In Conversation with

Francisco Pinto and Venezuelan Afro-Indigenous History

Having begun his artistic career without any formal education, Francisco Pinto’s work moves from drawing to collage and then to digital art, textile art, assemblage, and installation. Nohora Arrieta Fernández talks with the artist about how to pay tribute to cultural heritage through black humor and with references to comics and Basquiat.

C&AL: And what came to you was the Black theme?

FP: Yes.

C&AL: He has told it a couple of times. He says that everything changed in 2012: “The Black theme came into my life by chance,” he writes in an email. Or “in 2012, I found myself, I decided to portray the life of a Black man, a runaway slave.” But when someone asks Pinto how did you arrive at the theme of your current work, his is what he says:

FP: I put up a banner with Basquiat’s picture on it at the entrance to a workshop an artist friend lent me. One day a curator visited me and, joking, he said to me: “How much longer is that Black kid going to be there?” referring to Basquiat. So I took that photo of Basquiat and inspected it, and I brought the photo to the African American Museum in Caracas. The first exhibition I held at the African American Museum was a tribute to Basquiat that we prepared, at the museum’s suggestion, with the artist Marco Ettedgui. From the moment when I arrived at the Museum, I started doing the research. I felt the call.

Venezuela incorporated the ethnic self-recognition variable in its 2011 national census. Hugo Chávez was president. But the inclusion of the ethnic question was, above all, the result of the persistent work of groups such as the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations (ROA), the Network of Afro-descendants of Venezuela (RAV), and the Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Summit, among others.

C&AL: What does it mean to make Afro-themed art in Venezuela?

FP: I sold a lot of work before, with the Disney theme, but people who supported me then don’t even say hello to me now. They want people to talk about dance, music. It’s not easy to talk about slavery here. That’s why I try not to come across as resentful and instead to tell the story with a wink. I’m not going to change history; I’m just saying what happened. In Venezuela you have to be careful how you say things. For me, it’s easier to sell abroad. They don’t take me very seriously here, although there are curators and artists who help me. Times are difficult in Venezuela. Its museums are in poor condition; they close due to lack of resources.

“the wink.” In the painting, with a black background, red lips smile with white teeth, golden teeth. Jonathan Square, art critic and professor, writes: “Francisco has an approach to Venezuelan Afro-Indigenous history that is at once respectful and irreverent. He pays tribute to his cultural heritage while questioning it with black humor. The smile with the gold tooth is a reference to racist iconography, but Francisca changes the meaning, turning it into the mischievous smile of the maroon.” The piece was acquired by the MOCADA Museum in Brooklyn.

C&AL: Basquiat is an important presence in your work. How do you dialogue with artists from the diaspora?

FP: I’m always running after people who are in the know. I became obsessed with Basquiat, and I wanted to use his crown, to intervene with it, so I wrote to Al Díaz, his collaborator on the SAMO (Acronym for “The same old carp”) project. Al loved the idea and he let me use the crown. I also write to other artists, to the Cuban José Bedia. I collaborate with a platform, Africanah, and that’s where I can see the scene: Brazilian artists, Caribbean artists. Umar Rashid, an African American (US), is a good friend. I learn by talking to people.

Barlovento is 30km east of Caracas. When it was a colony, cocoa plantations prospered there. That is where the enslaved were brought from Congo and Angola. There, the enslaved fled to form cumbes, palenques (Maroon societies). Grandpa Pinto was born in Barlovento. Francisco, the painter, does not know much more about him.

The smiling Maroon is a round black emoji with a red mouth that Pinto uses to mark the facades of museums and private galleries: “to let them know the Maroon passed through here.” The Maroon is also the character in a series of collages in which he mixes references from comics and colonial archives.

“The Maroon, in the jungle, who has fled, becomes a cyborg, a superman,” Pinto says. Pinto also says that he created that series after reading about the mutilations carried out by the Belgian King Leopold in the Congo.

C&AL: How do you start a work?

FP: I can start with a word, a theme, something I saw in the street. That can be a trigger. I work with unconventional materials, things that I find lying around. I make art with what the medium says.

What the medium says. The medium overflows. The mixtures too: archive material with images of well-known artists, with cartoons, with racist caricatures, with black faces. The practice, which moves from drawing to collage and then to digital art, textile art, assemblage, and installation, seems to want to understand something that isn’t entirely clear: Venezuela’s history, the African diaspora in Venezuela.

“I like the unfinished,” he says. The work is in a state of being, it questions, does not understand, does not affirm.

C&AL: In one of your Instagram stories, you pay tribute to Valerie Brathwaite, an Afro-Venezuelan artist born in Trinidad…

FP: I have been lucky to work alongside artists of Valerie’s caliber. I was with my uncle and other people helping her with a project she had with the Cisneros Foundation. Valerie should have more recognition in Venezuela; unfortunately, she doesn’t.

C&AL: What would you say about the state of Afro-Venezuelan art?

FP: Now people are doing things. It has become fashionable.

C&AL: What stories do you want to tell?

FP: I want to say that Venezuela is also part of that ancestral history, that there was slavery in Venezuela, too. I want to tell the African American, the Afro-Brazilian, that I am the same.

Francisco Pinto is a Venezuelan visual artist. He lives in Caracas.

Nohora Arrieta Fernández has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature and cultural studies. She researches and writes on contemporary art and literature.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh