How Artist Maxwell Alexandre Tackles Black Identity in Debut U.S. Solo Exhibit ‘Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power'

By Bianca Gracie | November 15, 2022


The artistic representation of Black people continues to be a focal and important conversation in contemporary art, with creators spanning across the diaspora showcasing their interpretations of our lived experiences. Most recently, acclaimed Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre is sharing his own story with his debut North American solo exhibition, Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power.

Showing at The Shed in New York City, the exhibit (which is on view through January 8, 2023) is a stunningly introspective collection of “Black communities and social life in Rio de Janeiro” whose inspiration derives from “Alexandre’s own memories of living in one of the largest Brazilian favelas, Rochina.”

Below, Alexandre shares with EDITION the deeper socio-political messaging behind his debut U.S. solo exhibit and how it connects with the rest of the Black diaspora and religion.

DSC_7103.jpgInstallation view: Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power, The Shed, New York, October 26, 2022–January 8, 2023. Artwork © Maxwell Alexandre. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy The Shed.

As this is your debut North American exhibit, can you discuss the importance of bridging the gap between Black Americans and other Black people in the international diaspora (like in Brazil), especially as we share the same struggles with identity?

I sincerely do not know enough about the reality of Black people’s lives in the United States,but there is something interesting in your question, which is the idea of a bridge. The Pardo é Papel series is where I speculate about the future of ascension and glory for Black communities, and this exhibition has constantly been self-affirming that. I believe this is taking place just when the series is becoming self-referential, since when I began this work I also mapped out the professions that allow for upward social mobility in Brazil, and we know that in our reality this takes place mostly through music and sports, such as soccer, for example. But never through contemporary art, as this is a field that is not normally part of the mindset of Black people or those in the urban outskirts in Brazil. Thus, economic ascension through contemporary art, as happened with me, is relevant more in terms of symbolic and intellectual capital.

It is interesting to think about this place which has still not been conquered by us and is the quintessence of white culture. I also think about how whenever I have shown Pardo é Papel,n my work has managed to bring a different sort of public to the museums and galleries – people who don’t usually go there. This is a very relevant and perhaps entirely new phenomenon. And when this takes place, I see that the prophecy of this exhibition is coming.

At The Shed, when Novo Poder and A Vitória Gloriosa come together, face-to-face, sharing the same room, this has all the power of mirroring. Because Pardo é Papel points to Novo Poder, to this already manifested prophecy, and when you enter Novo Poder and see the Black figures inside the white space, with brown rectangles in the background – that is, when we come upon this community appreciating contemporary art in a tranquil way, very much at ease inside these temples, I am also precisely mirroring that period of Pardo é Papel, which is A Vitória Gloriosa. And I want the maximum number of Black people to visit the exhibition and see themselves there. This is a further process of mirroring.

What are the most important themes in your artwork that specifically reflect the Black empowerment or struggles seen in Brazil?

The rise of Black communities and the conquest of spaces of symbolic power are the key themes of my current production.

DSC_7109.jpgInstallation view: Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power, The Shed, New York, October 26, 2022–January 8, 2023. Artwork © Maxwell Alexandre. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy The Shed.

How do rap culture and music inspire the works seen in this exhibit? Did you turn to any specific albums or songs?

The entire Pardo é Papel series is inspired by rap albums, specifically three rappers whom Ichose as linchpins in the beginning of the series, in 2017. They are Baco Exu do Blues (from Bahia), Djonga (from Minas Gerais) and BK (from Rio de Janeiro). In that period I was listening to the three first albums by these artists and was greatly impressed by the poetic quality they brought to the national rap scene, which has been passing through a very advanced process of whitening. These artists, like myself, represent a new generation of Black artists.

I was very much addicted to the poetic quality they brought, so when I began to understand that we were talking about the same things through different platforms, the connection was so strong that their art crossed through and into my creative process. I therefore brought in other methodologies that sprang from listening to their lyrics, from the translation that I made of them, in order to then transform those translations into painting. At that moment I was profoundly interested in this since traditionally it is common for visual artists to be informed by European poetry by authors like Calvino, Kant, Kafka... So when I fuel my artistic production with lyrics by Brazilian Black poets with life experiences very similar to my own, I am making an affirmation in counterpoint to the prevailing art history.

Another thing I consider very important for my artistic practice is that music fascinates me because it manages to enter everywhere, unlike painting, which is inherently a more elitist field. In this sense, rap, which is one of the voices of the urban outskirts, makes the works of artists such as Djonga, BK or Baco common among the streets of the favela. This contributed strategically to my work, since I am keenly interested in bringing the look and presence of the favela community into the environment of museums and galleries, which at that time already referred to the idea of Novo Poder. I think that rap served for me as a sort of intermediation tool or bridge between the Black community and these spaces for the contemplation of contemporary art.

Are there any messages you hope viewers take away from this exhibit?

The inner things really move my work, which might sound a bit romantic, but this truly is my fuel. This is why I avoid creating expectations about what people will find in my production. I am aware that my artistic side is always very present, so I seek not to think about what sort of message people will get out of my art.

But thinking about what Novo Poder is for us, the Black community, if there is a message, it would be: we must occupy the places for the legitimation of contemporary art, we need to consider this place, as it holds a high concentration of symbolic capital. We need to conquest these places where the origin of culture and aesthetic appreciation was developed, all those things that are superfluous for existence – that is, art and philosophy. So we need to be very mindful of this since we have been trained not to look at these places.

DSC_7212.jpgInstallation view: Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power, The Shed, New York, October 26, 2022–January 8, 2023. Artwork © Maxwell Alexandre. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy The Shed.

Can you share more about the significance of using pardo in your work? For me, using that material signifies you taking ownership of Blackness and stripping away previous stereotypes.

The term pardo was used in Brazil for a long time to denote skin tone. That is to say, it was a way for you to classify a Black person with lighter skin. But this term, the product of a national eugenicist policy, was born as one of many tools for maintaining the racial structure in which we live. In recent decades the term pardo has been very much discussed by the Black movements and has become such a very strong and relevant phenomenon that the term pardo has taken on a pejorative connotation in these spaces.

In the Pardo é Papel series, pardo has a further meaning: it is the kind of paper I use (kraft paper), as well as the color of that paper (brown), on which I paint the stories and narratives of the abundance, upward mobility and victory of Black figures. That is where I affirm that place of celebration and dignity of the Black color on the pardo color. In the Novo Poder sub-series, the word pardo becomes a synonym of art, as a semiotic outcome based on visual communication rather than the idea of race. Now the series is working only with three basic signs: the Black represented by the characters; the white, which refers to the “white cube,” i.e., the exhibition space itself; and pardo, the color of the paper that holds the art.

To me, art can be a form of spiritual self-expression and healing. I read that you grew up in an Evangelical Christian home, have your views on faith/religion changed as you grow as an artist?

Like you, I also believe that art has something of spiritual healing. I was born and grew up within an evangelical religious education, but today I am an artist. That is to say, art is my new religion.

Photography by: Maxwell Alexandre portrait by Gui Gome; Installation views: Artwork © Maxwell Alexandre, photos by Adam Reich, courtesy The Shed