Location: Mars Bars, Lower East Side, Manhattan
I let him choose the bar. While you cannot judge a book by its cover, you can definitely judge a man by where he drinks.
The interview is scheduled for 3:00 pm but I arrive 10 minutes early, enough time to really soak the place in. The walls are covered with graffiti. He had told me this but it isn’t what I expected. The graffiti is more domestic than its rowdy rail yard counterpart. Instead of tags, there are portraits of friends and notes a drunken man wrote to himself, mistaking the wall for his hand. The walls themselves are memories of nights past, where wild minds hurdled wild ideas with only the walls to catch them. The bar is long, still sticky, the light, a bit unclean. I grab a stool next to the only other patron. Two old drunks filter in and out, trying to force shots onto the bartender. She knows their game and gives them something that looks red and sweet “on the house.”
My Heineken is starting to warm when he walks in. He looks hesitant and scans the empty stools before landing on mine. I wave emphatically, omitting my youth in a single gesture. He’s still scanning the room as he shakes my hand.
“Fernando,” he says softly. We kiss cheeks.
He stands for a while before he sits. He’s wearing a backpack, which adds to the boyish roundness of his face. He’s bald with deep-set brown eyes and tattoos dripping down his arms. He tells me about his commute. I smile and hold my beer with two hands.
“Ready to start?” I say. He nods and just like that, the story begins.
I know little of him in this moment, just some pixelized images on the internet that impressed me. Here, now, to know more. I’ve been studying Brazilian immigrant art in New York for the summer, thanks to a grant from the Urban Studies department at Brown University, and up until now had little luck finding artists I found intriguing. Sure, there was that guy that did watercolor dawns in Newark and another who boasted about his badly proportioned nudes but they were motel art pure and simple. I found Fernando rather haphazardly, hopping from one site to the next until I came across his sculptures.
At first, I was taken by the vulnerability of his work: a series of small-scale statues of ex-lovers, homeless boys, drag queens, junkies and cult figures, such as Joey Ramone. The posturing of their tiny frames made them look simultaneously powerful and unwieldy. Their bodies were ripe with the precarious gawkiness that makes humans such an odd choice as the dominant species. The detail was unreal. On his website, I read about his process:
“All his portraits are like a relic, a holy place, a moment caught in time. He uses objects that have a connection to the portrayed person in composing his work, such as cigarette butts, condoms, beer cans, underwear, semen, empty toothpaste boxes. In other words, things that are part of these people's real world, and his own.”
"Todos os retratos são como um relicário, um santuário, um momento capturado no tempo. Usa como base para os retratos objetos que tenham uma ligação íntima com a pessoa retratada: objetos usados por eles mesmos - como pontas de cigarros, camisinhas, latas de cervejas, roupas intímas, sêmem, caixas de creme dental."
All his tiny figurines are composed the same way. First, he meets his model, sometimes under professional circumstances but generally through personal relationships. Then, he collects intimate objects from around their bedrooms and homes. He uses these “relics” as the base of the sculpture and sculpts clay around them to form figure. Next, he creates clothing for them, often made of his own clothes, and, dependent on the person, requests a sample of their hair to use on the sculpture. The figures are plasticized until they are hard as wood and the bases are covered with quotations from conversations Fernando has had with them. The statues are reminiscent of 17th century Baroque effigies of saints (which also utilize real hair) and folk art miniatures, such as those of Adalton, a Brazilian crafts artists from Niteroí.
With this information in my head and him in the seat beside me we begin the interview. Questions in English, answers in Portuguese. For the sake of clarity, I will translate and paraphrase but the interview is available here for those interested.
Se você entende português, a entrevista está disponível aqui, meio inglês, meio português.
Fernando hails from Brasília, Brasil’s capital, located smack dab in the center of the country. “I hate politics,” He says laughing. “I think it’s because I grew up in Brasília.”
“Detesto a política. É porque eu fui criado em Brasília, eu acho.”
He began drawing and painting at the age of 13 but it was not until he was 17 or 18 that he really focused on sculpting. He is self-taught and never went to university, mostly due to the fact that his career started early and he was traveling to go to shows. Throughout this, his work grew and developed. His work turned towards eroticism “when [he] started doing portraits of my ex-boyfriends.”
“Quando eu começei fazer retratos dos meus ex-namorados.”
In addition, his sculptures became a way to capture the underground and punk scene that was developing in the poor, satellite cities around Brasília where he was raised.
In 1995, he traveled to New York City for the first time to participate in a collective show of 10 artists from Brasília. He has been commuting back and forth ever since.
“During this period,” he says, “I sought out CBGB’s. The director of their gallery liked my sculptures and invited me to do an exhibit. I returned a year later to present my work. After this, I made more connections, was meeting more people and have always been in Brazil and New York [since then.]”
“Nessa época, eu procurei o CBGB’s. E o diretor da galeria gostou de minhas esculturas e me convidou pra fazer um exposição e eu voltei a Nova Iorque um ano depois pra promoção os trabalhos. E depois disso, eu fui conseguindo mais contato, conhecendo mais pessoas e sempre tava em Brasil e Nova Iorque.”
CBGB’s, a notorious nightclub that has catered to underground music and culture since 1976, has played a pivotal role in Fernando’s career. He reminisces fondly about a portrait he did of Joey Ramone for a festival the club was holding in honor of the famous musician: “I put some objects [in my sculpture] that, when [Joey] died, he had left in the care of CBGB’s. I used these objects as the base of the portrait.”
“Eu coloquei alguns objetos que, quando morreu, ele deixou no porto do CBGB’s. Eu utilizei os objetos como o base do retrato.”
In addition to the opportunities CBGB’s has given him to show his work, Fernando sees it as a place that shares his ideals and most of his friends he’s met there. On the CBGB website, the club’s founder, Hilly Kristal, speaks of the void his club filled in youth culture during the mid-70’s, “[There] was simply a need for young people to be heard, a need for young people to be speak, a need for them to be recognized as individuals. Listen to me! Hear me!! This is who I am, This is what “I” have to say!!” Fernando echoes this idea when I ask him what every artist should keep in mind: “Be honest with yourself and with others. I think that’s the most important thing for me.”
“Seja honesto com você mesmo e com os outros. Acho que é a principal coisa para mim.”
As a result of meeting the majority of his friends through CGBG’s, Fernando has had little contact with the Brazilian immigrant population in New York despite his many years in the City. He did one portrait of a Brazilian drag queen and only recently has he made contact with other immigrants in the city, due to resent anti-immigration legislation in Washington.
Although not strongly embedded in immigrant culture, his transitory lifestyle has left an impact on his work. The influence, however, is much milder than that of other bi-cultural artists. His work is reliant on the people he meets, the men he loves and the places he frequents. All three of these factors depend greatly on where he is located when he’s working. His website states, “Remembrances are part of his work. Every little thing is part of him: his lovers, his disappointments, his experiences with drugs, his life in the streets, and so forth. Fernando depends on all of this to create art; he does not exist without these people.”
"São fragmentos da sua memória que estão ali. Seus amantes, suas decepções, suas experiências com drogas, sua vida nas ruas, bares marginais, depoimentos de pessoas que já faleceram. Depende desse meio para criar, sem essas pessoas não existe."
When questioned on the ‘ethnicity’ of his sculptures, he reneges, “my work isn’t Latin, it’s not Brazilian, my work isn’t American, it’s universal because underground art has no fixed location. The entire world has underground art and music. It’s a global movement, not national.”
“Meu trabalho não é latino, não é brasileiro, meu trabalho não é americano, meu trabalho é universal porque… a arte underground não tem lugar específico. O mundo inteiro tem arte underground e musica underground. É um movimento global, não dum país.”
Throughout his long history with the movement, he has watched it move in and out of popular culture. He talks about the fluidity of underground art, how it spans from pop art to artists whose art that only exists for them, never to be seen by the rest of the world. Yet, all these artists deal with themes that popular culture deems subversive. For Fernando, one of the most potent is homoeroticism. Though he only considers his art gay to the extent that he is gay. His art is a reflection of his life and obviously his sexuality plays a key role.
Fernando remarks remorsefully that underground art is generally not well received by gallery owners in Brazil. Due to the vast polarization of wealth in his native country, the rich live in a world apart and partake in their own culture. As a result, they control the art world, as few other people have the money to buy it, outside of tourists. Therefore, the art-buying public is small, elite and very conservative, preferring still-lifes and pictures of dusky beaches to anything new or subversive.
“It’s a problem,” he says, “and it doesn’t allow our country to grow artistically because these people manipulate the field.”
“É um problema e não deixar a país crescer artisticamente por ponta da manipulacão destas pessoas.”
In this sense, he views the U.S. as almost the polar opposite of Brazil. He talks candidly about the open-mindedness of the American culture, how the upper class is more diversified and the middle class, more powerful. This leads to a much more dynamic environment for art to develop because there is no right or wrong way. He notes that this is especially true in art schools.
Although he is careful to make the distinction that “it’s easier to show my work here, not to sell it.”
“Aqui é mais fácil para mostrar meus trabalhos, não para vender.”
As most artists will regretfully inform you, selling work is no sure thing. The income is erratic but, for Fernando, substantial enough to continue traveling between cultures.
On a more universal level, he values communication and being culpable for who you are and what you produce. “I think these things should be argued over,” he says, “talked about and then take the best from that.”
“Acho que essas coisas devem ser discutidas, conversadas e tirar o melhor disso.”
Adding too, “try to see your errors first, and then the errors of others. If you don’t do anything yourself, you can’t criticize others.”
“Tenta ver seus erros primeiro, pra depois fala dos erros dos outros e se você não faz nada, você não critica ninguém.”
Ultimately, Fernando’s work seeks to breath life into the subculture, the underground, of society that is so often criminalized, showing the universality and beauty of the human figure, regardless of where it is found.