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The Finest Art

 The Finest Art

Paulo Rama is presented a double challenge.
Not only does he belong to a lower middle class
family,
but he is also black. He represents a culture that is
stigmatized and denigrated in mainstream art.

By
Jean Pinner

Last summer I had the opportunity of traveling throughout the state of
Pernambuco, Brazil. The last two weeks of my trip were spent in the capital city
of Recife. Having already been to Recife several times, I strived this time to
discover interesting places that I had never seen previously. Some of the
fascinating places that I visited for the first time include the Casa de
Gilberto Freyre, the Museu do Homen do Nordeste, and the Museu da Abolição.
There are two other places which impressed me the most while I was in Recife.
Although these places are quite different, they both have in common the
expression of art. The first belongs to one of Brazil’s most renowned artists,
and the second is home to some of Recife’s most talented, yet undiscovered
artists.

This article examines both these places, the Oficina Cerâmica de Francisco
Brennand and the Mercado Pop, and juxtaposes elitist and popular art in
Brazil. To make an insightful comparison I enlisted the help of a gifted
Afro-Brazilian artist by the name of Paulo Rama, whom I interviewed for this
report. On the 26th of July I visited the Oficina de Brennand.

Francisco Brennand is one of Brazil’s most accomplished ceramic artists.
However, the Brennand’s have not always been a prestigious family. Brennand’s
forth grandfather immigrated from Manchester, England to Brazil in 1823, to
work as an associate in English companies. Intermarriage between generations
of Brennands and Brazilian women, resulted in the transference of accumulated
patrimonies. In fact, Brennand’s father inherited an estate and an immense
wealth from a “spinster aunt.” Later Brennand Senior used this wealth to
invest in the founding of a brickworks in 1917. The business remained
operational until 1945.

In the same year that the brickworks closed, Francisco Brennand traveled
abroad to study art in Europe. Francisco spent approximately three years
traveling and studying throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland. Upon
returning to Recife in 1953, he set about restoring his father’s property,
which had been abandoned. He also began a colossal project of creating a
permanent exhibition of his own ceramic sculptures. Some 25 years of
compulsive labor bore fruit to what stands today, a tile factory and a gallery
containing a collection of approximately 2,000 Brennand sculptures.

Francisco Brennand has been called the “Dream Master.” Indeed, a trip from
downtown Recife to the gallery of Francisco Brennand is a surreal journey into
another world. The gallery is divided into outdoor and indoor sections. The
former contains a long pathway bordered by a Romanesque arcade, which leads
into a courtyard of sculptures. Towards the end of this area there is a temple
like structure with a domed ceiling.

Along the perimeter of the courtyard there are walls adorned with
quotations from personages such as Ariano Suassuna and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The indoor gallery is just as impressive and illusive in description. It is
aligned neatly with rows of sculptures placed upon white pedestals. Each piece
in the gallery of Brennand shows a remarkable uniqueness. From reptiles in
mid-birth crashing out of egg shells, to sensual poses of round buttocks, to
busts of heroic figures; each sculpture captures the imagination.

Three days after visiting the Oficina de Brennand, I encountered the
incredible work of another artist in Recife, Paulo Rama. I met Paulo on a
Sunday evening at a place called the Mercado Pop. It is located directly
adjacent to Marco Zero in Recife Antigo. According to history, Marco Zero
marks the exact location where Recife was founded around 1548. Coincidentally,
an enormous sculpture by Francisco Brennand illuminates the night sky on a
reef across from the Marco Zero. On the evening that I went to the Mercado Pop
there was a commotion of people selling a wide variety of clothing, jewelry,
and other goods.

Initially, nothing in the marketplace perked my attention. Then later I
went onto the second floor and saw a young man with several T-shirts for sale.
Each shirt was painted with life-sized portraits of Afro-Brazilian figures. I
was immediately astonished by the work of the artist. I have never seen
similar art displayed on a shirt. Instantly, I had a desire to buy one. But
which one? They were all so beautiful. I spent a long time studying the
details of each painting before purchasing one. When I paid for my shirt, the
artist gave me his business card. Before leaving I asked if I could take a
picture of him together with his art. Afterwards, I thanked him and continued
on my way.

After leaving the Mercado Pop, I accompanied a friend to the Alto da Serra
in Olinda. The tapioca made there is famous, and rightfully so. It’s
delicious! When I arrived home later that night, I took out the T-shirt I had
bought earlier and began to look at it curiously. For a long time I sat on the
edge of my bed and studied the figure. The colors were so brilliant that the
face appeared alive. The man looked like he wanted to whisper a deep secret
into my ear. I was mesmerized by the figure and wanted to learn more about the
painting. It was already 11:30 at night, but I decided to give the artist a
call. Paulo Rama seemed excited about my interest. Later I learned that I had
been the first to call and inquire about his work.

I was mainly curious about the technical aspects of his artwork. Paulo
explained to me how he makes his T-shirts. According to Paulo, the process is
quite simple. After sketching an outline of the figure he wants to produce, he
applies a type of acrylic base. Once this is done he begins to paint on the
T-shirt, as if he were working with a canvas. Paulo could not really state how
long he spends on the average shirt, because each work he does involves a
unique idea and demands a different amount of time. However, he estimated that
he spent about forty minutes on the last shirt he painted. His estimate of
time amazed me, because it looks like hours of work are involved in producing
all of his pieces. Paulo and I talked for about twenty minutes. During our
conversation I remarked about how impressed I was with all the handicrafts I
had seen in Recife.

Having recently visited the Oficina de Brennand, I mentioned the experience
to him. Paulo had been to the Oficina and agreed with me that it is
spectacular. By the tone of his voice though, I felt as if maybe I had
broached a sensitive topic. In his opinion Brennand is a great artist.
However, he felt it necessary to remind me that Brennand was a descendant of a
wealthy family, and had studied art throughout Europe. Suddenly I was
intrigued. I thought that maybe Paulo was downplaying the success of Brennand
because of his affluence.

Examining Paulo’s shirt, and listening to him on the phone, I could hear
his envy. I could hear him thinking that if he had only been born into a
wealthy family, his art could have been discovered as well. My conversation
with Paulo ended with a stale sense of injustice looming heavily in the air. I
began to feel it was unfair that Paulo’s artistic talents had not been exposed
to the world. Art is very much a personal experience, and each person has
their own taste. However, I felt that anyone having seen Paulo’s artwork would
agree that he is extremely gifted.

Then what is preventing Paulo from making a name for himself? If he had the
financial resources of a Francisco Brennand, this process would be easier.
However, there are other barriers, more complicated than socio-economics,
preventing his success. To investigate these barriers in depth I contacted
Paulo the following evening with a set of prepared questions. What follows is
a result of that interview, integrated with my own thoughts.

Paulo Rama (Paulo César Rodrigues da Silva), a native of Recife, is 35 and
is married. Although he has been producing art almost all of his life, he only
began painting T-shirts about ten years ago. Paulo considers himself a student
of art, and spends a lot of time invested in research. In the world of art he
admires the work of Van Gogh and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others. Paulo’s
own work is inspired by Afro-Brazilian culture. Paulo considers himself
Afro-Brazilian, and in almost all of his work he tries to represent some
aspect of that culture. Although Paulo is not affiliated with any African
based religion, he believes his artwork is very spiritual.

Paulo works mainly with Afro-Brazilian figures because he feels a necessity
to propagate more knowledge about his people, and to open a path against the
“veiled racism” that permeates Brazil. Paulo has been painting T-shirts for
many years, but in financial terms, he has not been rewarded. He admits that
he has made many mistakes along the way, and is still trying to perfect the
business aspect of his trade. In reality, Paulo would like to concentrate on
producing more profound and enduring works of art, but trying to survive and
put food on the table has forced him to commercialize his paintings into
T-shirts. Paulo does see a positive aspect of this commercialization. In his
opinion, art in Recife has become very exclusive and elitist. He believes,
however, that art should be for everyone’s enjoyment. As a professional, Paulo
is constantly attempting to liberate art from the confines of social
boundaries, and increase its accessibility.

At one point I asked Paulo if he feels frustration as an artist. He
responded that he is frustrated not only as an artist but as a human being,
because of the disrespect that exists in Brazil. He described Brazilian
society as a “boiling caldron,” in which everyday life is a dirty struggle.
Brazil has a very vulgar side that remains invisible to tourists and many
affluent Brazilians, but it is all too real for millions of people like Paulo.
For Paulo the worst thing that he has to face from day to day is being made
felt less than human.

One day Paulo was walking in a part of Boa Viagem in Recife, and was
verbally harassed by a policeman. As he passed by the officer, he heard the
man shout, “Cut your hair, you black son-of-a-bitch.” Paulo, who used
dreadlocks at the time, was indignant at the remark. Thus he confronted the
officer and began to cite his civil rights. Irritated by the testimony, the
officer arrested Paulo and took him to a police station. Paulo remained in
custody for more than an hour, until a friend of his who practices law arrived
at the station, and was able to secure his release.

Paulo confronts racism in every aspect of his life, including his art. In
Paulo’s opinion, Afro-Brazilian art is inhibited in the marketplace because of
prejudice. He accuses the Brazilian media of being mainly responsible for this
prejudice. He believes that the lack of knowledge and misinformation about
Afro-Brazilian art stems from the absence of fair media coverage. In his view
the media restricts and defines the Afro-Brazilian culture that is appropriate
for mainstream consumption. The culture that the media deems appropriate for
the public is not authentic, but instead a censured, cheapened, and
commercialized imitation. Paulo is offended by the media that pretends that
Carnaval is the sole merit of Afro-Brazilian culture. Carnaval is a veneer, a
minuscule facet of the rich culture of the Afro-Brazilian.

There are very few prestigious painters in Recife of African descent for
Paulo to admire. According to him, in terms of recognition, there is not a
black Francisco Brennand in his city. In Brazil in general, there is a lack of
famous Afro-Brazilian artists. When I asked Paulo to name some of the greatest
figures in the history of Afro-Brazilian art, he first mentioned Heitor dos
Prazeres (1898-1966). The painting of this sambista from Rio de Janeiro
focused primarily on aspects of Carnaval. He also mentioned the work of Carybé
(1911-97), who was a native of Argentina, but lived in Salvador da Bahia.

The concept of the starving artist is universal. Most artists throughout
the world struggle for years to become famous, with no avail. Yet there are
exceptions to this pattern. Artists belonging to the elite class of society
can advertise their natural abilities more effectively, because of the
financial resources at their disposal. For these lucky few, like Francisco
Brennand, the transformation into a great artist demands hard work, but is
much easier. The masses of artists with potential, like Paulo Rama, are
constrained by their socio-economic background. In Paulo’s case, he is
presented a double challenge.

Not only does he belong to a lower middle class family, but he is also
black. Afro-Brazilian artists and black artists throughout the African
Diaspora have the additional obstacle of representing a culture that is
stigmatized and denigrated in mainstream art. When it is not denigrated, it is
relegated to the realm of popular art, where it is consumed by the masses for
virtually nothing.

Paulo Rama is a talented artist. He is an intelligent person who uses his
art as a weapon. In search of liberty and equality, he “explodes with art” all
of his frustration in an attempt to transcend the inhumane conditions that he
confronts in his everyday life. Paulo has many goals in life. He is currently
applying to study history at the Federal University in Recife. Recently he
taught his artwork through a project sponsored by the São Paulo based
Organização de Malcolm X. In the meantime Paulo is continuing to do what he
does best. He is painting and expressing his creativeness, while maintaining
his integrity as an Afro-Brazilian artist.

Jean Marinho da Silva Pinner, 22, is a native of Rio de Janeiro who grew up in the US. Jean holds a BA Degree in
International Studies and Portuguese from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently pursuing a career as a
Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State. He may be contacted via email at
ronaldocaesar@hotmail.com

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