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Interview with Aislan Pankararu by Rodrigo Villela

In 2021, I got a direct message on Instagram from artist Aislan Pankararu. He wanted to schedule an informal conversation. The young doctor was interested in better understanding the art world. Then we had a Zoom meeting to talk. One week after that, as a newly formed physician, Aislan moved from Brasília to Boiçucanga for an artistic residency at Kaaysá, when I was coordinating the program. During those days of intense interactions, attentive eyes, and open heart – endless jokes as well –, he kept in contact with artists in different moments of their trajectories, working with various supports, techniques, researches… Aislan learned so quickly how to stretch a canvas and started showing total nimbleness in his paintings. Since then, I follow his work in progress, and his evolution in the artistic field. Currently he lives in São Paulo, being represented by an important gallery, and his work has circulated in institutions and private collections. To celebrate his website launching, we had this interview-like talk in my place, in November 2022:


​What is art for you?

Art is a complement of my being. It is a need for expression, it is where I come from. It is a necessity to materialize what I do. Art is a way for me to express, an urge to give myself a visibility place, to put out "this thing" I have inside me, delivering it to people. It is a way to establish contact, exchange among people. As a healing process for me as well as for who is affected by my work.


And what is medicine for you?

Medicine is also art, another way to materialize an energy of caring, exchange. This energy is a power I carry, and an urge that I externalize through different manners. I have dedicated ten years of my life to medicine, from college to my current activity as a doctor. I went to medicine because I wanted to make a living as a doctor, it was my dream. It was the accomplishment of a high position. There is a nostalgic issue about my family too. As my mother always had to cross long distances to have an appointment with a specialist, I wish I could change that.

For me, art is healing because human beings are always looking for something, they always have doubts, and want answers for everything. Art offers a possibility to soothe that anxiety for discovering new things, and to respect that process. Art as a kind of therapy.


What do you see as transformative in the arts?

This process itself and the path art follows to reach people. As a therapy, in an emotional field. For me it is an openness to a new world that was closed for me. Now I am opening this gate, and letting everything flow as it should be. I did not have maturity to deal with that before. Today, I have more knowledge to get along with all this.


When did art, such a creative flow, start to appear in your life?

The first time I realized I was expressing myself artistically was back in my childhood, growing up in Petrolândia, Pernambuco. I have always had a certain aptitude to draw, and other kids at my age used to question if those drawings were actually mine. This flow was suppressed due to some conditions, as being in the countryside, and not finding a place to express that fluidity. When I was a child there was no encouragement to that.


When you were a kid, what supports and materials did you use to draw with?

At school, I used the material they provided. Paper, card, notebook, colored pencil. In 2005, as a teenager, I had the opportunity to bring it out. It was a small party and they made a challenge of drawing, and painting connected to fashion design. I got a first position for fashion, and a second for painting. The painting was a landscape, like a rain forest with the sea, I made it with gouache. It was a landscape I imagined, then I wanted to make it. That was my first recognition – I still have the trophy, I bring it with me. Although the compliments, I understood that just as school work. But after that I closed the gate again. That time I was helping my parents a lot in the field. There was no space nor time for that to happen. A life full of responsibilities. There were ludic activities only during creative moments, organizing the house, helping mom and my sister to dress well. In my adolescence I was already feeling I was different, but I suppressed that. For me, it was associated with a tough life I did not want for myself anymore. I did not want any label.


And how did the issue of affection intervene in your artistic production?

I was afraid of expressing myself creatively and being seen as gay. This was a break in the process. But while I did not decide I wanted to have an insertion in the arts, I couldn’t calm down. In 2019, I started an internship at the medicine school that helped me to relax. It was like a short circuit, a nostalgic thing, then I started to draw again. I was in Brasília as an undergraduate student in medicine school, far from my source, my family, and cosmological context, far from the caatinga, and from Pankararu people. Because of this homesickness, this lack I felt, I started filling this emptiness with art. And that came along with the discovery of my affectivity. There is a work picturing two indigenous men, one from the North, other from the Northeast, they are kind of kissing each other, like dating. There is something juicy there! 


Besides the homesickness, what do you see since 2019 that made space for you to start producing artworks?

The lack of belonging. The geographic distance, the coldness of the medical field, everything was so hard for me. Too much rigidity. Thus, I needed to express myself, to avoid going crazy. I use art exactly to try balancing this feeling, and to understand myself, making myself understandable as well. A new way to present myself, for people to know what I am doing artistically. I was not involved in research projects in medicine, and I was already questioning myself about the figure of doctors. All these were so hard to me, so I started looking for another perspective, another field to feel accomplishment. Everything was instinctive, almost ritualistic, a trance, a way to feel I am alive. In the beginning of my creative process I was looking for a cure. And I wanted to share it with people. It can sound naive, but that is how it is. Without structural planning, a loose thing, free. This is what I want to share with people. This is what connects people to my work.


Nowadays, do you see yourself working in another field rather than art?

No, I am an artist. Art means a lot to me. It is the way I can manifest my instinctive being. I became a doctor in early 2021. It was so complex to study medicine, it demanded a lot from me. I wanted to be a family doctor or a dermatologist. All this is past now. I couldn’t see myself where I am now, with a career as an artist. But I wanted to change my path. Today I am showing my work in an exhibition at the Itaú Cultural. When could I imagine I would participate in a collective exhibition in a big institution on Paulista Avenue? For a guy to make this decision, something strong has to be going on there. Desire, a wish to see my work on display, circulating. To make “this thing”, this energy or flow, run around. Maybe a kind of calling?


And how do you express this calling?

How? Making! With paints and brush. Making My work is charging this maturing of my trajectory. Medicine shaped me. Since I have started working on the human body, understanding its interior, organs, micro- and micro-cellular physiology. My school of fine arts was medicine. This was my education track.


There is a whole plastic experimentation in your work that can be connected to cells or blood movements. Which relation do you see between your artwork and the human body?

Only when I finish a work that requires some kind of analysis. The germinating waves that come to me I can understand later. I do not think when I am making it, I just do it. It is just starting and it flows.  It is an inner wish. The fractal waves, the tiny balls, they are all related to an aesthetic appeal in fluid energy. A trance strongly connected to my people. Many are fragments of my people’s body paintings, but in my own way to make them. I take this visual information and recreate it. That is the way I can express my identity, talk about my people, our cosmovision, bringing and highlighting the culture of people from the semi-arid region, then its biome powerfully comes into my work.

When I was a kid, I used to participate in many rituals, and to play the Menino do Rancho (Ranch Boy, wearing a hat-helmet made of Palm Licuri tree leaves), and the Praiá (wearing clothes made of Caroá fiber). People painted me with a holy paint that has its own way to be applied. But Menino do Rancho was a game. A moment I could freely express myself. Playing. Dancing. Participating in all these movements. I could face the praiá, so they could not cross the sides.

Nowadays, when I am painting I experience freedom. This creates many connections to my work because I bring elements of my culture within it. Even when I cannot see direct relations there is a relative (another indigenous person) who comes to tell me some relation they see.


How is your relationship to other indigenous communities?

I want to be with my people.


In this moment we see a revision based on identities, and affiliations, how do you see your work?

My work has the potentiality of divine representation, that of my people from the semi-arid region, this other universe that was forgotten. It is a naive and strong process, but my art is not constrained by that. This is not a subject I see as exclusive, mandatory. I do not want my work to be seen only as a mouthpiece for activism.  Currently, who has space and gives visibility to our artworks is always trying to label us in some way. But I refuse these labels.

Throughout Brazil’s history, native people have been eroded too much to keep fighting, to survive. When someone wants to give visibility to our work only approaching death and blood, to teach us, telling us how it must be… It cannot field that. Other parts of society must abracing that as well. Intellectuals, anthropologists, white, and black people, everybody. What is connecting me to these movements are the possibilities that were looted from us since colonization. It is a slow reparation. This process is very important to me, a way we can be seen from another perspective, under other logics, other approaches. From a wider frame, having a role in this moment is a way to contribute with another way to see the country.


What is your connection to the movements for identity affirmation?

The possibilities to change, the revindication for space, reconnecting with a place that was seized since colonization. It is a gradual reparation. And it is important because it is a way to bring a new vision concerned with our trajectory as a group and the trajectories of each of us. It is a demand, but the manner structures are including our works is usually complex. Our work does not fit in demands. It is natural, organic. Including us just to approach death, resilience, our fight to exist, this is contestable.


How did Jaider Esbell’s work and death impact your vision?

Although a very fast change related to the revision of art collections, unfolding in the increasing presence of native people in the visual arts, in the institutions, I see Jaider as a kind of lawyer. He was inside it, being represented by a prestigious gallery, well positioned, he was very strong and representative. He was so powerful, bringing an energetic flow. There was not a program: there is a canvas to make it, then make it, work on that energy. We are similar in that sense of cultivating an ancestral charge. With him I could see the possibility of exchange through the work.


Back to your paintings, you have monochromatic works, in white, in black, with some colorful points. And you manage colors with such fluidity…

I see the complexity of expressing my own being in my work, but I still struggle with the idea of adapting it to other people’s expectations. I don’t want to find a formula or a recipe. I want to work on multiple possibilities. That is an inner thing that drives me! If a tiny ball is the element giving unity in my work, connecting everything, it is okay. The little dots are a synthesis of holy body painting, and it is also the cellular nucleus, light, flow, things that do not fix, a mystery. That is it. My work has this fluidity.


Right before starting this interview, you were commenting on how works by Hudinilson and Leonilson have impacted you. How much you identify with their production. Why?

Leo and Hudinilson… Hudinilson had this urge to have a space for his work, a wish to have it recognized, giving visibility to his making process. How he used his own body is something I consider, I think this is common to us. In Leonilson I see how he put emotions in his work. How he approached loneliness, love, homossexual desire, the being with doubts about the future. Then, these histories are connected someway. They make me thoughtful, happy, and moved.


Who are the other artists that impacted you?

In a more properly physical issue, the materialization of the work, I like Tuga’s work a lot. I think we have a similarity or something in common that is magnetism. Something putting accomplishment and desire together, what most attracts me about his work is materiality. The webs of cords, the germinative waves, a whole trajectory… These are things that I see our works have in common, or that I would like to have in my work.


What are the highlights of your still-short trajectory?

The most important: respecting this thing that moves me to the arts. Changing, taking a different path. I arrived here, that is it, now I want to change. My artistic production has been very well received. The shock of vision was in the Kaaysá residency. There, I could understand that art is as complex as medicine is. Everything depends on trajectory. Everything is labored and both fields are worthy. Seeing this possibility, being in touch with artists with longer trajectories, who have worked with other media, other materials, being in such an environment full of exchanges was the biggest boom I have ever experienced. This was a fundamental step to invest more in the artistic career. I have my inner protocols, and I have seen this world has a net of protocols. The impact of this vision on me is that of a compelled maturing, natural and fast.


How do you see yourself now?

There are so many things happening at the same time. I am just going with the flow…


Ailton Krenak has approached the relation white people have with nature, a disconnection, as if not part of it. But for indigenous people everything is integrated. How do your identity reverberate in your current work?

Identity comes with my work. For me this is easy. I know where I came from, my belonging, I use this relation someway and this nourishes me. It strengthens my individuality as well as my belonging to a collectivity. My identity is attached to nature. It is an extremely rich soil for me, in an ‘aislanian’ way, but it is the cultivation of an internal field of exaltation of my nature, this specific biome of the caatinga, in my case. This is a very strong subject in work, expressing a nostalgia of my biome, its smell, its presence. This is all there in my work.


Most recently you created a collection for Tok&Stok. How do design is articulated with your artistic work?

I love design and fashion. For me there is no hierarchy among them. Everything is at the same level of creation. Some are in drawings and go to the canvas. Others become a candle pot that people take home. That is it, I believe I am ready. 


Now you just started being represented by a big gallery, Galatea. You are also moving to another house, a house-studio, with space for your creation. How are these changes affecting your work?

I am seeing this moment with excitement, it has boosted me to make new experiments, to paint, to dialogue more with myself. To breath more. To have more walls, more space. The moment requires this expansion of my work.


Where do you use to go physically, and geographically to find nourishment to your work?

It is more internal… Everything is linked to my origin, the place I came from. There is a calling to go there, to look for this source, and to drink from it. I always go back there emotionally to create. I am always there. I need to go back there right now, for instance, but physically. It is where I go back to create. My artworks happen like that.


What is the greatest thing you have learned in the art world so far?

It is hard because I do not have patience. Everything about you, white people, is production, right? And I do produce. But the most important is believing that this compensation, the answers for my questions, comes from the making process. To calm down anxiety and perceive the answers I am looking for come from the work. The making and the exchange it can create with people. That is it.

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