The Simple Charisma of Paulo Nazareth


Paulo Nazareth: Objects to hide the Sun from your eyes (2010), photograph; courtesy Mendes Wood Gallery, São Paulo

IT'S ALWAYS EASY to say that a country boasts a fresh generation of artists, or that some bright, young artist is doing "revelatory" work. But in Brazil, at the moment, it just so happens that there is a new generation of artists with genuinely fresh viewpoints, and they are striking a chord that is increasingly audible worldwide.

Recently, for Dasartes, Brazil's leading visual arts magazine, I wrote a piece about the top international collectors of Brazilian art -- and the artist whose name kept coming up among these savvy collectors was Paulo Nazareth. Still in his 30s and a child of the favelas of Belo Horizonte, Nazareth is basically a performer who doesn't shy away from a snapshot. You might have heard a couple of years ago about Nazareth taking nine months to walk, in a pair of ratty Havaianas, from Belo Horizonte, which is in the middle of Brazil, all the way up to Miami, partly via the Pan-American Highway. Along the way, he took photographs of his journey, which in many ways chronicled the voyage of hope that so many have made before him, as contemporary global nomads. And other Nazareth "performances" result not only in photographs, but videos, drawings and sculptural installations.

There is a lively spirit in Nazareth's work that neatly parallels the dynamism Brazil is showing as it evolves into one of the century's most progressive nations. Call it a love for the immediacy of a simple life. Like Brazil itself, Nazareth is on a mission of discovery driven partly by his own racial background and partly by the African diaspora as it relates both to Brazil's indigenous people and its colonizers. He is one of the few non-white and non-elite artists to enter Brazil's cultural system. For a U.S. audience, Nazareth's style touches on the performative anarchy and interrogation of race found in the work of David Hammons. And for sheer poetry, Nazareth's frequently humble works seem in poignant dialogue with the gently political resistance found in the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Paulo Nazareth with his work Banana Market/Art Market, featuring a Volkswagen microbus filled with bananas during Art Basel Miami Beach, in 2011


Most of all, Nazareth is a funny man. And his work flows between profound contemplation and the lighthearted joy of being alive. Two years ago, I curated a show called Portrait in a Chelsea art space, and I included a hilarious video performance by Nazareth in which takes a walk through a crowded public market with his head inside a birdcage filled with spice finches. In writing about this piece I asked the artist why he'd made it, and I got back a strange series of messages in what I've come to learn is a personalized form of communication that is a unique blend of many languages. "I sell my image, the exotic man," was one of the pronouncements Nazareth made on that occasion. He is not the type who spews out a glib sound-bite. The work is fundamentally profound, and asks where do we come from and what was the journey of our ancestors. Nazareth's is a quest in which we can all find ourselves.


Above, photograph from Paulo Nazareth's Noticias de America (News from the Americas) series (2012); courtesy Mendes Wood Gallery, São Paulo. Below, Paulo Nazareth: Cuando tengo comida en mis manos/When I have food in my hand (2012), video; courtesy Galleria Franco Noero, Torino and Mendes Wood Gallery, São Paulo. For the full video, go here.