Earth, fire, water and wind

Fred Coelho

Jacarandá magazine nº 3 | 2016

When he was in London in 1969, Hélio Oiticica wrote on September 21 of that year a poem-manifesto titled “Subterrânia,” meaning “Underground”. The text emphasizes the power of the prefix “sub” (under), used in a pejorative manner in the term subdesenvolvido (underdeveloped). As a Brazilian artist working in Europe, Oiticica notes the contradictions of his life in a non-place and turns the potential weakness (the precariousness of underdevelopment) into a power that is specific to the Brazilian and Latin American condition. We were “under the earth’s surface.” Our underground was indeed subterranean. The final passage of Oiticica’s text serves as an introduction to the work of Cabelo:

sub merging in the woods or in the waves of the sea
sub lime is your song hidden underneath the
sub veil
sub way

Rodrigo Saad, widely known as Cabelo, was born in Cachoeiro de Itapemirim and grew up by the sea in Copacabana. But it was in the countryside of Rio de Janeiro where he found poetic enlightenment. For a while he left the ocean for the woods and raised earthworms on a farm. According to the artist himself, observing the life cycle of the earthworms and the ways in which they process organic waste “under the earth’s surface” made him incorporate what the world offers him into his artistic practices. His work also engages with unwanted materials and gives them new life. In a way, his creative process features the subterranean traits.

On top of these “natural” forces (the earthworms) also lies another subterranean source of life. The street and its cracks, its vivid language, its characters, its tragedies, also inhabit Cabelo’s art. A multidisciplinary artist, the underworld leaves a mark in his work. All eyes and ears, the artist from Rio de Janeiro became a collective voice for his time. Maybe this is why the visual arts weren’t enough for him. A singer, composer, poet, and performer, his work is full of contamination and experimentation. He creates a world of its own in which the waves, woods, streets, songs, words, images, lights, and darkness crisscross.

Cabelo’s relationship with the visual arts formally began with the courses offered at Parque Lage during the second half of the 1980s (his first class was kabalistically on 8/8/1988). Informally, he already knew how to draw and had discovered poetry while reading the short and disconcerting verses of Paulo Leminski. In his academic life, he briefly studied engineering before enrolling in undergraduate communications classes at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. Even if he didn’t enjoy advertising and journalism, it was in this environment that he found a group of poets and artists interested in collaborations. g of seven poets, called Boato (Hearsay), slowly became a successful band and performance group in the local scene in the 1990s.

Since then, his music career followed his trajectory as a visual artist. At times, they’re indivisible. And it’s precisely in this artistic doubleness that his experiences as a performer give weight to Cabelo’s journey as a visual artist. His introduction to the visual arts took place during a period of creative effervescence and rejuvenation in Rio de Janeiro. After a decade fueled by the success of the movement “Geração 80” and the nearly oppressive hegemony of painting, the return to the object and other media like sculpture and performance became more prominent among new artists. That same school at Parque Lage that hosted the famous exhibition in the 1980s (“Como vai você, geração 80?”) became a meeting place for emerging artists like José Damasceno, Raul Mourão, Tatiana Grinberg, Afonso Tostes, Laura Lima, Ernesto Neto, among others. During that time, already touched by poetry, Cabelo became dedicated to drawing.

It was on that same ground that the former earthworm farmer found his craft. Additionally, the performance scene in Rio de Janeiro in the beginning of the 1990s was intensely focused on prominent works from the previous decade by the likes of Marcia X., Alex Hamburguer and Fausto Fawcett. Many new artistic initiatives occupied the streets and empty spaces that had been abandoned by the government and the population – as was the case of Lapa, São Cristóvão, Glória and Zona Portuária. During that time, the city and its art were the primary fertilizers of Cabelo’s work. The street, the body, urban contemporary music, the language of pop culture, the speed of chaos, and the delirious contemplation of the world were all themes that, since his early works, had been central to his art. Little by little, he began to have a finger on the underworld of the city, with his feet firmly planted on the ground and his body surfing in the sea. Life and death, sound and fury, image and destruction, sublime beauty and social horror will all become part of his aesthetic vocabulary.

His first show was the group show “3D,” back in 1991. In 1994, he took part in “Novos Noventa” (New Nineties), an important exhibition at the Paço Imperial that introduced some of the most important names of that generation. As stated above, painting and figurative art were losing momentum to a more intense dialogue with the Brazilian production of the 1970s. New curators also emerged and, in the midst of the initial market expansion and the necessary revisions to public policies and institutions, the 1990s produced an effervescence that needs to be studied further. It is precisely in this generation, in which Cabelo belongs, that the defining traits of what we came to see as Brazil’s contemporary art first arose.

In 1996, Cabelo took part in the collective exhibition “Antártica Artes com a Folha” (Antarctic Arts with Folha), whose curation was also the result of a collaboration between Lisette Lagnado, Lorenzo Mami, Stela Teixeira de Barros, and Nelson Brissac Peixoto. This exhibition displayed for the first time a piece that turned out to be a watershed in his career: “Cefalópode Heptópode.” In a piece by curator Paulo Reis, he describes the work:

In “Cefálopode Heptópode” (…), Cabelo already shows the organizing principles that guide his actions, displaying a water tank with live fish, dental floss, sinkers and fishhooks, and actors in hoodies sitting around the table. The dental floss was sewn through the hoodies at eye level, with the sinkers and hooks on its ends, going all the way to the water tank. In the performance, the artist sets fire to the water tank by using vegetable oil and ethanol, while he wandered in a daze around the room and recited poetry and statements about the Artists Rights Act.

For the artist himself, his work speaks to the re-lationship between the terrestrial, aerial, and aquatic elements. Despite the octopus-like structure of his work, it’s an incomplete octopus because one of the tentacles is missing (seven people). Through the dental floss (which leads to and goes through gaps that are hard to reach between the teeth), the fish tank expands in the head of the hooded actors and vice-versa. The game of back-and-forth between the tank, the fish, the strings, and the heads, creates random combinations of infinite length. Once this structure is established, the fire burns up the strings and the connection dissolves at the hand of the destructive and, at the same time, purgatorial element.

In 1996 Cabelo debuts at the the Galeria IBEU with his first solo show, “Cabeça D’água” (Water Head). Curated by Esther Emilio Carlos, the exhibition investigated the gaps between the nature of the sea and the lifespan of matter, going deeper into his instinctive ruminations about the world. It is worth noting here that many of the elements used in the first years of his career and later on – seahorses (which appear in works like “Mo-lotov” and “Névoa”/“Mist,” both from 1996), octopus, sharks, fishhooks, sand, and titles that referred to the sea (“La Mer,” “Marujo Mascate”/“Trading Sailor,” “Naufrágio”/“Shipwreck,” “Atlantic Tides”) – all serve to remind us that the artist grew up and lives by the ocean. Despite his subterranean immersion at the earthworm farm having been a formative experience that helped him understand his predilection for creative reuse and for working with layers of dissonant objects, the sea and its unstable aquatic themes can’t be ignored as an integral part of his poetry. As he himself put it in Portugal in 2010, we’re following “a shipwreck that never ends.”

In 1997, Cabelo is invited to show his work at the Documenta X in Kassel. The invitation from curator Catherine David came after her visit to the studio of visual artist Tunga. There, she could get a closer look at Cabelo’s installation at a small abandoned hovel in the lot next door. The impromptu installation secured him an invitation to show a controversial performance of his “Cefalópode Heptópode” at the exhibition in Germany. Accused by some spectators of animal cruelty against the fish, Cabelo didn’t hesitate to call them out on their selective indignation toward animals and especially people. It is also worth noting the importance of the friendship that formed over time between Cabelo and Tunga, one of his role models. After they met at one of Tunga’s lectures at Parque Lage about his own work (the 1987 video “Nervo de Prata” (Silver Nerve) was significant to his development, according to the artist), Cabelo begins to frequent Tunga’s studio, eventually leading to collaborations like the performance “Em Busca da Hipersimetria” (Seeking Hypersymmetry, 2002).

Also in 1997, Cabelo showed his “Atlantic Tides” in a collective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. In spite of his precocious international exposure (throughout his career he also showed his work in Barcelona, Houston, Lisbon, Minneapolis, Miami, Bologna, Mexico City, Cuenca, Bordeaux), his poetic and musical strains were at full force during that time. The Boato, the poetry collective that he joined at the beginning of the 1990s, had become a musical group and released their first album in 1998. With two careers in parallel that added to one another, Cabelo had a rare poetic and per-formative flexibility. The stage, the body, the word, and the music were all incorporated into his artistic practices. It was an intense period with a lot of performances, such as “Contaminação” (Contamination, 1998), “Caixa Preta/Tudo Azul” (Black Box/All Blue, 1999), “Guru Guru Black Power, Os Mortos Não Morrem” (Guru Guru Black Power, The Dead Don’t Die, 1999), and “Pastor das Sombras” (Shepherd of the Shadows, 2000). This last one, performed again with different approaches in 2001 and 2003, featured (“Guru Guru”) or showed (“Pastor das Sombras”) Jarbas Lopes, a friend of Cabelo and an important artist from that generation. His works trigger situations and characters on the verge of death, the absurdity and the sensorial chaos of big cities. Life in the urban centers and its absurdities stimulated Cabelo’s performances, which gathered together artists, homeless children, passers-by, travelers, and all kinds of undesirables on the margin of “organized society”.

The artist highlighted a performance from that time, “Caixa-Preta/Tudo Azul,” as one of the most defining moments of his trajectory. What follows below is a statement from Cabelo on his work that, though lengthy, is a definitive account of his trajectory:

It’s a piece from 1999. It’s from the exhibition at Paço Imperial and I was at that space down there. I thought of the title “Caixa-Preta/Tudo Azul,” which I noticed had to do with the social catastrophe in Brazil, with the context of funk, with cocaine trafficking in Brazil and around the world. Black Box: a big room, all lined with black plastic, an ordinary black tarp, which serves to cover the “hams” as well. The entire room was covered by that. In order to get to this room, you had to go through another little room, also dark, with black plastic, full of plastic bags and cans of shoe glue, which people like to use as inhalants. In the big room, two big boom boxes played the soundtrack by Paulo Vivacqua, with the Comando Vermelho, the voices of Hélio Oiticica, Glauber Rocha, some funk proibidão1, and, at the end, in a loop, a washing machine. Then there comes the laundry detergent. In the big room, there was only sound. And on the opening day some guys came with 300 kilograms of powder laundry detergent that we spilled in the room. The black box is the sound-auditory testimony of the accident. For me, that was the Black Box of the social catastrophe in Brazil of the end of the ‘90s and I wanted to represent that with funk. Or rather, not to fucking represent. That happened, and it was the context of the work that made me link that to the national catastrophe. I put 300 kilos of powder laundry detergent in black trash bags. Right before the opening, there were already quite a few friends present. And Jarbas Lopes began to invite people from the streets, from the Square XV, homeless kids, shoe shiners, the candyman, people from all over were invited to the event. They came. In that black box with the laundry detergent and blue plastic, we’d turn the entirely black space into all blue. But then something unpredictable happened. When the performance began, the 300 kilos of powder soap that were in plastic bags were spread out in the following way: friends went from the place where we kept the soap to the big room. There, with a razor, I slashed rapidly, making small slits and the soap began pouring, forming thin streaks. And the powder that should have been blue was white. There was a problem with the order. The streaks turned into giant strips of soap, like lines of cocaine. Among the people helping with the bags were Manoel Gomes, the great poet from Niterói, Jarbas Lopes, Tunga, Beto, Justo, several friends, people I didn’t know… They were all willing to carry those heavy bags. And then what happened? The amount of powder didn’t allow us to tape the blue plastic; it prevented adhesion. The black box never turned blue. The kids played capoeira to the sound of funk. It was raining. In the meantime, the smell of soap, with all that caustic soda, left the room stinking and made the air unbreathable. And the shoe shiners, the candymen, etc, in that moment, took off their shirts, wrapped it around their heads with only their eyes showing, like bandits. And the circumstances became more explicit – and wonderful. All I know is that in the end it was impossible to be in that place, the blue didn’t work, and while it was still raining I left with the boys across the courtyard at the Paço Imperial and past the Square XV, full of blue vinyl, pouring soap and making foam around the square. And thus from the “Black Box/All Blue” all that was left was the first half, a witness to the accident. Another potential title for this piece is the following passage from Heraclitus: “If all things turned to smoke, the nose would become the discerning organ.”

(Artist’s testimonial, 8/29/2016)

After this plunge into public performance and, in a way, into a release of this darker side, of hidden forces, masks, accidents, and the undead, Cabelo focuses on the constructive structure of internal spaces. The discovery of fabrics and flags as design support as well the assemblage of labyrinths open a number of possibilities for the artist. The oilbars on fabric were used to write poems, quotations, slogans from the streets, and illustrations of creatures that looked nearly devilish and set the tone of remarkable works like “Essa é a Pele da Minha Casa; Ela é Feita de Flashes do Abismo, Sobre o Qual a Casa é Fundada” (This is the Skin of My Home; It is Made of Flashes from the Abyss, On Which the Home Was Built, 2001), “Mi Casa, Su Casa” (2003), and “Aventuras do Poeta Edi Simons” (Adventures of the poet Edi Simons, 2004). They’re welcoming structures and at the same time imposing in its chromatic economy: subtle variations of reds, blacks, blues, golden yellow, and white. As someone from Rio de Janeiro, we can clearly see how Cabelo has incorporated the bricolage found in the favelas – not as mannerism or representation, but as an aesthetic reading of the cut-and-paste of low-income housing.

It was also through graphic interventions in fabric that the artist developed his concise and powerful vocabulary of images, through drawings of beings that walk the line between human and shapeless. If in the installations mentioned above, the fabrics construct spaces of refuge and tension, in other works they turn into capes, screens, mantles, transparencies, or other types of pictoric supports. It’s on this kind of support that Cabelo, throughout the years, has been drawing bodies in between the sacred and the overly human. We see emerge among camouflages of traces and of words, the powerful images of fallen saints, smoking children, blasphemous buddhas, erês guerrilheiros, entities made with bold lines and colors. This world of images filled with mysteries, actually, is the permanent axis of Cabelo’s work. We see its development in works and installations like the series dedicated to images of soldier boys smoking in Myanmar (formerly Burma). A powerful image that, since 2001, traverses the artist’s work. We can see it in an untitled piece from 2003 (a kind of assemblage with cardboard boxes, plastic bags and cups, lamps, and other objects) and in the various versions of “Mianmar Miroir”, from 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009. The image is explored through photography, objects, drawings, installations, performances and videos.

This simultaneity of creative media remains a constant in Cabelo’s work. Sometimes a certain kind of action takes place in the proscenium – as seen in the recent examples in which video is the only type of media in exhibitions, like “Obrigado, Volte Sempre” (Thank You, Come Back Soon, 2015). Generally speaking, however, they coexist in a game in which they feed off of each other and feed each other. Image, word, and sound interweave bodies and objects. Throughout the years, Cabelo’s musical career and his relationship with the gang-group Boato led to new sounds, after the band’s break-up. Nevertheless, the artist remains to this day invested in bringing his plastic creation to the sonic and poetic universes. With a great ear for the sounds of the city, Cabelo is one of the few artists who found in the funk from Rio de Janeiro and in its sensual, deep round sounds full of play on words, the aesthetic force necessary to invigorate the art community, which wasn’t eager to be associated with the underground favela culture and from the margins. This perception of the musician and artist, for instance, is evident in the titles of his works or in the presence of the “batidão digital2,” are still part of his repertoire – as seen in the multimedia exhibition that centers on the alter-ego-persona MC Fininho (2011) or in the exhibition “Humúsica,” set up at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. Currently, this force has also grown roots through the work of the duo Rato Branko, with Raul Mourão, throughout this past year.

There is not a single way of accounting for the trajectory of this inventor of worlds, sounds, entities, sensorial experiences, and images that inhabit his particular world. Cabelo is a dynamo whose creativity emerges from “disciplined chance” or, to put it differently, from random observations of things of the world, combined with an aesthetic effort that turns the trivial into artistic potential. His bricolage from superimposed objects can give shape to pagan totems or unexpected entities. His watchful eye, that of a creator of images, can cut the world in little pieces of color and shapes that are unnoticeable to those who are not devoted to observing the hollowness of the world in its beauty and apocalypse. Earth, fire, water, and wind are boiling and at rest. It’s a mix of contemplation and destruction that is capable of retrieving the guts of beauty and chaos from the underworld.

  1. “Proibidão,” which literally translates as “strictly prohibited,” is a subgenre of funk music originating from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and characterized as a raw mix of live funk vocals and Miami bass. The explicit lyrics typically promote the drug gang the MC is affiliated with and speak ill of the other gangs.
  2. “Batidão” refers to the loud, strong beats of funk music. In this case, the sound was electronically produced.