Adriana Varejão

Published: January, 2024, Adriana Varejão for the book "New Waves. Contemporary Art and the Issues Shaping Its Tomorrow."
Green Tilework in Live Flesh, 2000
Green Tilework in Live Flesh, 2000

Marta Gnyp: I heard that you don’t like when people call you a Latin American artist because you don’t agree that something like Latin American art exists.

Adriana Varejão: At the time I said that, I was more centered in a cosmopolitan vision of art. I was afraid that assuming a “Latin American”identity would label me in a depreciative way and connect me with the colonial past, since that term was forged by the conqueror. More recently, I have changed my mind.

MG: What made you change your mind?

AV: I have acquired a kind of historical awareness. It became clear to me that the history of Latin America didn’t begin with the conquest of America. I started to identify myself with this land, with its ancestry and also with its pulsating multiculturalism. Latin America’s greatest wealth comes from it being a mixture of so many things simultaneously, this territory-microcosm where so many peoples and cultures coexist. I recognize in my work some striking and fundamental ideas that made me identify myself as Latin American. One of them is that the Latin American Baroque is a field of expression for a marginal discourse, the space of the mestizo, the space of transculturation. I have gradually changed my mind in a way that my ideal of a cosmopolitan and emancipated individual was replaced by the experience of the encounter and by the mixture that is common to these multiple peoples and cultures.

MG: You accepted yourself as a Latin American artist!

AV: Exactly. One aspect that helped me to recognize this identity was the Latin American Baroque, especially after reading works by the Cuban author José Lezama Lima.

MG: What was so special about his approach to Baroque?

AV: The European Baroque was the art of the Counter-Reformation, and Lezama’s approach interpreted the Latin Baroque as the art of the “Counter-Conquest.” The way the native peoples and the peoples from the African diaspora looked at the Christs and saints reflected the vision of their ancestry rooted in the past, across many centuries or even millennia. This ambiguous view will be expressed in the field of the visual representation of the Latin Baroque in several ways, subverting its European original model.

MG: You work with the past, but you interpret it differently and change it to your own advantage?

AV: Actually, I always ask myself what “the past” is. I understand the past as a construction based in the present moment. Thinking like that, each present writes the past in a different way. Just as each present creates its own versions of future. I work operating new ways of seeing, which are more related to think about history from different points of view, not just from the dominants’ point of view.

MG: Baroque was originally related to the Catholic Church that made it to their visual propaganda language. How did the indigenous people adopt Baroque for their own use?

AV: I think there was a search for the purpose and meaning of those signs, permeated, of course, by the tension between the Iberians in confrontation with the natives and the African diaspora. In my work, I try to approach these strategies of cultural appropriation and to promote a re-contextualization of values acquired through indoctrination, in search for emancipation. Ironically, the Baroque was not very effective as a colonization instrument. Its visual form is so vast, so porous, dynamic and permeable, that instead of colonizing, it was often colonized, in the New World. The workers and artisans who built and decorated the churches used to incorporate their own vocabulary. This is the space of mulattos and marginalized, such as the mestizo genius Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as “Aleijadinho,” who has molded churches in Minas Gerais, in Brazil, and of indigenous painting masters from Cuzco, Quito and Potosí schools in Peru and Bolivia. This is a tradition I feel connected with, I mean, if we can ever call it a “tradition.” Maybe it’s a tradition of mixing.

MG: Because you understand the images? Or because as Brazilian you are part of this visual tradition?

AV: It’s funny, because many times I see in Brazilian and Latin American art an attempt to establish a more rational model, from modernism to concrete art. But I have always identified myself more with the voluptuous, sensual, ambiguous, and twisted discourse of the Baroque. I like the idea of making parody and distortion, mixing signs to change the meaning of the message and subverting the model. For instance, I many times refer to Portuguese tiles in my work. The tile was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizer. It carries an encounter of many cultures in its own history – Arabic, Chinese, European. My concept is not to tell about the Age of Exploration itself, but I make use of some of its historical elements, such as tiles, maps, in order to re-signify them. The transcultural reshaping of the Baroque in Latin America can be interpreted as a subversive, anti-colonial strategy.

MG: You started to work with this idea already in 1988 as a very young girl . . .

AV: My paintings dealing with parodies and historical references date from the beginning of the 1990s, but of course both my works and my ideas have matured and developed over time.

MG: In the meantime, your tile works have become a kind of your signature: very beautiful, smart, diverse. Did it feel like a breaking moment when you made your first tile painting?

AV: The tile appeared in my work while I was flirting with Baroque themes, in the late 1980s. It bears a strong mark of Portuguese coloni zation, being a great repository for many histories and signs around the Baroque. Then it became a recurring theme in many of my further works, but this was happening gradually.

MG: The tiles have had such a huge history. Holland has been associated with blue and white tiles for so long that they have become a part of the Dutch identity, but the Dutch started a production of the tiles only after they had seen them in China. The Portuguese had taken a part of them from the Dutch.

AV: Yes, absolutely. Also, we can’t forget Moorish influence in that history as well.

MG: How did you go to work? Did you choose specific tiles? Did you photograph them? Or are they based on your imagination?

AV: I always work with specific tiles. Sometimes I use an entire image, at other times I enlarge small details, but always starting from existing tiles. I have a huge array of tile references, with more than 5,000 images in my files so far.

MG: Were the tiles coming from Brazil, or from different destinations?

AV: They can be found both in Portugal and in Brazil, in historical buildings and churches. The tiles we see in Brazil have been imported from Portugal. In Mexico, differently, the tiles called Talavera used to be produced by local artisans. I also have a large archive of Talavera images as well as of Islamic heritage tiles and ceramics in general.

MG: Is there any connection between your tile paintings and your big paintings in which you used plaster with the cracks on the surface?

AV: In the beginning, I was interested in tiles and in the routes that you just described: from China to Europe, from Africa to Europe . . . Even the word azulejo (tile in Portuguese) comes from zuleica, which is an Arabic term that means “polished stone.” Investigating the routes of the Portuguese traders, China became my focus since, apart from India, Africa and America, the Portuguese also set a colony in China (Macau). Studying Chinese ceramic tradition, I came across Chinese pottery, the so-called Celadon from Song dynasty, from the 11th century. This ceramics has fascinated me with its glaze of green, gray and blue colors and cracks on the surface.

MG: Then the idea of the crack paintings was born . . .

AV: I was totally in love with Song ceramics. I was fascinated by this idea of cracks that had originally been a mistake, but were then incorporated as a style. I used to apply plaster on the canvases to make the surface smoother. When I noticed that this caused some cracks on the surface, I decided to increase the amount of material, and then the cracks became more radical. That was the beginning of a process that culminated in those big cracked paintings that you mentioned earlier.

MG: Do you allow chance in the making of the cracks? Do you let it dry and during the process you see the cracks organically appearing?

AV: Yes, exactly. I normally prepare many works and observe their drying process. I have no control over how they will crack. If a nice cracked surface comes up, I move on with the work. But sometimes they may crack in a bad way.

MG: If you don’t like it, you create another one?

AV: Yes. I can cause some variations creating either a thicker or a thinner surface. I can somehow try to control it, but in the end it is nature’s invisible hand that makes them. It’s funny because the cracks also remind me of Chinese pictograms. Sometimes I can see a bird or a man with open hands and many other things, and in a way this is how I happen to choose them.

MG: Does the process of drying take a lot of time?

AV: Yes, depending on the weather, they can take until three weeks to get dry. My studio, in Rio de Janeiro, is very close to the Tijuca Forest, a very beautiful but quite humid place. This is a tropical rainforest forest in the city of Rio; the humidity can reach 80% or more. Sometimes, a work gets fungus, so that I have to throw it away and start it again.

MG: You started the azulejos concept in 1988, and you have been continuing it until today. As you described, they are loaded with meanings, which seems to be a perfect symbolic trope to work with. You claimed this symbolic territory which the tiles represent but also, from the visual point of view, they have also become your brand.

AV: I use a vast and varied inventory of visual references in my work, and undoubtedly, the azulejos are a very important vehicle for my investigations. I have been appropriating them for a long time and in many different ways. The azulejo is one of the foundational elements of Brazilian identity. It is an element of our colonial past, brought by the Portuguese. Sometimes, I make parodies of Portuguese Baroque tiles panels and change their meaning through crossing unofficial narratives, such as in the Entrance Figures or in Proposal for a Catechesis, for instance. Other times I treat the tiles as a skin that covers the carnality or a cut, as it happens in the series of Tongues and Incisions. In Azulejões (big tiles), I try to physically recreate the object azulejo, enlarging it in scale, and I get more focused on painting and composition issues, being inspired by both Portuguese Baroque tiles and Song dynasty ceramics. In the Sauna series, on its turn, the tiles are presented as a minimalist grid so that composition, color nuances and perspective appear.

MG: When and why did you become so aware of the post-colonial heritage and your relationship to it?

AV: In the early 1990s I started reading a lot about history and sociology, and these readings inspired to a great extent my work. I was interested in showing and placing myself accordingly to the point of view of the colonizer, appropriating his repertoire so that, from that place, I could make a twist that would also show him to us from the inside out. An emblematic moment was in 1992 when I painted a work called Map of Lopo Homem, which was based on a Portuguese map from 1500s. In my painting, there is a wound in the middle of the map. Part of this wound has been sutured in the work, making it evident – or more evident – that another part of the wound was still open.

MG: I’ve seen the image. Impressive how it shows all the historical interconnections and complexity of narratives. I also know that the curator Robert Storr has chosen it for his exhibition at MoMA in 1994.

AV: This was an exhibition about maps, or reinterpretations of maps, and I had this work selected. At this moment, I felt that I was beginning to deal with the post-colonial heritage and the big repertory of colonization. I started to have a more political approach to the Baroque, to read more about this subject, and then my works begun to reflect this more strongly, too.

MG: Was your study of Chinese pottery a part of this investigation into the post-colonial heritage?

AV: I used to practice Kung Fu in the 1980s. My teacher was an eightyyear-old Chinese who had been a general from Chiang Kai-shek’s army. He couldn’t speak a word of Portuguese. I was a bit obsessed by Chinese martial arts and started studying Chinese language. This led me to a threemonth trip to China. I got in contact with Chinese Celadon ceramics and became fascinated by it. So that was how that first interest come about. Later on, I would connect it to my studies on issues related to post-colonial heritage and the investigation of China’s connection with the Great Navigations and the fact that there was a Portuguese colony in China, Macau.

MG: Do you still practice martial arts?

AV: No, I don’t. I practiced it seriously for eleven years, but I quit it many years ago, in the end of the 1990s.

MG: But you remained fascinated by the Chinese culture?

AV: Yes, and I was especially interested in observing that there was a sort of cultural “contagion” with the presence of Chinese art in the Brazilian Baroque. There is a lot of Chinese art in the Baroque in Brazil probably because of Macau, the Portuguese colony in China that played an important role as part of Portuguese and European navigation routes during the Age of Exploration. As a Portuguese colony, Brazil was not allowed to produce any manufactured goods and ended up becoming a large market for goods produced or traded by Portugal, such as the Chinese silk and porcelain.

MG: Where can you find the Chinese elements in Brazil?

AV: For example, the blue and white so characteristic of Portuguese tiles also present in Brazil, receives direct influence from Ming ceramics. More directly, we can mention the organ of the Sé de Mariana [Mariana Cathedral] and the interior of the Chapel of N. Sra. do Ó, in Sabará, Minas Gerais, both in the interior of Brazil and painted in Chinese style, in gold on black or red background. There are profane elements of chinoiserie in many religious buildings in Brazil. And there are also all the dishes brought here by the Companhia das Índias or by Portuguese traders. All of these elements, in one way or another, were at some point incorporated into my work. The critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff wrote about this subject in the text “Adriana Varejão – From Brazilian China to the unification with the world.”

MG: Did you have the advantage of studying Chinese before?

AV: Yes. Despite the fact that I have never really learned the language properly, my personal interest and experiences opened me up to a rich and vast field of study. My personal paths formulate a kind of cartography for my work.

MG: Another point of reference, I think, in your art, which is also somehow related to Baroque, is flesh and blood, the visceral body. I had to think, for example, of Rembrandt painting flesh, which had its theatrical quality as well. There seems to be a tension between the viscerality of flesh versus the clean tiles. Where did this idea come from?

AV: There is a tradition of painting meat, with Rembrandt, as you said, also Goya, Géricault, Bacon. I myself have always dealt with representations and never with the raw material – never with flesh itself, never with tiles itself. It has always been about their theatrical representation. The Baroque is quite a visceral and theatrical style, and the Latin American Baroque is even more. You can find a lot of blood and flesh and wounds representation inside the churches. As a Latin American, I come from this tradition.

MG: Is this so typical for Latin America?

AV: When you ask me that, it comes to my mind two Mexican movies by Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo and The Sacred Mountain. They also remind me of the period I lived in Mexico and which also had such an influence on my work. These two films demonstrate quite well how bloody, passionate, Baroque, theatrical Latin America can be. In fact, there is something definitely dramatic about Latin American culture.

MG: The tiles versus flesh is a form of a drama.

AV: Absolutely! The association of opposing or contrasting elements produces the drama. On the surface you have the monochromatic tiles that look cold and aseptic; inside, although still visible, you find this visceral, voluptuous material. The cuts or wounds reach deep levels, leaving the “flesh” of the painting exposed, and thus mixing concepts such as interior and exterior, reason and plastic sensuality, culture and nature, the cooked and the raw. There is a contrast between an orderly exterior, a certain idea of asepsis typical of the tile, and this internal explosion that shows its interior and its inside out, referring simultaneously to violence and eroticism, repulsion and seduction.

MG: You pointed at two traditions in the history of art: Baroque with its theatrical quality represented here by flesh, and on the other hand the tradition of grid, which is associated with modernism, and its purity of medium and flatness; both were important for shaping our understanding of art, at least Western art.

AV: Yes, this is like the two sides on a fold. A little bit as when we were talking about the Latin American identity, in the beginning of our conversation. There have always been these two sides. A more formative side, of drama, and a more contemporary side, the side of modernism with its grid and the desire for order.

MG: Well said. Let’s then go to the references to modernism in your work. What is your attitude towards that tradition?

AV: I have grown up in Brasilia, living there from 1965 to 1972 in a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

MG: For many people this new capital was an inspiration and a hopeful exciting experiment.

AV: Yes, but as a child, you cannot feel that so clearly. It was a modernist city, rationally constructed, that was built out of nothing . . . on an empty land, with no tradition, no history. It was a brilliant project, but in reality, it proved to be quite flawed.

MG: Interestingly enough we tend to imagine that if you build such a new city you can avoid all the mistakes from the past and you just produce something that is perfect. It’s strange to have something that is perfectly designed, but it doesn’t really work that way.

AV: In fact, it didn’t work at all. Brasilia faced many social problems. The Pilot Plan was designed and built to become the residence of people and high authorities, their families and civil servants. However, this new and entirely planned city left no room for its poorest workers, not even for those who came from afar to work on its construction: thousands of migrants from all over the country, especially from its poorest states. As a result, from the very first moment Brasilia was surrounded by the socalled “satellite cities,” which were kind of improvised cities, with none or very little infrastructure. My mother used to work in one of these “cities,” Sobradinho. She was a nutritionist and worked with malnourished children in a hospital. She developed a community garden program so that people would have something to eat. Sometimes I would accompany her to work.

MG: This seems to reflect in two subjects that are very present in your art – one is that behind every beauty there is rotting flesh, to put it as a metaphor, and the second is your interest in a variety of races and identities that can form one thing, as in Brasilia.

AV: Yes, no doubt that having witnessed and experienced this was a forming factor in my identity as an artist. All of these contradictions can be found in my work.

MG: You investigated the different identities in your Polvo project.

AV: Yes. This project came out of discomfort. In the 1990s, when looking for skin color oil paints, I realized that what was sold as “flesh tone” was always the same light pink. Shortly after that, I learned of a Census survey conducted in Brazil, in the 1970s, where an open question was asked, “What is your color?” And which resulted in a list with 136 names or definitions of color. I then decided to create a work from that long list. The issue of racial identity is still very controversial in Brazil. Although Brazil is known and exalted for its supposed racial democracy, the truth is that we are an extremely racist country.

MG: Really?

AV: Sure, but people didn’t usually talk about it openly. Brazil has always sought to exalt the idea of miscegenation as if this had been a peaceful process. In fact, our so-called “miscegenation” was a political and ideological construction linked to the “whitening” of the population, and therefore must be understood within this context. We’ve never had the racial segregation in an official way as it happened in the United States, or as the apartheid in South Africa, but we have always faced quite strong racial discrimination. Brazil still has very little social mobility. Races are mixed, but hierarchies remain.

MG: It is a social discrimination without official rules.

AV: Exactly. Social discrimination related to color. Despite some more recent affirmative policies, such as those that guarantee entry and a quotas in universities, it is a fact that, historically, there has never been public policies in Brazil for reparation or that guaranteed minimum basic rights to indigenous and black populations after a period of over three hundred years of slavery. On the contrary, what we had, in fact, were official policies aimed at “whitening” the population. We remain, even today, with a social structure inherited from slavery and where the color of the skin plays a very big role. Until not many years ago, the registration of color or race even appeared in many of our official identification documents.

MG: Really! What skin colors can you have in your ID?

AV: Well, that’s not like that anymore, but I remember that in my first identity card there was still the color registration. They are those commonly used by the Brazilian Census: white, black, yellow, indigenous, or pardo. “Pardo” meaning a generic category to designate any “mixture” between whites, blacks and indigenous peoples, without distinction. In the Polvo project, I created a set of thirty-three oil paints with varying skin tones that I named after that open Census survey which I mentioned earlier. I elaborated the colors interpreting freely from the names. I was interested in how each one was naming oneself, for example, boy from Bahia, sun tanned, Polack, tending to white, like wheat, toasted, runaway donkey . . . Difficult to translate, some of these terms may sound poetic or quite unusual, and in general they have a much more figurative than literal sense, besides being inserted in a specific cultural context. But there is a perverse side to this story, as possibly many of these self-denominations may have arisen from a difficulty in self-identifying as black or indigenous.

MG: You painted only your self-portraits in this series.

AV: No, I also painted many color wheels. But the use of self-portraits is constant in my work. I’ve done several experiments and, in general, I’ve always found it more ethical to manipulate my own image than someone else’s. For example, in Eyewitnesses (1997), I painted self-portraits with the image of women who had their eyes gouged out. In Food (1992), my image is represented as hunting, hanging naked upside down. In Entrance Figures II and III (1998 and 2005), I portrayed my face in decapitated heads. Somehow, I feel that the use of my own figure has become a kind of tabula rasa in my work.

MG: The application of the colors was made by you, but the basic portraits were made in China.

AV: In the Polvo series, yes. In these works, I wanted to empty the question of the authorship of the portrait, in the sense that they should be as neutral as possible. Far from intending to bring an image that represents a universal identity, I wished to use a serial image, which seemed devoid of any identity.

MG: Back to China again.

AV: That’s true. It’s funny, because in the 18th and 19th century there were many painting studios in Macau. When the ships arrived, they were able to paint commissioned portraits very fast.

MG: So there is a tradition of quick portraiture.

AV: Up until today: it is very cheap, very fast, and the quality of paintings is ok. I have sent them a photo and in a very short time I had forty similar portraits.

MG: Are you going to continue this series with other colors?

AV: I am currently preparing a book for Ivory Press with all the color names from this survey, but it’s being a hard work to get some of them translated into English. Arto Lindsay, who collaborated on some of the translations of this work, is also working on new translations for the book.

MG: Another ambitious project by you: what about the beautiful pavilion that you made for – I probably pronounce it completely wrong . . .

AV: Inhotim?

MG: Exactly. How was it to be involved in a big pavilion completely for you?

AV: Bernardo’s [Paz] idea was to create a contemporary art museum in the open, in a rural area where his old farm was. He had already built some buildings dedicated to his collection and was also doing a great job of landscaping started out of his friendship with Roberto Burle Marx. I visited the place for the first time in 2002. He already had several works by me and other important Brazilian and foreign artists, and invited me to develop something bigger for the place. The idea for the big installation Azulejões came up. I had done one in 2000, but it was separated into several parts.

MG: You mean that the separate pieces were sold.

AV: Yes, I was very frustrated with the idea that this installation could not be exposed as a single work again. So, my proposal was to recreate the composition in an even larger format than the original, creating a four-wall installation that involved the viewer from all sides. Bernardo proposed to me that I develop not only a work of art but also that there be an architectural project that dialogs directly with the works. At that time, Inhotim was just a big dream and people had a hard time believing in the project. I myself, at the beginning, did not believe that it could become what it became a few years later. A unique museum, away from the big urban centers but with a wide visitation, with people coming from all over the world especially to get to know it . . . And also frequented by a popular public, such as children from public schools and many visitors from Belo Horizonte and from the small villages in its surroundings. A huge museum of contemporary art built in the middle of a rural area. Who could imagine such a thing? He was a . . .

MG: Visionary.

AV: Yes, kind of . . . It was a very ambitious project. But this idea of a “museum-park,” a museum immersed in a huge botanical garden, all dedicated to contemporary art, fascinated me. So, I trusted it and I dove deep in this project. Bernardo was also inviting many other important contemporary artists from Brazil and abroad, such as Cildo Meireles, Tunga, Doris Salcedo, Chris Burden, Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney.

MG: Were you free to do whatever you wanted?

AV: Yes, with very few limitations. Each artist could develop their work and define the way in which it would be exhibited. My idea and that of the architect was to create a closed cube. Something that simulates an idea very present in Baroque architecture, where there is a complete split between the interior and exterior space – as in Baroque churches. I also talked a lot with the museum’s curators, and there was this idea of bringing the Baroque tiles to Minas Gerais. This is because the Baroque churches of Minas Gerais have no tiles, which were mainly concentrated in coastal cities like Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife, due to the difficulty of transporting them to the inner country. Inhotim is located very close to Ouro Preto, a rich Brazilian colonial city with many important Baroque churches. There are no tiles in the churches of Ouro Preto, though. I then had this desire to create a monument in order to take Baroque tiles to the mountains of Minas. This space in the pavilion is pure interiority. I am very proud of this work. It is one of the greatest achievements of my career as an artist. Inhotim is today one of the most important contemporary art museums in the world. It is truly a unique project. Bernardo managed to materialize a big dream.

MG: You married this extraordinary, visionary, very special man. During your marriage, you became a collector’s wife; were you also interested in the process of collecting art? Were you involved in the decisions regarding acquisitions of works by other artists?

AV: In fact, I ended up creating a different relationship with art. Before, I used to go to galleries and museums just to see the exhibitions, and I started to have access to the viewing rooms, to meet many gallerists personally. I was not directly involved in the acquisitions for the museum, because there were curators for that. Eventually I would choose some work for our house. That was the moment I started to collect, and nowadays I do collect a little bit.

MG: Are you buying art by Brazilian artists or from international artists?

AV: Currently, I buy mainly works by young artists, many of them peripheral, some still without a gallery. I see that the most interesting and original in cultural terms, today, comes from the periphery, from the margins of the system. And I often meet very talented artists who find it difficult to enter the – still elitist – circuit of contemporary art. So, I think it’s important for artists like me to support young artists. It is a way to follow the current moment, and at the same time contribute to make this space more plural. Today I maintain a collection with my current husband, who already had a collection with works from the 1970s, because his father was a great collector and gallery owner in Brazil. It is a very comprehensive collection in terms of Brazilian art, but we also have some international artists.

MG: Again a wife of a collector . . .

AV: Yes, but in a very different way . . . Pedro is a film producer who loves and collects art. Our collection has a much more personal and intimate character, we live surrounded by our works. Also, we have a lot more complicity when choosing and acquiring a new work.

MG: Speaking about your past, I read many CVs of yours but could never find your artistic education. Have you ever attended an art academy?

AV: No, I have never had it formally. I attended engineering college for three years, and then I quit it and began to paint. I used to paint all day long, and different sources and art fields affected me. For instance, I remember that I used to watch films a lot and some directors have specially affected me, for instance Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. Also David Cronenberg

MG: What is true about the story that you were inspired to become an artist by Elizabeth Taylor’s role in The Sandpiper movie?

AV: Wow! You did your research! [Laughter]

MG: This is a great story.

AV: It is a joke, but there’s a truth in it. When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I watched this 1967 Vicente Minnelli film, The Sandpiper. It may seem like a silly movie these days, but at that time it impacted me. It was a film that brought many libertarian ideals. Elizabeth Taylor, who I love, played the lead role. She played a painter. A free woman, a single mother who moved to the beach and decided to educate her son outside school. However, the government banned her and forced her to put her son in a Protestant boarding school. And the school principal was Richard Burton, of course . . .

MG: Who else . . .

AV: And he was married, besides being a pastor!

MG: So we have a drama.

AV: Of course! They become lovers . . . She was a feminist celebrating her freedom and ideals, while he was just the opposite. I was experiencing the beginning of youth. As daughter of a military father, raised in a middle- class family during the dictatorship period, attending engineering college, I must confess that I was attracted and inspired by those libertarian and feminist ideals. That character reminded me of my mother; in a way, the character expressed something that seemed to have been repressed her. So, after watching this film I decided to take a painting course.

MG: That’s how it started.

AV: Yes. I was very lucky because I went straight to the EAV Parque Lage, an Open School of Visual Arts that was an effervescent point of contemporary art in the beginning of the 1980s in Rio de Janeiro. That was my very first contact with contemporary art. I had never before thought of being an artist or a painter. I was raised in a traditional middle-class family; we were not used to going to museums or traveling. In my family we never had an artist. So, that was how I got into it. However, more important than how we start something, I think, is how we keep that going.

MG: You did an art course, you started to paint, you continued your engineering studies firstly a bit, and then you . . .

AV: I left engineering school and never followed any formal or academic education again. The closest I came to any artistic education were the classes I took at EAV Parque Lage. It was like if I had suddenly opened a door to an entirely different reality.

MG: Did you discover that you have talent? Where did you get the confidence from to continue?

AV: Some small things happened, but at that moment they were important. For example, when I was twenty, or twenty-two, I painted a series of works and a teacher of mine encouraged me to send three of these paintings for a national salon. My painting was one of the highlights in the salon and won an award in 1986.

MG: You were convinced that you were on the right path.

AV: There was a gallery [owner] in Rio called Thomas Cohn, who used to work with artists such as Mira Schendel and the “80s Generation” in Brazil, and also with Guillermo Kuitca and other international artists, like Tony Cragg. Thomas also used to attend Art Fair Cologne, and that was not usual for a gallery in Brazil during the 1980s. I liked that gallery and I invited him a few times to come to my studio to see my work, but he would never come. Then, one day I decided to put six or eight paintings in a van, I went to the gallery, I laid all my paintings on the walls, in a kind of performance, and this way I began to work with him.

MG: When you brought the paintings to the gallery, he said “Okay, it’s fine, I like it.”

AV: Kind of. He said, “I want to buy your work. I will pay you an amount every month and you keep painting for the gallery.” At that time, his gallery was one of the most important contemporary art galleries in Brazil. I did my first solo show in this gallery, in 1988.

MG: You had a lot of courage and confidence in yourself.

AV: No, I don’t think I was that confident . . . perhaps impulsive. I was twenty-two at that time. And I went through bad times during the 1990s.

MG: In the 1990s, you came into prominence. You participated in the MoMA exhibition . . .

AV: Yes, in a group show.

MG: It seems that in the 1990s you have found your own style and your own language.

AV: That’s true, especially when we look that from today’s perspective. Today, when we talk about history, identity and decolonization, it may look natural and obvious, but that was not the case in the 1990s. In the 1990s, most people were talking about the ethics of material, which was definitively not my subject. Painting was in a low phase, it was seen as something purely commercial. In the 1980s, painting was everything, but in the 1990s, it came to be seen as the prostitute of the arts.

MG: You are right.

AV: Painting became very marginal, which was actually nice.

MG: Apparently, hardly anybody was looking at painting in the 1990s, which is so interesting if you think about it from today’s perspective. Also, hard to imagine that the subjects you have been working with, like colonial history, racial identity, identity at large, which are very important now, maybe even hip, were overlooked.

AV: The word “decolonizing” rang my bell when I recently read it on the cover of Frieze magazine. However, this issue had already caught my attention back in the 1990s, when I saw the catalogue of the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition.

MG: What do you consider as a breaking moment in your career as an artist? The moment of realization that “now I’m an important or serious artist.”

AV: I think it happened in 2013.

MG: That was not the moment that your painting sold at the auction for US$ 1.7 million?

AV: No, that was in 2011. In 2013, I got a big retrospective curated by Adriano Pedrosa. For the first time I could see works that I had made from 1990 to that day at once. I usually make quite different things – except for the tiles, maybe [laughs] – but when all the works were exhibited together, it suddenly made sense. At that moment, I felt recognized both by the audience and by other artists. This show took place in Brazil, at first at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM), then at the MAM Rio, and later on at Malba, in Buenos Aires. It was very important to me.

MG: Let’s go back to the auction record we just mentioned. The work in question was the painting Wall with Incisions à la Fontana. Were the slices in the painting a serious dialogue with Lucio Fontana or did you mock him, did you play with him?

AV: The first slashes in my work had no relation with Fontana. I made a big cut in a rounded painting called Bastard Son. It was more about wounds than about that dry cut of Fontana. Nevertheless, the association with cutting a painting was so obvious, that it took me to Fontana when I made this very minimalist painting with the grid. But it’s a kind of parody: in fact, this is not really about Fontana. I mean, while in Fontana the cuts were intended to be real, what I do is a simulation. I use an aluminum structure in order to produce a representation of a cut with “meat” behind. It is more about theater. That’s why I named it à la Fontana.

MG: Ok, using your own visual language you were mocking Fontana and his claim to slashes.

AV: Totally. This title is very cynical in a way. It does make reference to Fontana, but it does so in order to propose its own and entirely different meaning.

MG: I still have a few last questions to you.

AV: I like talking; it’s like psychoanalysis! [both laugh]

MG: How do you like to be described as a female artist? You are an artist, that’s clear. There are strong Latin American women artists such as Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark, Marta Minujín, Gego; so there is a tradition of important strong female artists in Latin America. Do you like to be named a female artist, do you hate it, or you couldn’t care less?

AV: I like to be female, in general.

MG: Me too! Nothing wrong with it.

AV: I see an advantage in being a woman, and specially a Latin American woman, in the sense that we have a dislocated and naturally more critical look at the historical hegemonically male, white and European vision. We women, since we have been destitute of power, we start from a more interesting perspective, more open to counter-official and dissonant looks and narratives.

MG: I saw a short video about your studio that looks very elegant, clean and tidy.

AV: I’ve already had a studio that looked a bit like Bacon’s. It was a tight space, with no fresh air . . . I used to face many problems because of the oil paint and all the toxic products in a humid space with no ventilation. Then the architect who designed the pavilion in Inhotim, who is also a close friend of mine, helped me to solve that. I had bought an ugly old house that had been a TV studio. I demolished it and built a totally new studio that is airy, with a lot of light. I am always changing and renovating it. At this moment, I am preparing a big show and there are many people working there with me – but we could say it is a very harmonic place.

MG: Where is your next big show?

AV: Next year at Gagosian in New York, at its space in Chelsea.

MG: What does it mean for you to work now with Gagosian?

AV: I work mainly with Louise Neri, one of the directors at Gagosian. We have been friends for a long time. She edited and wrote a text for my first book, when she still worked as an editor back in the 1990s. She’s been the curator for Oceania artists at the São Paulo Biennial and she’s also co-curated the Whitney Biennial. I like the way she thinks; we are very connected with each other. So far, it’s been a good experience working with her and Gagosian Gallery.

MG: What is so special to work with such a big gallery?

AV: Everything is very easy for them. But they do the same as the other galleries do; they are not especially commercial as some people say. Or maybe thanks to Louise I experience it this way.

MG: They are certainly very efficient.

AV: Yes, very much so. I’ve been having such good experiences with them, as with my show in Rome, which was just perfect, and the release of a non-commercial film installation at the John Sowden House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Los Angeles. But I am also grateful to all the galleries that represent my work.

MG: I saw the images. You must be busy working now for several galleries.

AV: I work with Victoria Miro, Gagosian, and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, which is a gallery in São Paulo. And for a long time I also worked with Lehmann Maupin gallery, though I am not with them anymore. Nevertheless, each one of these galleries has been important to my career. I have to manage my time in order to balance the work with the galleries and the institutional projects.

MG: Do you work slowly?

AV: Yes, full time, but slowly, very slowly. You know, these cracks need time.

Map of Lopo Homem, 1992
Map of Lopo Homem, 1992
Coelacanth Provokes Seaquake, 2004-2008
Coelacanth Provokes Seaquake, 2004-2008
Caixa Polvo frontal, 2013
Caixa Polvo frontal, 2013
Azulejão (Angel), 2016
Azulejão (Angel), 2016
Green Song, LA, 2017
Green Song, LA, 2017