The Rio de Janeiro painter Arjan Martins, in his studio in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Pepe Schettino
The Fluminense painter Arjan Martins, in his studio in Rio de Janeiro (undated). Photo: Pepe Schettino

The recent (and growing) success of black artists in Brazil and around the world has led painter Arjan Martins, 62, to reflect. For him, the new generation “earned a lot of money early”, but still needs to think about their artistic project and reflect on “the great galleries, the strong arms of the market”. winner of PIPA Award in 2018, object of a book published by Cobogó last year, Arjan has also participated in biennials in his artistic career (São Paulo, Dakar and Mercosul, among others), celebrates 20 years of his career in 2022 – his first solo show, in 2002, at the Museum of the Republic, is ground zero – and he has been asking himself a question he asks now, in an interview with arte!brasileiros, to their young peers:

“Wouldn't you like your production to migrate to an equally black collection? And that raises another question: have we already created a black hoarding? Do we have great black collectors in Brazil, collecting black artists?”, he asks. “I saw that my production was very well received in New York and other places in the USA. And, to my surprise, I saw it reaching other social strata, African-Americans, collectors. That's great. When are we going to glimpse a Brazilian Afro-collectionism? This is almost a utopian target audience intention for me.”

Represented since 2016 by The Gentle Carioca, Arjan is on display at the São Paulo branch of the gallery until Saturday (12/11), with unpublished works, in the individual hemisphere 1🇧🇷 In the capital of Rio de Janeiro, the painter is present in three other exhibitions: until January 22, at the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), he is one of the artists selected for the tour of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, with the work Atlantic Complex (Ocean), which he had already presented at the São Paulo show itself, in 2021. At the PGE-RJ Cultural Center, Arjan participates in the collective Past Present: 200 Years Later; and at MAM Rio he has one of his works exhibited in Acts of Revolt: other imaginaries about independence, on view until February 26, 2023.

As of November 19, for the second time, Arjan will be present in Inhotim, where he took, in May, his Windsock Installation (2021), in the context of the Acervo em Movimento program. This time, he will take a work from 2019 to Brumadinho, to be exhibited at Galeria Lago, within the exhibition Quilombo: Life, Problems and Aspirations of the Negro, the result of the partnership between the Minas Gerais Institute and Ipeafro. Together, the two institutions have been researching the work of artist and activist Abdias Nascimento.

Unlike his young peers, Arjan didn't see anything happen "precociously". Born in Mesquita, a municipality in the Metropolitan Region of Rio de Janeiro, Argentino Mauro Martins Manoel studied at the National Federation of Benefit Associations (Fenaben) and at the State Foundation for the Welfare of Minors (Febem), currently Fundação Casa. Whether he was at home – raised by his mother, after losing his father when he was only 2 years old – or in those institutions, he had no contact with art, nor did he feel inclined towards the craft, as many of his colleagues often report.

Arjan started working as a teenager. He was a bartender, an office boy, a bricklayer's assistant. In the transition to adulthood, says the painter, he began to attend, only as a listener, some classes at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, in Rio, which became a “point of interest, of listening” for him. It was the second half of the 1980s and, in 1990, Arjan started some courses at EAV, now paid, with the sale of bread that he made at home.

“I ended up there [at EAV] quite naturally, so to speak. When I was still alive, my mother showed me photographs of my sister, a cousin and I, climbing the little ramp at Parque Lage. I would have been very happy if this image could have been the cover of the book [Arjan Martins, organized by Paulo Miyada] published in 2021 by Cobogó, because it already detects a coexistence with this other Rio de Janeiro, which is a multi-party city”, he says.

Still on the subject of Rio, the painter remembers a friend, born in Marechal Hermes (a neighborhood in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro), who has been living in New York for a few years, but who crossed the Rebouças Tunnel to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, in South Zone, only at 17 years old. “It was there that he, like me in Parque Lage, saw another Rio de Janeiro. He understood that there was another country within a city”, he ponders.

Arjan's first experiences as an artist began in collectives, “making interventions in the architecture of some places, very free practices with drawing, like making grooves in a wall”, he says. At the same time, he began to visit exhibitions more frequently.

“I still had a distant look, at the same time I made a more poignant contact with art, with the trials that arose from there, the frictions. There was also a need, as a young artist, to find his own repertoire and share it with his peers. Some recurring devices in my work, such as a compass rose, the simulation of planispheres and, from there, a dive into the search for a Brazil beyond official history.”

Between the 1990s and the beginning of the following decade, he participated in several collectives, between Rio de Janeiro, above all, and São Paulo. His first solo, entitled Drawings, took place in 2002, at the Museum of the Republic. Still in Parque Lage, he claims to have heard, “from some voices”, that the painting was over. “It was something very hard for a young student, researcher, because I didn't understand this information very well. That's when I wanted to bet even more on painting, I revalidated the pictorial experience. It's difficult? Great, I love the hard. These definitions are provisional dictatorships”, he says.

However, from some EAV professors – Fernando Cocchiarale, Elizabeth Jobim and Paulo Sérgio Duarte – he claims to have obtained “an honorable attention to his research”. They encouraged the artist to do a solo show at MAM Rio, an idea embraced years later by the then curator of the Rio de Janeiro museum, Luiz Camillo Osorio. was born Americas, held in 2014, curated by Duarte, who at the time wrote that the theme of the exhibition was “otherness, ethnic solidarity”. There, elements that would come to be recurrent in his production already appeared, such as caravels, wind roses and cartography, among others, allusions to issues dear to the artist, such as migration and slavery.

About Americas, the experiences that Arjan had done before with anatomical structures helped him to “migrate to the representation of the black body”. The painter says that he found black and white photos in a secondhand bookshop, “probably from the 40s, of anonymous people, ladies on the side of the road, selling fruit in a bowl”. He says that those people “very much resembled old relatives, ancestors, they brought a good atmosphere to the place”. And he remembers:

“That's when I had an insight to put those ladies on screen. I thought I wanted to talk about that body, discovered in an antique shop, which doesn't bear its identity, nor that of the photographer. I accepted their individuality, their anonymity, and from there the idea of ​​a figuration that is not figurative began to emerge. It does not go towards hyper-realism, it will always tend towards an abstraction, rubbing the experience of the figure. A painting experience in which we can talk about Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning and other authors whose approach to figuration is from another place, avoids certain conventions”, he explains.

More recently, says the painter, he has sought different interpretations of the construction of the portrait. Last year at the show Atlantic mismatch, in A Gentil Carioca do Rio, he says that he sought “to convey something historical”, in the representations of João Cândido (the Black Admiral) and Luiza Mahin, leader of the Malês Revolt (1835), in Bahia. “These were works in which he brought an almost classicist, respectful exaltation to the two figures. Leaving clearly defined who the characters were,” he says.

already in the exhibition Black Encyclopedia, which also took place in 2021, at the Pinacoteca, in São Paulo, Arjan was invited to portray Zumbi dos Palmares. “But then I abstracted his figure. I've never had an accurate portrait of his figure up close. So that made me a little comfortable to be able to abstract. Of course, it can be well understood or create a visual noise on the retina of some people, but there was sincerely an idea of ​​disfigurement there, in which it is recognized, respecting a historical icon.”

As for the cartographies, explains the painter, they came from the need to look at Brazil and understand from what perspective it is seen historically. “As a young artist, I didn't see anyone risking this place. I soon saw that many problems, many questions would spill over from there. This was naturally incorporated in some works, a look that does not lose historical context, but, at the same time, an agenda linked to the present, which is not the place of poor things, is another proposal. The Atlantic is still quite unadjusted and complex, and it is a precious source of content for my practice.”

With works present in the collections of MAM Rio and Pinacoteca, Arjan is now preparing to participate in another edition of the Art Basel Miami fair, in the USA, where he will present the work This is Capricorn🇧🇷 He says that it is “interesting” to be an artist to be recognized, but “also to pay off your tickets”. Do you feel like an already established artist? “There are many variables that must be considered. My profile, I believe, was the last one: black, straight, essentially painter. It was a multiple victory. And despite being a straight painter, my work is dealing with gender too, all the time. Although my research, even today, tries to avoid any trace of sectarianism”, he concludes.

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