1 – Talk a little about your training. You studied Design at PUC-Rio: tell us about the path to becoming an artist?
When I was little, I listened to adults calling me an artist, because my drawing was already quite advanced. I was addicted to video games and anime, and I was able to imitate my favorite characters with considerable skill. At school they lined up to watch me draw and get a doodle. And I came from an evangelical home, where within the church there is this very strong culture of prophecy, of the “one chosen by God”. This was something my mother hammered into my head, always repeating that God had given me the gift of drawing.
The idea of studying, growing up, working, marrying and forming a family seemed too banal to me at the time. I wanted to have a life of adventure. So at the age of 14 I started doing street-skating, which is a form of skating that resignifies the urban space through maneuvers. What most influenced me to go in this direction was a video game character, a black porcupine that had futuristic skates, whose name was Shadow. I was a big fan and wanted to be that character.
Street-skating became my obsession for 12 years, and it was from this culture that I was able to get out of the favela and travel to compete with and join other social groups. I started to devote myself at lot to this activity, since I no longer drew every day as I did in childhood, even though my drawing had become a work tool for making brands of skate clothes, organizing championships, making trophies … I started to work a lot with video and photography too, to promote myself as an athlete, on the internet, and all this would give substance to my work in the arts later on. Even my interest in academia derived from my understanding that there was no strong street-skating industry, because it was not a popular sport. It was then that I decided to study design in 2011, soon after leaving the army, and I went to look for the course at PUC-Rio. My intention was to train myself and return with the knowledge to help build up the industry of the culture I loved so much. When I enrolled on the course, I saw that it was not only about industrial design, but about drawing, anthropology, history, philosophy, etc. This really surprised me, as well as there being disciplines that I was already familiar with, such as cinema, photography and screen printing. What I did not expect was a plastic discipline that was part of the mandatory curriculum of the course, and it was during the third period that I did this piece with the painter Eduardo Berliner. This meeting and this discipline changed my life. It was my first contact with contemporary art and I had never felt so at home. I was already quite happy with the possibility of working as a designer in the future, but it was in art that I found my real home, because it was a field that best accommodated all the different fragments of my practice, my mess, my improvisations and my multi-disciplinarity.
2 – Much has been said about the conflicts and problems of Rocinha, which are real, but a whole creative energy, which is also real, is invisible. As if confronting the one did not also involve discovering the other. Talk about this context where you were born, grew up and continue to live.
That’s right. I’m always thinking about how I got here, because when I look at my childhood, coming from where I come from, being a plastic artist was not an option. So I think about the barriers I had to overcome to get where I am. And I would dare to think about it in terms of the concept of predestination. What I said in response to the previous question about being “chosen by God” or the theory of [the] prosperity [Gospel] for evangelicals, of a path that was traced for you to follow. Because contemporary art is not valued here in the community, it’s not part of the codes here and no one here is interested if I’m an artist, nobody cares about my work. If I invite a friend from here to go on some exhibition to a museum, he’s going to laugh in my face because it’s not part of his world. Especially if it’s abstract painting; you don’t have time for these things in the world of the favela. Interest here is pragmatic: they would have to know the value of a work of mine to be drawn in. And I come from this place, so think how crazy it was to go to college and realize that artists there were revered… While Jesus, who is the most important reference in the community, was rejected. When I registered this inversion of values, I understood that being an artist was something prestigious, a free pass to the upper classes, but to navigate the favela I still needed to preserve the gospel that had taught me. Aware of this inversion of values, I started manipulating the codes of both worlds and adapting my attitude depending on each environment. For example, when I finished college, I started walking barefoot down the hill in an attempt to repatriate myself, because during the academic period I was a long way from the favela, mentally speaking. At this time, I also used to draw and write on canvas that I spread across the yard of my mother’s house. Picking up garbage to do works was a daily practice as well. That kind of behavior destabilizes normality here, and it could be dangerous if someone thought I was possessed by demons. I could be considered crazy, but if they thought I was [communing] with the devil, I might have real problems.
This dichotomy makes me think that everything is faith, religion, church. At university, the academic full of knowledge and superiority rejected Jesus but surrendered to the figure of the artist, and was moved by a work of art. Now I ask you, who can be moved by a work of art? And I tell you, whoever is initiated into this medium, whoever learned the basic codes to relate to an artistic object. The experience of the sublime based on a work of art is learned. The entity that delivers the experience of the sublime in the favela is the Universal Church. Have you ever been to a purification session at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday? Have you ever taken part in a Pentecostal vigil at the Assembly of God? What I mean by this is that institutionalized art as we know it is elitist. It serves as a tool of social distinction even among the rich, since everyone already has material goods like yachts, swimming pools and helicopters; what determines who is the most sophisticated in this comparison, is intellectual capital, who can understand Mark Rothko or Duchamp.
University was a church that brought me new dogmas and gods; it made me my own god. But just like the first Christian faith I had to break to access the new, I had to leave the academy to flourish as an artist.
3 – How did the Church of the Kingdom of Art (“Igreja do Reino da Arte”) come about? Describe your activities and “rituals”. I’m going to take this opportunity to ask: in a country that has been marked by a religious resurgence, how do you regard the role of this Church of Art politically?
The Bride or Church of the Kingdom of Art emerged in 2017 from the meeting of two other artists: Edu de Barros and Raoni Azevedo. We are contemporaries of the college there; we even had a collective together with another member, Gabriel Moraes. The collective was called Gregarious (“Gregário”), but it was also known as Bath Duck (“Pato do Banheiro”). Our idea as a group was to act as a design office in order to make money, with the aim of investing in resources for our art experiments. The time spent in the office rapidly evaporated as our artistic production increased, and largely because of an occupation we did in 2015 in an abandoned building, the Gávea Tourist Hotel, located on the Estrada das Canoas road.
After graduation, we were very drawn to the field of art and sought various ways of gaining entry to the circuit, but we knew that we needed someone from within who could legitimize our work. We quickly realized that it wasn’t about having high quality work alone, but about relationships. Since we didn’t know anyone from the inside willing to look at what we were doing, we created the Church, which was, in essence, a place of encounters and communion among artists. The idea was not to depend on the agents of the circuit to drive the art scene, be they critics, dealers, curators, collectors or gallerists. However, unlike with ‘Gregarious’, we didn’t want to create a new collective, but rather a place that was marked by the collective sum of ideas, thoughts and liturgies, although all this could be used individually by the faithful. In addition to this characteristic, the Church is characterized mainly by the idea of art as religion.
The art object within the Bride is not the most important thing, but rather its process of creation, which is what will generate self-knowledge in the faithful, and self-divination as well. The object is only a witness to the process, in which we anchor our experience. And in the end, it is offered to the highest entity, that we call the Holy Spirit of Art. This is the key to the art in the Bride, to have the artistic object as an offering, because many new initiates who don’t yet feel sufficiently mature to show or develop a work, find space in the Church when they understand that it is not about quality, that the object of the ceremony is not like an object in a gallery, subject only to contemplation or criticism, etc. The object operates in the temples where rituals occur as an offering, an offering of the artist, who produced and delivered, or offered it. We work at the Bride with ideas congruent with those that Rainer Maria Rilke preached in the letter to a young poet, where he says that there are places which the words of criticism do not touch, and that art is good when it is born out of necessity.
Another thing we do here is act on the street, because within the circuit we hear a lot about art as the “salvation of the world”, or even the maxim “art for all”. But what we have in practice are integrated artists producing inside their workshops and sending their works to the biennials, fairs, galleries and museums. But who goes to these spaces? Who holds the codes of this circuit to be able relate to art within these limits? Usually churches are institutions that are able to access the popular. So, when we do the offering ceremonies in downtown Rio on weekdays, we encounter passers-by who would not come into contact with this form of expression. They stop, they ask, in some cases they offer something too. The Offering is basically a ceremony where a pile of art objects is created on the ground with the faithful putting one on top of the other. In this ritual, sculpture comes down from the pedestal, the painting comes away from the wall and out of the frame and goes to the floor too. Both the pedestal and frame are limitations that separate the sacred object from the world, which categorically indicates that a work of art is not a banal object. When art appears outside the gallery, piled on the floor, in these conditions, the attitude of the public in the street is less conditional and more irreverent in relating to it. There’s no hand on the chin, hand behind the back, arms crossed… They point, they say what they didn’t like, they place their hands on the object; the reaction is much more direct and franker. This really interests us.
And we have several other types of cults: Pilgrimages (“Peregrinações”) that are walks through the city carrying the works and making stops for small rituals. The Big Sin (“Pecadão”) is the Bride’s party. Tithes are individual offerings, where the artists symbolically offer 10% of their work on the altar. The Last Supper (“Santa Ceia”) are collective offerings, where we come together and each one takes his work to the table. We call any work in the Church a prayer, and the spaces where ceremonies take place are called temples, whether they are our homes, workshops or the street itself. In other words, anywhere that the ceremony takes place.
4 – You appeared on the art circuit with a vigorous painting that leaped off the wall. It was as if the bodies depicted needed to circulate and gain form in the world. How do you regard this movement inside your work, culminating now with the release of a record entitled Anjo Maxwell?
I think transgression is the right word to describe my posture within my practice. On April 1, 2019 I got married inside the Church of the Kingdom of Art and I had never dated before. I had not yet formally asked my partner on a date and we went straight to the marriage, which happened on April Fool’s Day. Through that gesture, the date was marked for me as the day when I threw myself into a new place.
A year later, on April 1, 2020, I decided to repeat this process of throwing myself into another area that I hadn’t mastered… I don’t understand anything about music, and my relationship with it got stronger in 2017 through the series Paper is Brown (“Pardo é Papel”), when I started separating the verses of the rappers Baco Exú do Blues, Bk’ and Djonga from their albums that I listened to and that greatly inspired me to construct the work of the series. These poets were saying the same things I was dealing with in my painting. And I had the chance to strengthen my relationship with each of them, and was able to enter their dressing rooms, see behind the scenes of their shows, go to the studio and observe stages in the construction of their songs, from the writing and the selection of beats to recordings, and this awoke something in me.
I had already recorded an album with the Church of the Kingdom of Art. Entitled Coral, it was the first workshop album. The project was all recorded in my studio here in Rocinha along with other members of the Bride in just one day. That was the premise: create everything in this short period of time, improvising. The album is available on the Church’s channel on YouTube and Spotify. This was my most direct experience with music in the sense of doing, and obviously the Church was able to give me with this. It’s very difficult to think of a Church without music, without a choir.
My musical sensitivity is gradually being polished by my coexistence with cosme sao Lucas, who is also a member of the Church and a great friend, besides being one of my assistants. We spend time together every day because of the work here in the studio, and his main medium is music. He has a very strong relationship with sound. It was because of him that I realized that my relationship with this type of art is very superficial, because music for me is more a backdrop for situations and not the thing itself. There are many subtleties in sound that I cannot yet hear, not to mention my difficulty in keeping time. I’m learning more about it through this interaction with cosme.
The Anjo Maxwell album happened like this: I set the release date for April 1st and my premise was to do a project from scratch. Even though I was able to consult with cosme, because he was there at my side, I wanted to walk alone. Because I wanted an honest product of my initial relationship with music. I started the process by visiting old notes, since this is a constant practice that I have, of writing. Then I started to develop the lyrics, and download some free beats on the Internet, and I edited the Final Cut itself, because I was familiar with the video editing program, given that I’d worked with movies in the past. The album is my 4th Tithe for the Church of the Kingdom of Art. The most intense part of this project happened over two weeks, and even with all the challenges I was completely focused during this period, because in the Church we have this commitment to set the date and deliver. That’s a dogma. From the moment I scheduled it for April 1st I could no longer go back. If I had managed to produce only two tracks, that would be the release.
The Anjo Maxwell is an album for building an artist’s faith. I like this connotation because it is accurate when I consider that the work has been marked by the start of lockdown, where social isolation has brought anxiety and an uncertain future for us. There are 10 tracks gathered together that the public can access on digital platforms. I want to make some physical units as well and put them on the market as multiples. I haven’t thought about the run. Anyway, this place of transgression that I mentioned at the beginning is reinforced with my marriage and the album in the sense of this kind of uncomfortable situation that I’ve been describing.
The painting “As healthy as a caress” (“Tão saudável quanto um carinho“) from the series Failed (“Reprovado”), which launched me on the circuit and in the art market, also worked like this. Until then I thought I couldn’t paint, but when Carpentry For All (“Carpintaria Para Todos”), of the Carpintaria bid notice, a space of the Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel gallery here in Rio, arose, I was working on small paintings and very timidly, and suddenly I had to make a big leap in my production, since my aim was to reserve as much space as possible in the gallery for me. It was the first time I did a figurative painting of that size; I was really dealing with something beyond my control. I just knew I needed to take a big space in the show and put a painting with that acid content inside the gallery. I remember in the open call for this exhibition, they said something about not having too many rules, curation or anything like that, but the measurements of the entrance gates were mentioned so that no artist would take a very large work and not be able to enter. So I kept working with paper, so that I didn’t have to worry about the measurements of the gates, since I could fold my work and get in easily, and when I arrived, I just had to open and exhibit the work. At first this caused a fright among the organizers of the show, and the work was not initially accepted, because it was going to take up a lot of space and there were more than 300 artists outside wanting to come in. But I was within the rules, inside the gallery, the painting was already open on the floor, and people began to surround it and appreciated its power. At that time, I was no longer worried whether I was going to be able to install the work or not; people were already calling me by name, including the owner and the director of the gallery. I knew I had created a guaranteed space beyond that show.
5 – You had a recent exhibition at the Museum of African Contemporary Art in Morocco. What was it like to show your work in this context? What were the surprises? What new alliances were created from the encounters that occurred there?
This exhibition is the product of an invitation from the curator Marie-Ann Yemsi, who got to know my work at a dinner, here in Rio, in 2018. Then we met again last year during Art Basel in Switzerland, and we talked about this project there for the first time. Marie-Ann is the same curator who selected me to do the solo show next year at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
My work has already circulated a lot outside Brazil, especially in Europe, but there is a strong symbolism in being able to take my practice through a show like this to the African continent. Even more so that the proposal was to execute part of the exhibition on site. For this occasion I presented Paper Is Brown: first contact, which addresses 3 moments in fashion, namely: the close-up, or what I call contemporary positions of power; beauty, which I addressed from the perspective of global discoloration; and the parade, with a vertical work almost 5 meters big, representing a walkway, which was installed on the stairs of the institution, connecting the first to the second floor.
Much of this show was built here in my studio in Rocinha, along with my team. The final part of the work, that I executed on site, presented me with challenging experiences because I was at a strange and confusing moment of my marital relationship and out of nowhere, I found myself alone on another continent. I lived in a resort, in a huge house. As soon as I arrived, I decided to go on a strict diet, and to only be able to have one meal a day. I ended up spending two days without eating. I adopted an exercise routine too, because at the resort there was a running track and a tennis court where I used to skate. In addition to this, I would spend 15 minutes going from my home to the museum by bike, and would return in the early hours pedaling on a completely dark, deserted road, listening to a loud, abstract hum that oscillated throughout the entire journey. Later I discovered that the noise was that of mass praying in the city. It was very cold. I think that this process, under these conditions, may have left me in a weakened state. I really don’t know, and I’m here thinking about this as I answer. I think the distance from home, my unstable marital relationship, the solitude, the cold, fasting, the African context, the big house, the praying out loud and the dark path… The sum of all this had an impact on my mind. But this experience, that I would say was one of tribulation, served to consolidate the strength I’ve built up over the years to not let external things compromise my work. So even going through this moment, I managed to do more than 40 paintings in small and diverse types of formats.
My painting usually involves the collaboration of my assistants, who are trusted people, so everything from the drawing to the paint on the stand are produced and discussed with my team. Despite the fact that the museum offered me assistants, I preferred to work alone since I wasn’t there with my team. But I did accept a producer that they provided me with, and who was essential in solving local, technical and material issues. But the process itself was executed by me alone, from the design to the decision-making regarding the narratives and the researching of the characters, the concept and so on. I believe it was a powerful moment for me to be able to go back to working alone, which is something I really like. Despite the fact that I have a team and assistants, I really like the monastic practice, of a hermit really, of arriving at the studio and producing my individual prayer each day.
Usually the drawings of the works are executed by cosme sao Lucas, because he has a better sense of space than I do. He is more skilled and less anxious about drawing. I hadn’t drawn in a long time, but at that time I had to do it, and it was good to see that my drawing is still in good shape. Being anxious, I create distortions in the line, and I end up not being so faithful to the figure. It’s a more schematic kind of drawing that gives a fresh look to my painting.
Regarding new alliances I got along best with Daniel Otero Torres, who is a Colombian artist and who did some amazing work. I liked his installation so much that I wish I had been the author… The work was positioned next to one of my spaces in the museum, creating a direct dialogue with my work. I enjoyed meeting the museum director, Janine, personally. I felt a good energy from her, despite the fact that our initial contact was kind of strange and shy on both sides, because our relationship until then had only been by email, and we had some bureaucratic things that were weird, so I think there was a certain kind of strangeness that continued to the end, although the energy and willingness to surrender to each other, to smile without suspicion and borders, was genuine as well.
Another relationship that happened there and that existed a little before was with Frances Reynolds, who came to visit me. Frances is already a partner and has provided strong support in enabling my work to happen. Her visit was important because I was able to get to know an amazing place on the penultimate day of the trip. We went out to eat something at night and I had to pass through a very large square full of people. It was fantastic to see that movement and realize the strength of local culture in a public place where people gathered as if they were several churches, with different types of rituals, games, jokes and conversations. That was the only day I went out with the aim of getting to know Marrakech itself, because I’m not much of a tourist. Whenever I travel, I let the work take me to places, and I spent 13 of the 15 days I had in Morocco just working, within the confines of the resort, from home to the museum and from the museum back home.
6 – Your work has been circulating around the world recently. What has it been like to deal with this dizzying demand and how did you view this pause enforced by the pandemic? Has anything changed?
It’s crazy. It’s been three years since I’ve been an integrated, professional artist and I haven’t been able to breathe until now. This year the schedule was really full. The year was already ending when it started in terms of scheduled projects. I had two major exhibitions to do besides this first one in Morocco, which I was able to execute before the pandemic. After that I was going to return to Rio and stay about 15 days before then travelling to Paris and living there for 3 months, and producing my solo show on site at the Palais de Tokyo. Then I would go back to Brazil, staying another two months there, to create my other solo show for the David Zwirner gallery in London. The pandemic had initially suspended this schedule. The Palais de Tokyo was postponed until June next year, but we maintained the David Zwirner event. Initially I didn’t know if it was going to happen anyway or not. But then the situation was improving in Europe and the gallery director got in touch again to negotiate the date for later this year.
As soon as the pandemic broke out, my team started working from home. So once again I had the opportunity to be alone. And I live in the same building where I have a laboratory, gallery, collection, office and studio. I’m connected with my creative center all the time, and this made me work assiduously even during lockdown. The pandemic enabled me to enter the workshop without a demand or a deadline for the first time since I joined the circuit. It was the first opportunity I had to make a painting more as a process and less as an expression of thought. It was a very enjoyable moment because I decided to confront oil-painting. I had done paintings like this in the past, but it was more like shorthand, annotation, which I believe to be one of the most striking features of my painting.
This solitary period of work was similar to my residency in Morocco, and it was a good time to work alone and perform every step of the job, from putting a canvass up on the wall to making my own paint, cleaning the brushes, and preparing the entire studio. I was enjoying this ritual. When David Zwirner contacted me again, I responded with some reticence, in the sense of postponing the exhibition, because I wanted to continue this intimate process of oil-painting that was pursuing. I had even begun to create a body of work with a substantial density that spoke precisely about social distancing. I had been developing narratives for the series Failed on this theme – I can’t wait to be able to get back to it. And I also didn’t want to commit to doing such an important exhibition in a short time with the limitations that the pandemic brought, and I didn’t want to risk my team either. At the same time, I was thinking of the London exhibition in the same terms as the commitment of the ceremonies in the Bride: you set the date, then you deliver. But what most convinced me to proceed was thinking that I wouldn’t get another chance to do a show at such a complicated time in the world. I was seduced by the idea of doing an exhibition that maybe no one could see, and all this in a highly consecrated space. Just as Edu de Barros had been doing at the Sé gallery in São Paulo with his exhibition Cropped, which he could not open due to Covid… Even so, the artist continued to live and work in the gallery until the end.
In a way the pandemic left me more focused on working on a single exhibition, once the Palais de Tokyo show was postponed. Otherwise I would be committed to two exhibitions in two high prestige locations. It would wear down my soul, because I wasn’t willing to submit just anything. I’m still in the process of consolidating my reputation, and I understand that I have to come to these places with my work at maximum power. Anyway… to continue with the work more responsibly, I invited cosme sao Lucas and Renatinho, another assistant, to live here in the building and participate in this work with me. With the reduced team we started working and this is the next exhibition I’ll inaugurate in November this year at David Zwirner in London.
7 – How do you imagine, and what do you desire for, your work in the future?
I hope that the brown paper paintings will last at least my lifetime, so I don’t have to deal with the frustration of the collectors who bought these works, since they’re saying that this material won’t last 10 years. Faith of the Bride!!