There are two conditions from which Brazilian-boartist Paulo Nazareth will most likely never suffer: potassium deficiency and male pattern baldness.
The latter was immediately clear once I arrived one recent Friday night at Downtown’s Sala de Espera (Waiting Room) gallery. Drawn to his thick Sideshow Bob-like ’fro, I walked up to Nazareth and introduced myself—not by shaking his hand, but by squeezing his mane with gusto, much like Mr. Whipple manhandled a Charmin roll so many years ago.
The white space was occupied by objects like a ladder, a bicycle, a collection of books and pictures hanging on the walls, all covered in white raffia sacks.
“My father always says it’s better to travel not with suitcases, but with sacks,” he said, adding that it’s his intention to “sack the whole planet.”
In a corner lay the artist’s collection of cardboard signs with sayings like “Thanks Mexicans” and “Free all day,” as well as the show’s eponymous “I clean your bathroom for a fair price,” which he hangs from his neck and walks the streets to document people’s reaction to what they perceive as poverty.
Nazareth was fresh off a stint at Art Basel Miami, where he caused a splash with an interactive installation titled “Banana Market / Art Market,” in which he sold fresh bananas from a Volkswagen Microbus.
He was sharp, articulate and demonstrated a strong knowledge of Latin American history— five minutes into a conversation, it was clear this wasn’t some guy who just decided one day to call himself an “artist.”
Some friends and I had made our way through an 18-pack with Pac-Man-like zeal, so, longing for a less-hazy conversation, I set up a date to meet Nazareth the next day at the gallery space, where they take the term “artist in residence” literally, by inviting him to live there.
I was on time to our meeting, though still in a Tecate stupor. He took a good look at me and said, “I know just the trick.” He whipped up some canja de galinha (chicken soup) sans the galinha—he’s a vegetarian—and we were good to go.
I decided to conduct the interview in Chicano Park, amongst the vivid murals and the towering scaffolds in use for a renovation. The sign he chose to wear that day read, “How is the color of my skin?” It garnered all sorts of attention.
“It’s usually one of two reactions,” he said. “There’s the people who approach me and get a dialogue going, and the ones who just look at me strangely.”
At the park, there were both, from a homeless man who came up to him and fist-bumped to a gentleman who was ready to get into a heated argument over race relations but instead got distracted by Nazareth’s hair.
“I’m gonna call you pelucas. That’s your new name,” the man said, peluca being Spanish for “wig.”
Nazareth said the signs spawned from his Beaux Arts background in college, where he specialized in drawing and engraving, and regardless of the message he’s carrying, he always holds his head high.
“If I clean bathrooms, that’s my business,” he said. “My thinking at the time is I’m a businessman. I’m important, and I’m no less than anyone else.”
Sitting down on a tri-colored bench, he recounted the tails of what was originally meant to be a one-month “travelling residency” for a Brooklyn gallery, and has since turned into a 10-month sojourn that’s taken him from his homeland to across South America, up through Central America, to Cuba and Mexico and a two-day stint in New York, where he camped out with Occupy Wall Street protestors at night and meandered the streets pretending to be lost during the day.
“People assumed I was homeless and gave me change,” he said. “I made good money—two dollars and 73 cents.”
It was in the midst of his journey that his backers, a group of young Brazilian gallerists, contacted him about Art Basel, an event he’d never heard of.
“They told me it was an art fair, a market of sorts,” he said. “So, I decided I’d sell bananas.”
Playing the role of an “exotic man,” bare feet and all, he sold the fruit at $10 a pop. He’d also sign them at the buyer’s request, instantly turning them into pieces of art.
Some complained about the price, but, as Nazareth put it, it was the cheapest thing there. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m the banana man, not Santa Claus.’
“It was my critique on the concept of banana republics,” he said, citing, for example, Guatemala and the fruit’s role in its revolution, agrarian reform and “unjust industry appropriation.”
His simplistic approach made headlines, and the next day he was featured in The New York Times. The Miami Herald dubbed his installation one of the expo’s “must-see events.” Muddy feet and all, he was admitted to the VIP area and partied alongside Robert De Niro and the like.
Up next, he said, is a longer journey, from Guatemala all the way to Manhattan in a banana-loaded van that will follow the route taken by illegal Central American immigrants.
His ultimate goal with the project?
“Sell some bananas. When it’s all said and done, bananas bring a certain joy with them. Maybe if everyone ate a banana, people would be happier and wars would stop.”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Enrique blogs at elzonkeyshow.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @enriquelimon.