Emmanuel Nassar: art is the illegal exercise of all the professions

Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes

We sat down with Brazilian Pop master Emmanuel Nassar to talk about art, symbols, advertising, and the importance of visiting Europe.

Emmanuel Nassar has been producing a powerful body of work since the early 1970s. His aesthetic mixes Pop with geometry, local with universal, thus creating objects, paintings and installations. Born in 1949 in Belém do Pará, North of Brazil, the artist took part in the 1989 and 1998 editions of the São Paulo Biennial, joined the Brazilian representation of the Venice Biennial in 1993 and in 2011 exhibited at the Mercosul Biennial. He has had multiple solo exhibitions, the most recent of which was at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in 2018 [here is a link to the exhibition, Ed.].

Emmanuel Nassar, 2018.
Emmanuel Nassar, 2018.

You were studying Engineering when, in the late 1960s, you went on a trip to Europe that inspired you to switch the course to Architecture. While still at University, and also working in the advertisement industry, you began to draw and paint. Can you tell us about how did your approach to art happened?

Emmanuel Nassar: The trip was in 1969. In 1970 I enrolled in Architecture and got my first job… And also did my first artwork. In the space of two months I was transiting the art, architecture and advertisement realms, with a salary that allowed me to rent a flat and buy a car. I took part in my first group show, and had the feeling that it was all easy for me. I was accepted. But it took me about ten years to empower myself with the conceptual mix that I was submitted to in this period, the 1970s. Today I realise that there was a very specific conjugation of informations that marked me.

[In regards to how pop artists started they’re career see also our interview with Peter Saul; link here. Ed]

Can you talk further about this conceptual mix?

Emmanuel Nassar: Mainly marketing and advertisement books imported from New York, that the agency kept. The popular aesthetic of street fairs and markets in Belém. The artisanal advertisement of cinema posters and grocery stores. The clumsy drawing of Carlos Zéfiro’s pornography. The synthesis exercise that creating advertisement campaigns implied. The difficulties of producing in an artisanal, precarious way the ads on a printed newspaper, radio or television, without computer, the least of all internet, with very few and primitive resources.

Emmanuel Nassar, Hollywood, 1989, acrylics on canvas, 100 x 200 cm. Artist’s collection, Belém. Photo Romulo Fialdini. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.

Having being born outside the Rio de Janeiro – São Paulo axis, which characterised, and sadly still characterises the mainstream of production and consumption of art in Brazil, your contact with a national, and perhaps even more, with an international art world was limited. Who were your main peers and influences in this universe?

Emmanuel Nassar: I had access to the US advertising books (sub-product of the world’s Contemporary art), I had the peripheral popular Brazilian environment of Belém, and an effervescent political environment at its peak. I ignored the matrixes of art, and was much more interested in the concepts that I learned through advertisement. Hence the influence of Pop Art in a Brazilian version; hence the contradictions of a un-ideological and techno-characteristic posture of North American Pop with the artisanal popular culture of handmade advertisings, alongside the motifs of boats and houses in Belém’s outskirts. I can also say that by then Arte Povera was also added to the blend. And also (Alexander) Calder, (Alfredo) Volpi, (Joaquín) Torres-Garcia… Anyway, (Carl) Gustav Jung as well. I had a lot of doubts as to which profession I’d dedicate myself. I had multiple interests and at times they’d seem incompatible to me. It was not too long ago that I managed to summarise all of this in the following sentence: “art is the illegal exercise of all the professions”.

Emmanuel Nassar, Chapa 38 (Sheet 38), Photo: Edouard Fraipont. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.

It’s interesting because the idea to make a living exclusively by producing art, of leaving Art school straight to a blue-chip gallery, is relatively recent. In which moment you decided to give up your job and dedicate yourself entirely to the “illegal exercise of all the professions”?

Emmanuel Nassar: I studied Architecture between 1970 and 1975. My first solo show outside of Belém was in 1984 at FUNARTE’s Galeria Macunaíma, in Rio, which I earned through an open call for proposals. This debut exhibition gave me quite some visibility, and soon after I started working with the galleries Saramenha, Luisa Strina and Thomas Cohn (between 1985 and 2002). Since 2003 I am with galeria Millan. However, I never gave up everything to pursue art exclusively. From 1970 until 1980 I worked at the advertisement agency, as an editor. Then from 1980 until 2002, I taught at the Fine Arts programme of Universidade Federal do Pará, in Belém. Since 2002 I’m retired as a teacher.

Your initial production was grounded on figuration. Gradually you shifted more and more towards abstraction and, in a way, geometry. Dualities such as symmetry and ambiguity run through your practice, whether in the very composition of the canvas, or in the insertion of your initials, “E” and “N”, in opposite poles, as a compass. How did that come into being?

Emmanuel Nassar: Indeed, in the beginning figuration was a more prominent feature of my work. It was as if I was reckoning with myself. But the geometry that I employ is in constant dialogue with volume and perspective, often blurring itself with real objects. Crossing different supports. That is, “geometric pero no mucho”. The reoccurring symmetry made me consider adopting the initials “E” and “N” as I thought they were in tune with the environment of the work. As I absorbed the initials as part of the composition, I started to place them in such way as to balance the composition. But people began to ask me if they were cardinal directions. And why the North was misplaced. That got me thinking that, indeed, my initials (my name), are my cardinal directions, my references. “E” of Individual, of I (Eu, in the original Portuguese). And “N” of Nassar, my ancestors, thus the collective, the nature, the Us (Nós, in the original version). From then on these initials assumed a symbolic role and function in the spatial plan of the work.

Emmanuel Nassar, Bandeira (Flag), cm 90 x 90, 2000. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.

Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, you repeatedly use flags – particularly our flag – in your work. At times they are immediately identifiable, at others they are nearly abstract, as of a graphic index. In recent years our flag was appropriated by ultra-conservative movements, who signify it as a nationalist emblem. Has this appropriation resounded in your work, in the way you use flags?

Emmanuel Nassar: Since the very beginning, that is 1979, flags are present in my work. The first ever was a metal sheet flag with a red background and the word “açaí”, which is a popular icon in Belém, written on it. It serves to identify houses that sell açaí. In an artisanal and unconscious manner, it became a trademark in my vocabulary. And this was also one of the first works where I established an analogy with the coca-cola logo, or with the Campbell soups of Warhol. Then in 1988, in the piece Céu do Brasil (Brazilian Sky) a tiny human figure gazes through the blue circle of the official Brazilian flag, with the white stars. The minuscule man looks to the universe, but it’s not any universe. It’s the universe represented in the Brazilian flag, a very familiar symbol in our collective unconscious. In 1998 I gathered in an installation over one hundred official flags of cities and municipalities within the state of Pará (Bandeiras [Flags]). A sort of confederation of small, medium and big cities. Also there, the most important to me was the process of assembling the flags, through a newspaper ad in which I asked individuals to contribute with gathering the flags. It was an appropriation.

The ideological detachment in the use of these symbols approach me, perhaps, to the posture of the North American Pop artists. There, the portrait of Mao Tse (Tung) has the same treatment as the portrait of Marilyn (Monroe).

Emmanuel Nassar, Céu Azul (Blue Sky), Flag series, 2010, fabric, 90 x 130 cm. Photo Romulo Fialdini. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.
Emmanuel Nassar, Emmanuel Nassar, Brasilia, Flag series, 2010, fabric, 90 x 130 cm. Photo Romulo Fialdini. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.
Emmanuel Nassar
Emmanuel Nassar, flag installation and red carpet, installation view at Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2018.

How is your artistic practice amid the pandemic?

Emmanuel Nassar: I am adapting to new times. Negotiating, downscaling costs and habits. The work is permanent. And I think I always did that. The challenges have always been conceptually integrated to the work. The metal sheets, for instance, were conceived as modules that both allowed myriad combinations, as well as made the transport costs low, in virtue of its dimensions plus the appropriation of scratches and accidents they incorporated along the way (they would often intentionally not be wrapped properly). In that they resemble circuses and amusement parks that are installed and de-installed when touring the country.

Emmanuel Nassar
Emmanuel Nassar, Maquinário 2 (Machinery 2), cm 180 x 180, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Millan, São Paulo.

The circus, and its playfulness, is another thread of your practice. The work Fachada (Facade) is a large-scale seminal installation from 1989, which mimics the facade of a circus and gathers within all the Pop elements that characterised your practice at the time. Yet another thread of your vocabulary is the presence of engine and gears – perhaps a vestige of your pre-architecture years as an engineer? –, both as objects and as flat representations in paintings. Could you tell us a bit about your interest in these symbols?

Every spectacle has an engine behind curtains. The idea of functionality appeals me. Calder could only develop his mobiles and stabiles because of his studies in mechanical engineering. In a reference and homage to him, I’ve titled a series of works “instabiles”. It consisted on paintings and objects that, in a seemingly precarious way, remained standing. Several of my works take geometry as something functional, as a standing device. The work Facade has always been exhibited with its back structure visible.

Do you cultivate hobbies, or other areas of interest that you dedicate yourself to when you’re not producing art?

Working has invariably been a fun activity to me. In fact, I have always tried to extend, or integrate work and fun. I could say that I never go on holidays… Or perhaps I’m always on holiday?

June 23, 2020