A Shy Happening: An interview with Alexandre Sequeira Lima.
Michael Langan talks with Alexandre Sequeira Lima about queering the political and politicising the queer.
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I first encountered the work of the Portuguese artist Alexandre Sequeira Lima at a group show of Queer Art in Lisbon in 2013, I Am This Also. His paintings were like someone calling noisily to you across the room – someone vibrant, charismatic, and perhaps a little unnerving. Alex himself is a rather like this – an artist who inhabits his vision and lives his art, absolutely.
Recently, Alex was included in an exhibition at the Bermondsey Project in London, Art Stabs Power (Se Que Vayans Todos!), a group show curated by Ines Valle, that highlights artists from Portugal, Mozambique and the UK, who are engaged with the global political and economic crisis. Alex’s painting, Op Pop Power, was the only work in the show with queer subject matter. “This picture contains allusions to the Nazi aesthetic and the way it used homoerotic symbols,” he tells me, “as well as a burlesque of the naked figure of Stalin trying to play with his genitals. He’s a masturbatory parody of the nature of power and dictatorships. The painting takes the figures of speech and the power of Nazi aesthetics and focuses on the absurdity of dictatorial regimes. I felt it was important to revisit this subject because in Europe today we are seeing a growth in the use of the same symbols of National Socialism and totalitarian regimes.” In this work, and in others, it’s clear Alex is very interested in queering the political and politicising the queer.
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I also spoke to him about a recent solo exhibition of his paintings at a gallery in Lisbon. The white-walled space was transformed with a riot of colour and flesh through work that has elements of Pop Art, graffiti and Dada. The paintings put me in mind of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol’s early illustrations, and that great gay outsider artist, Henry Darger. Alex certainly credits Warhol as being a major influence on him, in fact, he believes all art has been influenced by Warhol. “His was really the second breakthrough in modern art,” he says. “Behind all the myths about him, he was a marvellous drawer and a wonderful film maker. He didn’t like conceptual art but he made conceptual art in painting and that paradox was a brilliant idea.”
Like Warhol, Alex brings lots of different elements into his visual vocabulary, from advertising, news, politics and pop culture. Together they clash and create sparks, which makes for very energetic paintings. I asked him if, when he’s working, he knows what the references are going to be beforehand? “No, that would be very dangerous. I allow myself to play with my unconscious self but there mustn’t be too much information. Sometimes I put things out in separate elements so it’s not too much. Apart from Warhol I would say that the main influences in my work came from comics and literature and stills from films; still after still after still, which I translate until they become terrifying. You can break it down until you find the sublime and then find yourself in that.”
And does he himself describe the work as Pop? “Of course it’s Pop! If it’s Dada it’s Pop. It’s a kitschy way of illustrating that, like the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, contains a sense of burlesque. There are Portuguese comics in there, and films, Antonioni and politics, a little bit of memories of my mother, a statement about Nazism, angels…” I ask if the angel is a religious symbol for him, or a Pop reference? “Both and neither,” is his response.
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I wondered if Alex sometimes feels pressure to add or subtract things to the work to make more palatable to a mainstream audience. “I don’t try to do that,” was his reply, “I just put it out there as it is, as my lifestyle, even me as a person. I think I am a Dadaism, do you know what I mean? I’m always playing to see what happens. I could call myself a ‘shy happening’. Shy because I must contain myself sometimes, because you can’t always play yourself twenty-four hours a day. The part is being you and being a work of art at the same time.”
The relationship between Alex’s art and life is that the latter follows the demands of your former. If the work demands he paint for fourteen hours without a break then that’s what he does. It takes it out of him, in terms of his health, but also his interactions with people and the world in general. “The time doesn’t count,” he says. “I feel tired and crabby, drink too much caffeine perhaps, but I can’t separate the work from the person. I’m playing myself, my persona is playing with myself. I’ve been beaten up because of who I am and because of my work. But I don’t give a damn.”
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There’s also something child-like about Alex, but not in an innocent or sentimental way. It’s the anarchic energy of the child that Alex has retained, the snap, crackle and pop of the fizzing mind. “I always think of my childhood. I’ve painted myself as a teenager, reading Genet, and Cocteau and discovering that you can be what you want. I read a lot of comic books also.” I note how he translates the violence and sport within comic books, to highlight the notion of play and the erotic. A lot of the works are quite sexy, I begin to say, and he interrupts me with, “They are indeed. It’s a sexy world!” Some of the paintings are sexy-funny and some are sexy-confrontational and I wonder what his reference points are in these particular works. “Some of them are people I know,” he says, “or male models, or part of comics, bits of Kenneth Anger, or people I made up. My brother is in there also, because he used to be a bit homophobic, but he isn’t any more. He likes my work now.”
It’s still the case in the contemporary art world that showing the naked male body is problematic and provocative for many. Overtly queer art is seen as marginal and therefore not very commercial. “We have few spaces to expose this kind of work,” he tells me. “In my life it’s no big deal, but in the art world it’s much more difficult. I don’t want to have a label, but if I have a queer identity, why shouldn’t I play with that? Didn’t Warhol, who did it so well?”
And is his work a celebration of that? “Of course, of identity, but more than that, of sexual identity specifically. But it’s difficult because, in Portugal, we don’t have the same level of speech in relation to queer culture as in the UK, for example. But it’s more than a label, it’s a way of being. But I must be clever, and manage myself. The last few years of my life have been quite bad but I never stopped making art. I always fight and I always win.”
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