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Cecê Nobre talks about his life, his art and being a cultural cannibal

The immense and inscrutable faces of three indigenous children staring down at me from the side of the building command my instant attention as I walk into the grounds of United World College Thailand in northern Phuket.


Mark Knowles

Sunday 21 May 2017, 11:00AM


Approaching the giant mural, which covers the wall to the top of the second floor, I make out a paint-streaked man atop a scaffold shouting down to a group of children hovering excitedly around its base.

“Can you please bring me up a can of brown paint?” he shouts.

The kids quickly run over to a box filled with spray cans and begin reading paint labels up to him.

“Is it Adobe Clay? Fox Tail… Or is it Madorras Brown?” they yell in turn.

“That’s the one, bring it up,” he said.

A child quickly scrambles up to the first level of the scaffolding and strains up to hand over the can in question.

Opening and shaking the fresh can, the man continues to paint the fine details of a child’s nose with quick strokes of his arm, all the while answering questions from his young devotees below.

The avuncular man on the scaffold is Cecê Nobre, a Bangkok-based Brazilian-American street artist and muralist.

His easy manner with the children is owing to his day job as an art teacher at an international school in Bangkok.

He was invited by local art enthusiast Sandy Porter, whose children attend UWCT, to bring some more colour and life to the school grounds.

During a quick break from his painting, I took the opportunity to have a chat with Cecê about his complicated cultural background and how it has inspired his art.

I started off by asking him where he was from.

“I was born in Brazil, my mum is from the USA and my Dad is from Paraguay. I was raised in the United States but my parents raised me with a Brazilian identity. So, I claim Brazil, even though most of my life was in the USA,” says Cecê.

Growing up in “cowboy country” in Missouri, Cecê says his childhood was “pretty rough”, being raised mostly by his American mother and knowing little about his father’s Paraguayan heritage, he became obsessed with learning more about his South American roots.

“I knew that I was different, but I wasn’t entirely sure how. As a kid, I was obsessed with maps, geography and National Geographic. I was always studying these different cultures. When I went to university and then became a painter, I kept doing that. So culture and cultural identity has always been important to me,” he says.

Like his recent mural at UWCT, much of Cecê’s art features indigenous people, often close-up portraits of distinctive individual faces, resplendent in their face-paint, tribal clothing and jewellery. Cecê says this fascination with other cultures and peoples has run throughout his life and led him to study Cultural Anthropology at university.

“I was always attracted to the exotic – not just indigenous peoples or tribal people – but places like China and Persia where they have really strong cultures. When I went to university I studied Anthropology and Linguistics.

"I had no background in art, I never really wanted to become an artist, it just came about after I graduated from college, as a personal challenge to try to paint,” he says.

After graduating university, Cecê moved to Paraguay to get in touch with his roots and experience life outside of the US. It was during this time he began painting using cheap paint and materials he’d scavenged from the street.

“I got an apartment in Paraguay after I graduated. I was 22, it had an exposed concrete wall and I thought, ‘Ah, I want to cover this up’. It felt really therapeutic, putting down layers of paint and afterwards I was really pleased with it.

"I started drawing pictures and then I started to paint. In Paraguay, canvas is very expensive. I used to go on the street where people would throw away pieces of wood, or old frames, and I would take them, clean them up and paint on those. After years of painting on wood and scraps, I wanted to paint walls. I was like, I want to paint something big!” he exclaims.

After Paraguay Cecê returned to Washington DC where he got his first paid gig as a mural artist. A local community art project selected him out of 30 applicants to paint a mural on a large wall in his neighbourhood.

“I had no experience painting walls. I was using acrylic paint and I was just stabbing it with a brush. It took me forever... like two weeks to do it. Being naïve at the time, I’d thought my prize was painting the wall.

"I didn’t know it was a paid gig. The guy gave me a cheque at the end of it. It was for $1,475. I was like, what’s this? We get paid for this?” he exclaims.

With this boost in confidence and cash flow, Cecê turned his attention to his personal cultural touchstone – Brazil – picking up stakes again to move to the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro.

“I’d just got paid from my job as well, so I thought, what am I going to do? I’m going to move to Rio, I’m going to go to a slum, and I’m going to learn how to do graffiti.

"I’d been talking with a friend online, who’d been working for an NGO in a slum in Rio, a Brazilian guy. He was a painter, and he said, ‘Come, you can just live with me’ and I was like, ‘Done’,” he explains.

Brazil is a haven for street artists and graffiti culture and the six months Cecê spent there helped inspired his colourful Tropicalist style as well the philosophy underlying his art.

“In Brazil, even though there is the graffiti style, like painting your name and things like that, it was more artistic, there is much more illustration and portraiture and things like I do now.

“I was always keeping in mind certain tribes that I liked . Their style, the way they look, the look in their eyes... I liked their stoicism. And I started to find connections between them. Also with my own heritage – my father was from the Guarani tribe in Paraguay.

“In Brazil we have a philosophy of cultural cannibalism. Before colonialism, there was cannibalism... the belief was that if you went to battle and you killed their strongest warrior or chief everybody in the village would eat a piece of him out of respect for him,” explains Cecê.

Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade first put forward this idea of “cultural cannibalism”, arguing that Brazil’s history of “cannibalising” other cultures is its greatest strength, a way for Brazil to assert itself against European post-colonial cultural domination.

Cecê also sees this “cannibalism” at work within Thai culture and religion, with Buddhism overlaying even older religions and belief systems such as Hinduism, Taoism and Animism – absorbing and incorporating them into the cultural fabric of modern Thai life.

He says this was part of the reason he wanted to live here and learn more about Eastern ways of living.

“I saw in my heart that Thailand is like the Brazil of Asia – there is a lot of overlap. As with Malaysia and Indonesia, they are syncretic. They were mixing little pieces together,” he says.

This concept of “cultural cannibalism” struck a deep chord with Cecê, besides inspiring his painting, it has sown the seeds of his new artistic vision – to create new, hybrid culture, inspired by ideas taken from many cultures and manifested in functional objects such as jewellery, clothing and even buildings.

“The concept behind my art is a culture called Kilombu and my plan is to disseminate this culture through functional art. I wanted a new way to approach art, to expand from trying to communicate only through paintings and by making art that can be used in everyday life; it keeps my creativity fresh,” says Cecê.

“I felt if I make a culture, then I need to produce everything in the culture so it can be seen. As I go to new countries, as I meet new people, I ask them questions about what they like most about their culture. I ask them to contribute and it continues to grow,” he says.

“It’s a bigger project than painting... it’s functional art. I didn’t actually want to create a culture but I wanted to create all the things that are in a culture.

"So that’s everything from clothing, to architecture, to musical instruments, to vehicles, even designs of cutlery, the inside of their house, the layouts of their cities, their interactions with animals around them and their interactions with the Earth – like how do they use the flowers and crops to produce certain things.

"I’m really interested now in architecture, I want to start to build structures where I incorporate all these things," he adds


With any luck Phuket might be able to observe this next step in Cecê’s artistic evolution close up.

“It seems like Phuket is a place where I’ll be coming to work every few months. I would like to move to Phuket. I have a family now, so the stuff that used to interest me about Bangkok, like the nightlife, doesn’t really interest me anymore.”

This writer certainly looks forward to seeing more of Cecê’s distinctive murals contributing to Phuket’s rapidly emerging street art scene.

 

To see more of his art follow Cecê on social media at: facebook.com/islandofkilombu or instagram.com/island_of_kilombuand to enquire about commissioning a mural email him at: cecenobre@gmail.com

 

 

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