Read the interview with Paulo Nazareth, from Mendes Wood DM

Mendes Wood DM published this week “Paulo Nazareth and Lumi Tan”, an interview from Keen On Magazine, made in September 2016.

“Paulo Nazareth’s work is often described as simple gestures, which bring about larger ramifications, conveying an awareness of often ignored issues of immigration, racism, and colonialism in his native Brazil and beyond to the international art world. While his work may manifest in video, photography, and found objects, his strongest medium may be in cultivating relationships with people he encounters on the road — particularly those who must remain invisible due to their legal status or those who are repressed by governmental authorities. In certain aspects, Nazareth uses the romantic ideal of the wandering artist seeking universal truths to usurp facile assumptions about national identity, cultural history, and human value. In our time of unprecedented exposure, where systematic oppression can be documented and broadcasted by anyone with a smartphone, Nazareth’s mission to represent the unrepresented is more relevant and persuasive than ever before. Here, he speaks candidly about the singular focus behind his artistic path.

Lumi Tan
Since you’re known for your constant travel within your work, I have to begin by asking where are you right now and why you are there?

Paulo Nazareth
I just arrived in Palmital, but I’m always on the road. Palmital is my homeland. Well, actually, I was born in Santo Antônio das Figueiras — named after Governador Valadares — in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Later on, I had to move with my mother to Palmital, which was “favelized”, a habitation complex in Santa Luzia in the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte City.

Lumi Tan
Are you also making work there? Or are you always making work and documenting life with your camera?

Paulo Nazareth
It was here that I first started thinking about my artwork. Each time I come back here, it’s to visit the people and metaphorically recharge my batteries. I come to talk with people, friends, my parents, family — old people and young people. Old people are the masters: guardians of time, of knowledge, and of history. I cannot ignore my parents and grandparents — if I ignore them, it’s me who loses. From them, I have learned to be in the world without the crutches of contemporary life. I have learned to be investigative and to read the signs of the world. I have learned to distrust a lot, and believe in life.

Lumi Tan
Does everyone there know you?

Paulo Nazareth
Well, I don’t know how many people know me. But, I know everyone. Sometimes we sit in silence, sometimes I play Capoeira Angola [the mother form of capoeira: a martial art started by African slaves, primarily from Angola and the Congo, as a survival tactic against colonial agents]. We listen to songs and music; dance and play. Capoeira Angola is a philosophy; sometimes, it is like a religion; and it’s political. Capoeira Angola is a black movement for freedom — both from yesterday and today — for freedom of the body and the mind.

Lumi Tan
Is it as relevant today as it was in the past?

Paulo Nazareth
Yes. It is very important today. But, today, it’s more relevant for mental freedom; it’s more important for black consciousness, for thinking about history, and for understanding the black situation in Brazil and in other places today.

Lumi Tan
A common feeling right now in the United States with the Black Lives Matter Movement, protesting against ongoing police brutality, is that the violence and the oppression are nothing new, but that a larger public is finally paying attention because of all the media attention and the public’s accessibility to documented “proof”. Is the intention of your work to draw attention to systematic oppression as well?

Paulo Nazareth
My intention is to talk about my place, my social place, my racial place; where I am coming from.

Lumi Tan
Do you feel that it is a responsibility for you as an artist?

Paulo Nazareth
Yes, and I’m not alone. I am my people. I don’t know exactly how to speak about it, but there is the person — the individual — and then there is the collective — the people. Everything is both, together and separated. I can talk about this place, just as other people can talk about other things. So, yes, I share responsibility with my people: my parents, brothers, community, and ancestors. I have a side: I am together black and indigenous. And, everyone else, like me, is my peer. I’m together with my peers. I’m from a city of immigrants, and so I need to talk about it. I need to talk about it with my work, my body, and anything else that I can.

Lumi Tan
As you have achieved more recognition as an artist, how have your strategies for drawing attention to social issues changed? Or, have they at all?

Paulo Nazareth
As millions of people in Brazil know, Brazil is not a “Racial Paradise”: Brazil has a large degree of inequality and the lower class is mostly non-white. Class and race are extremely connected to Brazil. So, I can only continue as I do: I move, I move all the time. I move to a different place. I use my work to take the words, the words about my peers. I take the words, the words about black people, about indigenous people, about mestizo people, and I continue doing the work I’ve always done. The mainstream media is racist; the mainstream newspapers are racist; the mainstream magazines are racist; and until recently, white people regularly told racist jokes about black people, and they still tell racist jokes about indigenous people. Racist people think they have the right to make jokes about black people and about poor people. And yet, racist people from Brazil say racism does not exist or that our Brazilian racism is “friendly.”

Every day someone is killed. Every time someone is killed, it is because they were black. Because they were indigenous. Because they were homosexual. Because they were the “other”.

The black and indigenous people continue to be invisible in Brazil today. We fight and fight, and sometimes we win. But, the opposition is very strong. Right now, it is even harder for black and indigenous people. The police are racists and the judges are racists too.

I have struggled along with many others. I’m aligned with black movements and indigenous movements. To be aware of these issues enables greater visibility, and I try to use this in my work to fight against racism, which, together with other prejudices in Brazil, is ignored by Brazilian laws. To bring justice is challenging — after the recent parliamentary coup, things got tougher but more evident, and we continue our fight. The authorities are extremely oppressive. Here, the authorities are racist, but everyone in the elite class will never admit that there is racism in Brazil!

Lumi Tan
So for you to ignore that in your work, you would also be like the authorities in denying any racism. The policies here use the concept of racism to analyze people. But, they never actually talk about racism, because for them, racism does not exist. Do you understand?

Paulo Nazareth
Yes: as long as you keep the oppressed invisible, you don’t have to acknowledge racism. Unfortunately, many feel similarly in the US, despite our governmental and cultural divergences.

Lumi Tan
It’s very complex, and we are fighting a very big enemy because he doesn’t have a face. Because it is a system?

Paulo Nazareth
Yes, but also because we only see the same faces. The same face in the hospital or at the police station. If you go to a Brazilian hospital, you won’t see a black doctor. Though, in the past few years, you will see a black doctor who came from Cuba. Brazilian doctors greeted them at the airport with curses because they are black, and we’ve never had black doctors. Lawyers are in the same situation. Black artists? There are a lot, but you don’t see them. Only now have we started to appear.

Lumi Tan
Have you ever had problems with the authorities about your artwork?

Paulo Nazareth
Sometimes I have problems on the road, but I also play Capoeira Angola in life. So I dance.

Lumi Tan
How do you cope with your disparate audience? You have an international audience of the art world and a local audience that you are also representing: both understand the situation distinctively, to say the least.

Paulo Nazareth
It’s very different: a different audience, a different public. The Brazilian elite doesn’t understand the people. They don’t know the real Brazil. They want to be like Europe, or rather they want to visit Europe, but don’t want Brazil to be like Europe.

Lumi Tan
But I assume you are interacting with the Brazilian elite — and the European elite as well — regularly as an artist who shows internationally and participates widely in biennials and art fairs.

Paulo Nazareth
Well, as a person, no. Me as an individual, no. I think my artwork interacts with them, but they don’t like someone who is poor, black, and indigenous. For example, when you are performing at Art Basel, that is your persona as an artist, but not you as an individual.

Yes. The “artist” is ok, good — or at least, “good”. But they don’t want to meet me as a person or as an individual. Though, maybe, an individual is like an object in the art world. But, what’s important is I make my artwork. I make my work because I need to talk about the other, and the other places. I need to believe in the change that is possible, that art can change people. And, at the very least, the kids.

Lumi Tan
That reminds me of the situation you present with the video, Ol Ori Boruku. You met this man on the street that was being ignored by passersby, and then you invited him to participate in your video. Now, people will pay attention to him because you filmed him and put the video in a gallery — a space where people are accustomed to paying attention to overlooked subjects.

Paulo Nazareth
This video is very important and very important to me. This man is a very important man; though, he is a simple man.

Lumi Tan
Language is significant in that video, for those in São Paulo — where you met him — thought he was spouting gibberish. But you chose not to translate it with subtitles. Why did you decide not to?

Paulo Nazareth
He is an African immigrant speaking Yoruba — the language of Yoruba people, from mainly Nigeria and Benin, as well as Brazil and other countries. It’s a language used in Candomblé and vodou religions, but this man speaks a contemporary Yoruba language. The religions use an old language. What he is speaking is like a meeting between this older language, the people, and the legacy of slavery with the contemporary language, the people, and those who are now immigrants.

Lumi Tan
With the present refugee crisis in Europe, the concept of borders has been at the forefront of the media and political debate. As an artist who claims to live in no single place but, rather, all over the world, how has your sense of borders changed?

Paulo Nazareth
I often think that the most important part of my work is ignored. It remains invisible, which is done to avoid reaching Europe, to ensure that my feet do not touch the ground of Europe. I have no desire to reach Europe without feeling all the land of Africa. My boat follows other paths.

It is an act of civil disobedience, and I do not want to surrender. I could accept the graying rules. I could be a compulsive consumer to keep the gears moving, to be a slave, and enter the consumer market. But, I do not buy into the false benevolence of nineteenth-century Britain: a time before merchants and slave owners became advocates of abolition and supported industry. For businesses, it was better to turn their enslaved consumers into purchasing employees. They were able to increase their consumer market while maintaining cheap manpower.

This situation continues today. There is talk of democracy, freedom, and border disruption. Yet, they want the workers of the peripheral countries to remain in their countries ruled by dictators, financed by multinational corporations, who would only set up in countries where labor is cheap and labor laws don’t exist. For them, it’s better for Europe and the United States to accept the illegitimate governments in the peripheral countries and to close their borders to exiles. Political instability generates exiles. All immigrants are political exiles, either by the issue of war or the economy (seldom is it caused by love —for love, there are no borders). So, if these countries do not want to let in illegal immigrants and refugees, please do not promote political instability and oppressive economic policies in the peripheral countries.

Officially, borders are only for poor people. For those with power and money, there are no borders; no unfair rules to obey. There are no borders that exist beyond the natural geography. I always come to the United States by land along the Southern border. I need to feel the passage. I do not believe in the current political borders.

For Candomblé, Yoruba, and Afro-Brazilian religions, time is not linear. Time is like a spiral in which the past meets the present and the future — where past, present, and future are together and the same. The man in the video speaks to the past, present, and future at once”.


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