Gretta Sarfaty

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

ARTEQUEACONTECE has been interviewing several artists, curators, critics and agents in the artistic field, in an effort to create historical records of our time and our contemporary cultural manifestations. But sometimes it is also possible to find artists of undeniable historical importance who were left aside in the official narratives written about the 70s, 80s and 90s (and not only in Brazil, but also abroad). Gretta Sarfaty is one of those names: a pioneer artist from São Paulo in performance art, self-representation and the use of her own body to build identities, Gretta has been forgotten or even erased from books that try to map the history of Brazilian art in the post-Monday-Second period. war. But this erasure has been gradually corrected, with Nadiesda Dimambro's master's thesis, a recent exhibition at Galeria Pilar, her reinsertion into the commercial circuit in São Paulo, and now this extensive interview that the artist gave to ARTEQUEACONTECE, in which she talks about his production, his life, and the inseparability of the two.


Julia Lima: How did you start to be interested in art? How was your entry into the world of art, even before you became an artist?

Gretta Sarfaty: My family had nothing to do with art. My mother studied in Italy, she was historically well informed, she knew who was who, the politicians and such, but art, she had the gift of playing the piano. Following and collecting art had nothing to do with it. In fact, at that time, the education she wanted to give me was to marry young.

JL: And become a housewife.

GS: Yeah, and become a housewife! So when I finished high school, she said I could make housewares. I said that I would get married, do everything right, but that she let me do what I want, and I want to go to science to study nuclear physics, I loved physics. I had two passions: physics and art. I drew all the time. For example, if there was a class that I didn't like, the girls would side with me and I would paint them, make portraits, from the age of 10, 11, so it was a natural thing. Physics is because I was very interested in mathematics, I was doing very well.

JL: It was born then, as you said, it came from childhood. And then you went to study art? Did you have formal art education?

GS: I studied at FAAP in some courses and also at Pan-Americana de Arte and there I met Walter Levy, who influenced me a little, but the person who most influenced my work was Ivald Granato. I became an artist the moment I met him. He said: loosen up, paint with coffee, etc., and then I immediately started doing the works for the series Metamorphosis and I worked every day – my daily life, it had to do with my day-to-day life at home, the girl who worked at home, the driver… I thought it was very strange all those “fru fru” teas given by housewives, so I made they are doing satire. Then Franco Terranova liked the work. I painted a lot, I made between three and five drawings a day, and he bought them all and put on an exhibition at the time when I was still with Granato on a follow-up.

JL: And what was it like, did you go to his atelier, did you live with Granato?

GS: Yes, I lived with Granato, then they took my work and we formed a group, I met all the artists in the group.

JL: And that's when you started doing self-portraits? Which is the 70's, right?

GS: Precisely. After that exhibition, Franco Terranova said he needed a couple more years to enter the gallery, because I didn't have any curriculum. He said that in 1976 I would do an exhibition at Galeria Arte Global, which was a gallery here in São Paulo linked to Rede Globo. So for that I had to arrange my resume properly, because I had no exposure and it was ugly. That's when I participated in the [Salão de] Sorocaba, and to be a little more ready for the exhibition. When the time came, they said that I had the right to a commercial about me that would be shown on Rede Globo and that I could do a short spot. I find a video saying very monotonous: Look, I paint like this, I do this, etc., I thought it was very silly and asked them to let me watch the video production, that I wanted to work with technology and then create something, that's it that distort the faces.

JL: That was the first time!?

GS: It was on television. Called Five Photos. And then I looked for this work at the exhibition at the Global Art Gallery, nobody paid any attention, that was in 76. Then andI said: Let's distort the photos, let's put them in the video, and how to distort the photos, in the adjustment machine I took some photographs that they had taken of my face and in the development I distorted the paper in the enlarger, looking at how it would come out, I reassembled and I took a final photo. That's how it started but it wasn't in the exhibition, it was in the video.

JL: And then when you saw your self-image, you started doing it on purpose?!

GS: I became obsessed, I said what an incredible thing, that was all I did. I went to a studio where I could develop my own photos and the editor at the time, he had an incredible publisher, he liked the work and decided to publish it, he sponsored the book with my images and that's when I did the self photosAnd I started to make these photos by making large images of photography and montage, I started painting the images, this already has a lot to do with my obsessive side with repetition. For example, in the engraving I did dry point, I had my own printer, I took the plate, I drew it, I printed it myself, I was able to explore the medium of each technique. It has always been something inherent to my personality. The performance was born later. I was already performing with my photo…

JL: Of course, you performed for images, for self-images.

GS: Yes, for the image. I started with those shots in sequence distorting the body, destroying the image of beauty. I used some symbols of beauty from that time, stereotypes, clichés like that blonde wig, the little lipstick, and then there was a touch of irony. For example, you can look at the woman's mask and there's a little collage appearing, some details that are already quite satirical, right? I was using my face as a means of expression.

JL: This self-performance was a very new thing in the history of art. 

GS: I don't think there was anyone here in Brazil who did feminism and performance at that time. In Nadiesda's book, in this research she did on me for her master's degree, she says that I am the forerunner who spoke about feminism, photography linked to feminism and body art.

JL: And how was this exploration of feminism for you?

GS: I'm not a card-carrying feminist, in my being, in my way of being as a woman, as a person, with my identity, it's natural for me, the being has to be authentic, it has to be itself. That's why when I went to these places, to this job, people gossip, talking about parties, there's a ridiculous side to things, I always had a critical side about it, so my search was to be who I am.

JL: And in that sense, then, do you see that feminism was always present, was it also something almost innate?

GS: Exactly. Wanting to express myself, wanting to impose myself with an image of what I am, was a very big concern that I had.

JL: Your family expected you to take a different path, right? You chose to do what you wanted, and it must have been really, really hard.

GS: Ah, I found a way out. I got married, found a very nice man when I was 16 years old. He was really in love with me so I thought I'll do whatever I want if I'm married to him, so that's my freedom. We were married for 17 years, we had three kids, and he was really nice, he let me do whatever I wanted, I could express myself, do whatever I wanted and stuff. It was really cool even when I wanted to separate myself and my family, being an artist means being crazy, drugged, etc etc. They said that they would put me in a sanatorium for the mentally ill, it's easy to prove that you don't regulate. (laughs) Yeah, with everything I was already doing it would be really easy. At that time I had done the work self photos I went to Europe, because I was there three months a year and at that time my husband was with the children and I was traveling for work, doing research. I was feeling really strong about this job and I knocked on the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and introduced myself.

JL: Was it when you performed with the cat?

GS: No, it was in 1977. As soon as I did this work I thought: This country doesn't understand anything about this, I was lynched and other artists thought it was ridiculous.

JL: No one supported?

GS: A few, Arthur Barrio and Tunga. The others thought I was a little doggy doing something stupid. Then I went to Europe because I was very sure of it, very confident, there were critics who spoke, so I knew the value of that, I felt it. Then I went to the director of a magazine and she was enchanted, immediately made an article and a video and she sent me to Artpress, who did an article, then I was invited to an exhibition there in Paris at the Pompidou, I met Gillo Dorfles, who is an art critic. And I had a group of feminist friends there. NoWe had a group. I stayed here for my children and as it was difficult for me to separate, I found a way, we moved in separately. Everyone went out when they wanted and so as not to tarnish the image of my children, I only went out at night and dressed, impersonating Japanese to meet Mário Gruber. We were together for five years. And my ex-husband wanted to part with me. As my family was very powerful, he followed me and took pictures of me going there [in Mário]. Then I was called by my family the next day and I was lynched, finished, with no money, with nothing. You imagine, a scandal. He could do what he wanted. Then it ended, I was left with my children penniless, they gave money directly to the maid, a very humiliating thing, and I told him to sell the house and give me something because I couldn't be humiliated like that, so I I had to move out of the house to be able to sell it. I took a more modest house with my companion Becheroni.

JL: And where did you meet Becheroni?

GS: In Italy, at an exhibition. I was always there, galleries wanted me, I traveled for work, so it was really happening. ANDhe was an art conservator, a traditional artist, I told him that, for us to be together, maybe I would include him in a more avant-garde work: “that way you modernize yourself a little” (laughs). Then he would teach me how to survive, sell and such, we put those two things together. And it was then that I did the work “Gretta e Becheroni”. I was insisting on living here [in Brazil] for my children. When I got this house, I told my children to come live with me. I lived off my work, I was fine, but they said they wanted a stewardship, a driver, a house on the beach, so they would stay with their father. Then I said "since it's like this, I'm not going to be a mother on Sunday, I'm leaving". So I left for New York. I had a studio with Becheroni in Italy, but we went back and forth. New York was when I went for good, with a suitcase and a bowl. I had no money, I exchanged jobs for accommodation… He stayed and I I left.

JL: It was at that moment that you started making the video of Dating? What year is that video from, 85?

GS: 85, 86. In 83 I went to New York, 84 there was a fire.

JL: And it was also the year you made the goya, it was after the fire that you made this super radical piece. Was it the trauma of the fire that woke you up?

GS: I was studying Kabbalah, and fire is rebirth, you clear all your past – which was very troubled and you are reborn again baby – so it was like you were born again. I was re-born in a country that welcomed me. I was studying hardcore mysticism, my Kabbalah teacher told me to take it easy, that I was going too deep, exaggerating and I would reach a point where I would have a shock. But you know obsessive people? I continued and continued and continued and reached an impasse of contradiction with myself and with what I was learning. You had to follow the precepts of that and it was very difficult, I was alone in New York. And one of the things was not turning on the light on Shabbat, and becoming like an angel: an angel doesn't ride in a car, doesn't put on makeup, doesn't have sex. I was studying, I was reading the books, and I got into a very big contradiction with some subjects because I wanted to find my virgin soul mate. And I came into contradiction with that and I saw that it was heavy, I didn't know what to do with my life. On that day of the fire, I went to sleep at one, two o'clock in the morning, and I lit the candles at six in the afternoon. In the Chelsea Hotel, where I lived, there was a hall in my room, and I took the lamp out and put it on the floor and I think the lamp fell and the carpet, which was nylon, caught fire. I woke up surrounded by fire. I thought I was dreaming, I thought “what a weird dream”. I closed my eyes and started smelling it and said: wait, I think this is really fire (laughs). I was lying there, looking, I thought I could only get out through the fire escape, which was on my right. I was in my nightgown, and that day it was snowing heavily, it was Thanks Giving. I broke my neighbor's window with my hand and went in screaming: Get out, get out, there's fire! She screamed for the dog, didn't want to go out without the dog. Then I opened her door and the fire had already spread. I jumped through the fire and that's when it burned my hair. I went down the fire escape and told the guy at the front desk that it was urgent, for him to call for help, and he just looked at me and continued what he was doing. There was so much madness in that hotel that he thought I was one more. Then I went to the pay phone and called the police, the fireman. The hotel was happy, not only did it clear the load (laughs), but it was also born again, renewed, and no one died. I called myself the white witch. For me it was a rebirth. I was reborn in the United States as a new American, I made millions of friends there, and my energy, my creativity was reborn. Like that Goya work.

JL: And how was this work on Goya there? Was the reception positive?

GS: It was a one night thing, it was a Happening, it was amazing. Five thousand people or more participated, a phenomenal thing, you can see a little in the video. It wasn't something to be repetitive, because it was the proposal. It's not the theater you repeat, it was a creation, a work of art.

JL: Well, I think Goya is a magical situation because of how strong the work is. And what came next?

GS: It was “My single life in NY”. I was born again, I assumed myself as an independent woman, I was there as if I were a teenager, because I got married at 16, you know, so I was there in New York, young, beautiful, so I was restarting everything. THE The most important thing for me at that time was my work, I was focused on work. After that, I did exhibitions and I wanted to have a loft in Soho, because that's where everything was happening, and I got it with a loan that you paid monthly like rent, and then I got a wonderful, huge studio in Soho. I advertised it as a Bed and Breakfast [inn], inviting people to stay with an artist and have an experience with her. I charged $150 a day, it was great, people got to experience what it was like to live with a real artist in Soho. Then I had an exhibition and met director Arthur Penn, who made “Little Big Man”, “Bonnie and Clyde”. He saw my work Soho scenes – I always make works about what I'm living at the moment. And he [Arthur Penn] said that was what he wanted: “a woman who can do portraits, who has a loft in Soho and who knows how to paint, that's her!”. Then he discovered me. Then I went on script reading with Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall. There I was with Cecília Peck, who would play my character. The character in the film was an artist who wanted to show her parents that she was important, that what she did had value, and that was really my story, so because of that the script was changing to my story. They copied my entire loft, took it to North Carolina in the recording studio, and I went along too to teach the actresses on set how to be me. They took all my things from my painting studio, made a complete replica, even the exhibition catalog Soho Scenes replied. It was an amazing thing. This became a movie, called “The Portrait”, a feature film.

JL: In your work, it's as if you were the opposite of what Sophie Calle does… Instead of being the artist who will imitate life, it's life that will imitate the artist.

GS: Wow, you got something interesting, huh Julia, guys, I even got goosebumps.

JL: It is life that imitates art, not art that imitates life.

GS: Yes, this! Then this feature film is the story of this girl based on me, in my loft, in my life, in the film it shows her there painting and such, but it was a film that was kind of like water and sugar… Gregory Peck wanted to put his daughter as an actress , but she was not a great actress, Cecília Peck, but Lauren Bacall was incredible and Arthur Penn, what a director, he was incredible, beautiful. I'll show you some pictures. That's when I decided it was time to put down roots, I was already about 41, I traveled and that's when I met my husband. It was love at first sight, he looked a lot like my father, vain look, kinda good-natured and despite being 14 years older than me. I fell in love with him and he fell in love with me so I moved, I went to live in London, where I stayed for twenty years alone (laughs).

JL: Just, a lifetime (Laughter). And, at the same time, here in Brazil, your work didn't even “happen”, in the sense of not having a gallery, commercial representation, exhibitions…?

GS: What happened was the following, there was Camilo Bassur(?) who was a very important art dealer who was here and would represent me. He was even the one who organized a retrospective of mine at the Museu da Imagem e do Som, and he was going to launch me there, but he died before that. That was in 1988, I came from Europe for this. So I did this exhibition but since I didn't have one art dealer to follow me, I didn't leave any work around here.

JL: And when did you return to Brazil?

GS: So I separated from my husband after 14 years. I took a space in Kings Cross, I stayed there for about five years. The gallery closed in 2013, I did some of my work, exhibitions and then I moved. I moved here in 2015. The last work I did to close the gallery was a work that I wanted to go back to the roots: who am I, where I come from, started to worry me, so I started looking for the stories from where I I come from my family and I made a serious call Family Memorabilia and Wedding Pictures. That's when I did this work, I closed the gallery and this process began. I started to come to Brazil, my mother was sick, and that other job started as a result of that demand that I had to return to Brazil, Reconciliation. It's the digital paintings and interference in the photos.

JL: That was the moment of reconciliation with its history and with its past…

GS: And with Brazil. A lot with the country that welcomed me back so well. The Reconciliation exhibition went very well at the Pilar gallery, it was super cool, the whole media was there. And now I'm producing new stuff.

*** In collaboration with Felippe Moraes and Hugo Salgado.

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