Dalton Paula tells how he builds the portraits exhibited at MASP

Artist represents black leaders based on research carried out in Quilombos, creating a kind of spoken portrait of our ancestry

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Dalton Paula
Dalton Paula

Sweet, sensitive and captivating, Dalton Paula practices capoeira angola and frequents the terreiros of Goiânia, where he lives and works. Passionate about ceramics, popular festivals and Afro-Brazilian rituals, he is already known for creating performances, installations and paintings that seek to cure a cruel disease: the erasure of black characters, especially the leaders of revolts against the slaveholding structure. 

at the show Dalton Paula: Brazilian portraits, it presents, until October 30, 2022, a series of 30 portraits, 25 of which unpublished in Brazil, curated by Adriano Pedrosa, Glaucea Britto and Lilia Schwarcz. The idea? Painting personalities from our history that have been erased or never portrayed, bringing out the beauty, dignity and nobility that belong to them.

Alufá Rufino,2020, Dalton Paula; foto: Joerg Lohse
Alufá Rufino, 2020, Dalton Paula

The construction of the portraits departs from two paths: on the one hand, he studies the information passed on by Schwarcz, historian and partner, about the lives and origins of these Afro-Brazilians to paint (literally) ideological characteristics and references for the clothes and hairstyles of their characters; on the other hand, he looks for the physical references, knowledge and behavioral heritage of quilombos across the country. He jokes: “I do a kind of sketch of Brazilian ancestry”. 

During the lockdown Dalton was stuck in New York when he completed 24 of these paintings in 80 days. All were sold in the US, with six purchased by MoMA. “There came a time when I told my gallerist: I'm going to stop reading the newspaper, if the world ends you let me know! But it was good because I could focus on them, and I didn't feel alone, these characters have a very strong presence”, he explains. Below he tells, especially for AQA, how the process of preparing the works was. 

1. Was Lima Barreto the first portrait? Was it at that moment that the series began to emerge? 

That. Lilia Schwarcz did his biography and she had a problem because there were only two images of him: one of him admitted to a psychiatric hospital because of alcoholism; in the other he was at a trial and appeared super formal – which was not his characteristic posture. In addition there were cartoons that were hyper stereotyped. Another problem with these images is that the photographs of the time had that problem of whitening – after all, a writer as powerful as him could not be black. The same thing happened to him as happened to Machado de Assis. So my challenge was to bring out skin tone and curly hair – which is another important brand. 

2. Then MASP commissioned Zeferina and João De Deus Nascimento, right?

When I was asked to do Zeferina and João De Deus Nascimento, I kept thinking about the challenge of reaching that deep Brazil whose images are rare. I kept looking at historical and official photos of these black bodies and it made me want to bring more subjectivity to the characters, the torn clothes, bare feet, tense features bothered me a lot. It's a super complex condition. 

Lilia helps me by bringing the biography of each person portrayed. But I keep thinking a lot about the ancestry and how the heritage of these characters arrives these days.

Pinturas de Dalton de Paula, em Histórias Afro-atlânticas
Zeferina and João De Deus Nascimento

3. Where do you eat?

Observing the popular festivals and visiting the Quilombos because many of these characters fought in rebellions, demanded their rights in places where the economic cycles were based on slavery – like sugarcane plantations and tobacco plantations and mining sites. So I go to these places in search of the traces of these people, I try to understand what remained in the imagination and I build a kind of archeology in this expanded field. Then I use this information in the portraits, creating a kind of composite portrait of Brazilian ancestry. 

4. Ventura Mina's portrayal was created for a film about a slave who led about 40 others in an almost unknown revolt. It's the first time you use the eye sheet, right? Why did you use that element on his head? 

Yes. The 22 carat gold leaf references kings and queens who came from Africa enslaved. The head is linked to Ori [god of destiny] – you need to feed the head to take care of the body and soul. It is a work that is very connected with spirituality, I kept thinking about possibilities to materialize this: I use quartz stone (very common in the region where he lived), as it is a stone known for having an energy-amplifying property. Therefore, a person who has a very negative energy cannot even stay in the region. 

I went to the ruins where the rebellions took place and I found this stone. The energy of the place is very strong and the representation of the stone is a desire to materialize it. It is a work of fiction, a fabulation. But the idea is to leave something materialized for future generations. 

Itamar Assumpção por Dalton Paula
Itamar Assumpção by Dalton Paula

5. Why highlight the nose using lighter shades?

The wide nose is a very potent mark. I myself always had difficulty with my nose, I wanted to thin it. That's why I use these shades of ocher and beige to assume this characteristic of my body – when you use light, a lighter color, that element will stand out in the composition. The idea is to echo the movement black is beautiful. And if you look at the most recent paintings, you'll see that the nose is increasingly textured and heavier. The mouth also moves in the same direction. 

6. How did you choose the blue-green backgrounds? 

This is a reference to the photo-painting that is often used as an ex-voto to give thanks for a favor achieved in connection with healing. The common thread of my work is the silenced body and I attribute this silencing to an illness. That's why I keep looking for healing possibilities and I'm very interested in these ex-votos. In fact, I spend a lot of time in the studio mixing the paints and you can see that there are no shades that are the same as the other. The same goes for skin tones, I try to use different colors to show the diversity of these people. 

There is another symbolic thing: when I bring green I am also referring to medicinal plants. I also use white a lot to make a connection with medicine. 

Serena Assumpção por Dalton Paula
Serena Assumption by Dalton Paula

7. Speaking of white, new paints have white cracks. What was your intention in this process? 

These parts of painting are also a desire to relate my work to that of an archaeologist. I feel like I'm collecting parts of an urn that is still incomplete. Then I leave the job of completing this fiction to a next artist. These lines also make us reflect on paths: are the paths we are taking in this period of pandemic and political crisis the right ones? 

I don't want to think of portraits as a painting genre, this has been done for a long time. It's more than that, I see all these paintings as documents that preserve the existence of these important leaders. It is a fiction, a fabulation. The first idea is not to do something authentic, it's more a reflection on who that person is and why there are no portraits of him. My work is perhaps the first, and that's why I leave the spaces blank. Then other artists will come to bring up other issues. That's why I leave these spaces blank. The hole is so deep, there is such an immense gap and silencing that basic things are still unresolved.

You have, for example, the revolt in Haiti that says “no” to the slave system and shakes the entire structure of America. There were portraits of leaders that were destroyed and made invisible. Erasing this type of document was very common to annul, even kill, the existence of these people. I want to take that back and leave a record for the next artists. 

8. It is interesting to think that the archaeologist's job is to dig and discover traces of stories and people. You do that, and then, to reconstruct that story, you layer over the process, causing this sense of depth not only in the matter but in the psyche of the character.  

Exactly. 

9. You always use two canvases for portraits, right? What is the reason?

That. There are two fixed screens. It works like a fissure, a nuisance. It is a space where something can be hidden, but also where something can be born. This is also linked to the understanding of the process as archaeology. I'm putting together parts or pieces of who these people would be and what their faces would look like. But not with the whole. It is a reference to the complexity of rescuing the stories of these people. 

10. How was the character selection process?

When I understood that the portraits were going to become a series, one of the demands I made was that at least 50% of those portrayed be women because when you go to the Quilombo, it is very clear that they are very matriarchal societies. They are the leaders of this space. I also wanted to include people who contemplated the five Brazilian regions. 

11. Many of the few references we have of these black women are linked to the idea of creole jewelry, but you don't put any accessories on them. Why? 

I did it on purpose to show their social absence. When I do not include possessions, I focus the viewer's attention on subjectivity and the gaze, which is one of the most important elements of portraits. That's why I chose to paint them from the front and the curatorship decided to hang the canvases so that the character's gaze meets the visitor's. The eye actually is one of the last things I do because whatever we put on the canvas influences everything else. And the eye really is the window to the soul! 

12. What are the main differences between the canvases painted in 2020/2021 in New York and these new ones?

The painting is demanding more time and more layers – I'm working the way she asks. I increased the texture and brought the close-up closer to highlight the person's face and expressions more. The pastel colors are getting more vivid!

Another difference appears in the mouth, which is more illuminated, with these friezes. It is an invitation to get closer and immerse yourself in the characters.

13. And the hair? They also changed… they gained more detail and protagonism. 

Yes, the process has changed. I apply six layers of paint on the canvas and I draw very fine lines, then I go on drawing thread by thread with the brush. There is a care that is different from the rest of the painting, as the head, the ori, needs to be cared for in order to feed the soul. Before there was a little dough, only now I pull each strand separately. 

14. I know it's hard to choose, but which one is your favorite?

I really like the Manuel Congo, because the character I used as a basis was Seu Badu, who lives in a Quilombo in Minas Gerais and works with radiesthesia [a science that aims to measure and detect energy fields by means of a pendulum]. He asks the plants what their medicinal properties are and also manages to find the water flows under the ground. Talking to these people, having coffee in these places, visiting their gardens, listening to these stories, looking them in the eye – all of this is very important to touch the depths of the river. Without a doubt, if I hadn't met these people, if I'd only seen a photograph, I wouldn't have been able to bring out some of the nuances. These are possible layers only because I was in person with these people. This part of the process is very special. 

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