In his first U.S. retrospective, the Brazilian artist offers a journey to understand the oppressive, exploitative nature of colonial history in his country: his subjects are neither good nor bad, just forgotten.
Installation view: Melee, 2019. Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo: Fredrik Nielson Studio.
Paulo Nazareth believes his social art practice is driven by an innate thirst for rebellion. “Sometimes we don’t choose, we are chosen instead,” he says. “It’s difficult to escape the suffering, the ugly history and an ugly present; watching police brutality, seeing and feeling racism, feeling them watching you and following you all because of the color of your skin and the texture of your hair. This is the place from which I’m creating, using the gifts I have to hopefully change something while supporting others trying to do the same.”
The Brazilian-born artist’s work is grounded in activism and renowned for its durational, performative nature. In Melee, his first U.S. retrospective at the ICA Miami, the extent of his Odyssean investigations are on full display. Whether traversing the Underground Railroad in Louisiana; raiding the tombs of disappeared rebels in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay; or tracing African influence across Kenya, Nigeria, and Mozambique, Nazareth’s is a starkly personal journey to understand the oppressive, exploitative nature of colonial history.
In memoriam to the generational trauma
Speaking with Nazareth over the phone from his native Belo Horizonte – an unlikely respite for an artist that’s constantly in motion – Nazareth confides that his entire trajectory is in memoriam to his generational trauma. Retracing the ruthless history of his native Minas Gerais, where he grew up in a community outside of Belo Horizonte, Nazareth offers a long-winded account of colonial greed in Brazil. “Brazil imported more African slaves than any other nation in the Americas,” he says. “After abolition, they tried to whitewash the country by bringing more European workers to exploit our mines. They favored these workers over the indigenous peoples that had cultivated these lands for generations. So many indigenous and African people left or were murdered. These were the circumstances in which my family lived for generations.”
He recounts how his grandmother, outspoken and unwilling to accept these unfair conditions, quickly became an enemy of the state. “In the 1940s, when a woman fought, she was considered insane and in need of hospitalization,” he says. In Minas Gerais, scores of Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous peoples were sent to mental institutions, where they were stripped of their names and identified numerically instead. Many of these patients – including Nazareth’s grandmother – would disappear after a number of years in the ward, their bodies sold to science.
“In 1944, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital for fighting injustice, and in that moment, she ceased being a person, but rather a number,” he says. Nazareth, who was born Sergio Paulo da Silva, adopted his grandmother’s name as his own. “Changing my name is very much a part of my work, and in this way I carry her with me.”
Mortality, violence, oppression
Nazareth’s sordid family history explains the urgency so characteristically present within his oeuvre. Each work within Melee seems motivated by a quiet rage. Products of Genocide (2019) features products bearing names from Indigenous and Black cultures frozen inside a resin cube, a nod to the fast-moving culture of appropriation for corporate greed and a reminder of colonial genocide. In Antropologia do Negro I and II (2014), he contemplates mortality and the everyday violence and oppression facing Black peoples, placing a group of skulls over his head and torso, first inside a coroner’s office and later, in the public archives in Bahia.
In 49 Medals, a largescale installation commissioned exclusively for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, Paulo Nazareth constructs an altar for the unsung heroes of the Americas. Blood red curtains draw the viewer into a forum-style shrine, where the artist has cast 49 bronze medals bearing the names of historical figures typically misrepresented in mainstream historical accounts. From Black Panther leader Huey S. Newton to indigenous leader Tupac Amaru II, each medal is accompanied with a garbled text, fusing English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Indigenous languages to reposition their contributions in dismantling colonial power. “These languages were imposed on the Americas, and today they are presented as though they are the true languages of our nations,” he says. “As though one is more important than the other, when they definitely are not.”
Brazilian government: 50 years back in time
As our conversation wears on, we speak of Brazil’s current government, their propensity for incendiary, racist language and policies, and their penchant for censoring Brazil’s creative class. Artists, including friends of Nazareth’s, are increasingly being targeted and sent into self-exile. “This government promised to go 50 years back in time, and they’re doing a great job,” he remarks.
He decries the blurring of politics and media as a tool for censorship, reflecting on a recent personal experience. “One of the largest local TV stations is owned by a staunch supporter of the current administration. They were doing a segment on Brazilian artists working in favelas, so they came to do a studio visit,” he says. “They walked in and saw the paintings of Lula commissioned for the ICA Miami show, and immediately told me I would have to remove those and that they couldn’t put them on TV. They told me it wasn’t art, and cancelled the interview right then and there.”
Untitled (2019), the Lula paintings in question, offer a portrait of a beloved president who lifted Brazil’s Afro and Indigenous populations out of poverty, only to be found guilty of a massive corruption scandal and sentenced to prison. Like the heroes represented in 49 Medals, Nazareth treats this polarizing figure with dignity; reconciling their bad deeds in favor of focusing on the greater good.
Nazareth plays with this duality throughout his work – his subjects are neither good nor bad, just forgotten. He doesn’t ask his viewers to form an opinion, but rather puts forth the information so they can decide for themselves. Nazareth views himself as a translator of sorts, navigating between two worlds in a quest for the truth. “I’m a soul between two worlds, crossing difficult political and social borders, that is my work.”
Nicole Martinez is a writer and editor based in Miami covering Latin American and Latinx artists and movements. Her writing has appeared in ARTnews, Wallpaper*, Hyperallergic, Cultured, and more. Follow her on Instagram @niki_frsh