Artist Spotlight: Wanatta
Digital Brazil Project: How did you get started as an artist?
Wanatta: I grew up in Alto Vera Cruz, a community here in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, that is the center of hip hop culture. I was so lucky to be born here, in a place where great artists are born. Lídia Viber is from here, some musicians, really people from all the elements of hip hop. I grew up in the middle of this, with hip hop always present. When I was about seven years old, I went to a place called Negros da Unidade Consciente (NUC), which was
literally a hip hop school. They had the five languages of hip hop: the MC, breakdancers, graffiti artists, the DJ and consciousness, which is the fifth element for us and what connects the other four. NUC was a space that shaped me as a political subject and at the same time it taught me so much. In the beginning I didn’t think that I really drew much, but I was always around the graffiti artists asking them to give me spray cans, but I was so little that no one would let me have one. I grew and coexisted in that space and took music and dance classes, and other subjects like computer classes, and I would go to the talks to be there and to be close to graffiti because I liked it but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was a kid. Seven years later I started going to Plug Minas, which is another space here for youth. It was run by youth for youth and I participated in the core program called Valores de Minas, which is an art school. They had circus arts, plastic arts, music, dance, and theater. At first I wanted to do music because I liked it and I wanted to rap. In this program you have to pick three areas, try out for all three areas and be accepted, then choose one to do for the rest of the year. My first choice was music, my second choice was theater for some reason, and third, because I didn’t know what to pick, was plastic arts just so I could put something down.
I didn’t know how to draw and I was afraid to try out for plastic arts. I was pretty sure I’d get into music, but then I didn’t pass. They told me right then and there, they didn’t even deliberate. Then I was going to try out for theater, but I was too nervous and felt like I was going to have a panic attack and left before my audition. So I went to try out for my third choice because I really wanted to be in that space and they accepted me. So for a year I was in the plastic arts module doing many different things and at the same time doing nothing because I wanted to be more involved in hip hop. Everything I learned there was very enriching, but I thought, “This isn’t exactly for me.” So I kept searching and trying other things without knowing how to draw and without being able to do the things the way everyone else could. I didn’t feel like I was really capable of doing it. Then, at the end, I passed to the second module to go deeper into the same area and to learn how to teach, and I thought, “Oh my God, I got into the second module.” Out of 500 students, they selected 70. It was only me and two others from plastic arts. I thought, “Caramba, now I’m going to have to learn how to draw because if I have to draw something…” I started looking for ways to learn how to draw.
Praça Sete is in downtown Belo Horizonte and it’s an arts district for different movements, like the soul movement and the hippie movement, and different things are always happening there. I used to get out of my classes and go sit in Praça Sete just to have some time to myself before leaving, and there was a travelling hippie who makes crafts to sell there, and this guy sold portraits of people that he’d draw right there. So I would go over to him and watch, and I asked him to teach me. He told me “I don’t really know how to teach, but you can stay here and watch and learn.” So I watched, and I would do it. I learned how to draw portraits with this guy so that I would feel confident in the course since for me, I thought that plastic arts was all about drawing and that I’d have to learn to draw. So once I learned and I was able to draw some things, I realized, “Caramba, I can do graffiti now! I can go to the street and do things the way I always wanted to.” So I got in touch with some graffiti artists from around here, and one was Nilo Zack, a graffiti artist who paints graffiti portraits and he was one of the artists at NUC that I met when I was seven. I said, “Nilo, help me, man, I’m drawing some things and I really want to put them on a wall.” He told me, “Start by making it small, then scale it up a little by little until you can really paint it, and make sure you like to paint because it’s different than drawing. So when you’re ready to paint it, go to a wall and call me and we’ll figure it out.”
So I started painting different things. I did a series called “Women of Alto,” which was portraits of several women from my community. I painted a bunch of them, and I didn’t know what to do with the canvases so I would exhibit them in the street, people would take them home and now, even years later, the paintings are spread throughout the community. But it was a process, learning how to paint a portrait.I started going bigger and scaling up until I could paint 150x150cm, and then I was ready to go to the street. I was already quite involved in the neighborhood because my grandmother was in the community leadership and I lived here for many years and I was always present at decisive moments for the community, so people already knew me and understood my story, and they really wanted to support me in my decision to paint in the street and do cultural work. And they told Negro F, who is one of the graffiti arts from here who is involved in social mobilization, to help me get into graffiti. I painted in my first event during a campaign that we did a while back called the Alto Vera Cruz Wall, and I painted with many other artists who had a lot of experience and they gave me their leftover spray cans and latex paint, so I was able to do my first mural.
After that first one, I never stopped. That was seven years ago. I’ve been managing my materials, which is a huge challenge for graffiti artists here, not having material to go painting in the street. I would save a little, here and there, to use on something else. I prefer working on one big project rather than doing a bunch of quick, little ones so I can do work that really represents what I want to do. Also taking into account that I’m a woman of many overlapping identities, a lesbian, in the street, and so I knew that I would have to arrive displaying maturity and with everything organized. So I was already thinking about this; not a lot of production, but punctual, and one or two murals per month, and well-done so that I can put out what I want to put out without getting into that rhythm of going out into the street every day to paint and not being able to do it the way that I wanted to.
Digital Brazil Project: What artistic mediums do you work with?
Wanatta: I really am more street. I realize more and more that I’m interested in the research and in the process of being in the street, but it’s research that isn’t just about drawing. It’s constructing my visual identity, an identity that says what I want to say, and I’ve really put aside the drawing. I don’t have that obsessive practice of drawing all the time. I produce something and when it’s time to draw something, I do it. Today I realize that my rhythm is different, so I try to respect that rhythm and practice painting in the street. The street is my workshop. When I want to test out a technique or see if something works, I feel good doing that in the street because the feedback is
The street is my workshop. When I want to test out a technique or see if something works, I feel good doing that in the street because the feedback is automatic.
automatic. Right there, in the moment, you can see where your work is going and if you’re able to express what you want to, if people are feeling good about it, which is also important. My lab is the street. I also paint at home. This month I’ve done five paintings, including “Um recorte de cor.” When I paint on a canvas, I try to make it look like my work in the street and I use spray paint.
Digital Brazil Project: Thinking about “Um recorte de cor” actually leads us to the next question. In many of your works, you create portraits of Black people using vibrant colors to shade and add texture to the skin. Can you tell us about the people that you paint and your use of color?
Wanatta: I work with people of color. I say that my work is about people of color and it depicts people of color. My choices in the color palette vary a lot depending on the setting. I’ve completely changed the color palette before because of the place. We arrived at a site to paint and in the composition of the architecture, there were many colors, so I went with that. Pink and blue in particular are very strong and symbolic for me. They’re the colors of the trans flag. Lately I’ve been working with these colors because it has a lot to do with my own trajectory. I’m thinking a lot about gender, my relationship to gender, and the relationship of my work to gender because some people are quick to comment on my work saying that I only paint men, when the truth is that they are people of color who are in transit. So there’s this relationship to the trans flag. But when I use this palette I’m usually painting people who exist in a created universe. They’re not specific people. They’re traces that I sew together, like an eye that I find interesting, a nose or a mouth from someone I know and it’s like solving a riddle putting it all together to create a base photo and then modify it to make it the way that I want, and this is all a photographic process. Either I photograph people or I photograph myself or I use photos that I think are interesting or that stirred something in me when I saw them. They’re beings from an Afrofuturistic universe. I’ve drunk a lot from the fountain of Afrofuturism and I see myself in that movement. So, I took what came very naturally to me, and then went deeper into the discourses and then I stopped to reflect on this process. I thought, “I’m repeating this pattern here.” The pattern said a lot of different things - some personal and from my visual poetics, my image repertoire, the things that I believe.
I mix references of a body from the favela with references of an African body; the favela aesthetic with the African aesthetic.
I mix references of a body from the favela with references of an African body; the favela aesthetic with the African aesthetic. I use a lot of the style that people call loiro pivete: the bleached eyebrows and hair. For New Years,, everyone wants to dye their hair. There’s a strong diasporic relationship here with color. In Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte specifically, the Black population has a stronger relationship with traces of things that we know are from an ancestral culture and that they are reproduced in Africa and here. It’s here where I have most of my experience since I’ve lived here for my whole life, 27 years, so it’s a part of me and the people around me. I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the sankofa, which is a symbol that’s present in my tagging. The symbol of the sankofa is a wayto go back to the root to know yourself in order to take a step forward to reach the future. To reach the future, you need to take a step back and get to know your roots. I think about this a lot, taking a step back to take a step forward; to get to know my roots to be able to construct myself as a subject, to take ownership of my story because it’s a
history that was erased. In Brazil, slavery was a massacre and it violently erased the history of the Black population in a way that was legitimized, thought-out, and systematized. I don’t have my last name in my family tree. I don’t know the last name of my great grandparents, or great-great grandparents. It stops at Rodrigues, which is a Portuguese name and my family is of Black descent with a Portuguese name. I only have access to three generations. This is really impactful for me, as is living as a woman from the favela, and at the same time not performing femininity; not being feminine but being read as a woman when it’s convenient and as a body in the street painting graffiti.
I digress… we were talking about colors. The pink and blue come from all of that, from dealing with these issues and constructing a vision of the future of historical recognition and understanding the ancestral memory that we see in things like eyebrow slits. I shave a slit into my eyebrow, and in Africa it’s also being done. We have a record of people in Africa shaving slits into their eyebrows dating back to the 1800s, and having one, two, three slits as part of a group identity. Here it’s the same thing, we can identify who’s from what area based on the way a person dresses. People from the same clique have the same style.
The peripheral neighborhoods in Minas Gerais are Black neighborhoods. I speak mostly about Black people, my work tends to go that way because it’s my lived experience. I think that I can talk about what’s close to me, because at the same time that I’m talking about something private, it’s also collective and for me it makes sense to be in the street. As for color I like to saturate it so, so, so much! As much as I can to mark the presence of that person of color in that space. I paint in some spaces where we don’t really have the possibility of going often, in privileged spaces where even though access is technically open to our populations, we don’t have the right to come and go. Being in these spaces of privilege, I think, is a testament to how I’ve been able to hack some things within the system, so I make something big and colorful to demarcate that space and show that a person of color was there. And along with me there are several others.
Being in these spaces of privilege, I think, is a testament to how I’ve been able to hack some things within the system, so I make something big and colorful to demarcate that space and show that a person of color was there.
Digital Brazil Project: What does it mean to you to make these artistic interventions in public?
Wanatta: This is very strong. Actually it’s this: a Black body taking up space. I have some personal issues that make the street kind of a repelling place for me, and I try to shield myself from some things, but when I go to the street to paint, I have the freedom of being in the street because I want to be there and without fear of what might happen. It’s when I feel safe. For me it’s a way to be in the street, showing that I’m there doing something that makes me feel good and that I’m a part of the city. I usually do it with permission because I like to take my time and not rush it. Sometimes I go to an abandoned place and do something that I think needs to be seen, so I go there and do a little something. There was a place near here where I painted and at the time it caused a scene and people were coming and asking me why I was doing what I was doing. It was in an alley that had been destroyed and they cleared out the houses and displaced the residents and put them in apartments. They destroyed the living space of these families to put in a street, but then the street was never put in. So I went there and tagged “Where’s the street, mayor?” And someone passing by yelled, “Hey, girl, do you have permission to do that?” And I replied, “No, this is for us!” I spent a lot of time talking to this upset man who was threatening me, and then some time later I saw a news report that went there to film. People called the news to do a story about that street because the graffiti was pointing out what was going on. The community that had been disrupted by that street that was never constructed, but eventually got used to it because so much time had passed, remembered because of the tag that the project had been abandoned. They started raising awareness and now the street is there. That graffiti wasn’t authorized and it could have gone badly, but there are so many other places like that where there’s no way to get permission because who would you ask? So many abandoned places. Too many houses without people and people without houses. These places need to be seen. I don’t overthink it, I just go there and do it.
There’s a mural here that I didn’t paint, but I worked on the production. It’s a macro-mural that covers 41 houses here at the entry point of my community. It’s immense, and I am so proud of being a part of that project, which was community driven and there was a need to do something there thinking of the urban intervention, which, for me, is about transforming the meaning of spaces and bringing critical thought to the space, and this was a part of the community that was considered the most dangerous area. Growing up here, that was the place that my mom told me not to go near, because it was associated with drug trafficking. I grew up hearing that but I always had a relationship with people from there that wasn’t like that.
Then there was an opportunity proposed by the women from the Agência Pública de Arte, who are the same people who organize Circuito Urbano de Arte (CURA Art), to form a partnership with the community and create this huge mural there with the duo, Cosmic Boys, who are two Brazilian artists that paint all around the world. They were the artists that signed the mural. This project was basically already organized. They had the artists already selected, and we thought, okay, they want to bring in artists from outside to paint in the community, but there should really be people working on it from the community because the work will stay here and we have so many artists here. This is the center of hip hop, so it doesn’t make much sense otherwise. In the end there were 150 people working on the project, everyone getting paid for their work. The funds stayed within the community. We undertook a huge project and the whole community was included. It was a learning experience for the
artists who were just starting out. My students, who are young and who have only been doing graffiti for a little bit, were there working as assistants and learning with the students of other artists so that they could have this experience painting in the community. It was an educational experience. It added value to the community for the youth, for older people, for the businesses; it is the part of the community that has the strongest local commerce, so it wouldn’t have made sense to leave them out. So, I’m very proud of MAMU, the Morro de Arte Mural.
Digital Brazil Project: That sounds like such an important project, and a carefully done project. So often street art festivals end up being gentrification projects where artists from all over the world convene in a neighborhood that’s under-resourced, everyone paints, and then they leave it without ever engaging meaningfully in the community. It’s so important that people from the community were compensated for their labor and that it was a formative learning experience.
Wanatta: Yes, this project really changed the reality of the community. It’s there now and people relate differently to the community after the project because before you had Alto Vera Cruz, Vera Cruz, and Pompeia. Alto Vera Cruz is the periphery, Vera Cruz is a neighborhood, and Pompeia is middle class. People used to say that they lived in Vera Cruz when they went on job interviews or for whatever other reason because Alto Vera Cruz was considered dangerous. Now they say with pride that they live where the big mural project happened and that they live in one of the painted houses. So, it changed the meaning of that space completely. It was so grandiose, with the whole neighborhood working, and it wasn’t gentrification or an effort to just clean up that area. All the neighbors understood the project and participated in it.was something to be proud of.
Digital Brazil Project: You’re part of an artist collective with other women called Amargem Crew. Can you talk about your work in that collective?
Wanatta: We’re four women, me, Fabiana Santana, Zi Reis, and Fênix. Each one of us has our own line of investigation and our own poetics in our work within our own experience. Zi is from the Northeast, so she works with issues related to Northeastern and Latin American women, and that’s her focus. Fênix has a strong connection to spirituality, evolution, personal development, mirrors - things that she says uniquely well, and her work is beautiful and I really admire it. Fabi works with a really original and beautiful cosmovision. It’s very introspective, but it works well in the street and people really embrace it. And within the poetics of each one of us, we try to work collectively without rendering invisible what makes each one of us unique, so we like to do collective murals where each one can show her own identity and respect the history that each one of us carries. And then Zi paints canvases incessantly. Fênix experiments with everything, and she’s the one that’s mostly in the street bombing and doing throw ups, quick things, and marking everywhere, filling the city with “Fênix.” She can work on anything, and she has a great ability to work with all materials. Fabi also works with anything. She comes from woodworking and pyrograph, so she has a close relationship with wood. She paints in the street, but also on wooden panels and she makes leather bags and a million other things. When we get together it’s a spree because we’re four women, each with her own strengths, and we go to the street together and it’s a way to give each other strength and courage. When we’re in the street together, no one can convince us that there won’t be something really great coming out of our meeting. It really is a way to give each other strength. With this kind of collective work we feel more confident. We’ve done work in some places where none of us would have had the courage to go alone and take our time, but we’re there in these spaces, deliberately dialoguing with these spaces to get closer to understanding that reality, and seeing what we can do to contribute so that it can be a better place.
Digital Brazil Project: Has your city, Belo Horizonte, changed much since you got started? Now BH is considered a new capital of street art in Brazil. Does Belo Horizonte have its own visual style? What is the scene like?
Wanatta: It’s a strong scene. Strong and independent. And street art here already does have a visual identity. The artists support each other a lot and there’s consistent production. People here are producing a lot, and have invested in social media to share this work and reach a larger audience. Traditionally, people used to have to leave here and go to other states to grow as artists. What I’ve perceived at least from my generation and referencing the artists I know, like Lídia Viber, DMS, KRol are people who are producing a lot here in Minas to strengthen the local scene and working on the local image. When I got into graffiti, a whole big group of people were starting out at the same time. We need our state to be recognized because here we have the artists, and the artists here are mighty. So, that way there would be less of a need for people to leave here to go create a scene in another place. That would fortify the local scene. The CURA Art Festival was also really important. I think those women were wise to see what was needed to insert CURA in the international circuit of street art, and today they are able to support artists who are from here. They brought artists from outside to make the event known and to bring their art to the capital, which also really counts. Once the circuit was already established, they started to include more artists from Minas. I think that every year they had at least one artist from Belo Horizonte, but this year Lídia Viber was one of the main headlining artists of CURA, and she’s from Minas. They had two from São Paulo and an Indigenous artist who’s based in Brasília, Daiara Tukano. I worked some on her project. I finished working on Robinho Santana’s project and they needed help over there so I migrated over to hers. It was 16 days, 12 with Robinho and four with Daiara. Wow, I think it was the largest building mural ever done by an Indigenous artist, so it was a very important project! They’re able to take people who are rendered invisible by the circuit and put them in the spotlight. CURA is important as are the movements of local artists, real street artists who came from the bottom, who can multiply their work with excellence and make incredible things. Minas de Minas, who are four women from here who do amazing work; PDF Crew, a crew from here who is well respected in all of the scenes, because they do marvelous work. We leave our houses to go look at their murals, just to look and learn. These are things that are helping us. I think that the quality of the artists… and the city government here has policies in place that I hadn’t seen before in other states. In the last few years, I think I’ve done four or five murals for the city, and they help us find spots, too.
Digital Brazil Project: That was actually my next question, if the government supports and encourages street art or if it’s very criminalized in BH?
Wanatta: The truth is, it’s complicated. Really complicated! On one hand they support and incentivize the graffiti artist, and on the other hand they don’t support urban interventions. At the same time that there are graffiti artists painting murals with the support of the city, the city is also carrying out operations to arrest pixadores and there’s a division between pixo and graffiti even though both are on the side of illegality. People haven’t been able to break with that division. Actually this year during the Movimento Gentiliza, a big project here by the first lady of the city with Social Services, we were painting murals for that and on the very same day they were entering and searching the homes of pixadores, they arrested some of them, and it was several operations happening simultaneously. It’s really complicated. And those of us who are on this other side, we try to take advantage of this opening that’s happening to try to raise awareness with the local authorities that it’s just hypocrisy. First, because they charge young people with “visual pollution” when we have walls full of political campaign posters that pollute the city in a far worse way. Pixação has an important role in the city by pointing out the places that have been abandoned by the local authorities.
That makes them uncomfortable. But we try to take advantage of this opening to tell them, “Look, we’re not here to clean up the pixação.” We won’t paint where there is already a pixo tag, because each one has its own story there for people to go there and write that there. You have to dialogue with the street and you can’t ignore these powerful expressions. It’s a huge lack of respect for our brothers that scale a 25-story building stacked up on the shoulders of others, hanging from a rope tied from who knows where to do that, so you have to respect the street. The city, I think, has to deal with this more and more because graffiti artists are raising the issue, and some pixadores are in talks with the city. There’s no way to avoid it, the city is going to realize that they have to include them. CURA already figured out that they had to include pixadores in their programming. They’re all over the buildings of Belo Horizonte, and they were there first. The city is beginning to understand and considering how to dialogue with urban intervention.
Digital Brazil Project: You’re also a teacher. What do you teach and who are your students? How does teaching impact your art work and vice versa?
Wanatta: Yes, it’s a principle of politicized art and the consciousness of hip hop. My trajectory as a teacher is related to that. I mostly work in my community. I teach youth from 12-22 years old. I started teaching really young, at 18. I knew that I knew something, and that it could be a lot of things to other people. I started teaching in a school here after completing the Valores de Minas program that trained me. I started working in public schools in elementary and middle school. I now work with incarcerated youth. Before the pandemic I was working at an institution for girls. Before working in penitentiaries I worked in a state project here in Minas called Fica Vivo, a project that works with at-risk youth. They’re 12-22 years old. I taught graffiti workshops for these youth following the same framework that I had learned; thinking of graffiti as one of the 5 elements of hip hop and to always use the element of consciousness. I’m also in graduate school right now and I’m almost done, but my area of interest is in arts education in the favela. When I think of how the student I work with have been criminalized, I believe that art can be an awakening for them, and it can also be a source of income. Even though we know it won’t be a lot of money and it can’t necessarily take the place of a larger income source, it can at least help them find their voices and to talk about what makes them uncomfortable and reflect on that and on themselves.
Interview and translation by Kristal Bivona.