Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 2012: I’d arranged to meet Gais at 2 pm at his gallery in Rio de Janeiro’s Humaita district. I’d been warned about Carioca time keeping, and not being inclined to punctuality myself, I easily forgave the artist when he arrived at 2.50, all smiles and reddish-bleary eyes. “He drank a lot,” the gallery staff explained, somewhat sheepishly – but in a way that implied this was not an unusual occurrence – and that suggested they were relieved he had showed at all.
“Can I do the interview lying down?”
“No you can’t,” scolded Clarisse, one of Huma Art Projects’ directors, nonplussed.
Despite a root canal that morning, she had kindly offered to be present to translate.
“I really don’t mind,” I interjected, feeling it was going to be difficult to get a good interview if he was forced to stay vertical.
We moved to an open courtyard, me perched on a stool in the shade, Gais curled up in the corner of a sun-drenched sofa.
A week before I’d been at the opening of Gais’ second solo exhibition at Huma Art Projects: a resplendent refurbished old house on a pretty, quiet, residential street.
The opening was busy. Camera crews clamoured, local hipsters lurked outside, fellow artists and important people from the Brasilian art world posed for endless photographs, and drunken gringos quietly contemplated the work (straight whiskey was being served up to guests, at Gais’ request).
When I asked Gais what he’d be doing now, if not this, he replied simply, “I’d be dead. Art saved my life.” His personal journey has been a remarkable one, and the impact of his success, albeit relatively recent, has been big.
Gais, My name is Mario Cramford, Cocaine in my brain, 69 x 42cm; Courtesy of the artistand Huma Art Projects.
But art also almost cost the artist his life. In 2002 he was painting the outside of a train, when the Brazilian police shot him. The bullet went through his wrist. He shows me the dent it left, still visible, next to a tattoo of a train that spans his lower arm. Painting in the streets carrys a genuine risk in the country: just last month a graffiti artist was shot and killed while painting. “The police?” I asked, dumbfounded and wide-eyed.
“No one knows.”
This, coupled with a life plagued by violence and war growing up in one of the largest and most notorious communities in Rio – the Maré – possibly explains why Gais has gradually steered away from street art. What began as a dangerous rebellion has been replaced by a desire for stability and security.
Most artists who work on the streets are not like Gais. They travel the world as much as possible to paint walls; there is a certain loyalty to the street that always takes precedence over the gallery. “The gallery looks after your art – the street doesn’t,” Gais explains when I ask why he moved away from that kind of practice. I also get a sense that the gallery looks after the artist as much as the art. Most artists have not come from the place that he has, difficult for any outsider to understand fully.
“When we receive payment for sales, we don’t give him all the money at once, we give it to him when he needs it,” Clarisse, a Carioca educated in the US, tells me later. “He prefers it that way. He’s never had any money, so he’ll do things like taking a girl for a night at the Fasano.” [Brazil’s most exclusive hotel, with rooms at more than $1,000 a night.]
“I’ve been through rough times, a lot of suffering.” He speaks appreciatively of the "infrastucture" the gallery provides – but more than that, I get a sense of genuine, mutual warmth, understanding and respect between Gais and Clarisse, as the interview continues. Comfort, structure – and money – are evidently things that Gais has no previous experience of, and now, aged thirty-one, he is enjoying them. I ask why he stays in Rio, where he still lives and works in the Maré. “There’s more money here, and I like it here, it’s nice… life is very simple,” he laughs. Last year, the artist sold a piece at Philips De Pury’s BRIC auction for £13,000.
Gais, Klimt, 37 x 46; Courtesy of the artistand Huma Art Projects.
Humour seems to have been a coping mechanism, and is an important component his work. As a self-taught artist, it also appears to mask to an extent a shy insecurity about his work. “I try to draw something constructive from the criticism I receive; I am self-taught, so I use it to learn.” There is something ingenue about the work in the current show, an artist who is discovering and assimilating art of all kinds from around the world. It’s an approach that began in his early career in the 1990s, as part of one of Rio’s first graffiti crews, the Naçao Crew. At that time, the local bookshop would tear pages on which graffiti appeared from magazines and keep them aside for Gais. The current exhibition at Huma, entitled The Few Modifications Did Not Alter The Directory (As Poucas Modificações Feitas Não Desfiguram O Diretório) was fuelled by foreign magazines from the 50s and 60s, procured at the market Praça XV, in downtown Rio. The artist cites other current influences as Russian Constuctivism, and Brazilian Neo-Concrete styles. The resulting series of collages – presented in both original and print form – are undoubtedly derivitive in style, recalling Kadinsky, Rodchenko, John Stezaker, but are also, for a self-taught artist, working for the first time in collage – compositionally accomplished. “I like collage, they’re like dreams: colour, time, history, they blend and create a visible poeticism.” There is certainly a sense of awe and reverence apparent in these new works, and also playfulness, almost like watching an unfolding experiment with geometry and scale.
Gais, Cabe+ºa na lua, 37 x 28 cm; Courtesy of the artistand Huma Art Projects.
The artist continues to work, currently producing new pieces for Pinta Art Fair. A catalogue featuring new works is also in production and due for release in September – something the artist is very excited about; “he likes the idea of his work travelling, being distributed, in this way, through a book.”
Finally, Gais is on his feet – warmly inviting me to join him to eat a huge plate of pasta and chicken the gallery’s kitchen staff have just prepared for him. “It’s really good!” he urges. It does look delicious, but I decline, leaving him tucking in, the gallery staff sitting around the table like a family fondly watching their prodigal son.
ArtSlant would like to thank Gais and Huma Art Projects for their assistance in making this interview possible.