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“I was curious about the spirit of the medium, whether wood, steel, ceramics, or marble. Within me, there is a need to seek the divine in each material.”

-Miguel dos Santos

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Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Portrait of Miguel dos Santos, April 2023, photo: courtesy of Galatea

The self-taught artist Miguel dos Santos masterfully encapsulates the cultural syncretism of Brazil in his work, which spans ceramics, paintings, and sculptures in marble and wood. His visual language teeters on magic realism, synthesizing references to the Indigenous Tupi-Guarani people, the Yoruba traditions incorporated into Afro-Brazilian culture, and the vernacular art of his native northeast. 

Dos Santos was born in 1944 in Caruaru in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. Since the 1960s, he has been based in João Pessoa in neighboring Paraíba. As a child, he was influenced by folk artists from the region and by the woodcut illustrations found in cordel literature, a genre of hand-printed booklets containing folk poetry and stories that became popular in the northeast with the advent of Portuguese colonization.

The artist was part of the Movimento Armorial (Armorial Movement) that was founded in 1970 by the late writer Ariano Suassuna, a lifelong champion of Dos Santos’s work. The movement sought to rediscover the artistic spirit of the sertão (backcountry) of Brazil—places where a distinct aesthetic has been cultivated from centuries of mixing between esoteric and Eurocentric cultures. In 2014, Dos Santos unveiled a towering public sculpture in João Pessoa honoring Suassuna, titled A Pedra do Reino (The Stone of the Kingdom) after the writer’s cult novel. 

Although Dos Santos has exhibited consistently since the late 1960s and is represented in several important Brazilian institutional collections, he has not had gallery representation for over two decades. This changed in April 2023, when the São Paulo-based gallery Galatea began representing Dos Santos with a view to introducing his work to a global audience. 

The artist spoke exclusively with Independent Features ahead of his debut solo show in the United States, organized by Galatea at Independent 20th Century this September. His statements below have been translated from Portuguese and edited from an interview with Gabriella Angeleti.

Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Miguel dos Santos, Chico I (detail), 1980s, high temperature glazed ceramics (stoneware), 27 1/2 x 15 3/4 x 11 inches, photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea

My first inspiration was Mestre Vitalino, one of the best-known artists from Pernambuco. He was a friend of my grandfather’s, and we visited his studio when I was four years old. My grandfather poured cachaça and they talked. I was interested, and I listened. 

As a child, I made a series of oxen and horses in my grandfather’s backyard, and he was astonished. He was an architect who wrote cordel literature. My grandfather was a master builder and an artist, and he taught others in poor neighborhoods how to read. He was a thoughtful person.

When I was born, my grandfather looked at my hands and wept. “These hands will do wonderful things, and I will not see all of them,” he told my mother. Indeed, he only saw the beginning. At one point, he said: “He’s a very old child.” Today I recognize that I was born from an atavistic memory—an archetype of African roots. The myth travels and transforms, but it is the same everywhere.

Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Left: Miguel dos Santos, Compactor I, 1990s, high temperature glazed ceramics (stoneware), 18 1/2 x 11 1/4 x 13 inches, photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea. Right: Miguel dos Santos, Hefesto I, 1990s, high temperature glazed ceramics (stoneware), 17 3/4 x 11 x 2 3/4 inches, photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea

The Brazilian essence is African and Indigenous, but there’s still racism, and the African side is still often seen as something satanic or sinister. If you look at A Pedra do Reino, the monument contains an arch with three stars, which some thought was the devil’s harpoon. But it’s actually something else. It’s Candomblé or it’s Catimbó [syncretic Afro-Brazilian religions]. 

Some of my first materials were a stick and the floor. It’s a great freedom to work on the floor, because there is no commitment. It is not a museum object, nor a painting, nor a sculpture. 

My father was a gypsy cabinetmaker. He infused the gypsy music and virtuosity into everything he made. I started creating sculptures with his leftover plywood, and later turned to drawing and painting and ceramics. I was curious about the spirit of the medium, whether wood, steel, ceramics, or marble. Within me, there is a need to seek the divine in each material. 

Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Miguel dos Santos, Chico II, 1980s, high temperature glazed ceramics (stoneware), 24 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 13 3/4 in, photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea

In the early 60s I traveled to Italy to study the work of Michelangelo and Phidias, who became my first references after Vitalino. When I saw their work, I didn’t feel like I was looking at the past, but that I was seeing a bigger future for myself as an artist. 

My first solo exhibition was a show of ceramics at the culture department of the Federal University of Paraíba in 1968, and that traveled to Rio de Janeiro the following year. Eventually I had an exhibition of ceramics and paintings in 1974 at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. 

I had never been to São Paulo, and it was going to be the biggest exhibition I’d ever done. I knew absolutely nothing. When I arrived at MASP, a friend told me the curator had already come around ten times to look for me. His first words were: “You are a great artist. You will be the successor of Candido Portinari.” I said: “Choose another one. I don’t like this one.” 

Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Miguel dos Santos, Duende, 1972, oil on canvas, 23 7/8 x 17 3/4 inches (unframed) | 24 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches (framed), photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea

He was taken aback, and asked why I didn’t like the comparison. I answered: “When Portinari paints a crioulo [a contested term for a person of African ancestry] with a bag of coffee on his head, he’s Diego Rivera. When he paints more peaceful things, he’s Picasso. I’m interested in original things.” I have nothing against Portinari, but that is my conviction about his work. The whole world wants to discover a genuine artist, especially one from Latin America, and that is my strength. 

One early critique of my work that I liked came from the writer José Roberto Teixeira Leite, who wrote: “It’s not Brazilian, African, nor Indian. It’s a million times what I don’t know what it is.” As much as one investigates a work of art, it remains a mystery. It’s the most useful uselessness in the world, as Caetano Veloso has expressed.

Miguel dos Santos: Brazilian Essence and the Spirit of Materials - Features - Independent Art Fair

Miguel dos Santos, Construtor and detail, 1981, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 19 3/4 inches, photo: Ding Musa, courtesy of Galatea

There are two types of art, one from the true artist—the enlightened, natural sorcerer—and the other from the one who thinks he is an artist and makes spiritually empty work. The fields of making art and selling art are also very different. 

I once received a proposal from an art advisor who had come to Brazil to find the “Brazilian Botero.” He said I would need to deliver 350 works every six months. I told him he was wrong; this was not a Coke factory. He insisted that he would make me a millionaire in two years. I told him he was wrong again: one who is born an artist is already born a millionaire. 

I have an aversion to creating false art. I’ve been isolated from the art market for more than 20 years but I’m ready to go back now, aware that the work is unique. I keep working almost every day. Everything flows and there is no doubt when I work. It’s a force that is unstoppable. Sometimes I pretend to have left a window open in the studio just to go there on Sunday. 

Creation is a never-ending thing. It does not cease to flow. Like I imagine Beethoven would have once said, in his ill-bred manner of speech, “This damn orchestra does not stop playing inside me.”

 

As told to Gabriella Angeleti, an arts and culture writer born in Rio de Janeiro and based in Brooklyn. 

Learn more about Galatea’s presentation of Miguel dos Santos at Independent 20th Century.