[ Interview originally publicated in ArteBrasileiros! magazine, issue #49, December 2019 ]
Reality thrown wide open in the work of Guerreiro do Divino Amor
12 December 2019
Winner of the 2019 PIPA Prize – one of Brazil’s most prestigious art prizes - the artist has been developing his series of works Superfictions for about 15 years. In this project, he addresses profound social and symbolic issues, from media manipulation to colonialism, from social segregation to the power of the neo-Pentecostal churches, from state violence to the influence of marketing and the market.
The Superfictions conceived by Guerreiro do Divino Amor could also be qualified, according to the artist, as hyperrealistic, neorealistic, or documentary. In this series of works, which are part of his Superfictional World Atlas, the 36-year-old Swiss-born artist based in Rio brings to light some of the most profound and complex themes marking our society on the level of geopolitics and the collective imagination, addressing topical – and very real – issues such as the power wielded by politicians, religion, the media, and marketing, as well as social inequalities, state violence, and strategies of “racial whitening.”
Working with different artistic media such as videos, large-scale pictures, and magazines, Guerreiro do Divino Amor maps out the superfictional universes of each city or region he has worked in. He develops an apocalyptic perspective that is based on the realization that we live in a state of war. Since 2005, chapters on Brussels, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Brasília have been completed. The artist is not afraid to point his finger at powerful figures of Brazilian public life, such as the media tycoon Silvio Santos, the mayor of São Paulo João Doria, the TV news host William Bonner, the politician Eduardo Cunha, the televangelist Silas Malafaia, and the Pentecostal pastor Davi Miranda, whose faces he depicts “like totems” in his videos. Miranda’s daughter even took him to court, but Guerreiro was held not liable “in a very beautiful judgment. A relief, because today we do not know what to expect from the judiciary.” Making use of a very special aesthetic, vibrant colors and references to the world of the internet, the artist questions ideas of good taste and hegemonic visual patterns, sometimes in a mocking and ironic way. Having studied architecture in Brussels, he says he found the orthodox way of presenting projects somewhat dry and unimaginative, “tasteless”. He preferred to revisit references from his childhood and adolescence, ranging from soap operas and music videos to children’s TV shows hosted by the popular Brazilian television presenter Xuxa – “I think pop appeals more to the heart, it has a direct and much broader impact” – and to explore “aesthetic research as fiction, looking at how each section of society creates a fictional aesthetic that is defined by very specific codes.”
The next chapters of his Superfictional World Atlas will focus on Switzerland, “which has this superfictional narrative of perfection,” on Italy, “in search of the roots of Christianity and of fascism, very important for understanding São Paulo and southern Brazil,” and on Mexico. Guerreiro do Divino Amor was the winner of this year’s PIPA Prize, one of the most important visual art awards in Brazil, and agreed to be interviewed by ARTE!Brasileiros.
ARTE!Brasileiros – To begin with, I would like to ask you where your name comes from, Guerreiro do Divino Amor (“Warrior of Divine Love”), and what it means to you.
Guerreiro do Divino Amor – Guerreiro (which translates as “warrior”) is my last name. Divino Amor (“divine love”) was a joke that came about when I was a teenager and my father was dating an evangelical pastor. She wanted to get me into the church, and it was sort of a provocation, I wanted to set up a heavy metal band to perform in the church. It never happened, but I really liked the name, “Warrior of Divine Love”. Then it acquired many more meanings linked to my work and life, and today it has come to represent my mission in life, in a way.
Could they ever get you into church?
No. In fact I was very curious about that neo-Pentecostal universe, which I didn’t know very well. It was one of the driving forces behind my work to try and understand that overwhelming faith, in combination with that very strong, colorful aesthetic. It was fascinating.
It seems to me that many of your life experiences are very present in your work. You have talked about another part of your family who are descended from decaying aristocratic ancestors, and also about your education in Europe...
Yes, I think it was a motivation. I grew up in Europe, with people of relatively mixed backgrounds, and from time to time we went to visit my family in Brazil. They were deeply racist people, completely useless, but with a certain veneer of culture, an obsession with power, hierarchy, and status, as well as an assurance that everything and everyone was in their right place. I wanted to understand what the mechanisms were that allowed this caste to survive and thrive in colonial Brazil without getting any trouble. And also the mechanisms behind this evangelical world. These are self-contained worlds, and they each have answers to everything. I began to dig deeper and deeper, and I discovered that it was a bottomless pit, with ancient deep roots and a complex, perverse logic of domination. My work is all about unraveling these structures, which – because they are so old and familiar – have formed an ecosystem, something that is self-evident and timeless. And about seeing the role of the media, the family, genealogy, tradition, and symbolic capital in keeping this system alive. SuperRio, the second chapter of my Atlas, is a more direct representation of this attempt to understand the things around me, how they were linked more globally to marketing phenomena and to corporate logic, how they influence people’s minds and actions, what its strategies are, and how they are spread out across all levels, from the individual to the geopolitical. This led to me explore other related phenomena. So I began by trying to understand these different worlds and the relations between them, and I’m still working on these issues.
And how do these individual Superfictions, these chapters, relate to each other in the Superfictional World Atlas?
At the outset, each project was independent and explored its own themes. Only later did this evolve into an Atlas in my understanding. The chapters are all interconnected, with overarching issues that run through the whole work, such as the ideas of empire and galaxy, the war between civilizations with their different social, religious, economic, symbolic and aesthetic aspects, the different strategies of racial whitening. In the first chapter, which focuses on Brussels, I took a more strictly analytical approach. Brussels is a relatively poor city and dirty by European standards, but it attempts to reinvent itself as a global city, the capital of Europe. And when I was studying architecture at university there, I began to see it as a warlike discourse, designed to conquer minds and space. This idea runs through the entire work, in different ways. The idea of superfictionality really only emerged in the next chapter on Rio de Janeiro, which I wrote in 2005 and continued in 2013, during the period leading up to the World Cup and the Olympic Games, which was the culmination of Rio’s superfictionality. In my videos, I often draw on promotional films for tourism and city marketing, which show how the city wants to sell itself, what fictions it creates for exportation, what image it tries to project.
But you focus on what the city wants to show in order to reveal what it doesn’t want to show…
True, these fictions are extremely elaborate and old, so I try to identify their symbolic and historical roots, as well as their different manifestations, to see how they are incorporated into the city’s collective imagination, what effect they have, and how they are instrumentalized in the various power wars. In the chapter on Minas Gerais, this was also highly relevant. In a way, Minas is the “epitome of sweetness.” No one speaks badly of Minas Gerais, with its great food and its ideal of hospitality. But it’s also a center of power and money, it’s one of the few federal states that doesn’t celebrate Black Awareness Day (a public holiday in some parts of Brazil designed to recognize the contribution of black people to Brazilian society) despite its past, it’s all quite obscure.
And your work constantly questions these official narratives and brings to light what lies hidden.
Yes, the fiction of racial democracy, for example, which exists as a narrative everywhere, in a way. It is one of the central fictions on which Brazil has been built, and which serves to appease and to exploit people. And denying the history of slavery. To come back to Minas Gerais again, what I think is the most brazen thing of all is the persistent instrumentalization of the myth of Chica da Silva, the slave who became a queen. Wherever you go, you hear this story of “Look, there’s Chica da Silva, the rich and beautiful slave.” And then everything seems all right. There are more nuances to it, but perhaps it’s all the more perverse because of that, covered in all that honey and frosting.
In addition to dealing with real cities, there are also many real figures. How do you choose these characters, and how do they fit into your work?
They are symbols, right? They are like totems. Silvio Santos, for example, his life, his career, it’s like a totem of São Paulo. It’s the embodiment of the myth of meritocracy. When I photoshopped his image, I saw that he and João Doria looked very similar. So in the work they are merged, as if they were one and the same person. They complement each other. Because Doria is also like a caricature, an archetypal heir and savage capitalist. You see these figures and you know instantly what they are about, there is a whole world attached to them. They are not abstract phenomena. They are people who have a real impact, a whole army of them. Of course there are many others, it’s much more complex than that.
You once said that your work seeks to deal with the complexity of the apocalypse. You also said that the whole work is about war on different levels. Does that mean we are caught in the apocalypse? Are we at war?
There is a perception that the apocalypse is happening, on all levels, for example in terms of natural resources. My work tries to focus on these details, as this is a construction, it is a war that has been a long time coming. When I was working on the Brasília project, for instance, I went to see these cycles, as when Brasília was inaugurated and they reenacted the first mass celebrated in Brazil, from the time of the conquest. It’s an apocalypse that has been waiting in the wings for many centuries, but now it’s as if the climax had come, and with a vengeance. And to work on this, to face up to these things is sometimes scary. That’s something that became clearer in the course of the individual chapters, culminating in the Brasília project, for which I did the research in the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections. The slaveholders seem to have found the perfect formula: an irresistible combination of the power of faith, emotional marketing, and information technology.
Alongside this apocalyptic setting, the art world has gradually developed an increased appreciation of works that deal with questions of race, indigenous peoples, gender, etc. You have just won the PIPA prize, for example. Is this a form of resisting the apocalypse?
I think maybe the art world, too, has become more alert now because things started to reach a level of “whiteness” that was untroubled, protected, caught in an idea of romanticism. But there are people who were already used to persecution, who knew what it was like to be at war. And I think the arts are now perhaps turning more towards these people, those who are already aware of what’s at stake. If there is urgency, people learn much more quickly.