In Conversation with Desali

Bringing the Art Gallery to the Neighborhood Bar in the Periphery

Desali’s story began with comic books and graffiti, continued with his training in Art Education and Plastic Arts and follows an ongoing process of resignification of space, involving protagonists originally unconnected to the art world.

Art Education
I was working in a neighborhood bar on Paraná Avenue, in Belo Horizonte’s central region, selling mocotó (calf’s foot jelly), and I managed to pass a college prep exam. I studied during the day and worked at night. Then, I learned that the Guignard School was offering an evening B.A. program, not very competitive. I worked for an NGO to maintain my income and I started teaching classes in at-risk communities in the cities’ peripheries. That was an important experience, because I had the children’s feedback. All of my research in Art entered into my teaching dynamic. I was teaching what I was learning… putting up street posters, making short videos. Further along, that experience infused my work that was part of the Pampulha Scholarship, when I created a gallery in the Dandara squatting neighborhood. I gave a series of painting workshops in that space for children, and we sold the works at an auction at the Pampulha Art Museum, which, at the time, became the Dandara Art Museum. We gave the name a new meaning, and the community went to the Museum. The children bought what they wanted with the money. Art education is integral to my conceptual; it’s all connected.

Basquiat and Abdias do Nascimento
I went to college as a black guy from the periphery, and back then there was no history of black art. It’s a Europeanized idea that they constantly drill into your mind. And then there is Basquiat (Afro-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-1988], a black reference, and you identify an immediate familiarity, the question of policing, a series of elements, the presence of the black body in the painting. He was a major influence for me, including for his series of interventions in the urban space. His paintings embody hate, and this is present in my series Embarque nessa promoção (Embark on this deal), which is a tour that the youth take from the periphery at night. These are groups that come out in the face of police, authoritarianism, emprisonment. And there is also Abdias do Nascimento (actor, director, dramaturge, painter and Brazilian activist, 1914-2011) whom I also encountered when I was in college, but always in the background. They don’t place those artists in the foreground, they’re just the backdrop. Basquiat appears, because he is on the scene with Andy Warhol, for instance. That is extremely irksome.

The Word
Literature was an important influence for me, Concretism, concrete poetry, the relation of the word with mathematics. I place things in my paintings that seem to be a personal diary of my life, mixed in with sentences from books, broken sentences, words related to the image. And this elicits an interesting reaction in people: they see the painting, the painting is small, pleasant, and when they get closer, they get a shock depending on the word. Some paintings have a three-dimensional relief that leads the person to move from one side to the other. My research is around this as well: the body of the person facing this image, which is going to walk, analyze from up close and from far.

Irony and the Market
I wonder what the image of the artist would be faced with these spaces of power of the art market. So, I use that type of irony, that disbelief in power, in capital that just absorbs and drains. If I were to enter the game, I prefer to do so that way. I’m there inside but playing in the same way that you are playing with me, using my images. Everyone takes advantage of such movement. People end up feeding the platform of the institutions, which in their turn are promoting the artist. I got caught up in it and my comics are kind of a joke in that sense. I talk about the Pipa Prize, but with some irony. I try to address the situation of wanting to be in the artists’ network, of showing my work on that platform as honestly as possible.

Tânia Caliari is a journalist. She lives in São Paulo.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh