Mass a-peel: Artist Paulo Nazareth’s shit is bananas B-A-N-A-N-A-S

There are two conditions Brazilian-born artist Paulo Nazareth will most likely never suffer from: potassium deficiency and male pattern baldness.

Having made my way up to downtown’s Sala de Espera (Waiting Room) gallery for their latest show, the second was evident when drawn to his thick Sideshow Bob-like ‘fro, I walked up to him and introduced myself not by shaking his hand, but by squeezing his mane with gusto much like Mr. Whipple manhandled a Charmin roll generations before me.

The already white space was enhanced by sporadic items like a ladder, a bicycle, a collection of books, and pictures hanging on the walls, all covered in white raffia sacks.

“My father always says it’s better to travel not with suitcases, but with sacks,” he pointed out; adding that it’s his intention to “sack the whole planet.”

In a corner, laid the artist’s collection of cardboard signs with sayings like “Thanks Mexicans” and “Free all day,” as well as the show’s eponymous “I clean your bathroom for a fair price” which he hangs from his neck and walks the streets with to document people’s reaction to what they perceive as poverty.

He was fresh off a stint in Art Basel Miami, where he caused a splash with an interactive installation titled “Banana Market/Art Market” which consisted of him selling fresh bananas out of a Volkswagen Microbus.

Sharp, articulate and with a strong knowledge of Latin American history, five minutes into the conversation it was clear this wasn’t a guy trying to pull the wool over the art world’s eyes. With Pac-Man zest my friends and I had made our way through an 18-pack, so longing for a less hazy conversation I set up a date to meet at the gallery space—where they take the term “artist in residence” literally by inviting him to live there—the following day.

Prompt to my meeting—though still in a Tecate stupor, he took a good look at me and said: “I know just the trick.” He then whipped up some canja de galinha (chicken soup) sans the galinha as he’s a vegetarian, and we were good to go.

I decided to conduct the interview in Chicano Park amongst the vivid murals and the towering scaffolds employed for their current renovation. The particular sign he chose to wear that day read “How is the color of my skin?” And garnered all sorts of attention.

“It’s usually one of two reactions,” he said; “there’s the people who approach me and get a dialogue going, and the ones who just look at me strangely.”

At the park, there were both.

From a homeless man who came up to him and fist bumped, to a gentleman who was ready to get into a heated argument over race relations, but quickly got distracted by Nazareth’s’ hair.

“I’m gonna call you pelucas. That’s your new name,” the man said. Peluca being Spanish for wig.

He said the signs spawned from his Beaux Arts background in college, where he specialized in drawing and engraving, and that regardless of whatever message he’s carrying, he always holds his head high.

“If I clean bathrooms, that’s my business,” he says. “My thinking at the time is ‘I’m a businessman. I’m important, and I’m no less than anyone else.’”

Sitting down on a tricolored bench, he recounted the tails of what was originally meant to be a one month “travelling residency” for a Brooklyn gallery, and has since turned into a 10-month-long sojourn that has taken him from his homeland to all across South America, up to the central countries; Cuba, Mexico and a two-day stint in New York, where he camped out with Occupy Wall Street protestors at night and meandered the streets pretending to be lost during the day.

“People assumed I was homeless and gave me change,” he recounts in a matter-of-fact way. “I made good money, two dollars and seventy-three cents.” 

It was in the midst of his journey, that his backers—a group of young Brazilian gallerists, contacted him about Art Basel, an event he’d never heard of.

“They told me it was an art fair, a market of sorts. So, I decided I’d sell bananas.”

Playing the role of an “exotic man” bare feet and all, he sold them at 10 bucks a pop. He’d also sign them at the buyer’s request, instantly turning them into pieces of art.

Some complained about the price, but as he puts it, it was the cheapest thing in there. “I’d tell them: I’m the banana man, not Santa Claus,” he chuckles.

“It was a my critique on the concept of banana republics,” he says, tapping into his vast history knowledge, and citing examples of countries like Guatemala and the fruit’s involvement in its revolution, agrarian reform, and unjust industry appropriation.

His simplistic approach made headlines, and the next day he was featured in The New York Times and beyond. The Miami Herald dubbed his install one of the expo’s “must see events.” Muddy feet and all, he was admitted into the VIP area, and partied alongside Robert De Niro and the like.

Up next he says, is a longer journey from Guatemala all the way to Manhattan on a banana-loaded van that will follow the route taken by illegal Central American immigrants. 

His ultimate goal with the project?

“Sell some bananas. When it’s all said and done, bananas bring a certain joy with them. Maybe if everyone ate a banana, people would be happier and wars would stop.” 

Your move, Ministry of Defense.

Article originally appeared in the pages of San Diego CityBeat. To find out more about the artist, visit his blog. Paulo Nazareth picture  by Enrique Limón/El Zonkey Show. Bananas image via Wikimedia Commons.

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