Gilberto and Marcus
We were warned not to venture alone into the Pelourinho. Crooked cops, acrobatic capoeira players and parentless street children were considered “hunters” of the tourists venturing into the cobblestone streets of Salvador, Brazil’s most historic city. We needed guides who could take us around. Enter Gilberto and Marcus Nascimento.
Their mother ran a folk art shop along the Pelourinho’s main wide street and her store was a mere indentation along the colorful walls. Paintings by Bahia’s folk artists were hung on the outside walls depicting traditional and modern life. The Pelourhino (pillory) was the center of Brazil’s slave trade and where slaves were punished. Marcus and Gilberto’s African roots traced back to those violent days and the boys were acutely aware of today’s rich-poor imbalance. Their street smarts included knowing who the hunters were and how to navigate this gauntlet of dark history. They were also painters as were their deceased father and grandfather. Eager to show us their work, they were also curious about what we were doing there. I couldn’t resist Gilberto’s portrayal of the Baianas, African descendant women in colorful wide hoop floor length skirts, sleeveless tight fitting bodice shirts and large turbans.
Gilberto explained the dresses were worn during Carnival in the 1930s and paid homage to the “old aunts.” His mother told us that in the 1800s the Brazilian authorities banned Carnival to try to stamp out Africa’s influence on Portugal-dominated Brazil, but it didn’t last. It was Africa’s influence in the form of Carnival with its cornucopia of music, costume and dance that trumped Portugal’s cultural and religious influence on Brazil. I bought a few paintings and by the time we left the shop we had found our guides.
For the next three days the boys accompanied us on our journalistic rounds. They took us down the ladiera steps to the harbor and also into the darkest recesses of the Pelourhino to see capoeira clubs, historic buildings and woodworking shops that most tourists don’t reach. They kept us safe, but more importantly educated us.
The World is an Art Gallery
In our travels we can’t help but meet folk artists. They walk Mexico’s beaches with their crafts; they sit in myriad marketplaces from Santa Fe to Somalia with their paintings and carvings. On the streets of Paris they try to sell you a painting or a piece of jewelry. Fine artists go to school to learn art then sit quietly alone in their studios and create. Folk artists are surrounded by their kids, their animals and other cacophonous distractions and just create.
Art critics say folk art is dead. Its demise started in the industrial revolution and was further deadened by 20th century tourism when local artists created for bus tours, not the tribe. The final blow they say is today’s globalized Internet marketplace that creates a mass culture where it’s impossible to find unique folk art. Sweat shops churn out exotica posted on EBay. Instead of creating art for the tribe’s own ritualistic consumption, folk artists create for the global marketplace, the critics complain. Still folk art continues to thrive in off-the-grid places where mass culture has yet to reach.
Africa remains a folk art hot bed as does Cuba and the San Blas Islands of Panama where the resident Kuna Indians forbid their Mola weavings from leaving Panama.
When Tusker founder Eddie Frank and I pulled into a Tanzanian gas station we found sellers of metal toys who had crafted discarded oil cans and drums into helicopters, tanks and cars. When we were in the Zambian backcountry we blew a tire and as we repaired it, children on handmade wooden bicycles pedaled out of their village to meet us. A little girl had a sandal missing and was in rags, but was so proud of her wooden bike that was lashed together with bush rope on a bed of bush wood. The irony of her wheeling about while we were stuck was lost on no one. The wooden bike was her play thing, but I saw it as art. Picasso would have too; he was inspired by West African masks and sculptures.
Some folk art is so sacred it shouldn’t be collected. When I met Paul he was a young artist in Colorado in the early 1970s. Three decades later he was a major Southwest artist with a bad back. When we reunited he told me he was going back to all the native American gravesites he looted when he was younger. The pots, rattles and clothing he stole were directly attributable to his back he believed. His doctors could not treat him and the only way to heal was to rebury the folk art he once proudly displayed in his studio.
Castro as Curator
Perhaps the most fertile folk art country in the last 50 years has been Cuba. The unintentional curator for this artistic expression has been Fidel Castro. By wrapping Cuba in claustrophobia, its artists kept creating for themselves and their communities. Castro tried to control artists by opening state sponsored art schools soon after the 1959 revolution. Many attended especially in Havana but out in the countryside folk artists went underground, painting despite the lack of brushes, acrylics and other materials caused by embargo hardship. Afro-Cuban themes blending Christian and Santarem Orisha deities were common as were portraits of Fidel, Che and various U.S. presidents.
If Castro and poverty couldn’t kill folk art nothing could. The underlying artistic mantra of the cigar chomping artists was enjoying life despite hardships. Rural life was depicted as vividly bright as the artists did not let their impoverishment color their lust for life. When the U.S. exempted art from the economic embargo in 1991, the art started leaking out and today Cuban folk art receives gallery showings abroad. Cuban folk art is more highly valued than the work produced by the state sponsored art schools. Cuba’s folk artists are not as poor as they once were.
Fuster is among the most successful Cuban folk artists and has transformed the impoverished Havana neighborhood of Jaimanitan into a Gaudi-like streetscape with ornate murals, giant chess boards and a domed theater. The ceramist turned every tile on his studio’s high walls into a miniature piece of art. Beyond Havana, folk art flourishes in Santiago and Trinidad. Some of the folk artists were born before the revolution and some have painted well into their 90s such as Abel Perez Mainegra who enjoyed painting portraits of Fidel and Jesus in his colorfully flippant style. The sons and daughters of the masters continue their tradition and let’s hope Cuba’s current détente with the U.S. doesn’t end it.
Out of Nigeria: Prince Twins Seven Seven
The arch of Prince Twins Seven Seven’s life makes Van Gogh’s tortured existence seem almost tranquil. When he died in 2011 in Nigeria, the world lost a great folk artist, musician and a symbol of what it means to survive and triumph as a folk artist.
Born Olaniyi Oyekale he took the Twins Seven Seven moniker because he was the only survivor of seven sets of twins his Yoruba parents had. His royal blood lines dated to the 1890s when his grandfather was the king of Ibadan. Music was his first calling and he worked as a street dancer for a traveling medicine seller who sold Superman tonic. After forming a band in the early 70s he fell into art by accident, crashing a party at an art school run by Germany’s Ulli Beier who immediately recognized his “wild talent.”
He was a natural and a year after he took up the brush his paintings were selling abroad. Throughout the 1980s his colorful depictions of the Yoruba myths his mother told him as a boy gained him art world recognition. A car accident in 1982 led Lagos radio to declare him dead, but not yet. The accident laid him out for 18 months and led to a spiral of drink, gambling and divorce. By the 1990s he was working as a Philadelphia car park attendant and was on the abyss. After he was hired at Material Culture, a Philly antiques warehouse, his career and life turned around. When Material Culture’s owner found out Twins Seven Seven was an artist he started having him paint the store’s brown paper bags. The bags became popular and Twins was given a small room in the warehouse to resume his painting career. Between 2005 and 2008 he was at his most creative and his art was lauded by collectors, critics and museum curators. In 2005 he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
Henry Glassie an art professor at Indiana University became Prince’s friend and biographer. Glassie wrote, “He turned back to tradition just as Kandinsky and Klee did, but in his context drew on Yoruba sources to figure out an escape from tradition and turn it into modernity. Prince’s works resemble Paul Klee’s. Both were musicians, both were draftsmen who rendered the invisible with precision. Prince’s paintings, like Pollock’s dripped pictures, develop order through tonal balance, establish connections through curving lines, and achieve depth out of variations in scale.”
After the prince returned to Nigeria he got involved in politics and tried to get himself declared a king. In 2011 he fell victim to a stroke. Glassie memorialized the Prince. “Prince Twins Seven-Seven was a complicated man who led a complicated life, and he was a friend of mine. The man was a wonder, his dreams spread as wide as the sky. Beginning, in his words, as “a throwaway boy from the bush,” what he accomplished is astounding. He might have been a king; he was a great artist. The works he left us recall an exhilarating moment in the history of art, before the postmodern collapse into the trivially familiar, and they will endure, preserving the spirit of a skilled, imaginative man who laughed easily and wept, courageously carrying on.”