Brazil's lost children

Artist Antonio Veronese talks about his latest exhibition


Antonio Veronese talks about his hard-hitting show featuring portraits of Brazil’s lost children.

One of the three exhibitors participating in a new show at Art Couture, Brazilian artist Antonio Veronese, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, was initially inspired by the 16 years he spent teaching impoverished young child prisoners art in the city.

This exhibition entitled ‘Art With No Boundaries’ features pictures of children in Rio that he painted from photographs. The show aims to demonstrate art’s ability to cross social boundaries and have a relevance to everyone, regardless of their race, religion and gender. These children had been targeted by notorious Rio death squads – off-duty police officers who roamed the favelas, illegally murdering street kids. The youngsters were traumatised, victimised and persecuted and their plight deeply affected the artist. This sense of suffering and pain can be felt through each of his pieces. Here, he reveals more about the exhibition
and the universal emotions that inspire his creations.

You seem fascinated with drawing people’s faces. Can you explain why you find this subject matter so interesting?
If you look closely, I am not exactly painting human faces but actually human feelings. Everything can be captured from a pair of eyes. This magical and complex universe of human feelings: love, fear, hope, frustration, hunger, anger, solitude – everything is imprinted in just a pair of eyes. Could I have a better subject?

There’s often a haunting intensity to your paintings – is that something you recognise?
It is similar to music, Gustav Mahler’s music [Austrian classical composer] makes some cry and others dance and I believe art is the same. We each have our own feelings and art helps these feelings to breathe.

How do you decide who to paint?
I do not decide; it’s always the painting itself that decides. In classical painting the artist has a project that he tries to accomplish. Modern art allows the painter to experiment. I call it ‘jazzing’, in the sense of jazz music. We are totally free and we can improvise – like a jam session. I would say if classical painting is like Mozart, then modern painting is [jazz legend] Charlie Parker.

How did your work teaching young prisoners in Rio de Janeiro affect how you saw people’s faces?
It deeply touched me; for many years I’ve painted in reaction to the experience. In 1999, before the government of President Lula, we had about 600 minors assassinated every year in Rio. Boys belonging to the same social class as those I was working with inside prisons. Suddenly, I was invited to do an exhibition at the Brazilian National Museum of Fine Arts. So I decided to draw one single face representing each one of those boys who had been killed that year, in order to give every dead boy the right to a virtual image of his face. That happened 14 years ago now, but I keep trying. Modesto Lanzone from the San Francisco Modern Art Museum told me that my paintings are a portrait of the complexity of today’s world. Maybe he is right.

You are known for highlighting violence against children. Is this something you would like people to think about when they see your paintings?
My work is a form of denunciation, not only of violence against children, but also of violence itself, of humans against nature and animals. Each one of us is a delicate organism, sophisticated and unique. Maybe painting is an unconscious form I’ve found to protest against the deep and ancient violence of men.

You believe that art can be used to help rehabilitate people. Is there a point where people suffer too much to be rehabilitated in your opinion?
Even when someone is about to die of thirst, a single drop of water can contribute some comfort, some relief. Art only consoles.

Do you experiment with different painting styles?
Every day I try different techniques or processes, different resources, and try to take some risks – I often go through a lot of canvas.  But when I escape the traps of conventionality and accomplish something I feel at peace.

Do you believe that art can transcend boundaries – as with the name of the exhibition?
Of course, because art touches us as humans, no matter what country, race or religion and that’s the reason I proudly decided to visit Dubai.

What other projects – artistic or not – do you have in the pipeline during 2014?
I have an exhibition planned at Bahia in Brazil and one in Paris. Also I may perhaps even return to Dubai. The UAE is a country that certainly makes my imagination fly.

The lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Art With No Boundaries’ at Art Couture, Al Badia Golf Club, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City (04 601 0101).
Runs: February 3-March 2
Artists: Antonio Veronese, Lionel Guibout and Nikola Zigon

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