruct his own personal history but to bring a specific aspect of history to light, one that resulted in relationships of exclusion based on racial principles that are still in place in the contemporary world. In addition to this, all of his statements are written in the first person, which makes them even more relevant within the panorama of Brazilian contemporary art, where the voices of indigenous and black communities are virtually inexistent. His mixed heritage allows him to become black, indigenous or simply exotic whenever it suits him.
The text is structured in a series of fragments, which unite various pieces of information, using the alleged objective style that characterizes his other giveaways. Although seemingly random, the way in which the fragments are organized results in the creation of a very precise relationship. One of the extracts from this giveaway really exemplifies the type of rationale characterizing most of his writing, which invariably lacks punctuation or includes grammatical errors that seem to accentuate his plain and forthcoming character:
Although some of his previous projects had involved travel further afield, such as the residencies in Delhi (2006) and Jakarta (2008) — where he first came into contact with the non-Brazilian “other”, in March 2011 — Nazareth threw himself into a project that would last for more than a year. News from the Americas, the subject of the essay by Janaina Melo published in this same book, is a mobile residency project or a type of field research. The project involved the artist crossing the whole of Latin America before reaching the United States. The roaming and wandering that nearly always characterize his work, whether through the streets of Belo Horizonte, Delhi or Jakarta, take on epic proportions and allow for concerns that were previously more localized to take on a much larger scope. This is the case of the project Indigenous Face which is comprised of colored photographs or giveaways on newsprint, where one can read his brief explanation: “Project: INDIGENOUS FACE —- identify city-dwelling indigenous persons from the extreme south to the extreme north of the Americas. Stand beside a city-dwelling indigenous person and compare one mixed origin face with another…”
The first images from the series appear in a giveaway dated March 2011, produced in Governador Valadares, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Here we see a large picture that shows Nazareth posing beside an indigenous man identified as Juan Pablo d. Faria Alves, in front of what seems to be a river. On the right, there are two smaller pictures of the faces of Nazareth and Juan Pablo, in which we see the striking details of Juan Pablo’s face. The delicacy and harmony of the lines of his face cause us to mistake it for that of a girl. Although both can, in a certain way, be considered indigenous Brazilian men, the juxtaposition of the two faces makes their profound differences clear. Next to Juan Pablo, with his almond colored eyes and straight hair, Nazareth seems more black and the line establishing his identity becomes blurred, just like the line determining Juan Pablo’s gender. In April of the same year, we find evidence of Nazareth alongside indigenous people in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Biguaçu, Santa Catarina, Brazil; Morro Sama, Peru; and in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
In May, there are pictures in Bogota, Colombia; in June in Manágua, Nicaragua; Liberia, Costa Rica; Quito, Ecuador; and so on, traveling northwards obsessively and without stopping, photographing himself alongside individuals that despite their heterogeneity are grouped in the same category: indigenous people.
Through some of his writings and images, it is possible to reconstruct a part of the artist’s epic experience traveling in the Americas, which lasted nearly a year and was often conducted in harsh conditions. These records, as happens with all of Nazareth’s work, are inseparable from his experience and are merely the partial result of an endless search. But what is he searching for in these long, purposeless journeys with no fixed destination? In one of the giveaways published during his trip, entitled Lo que llevo en mi memoria(What I Take in My Memory), which begins with a reflection on the dictatorship in Brazil, he writes:
“…en Guatemala, también percibo que cavando en la tierra, así como en cualquier parte de América Latina, existe la posibilidad de se encontrar huesos por casualidad. Estando yo, en el Sitio de Memoria Campo la Ribera (Ciudad de Córdoba, Argentina), cavo como un perro, intuyendo la posibilidad de encontrar fragmentos de memorias… en Brasil tengo la memoria borrada, El pueblo no parece recordar las heridas del pasado, sea del período de dictadura militar, sea de la esclavitud negra…”
In this short extract, he explains his search for a memory that was erased, and alludes to the possibility of finding it in another country, which although distinct, is comparable, as in a certain way there are shared memories with the country of his birth. One of the most impressive characteristics of his work is this restless desire to be in certain places, to meet particular people, to experience their daily lives and to create unsuspecting ties in order to reconstruct untold stories or those that have been deliberately erased. He moves through different communities like a chameleon; he tells how in Guatemala he is already accepted as a member of an indigenous family, or in certain places in the United States he is seen as black. His identity is transformed according to the local context, the social relations in place and the subgroups with whom he coexists.
Only very recently did I realize that we have never met in person. Despite the fact that we started corresponding in 2008, months before his exhibition in São Paulo, and that we have remained in contact since, collaborating on other occasions, we have never been in the same city at the same time. When I invited him to participate in a group exhibition in Paris in December 2011, he answered that yes he would love to participate, but that he, unfortunately, would not be able to come to Paris, as he would only arrive in Europe after having crossed Africa in the same way he had reached the United States after traveling across Latin America.
In one of our recent conversations, when he was still at the final destination of his American trip, he told me: “My mixed race is my making I’m indigenous and black It’s incredible.”