On the tail end of his latest showing, "No church wild" at DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, we got the chance to drop by on Angolan-bord, Lisbon-raised, and now Berlin-based expressionist painter, Ál Varo Tavares d’Guilherme. We talked about his tumultuous path into the life of an artist, experiences from his earlier days, and his contemporary relationship to his practice.
We opened our conversation discussing Ál Varo's relationship to Berlin, and how he ended up here.
"You come to Berlin, you see this city, and you're able to experiment and research with this kind of freedom. You're trying things. Because Berlin is not like an emotional city. It's not like a sentimental, poetical place. There is a poetry in this brutalist, architecture, this greyness, but it's very straightforward. When you come from Lisbon where there's castles and hills and you have all these beautiful views and trees, it's romanticisation. But, then, you're born in Angola, you know, civil war. So you live in this kind of parallel environment where you're a periphery character."
"I see it as three phases; three acts. The childhood approach from civil war, and then the second act you have Lisbon, where your parents immigrated, and the third act is a place of your choosing where you wanna be and stay. And Berlin in 2018 was definitely that place. But you don't know it when you're sleeping on the streets. All these cliches. Romanticisations, vicitimisations, and what an artist can be or do. But sometimes you really have no options. You have to put yourself in a position of how you're going to construct this from zero and get to a place where people can see your work. It's basically Tom Cruise and Mission Impossible; I have to create this mindset; self-determinate. Create a financial way to sleep."
"I'm very sensitive and personal and emotionally expressive. And I don't see this as a weakness. I feel like its beautiful to have human feelings. And from that, you can express what is. That's all I know. But then I also don't know. And I like to be in these positions of not knowing, so I'm always learning something. Then it'll go into the work and affect it a lot. "
At one point, in his early days of Berlin, Ál Varo mentioned he was even searching in the trash of the art school for treasures.
"Because you know, they might put some cool stuff? You might find like sneakers, airmax, like what the fuck are these people doing? I was feeling like this garbage was really like my oasis in the desert… Then the teacher noticed like, 'Hey, you wanna study in UdK?'. I'm like: I'd like to but I don't have no papers."
So you weren't able to study there? I asked.
"I watched two classes. But school was never for me. I always had a thing with the teachers where I would ask them something and they'd get mad at me. I used to make nudes for [the teacher]. Like pornographic scenes. Just because my idea was that art should shock. I would love if they looked at it and said 'What the fuck?'. You know like a renaissance painting? Like a Rembrandt? It creates this kind of opera sensation like 'Ahhhh'."
I wondered if he always felt compelled to take the path of the artist.
"I always knew since I was eight years old. Because it's when you're eight years old that you start painting and probably making music. It's when it starts calling your attention."
Ál Varo then recounted the tale of the first moment he experienced someone else experiencing his work deeply, on a train out of Lisbon at 1am.
"I'm seeing this girl eating pizza and I ask to have a slice of pizza and she was like 'I actually already ate so you can have the other slices'. So I ate the pizza and then I'm drawing on the box, on the cardboard… Then suddenly on the train, ten metres away, this dude, fucking big, messing with everyone on the train, he came to me and takes the piece of cardboard. Life always challenges you with characters, you know? Pirates, mermaids, wizards."
"So I'm watching him, and he stops. He's staring at the cardboard. Three seconds, four seconds. He didn't throw it in the garbage or nothing. He's really watching! Nobody believes this shit. The homie came back with the cardboard, he gets close to me. He hugs me. Crying. So I feel like, hey, I'm on a mission."
"I'm never in the comfort zone. I just keep working, working more. That's all the perspective I have. I would love it if the works could be all around the world."
What's your relationship to your paintings? I keenly asked.
"I like having fun with the work. I'm dancing with them. I'm talking with them. It's like a cat. They don't speak, but they say a lot. Sometimes that's what's happening with the paintings. They'll be speaking to you. I try to be very close but at the same time give them their space to shine; to be the extension to the world that they are."
"I think about creating an army. The paintings are my army, you know? I'm the commander. So sometimes when it's the show coming I have to tell the paintings, looking to them, 'You guys ready?! The show is coming!'."
As a parting question, I was curious to know how the artist himself experiences his work, and how he would like others to.
"It's quite noisy, but has moments of silence. I think about how a blind person would look at my work. How it could wake up the vision of a blind person. Because I have a privilege to see. I know what is beauty. You may know what is beauty. We have a sense to understand through the eyes that the flower is pretty, because we connect to all these concepts and words and what we know in our head. So I question everything and try to challenge all these things and think: if a blind person sees my painting, how are they going to know that it's beautiful or not? I really have a privilege to see and to know what is beauty, and I think I just want to challenge what beauty may be; what's true, what's fake. I want to extend what are the possibilities to create. I guess this is very important for me. But I still feel I haven't started yet."
Thank you to Ál Varo. You can find his links below.
Words and portraits by Ewan Waddell.