From the Rocinha, favela of Rio to the picture walls of the prestigious London gallery David Zwirner (until January 30, 2021), at 30 years old Maxwell Alexandre knows a dazzling success, which does not divert him from an aesthetic vocation committed to the black Brazilian minorities.
At the end of 2018, from his first exhibition at the A Gentil Carioca gallery in Rio de Janeiro, the 28-year-old former roller-skating champion had hit hard; uncompromisingly adopting the ubuesque aspects of local community life, in the sometimes crude and unashamedly manner of James Ensor (1860-1949). His strokes of elaborately colored paint, his often huge formats translated a radical, sarcastic and insolent vision of the inanity of Brazilian violence … and imposed that very personal style that constitutes the great artists.
In less than two years, the artist from the Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio where he lives and continues to work, is now highly sought after; biennials, museums and collectors keep inviting him. We can salute the perspicacity of the MAC of Lyon, which in March 2019 devoted a solo exhibition to him…. He has just joined the team of one of the largest international galleries, that of David Zwirner. The Deutsche Bank has selected him as one of the three ‘artists of the year 2020’. He who claims to have entered art as one enters religion seems to have already arrived in heaven!
His material comes from what is available to him, assembled sheets of kraft paper or recovered elements (doors, windows…) from which he makes huge compositions or environments-installations, or even an inflatable pool for one of his performances. His inspiration comes from his daily experience in Rio de Janeiro and more specifically, from the Rocinha favela known to be supposedly the largest and most populated favela in the country.
In his early days Maxwell was confronted with the lessons of the painter Eduardo Berliner (1978-), an artist obsessed with drawing who noted everything about his surroundings, reinterpreting it in a surrealist manner. Maxwell, too, goes beyond the simple transcription of everyday life, of the inevitable communal confrontations with the question of the black race. He proposes a formidable alternative vision. His characters are not confined to an archetypal vision; blacks, criminals or victims, … On the contrary, his very colorful frescoes integrate the many facets of black Brazilian culture.
A whole swarm of information, figures and symbols à la Jérôme Bosch (1450-1516) constitutes his « pop » works in a palette of flamboyant colors à la Andy Warhol (1929-1987) or à la Keith Haring (1958-1990). He reports without concession the violence and abuses inflicted by government authorities and militias living in underprivileged communities.
Characters without facial features, with black skin and blond hair (a symbol of emancipation imitating the stars of song and soccer) are mixed in with the street movements he depicts. The school uniform of the municipality of Rio, which is commonly seen in poor neighborhoods, major monuments of the city of Rio, a kaleidoscope of superheroes, video games, military crests, logos and flags of cities and global brands that stir the desires of teenagers and children…A wavy pattern often occupies most of the background of the works. This is the pattern of the popular plastic swimming pools found everywhere on the roof terraces of the favelas.
Omnipresent and a source of inspiration, music is part of his universe. Especially since a new generation of musicians, singers and poets has emerged at the same time. BK (1989-), Baco Exu do Blues (1996-) or Djonga (1994-) for example tackle like Maxwell the questions of black emancipation and life in the favelas. Many of the titles of his works come from these songs.
I think it is fundamental to be able to show that my production is guided by black poets who have experiences in line with mine, » claims the young artist. This is essential and a real paradigm shift within art history, when we know that it is common for most artists to seek to feed on white and European poetry as a source of inspiration for their work.
There is a strategic stake in this decision to paint the verses of these poets, since rap is a song known to be the voice of minorities, of the peripheries. It is the type of sound that arrives in the favela and is assimilated, while painting occupies a very exclusive place, within a coded, elitist and privileged system. Here where I live, in the favela of Rocinha, contemporary art is not a value, most people are not interested or even know what it is about. So painting rap verses is also a way of trying to reduce this gap. I create a chance to attract popular interest in the community through my work. »
His very mastered hangings are also real manifestos. More than lined up on the walls, his large paper compositions are rather suspended from threads that run through the spaces of the cultural institutions that welcome him. He likes this direct contact with the visitor and wants him to see the front and back of his brown taped papers. He also likes to force him to be close to the work as if it were part of a foreground of the history he is presenting. This hanging also integrates an easy transport of his large paintings that rolled up can sometimes give rise to street processions, as once the integration of altarpieces in a church, this ritual-performance announces and is part of the exhibition.
In the series « Pardo é Papel » (Brown is Paper), this title is taken from an expression of black activists in reaction to the ghettoization of Afro-descendants in the generic category of ‘pardo’, a category that includes all mixed-race citizens in the national census. The choice of this kraft paper thus affirms an eloquent symbolic dimension of his work. But the message is a positive one, and Maxwell approaches African descent through the self-esteem of contemporary Brazilian society in the favelas. This series focuses on the idea of empowerment and emancipation.
Well versed in the religious codes and protocols associated with the major branches of Neo-Pentecostalism, he joined a group of artists and designers to create their own non-denominational church, the Church of the Kingdom of Art or ‘A Noiva’ (the wife). Convinced that the artistic process provides access to the divine. Any production within this religion can be understood as a prayer, any space invested can be considered as a temple: workshops, houses and streets.
Artists are at the same time apostles, prophets, saints and pastors.
To exercise this faith in art, they organize services, rituals and ceremonies such as baptisms or pilgrimages. As we have already understood, it is a matter of attracting those who never set foot in a cultural institution to whom is suggested the capacity of art to ensure spiritual fulfillment and to show that there are other ways to find meaning in life. It is an incredible attempt to bring culture and life in general closer together.
While knowing how to adapt to the expectations and codes of contemporary art, Maxwell is very aware of the upheavals brought to his life by this series of recent successes. He is perfectly lucid about the dangers of a market that sometimes rubs shoulders too much with the dictates and speculation of the wealthy few.
Conscious of Basquiat’s (1960-1988) destiny, of which he wants to be neither the clone nor the follower, Maxwell refuses to be this contemporary Icarus who burns his wings and his soul as he gets closer to a harmful sun. Rooted in his City, he knows the importance of recharging his batteries at home and clinging to his collective church project. The future will tell us if he will be able to combine identity and success, authenticity and celebrity. He seems to be well on his way.