The Brazilian artist Daniel Melim is Exploring the Intersection of Art, Activism, and Urban Expression
an interview by Laura Rago
"I start on an adding up account: the need for expression + the need for communication + the need for action + the need for pleasure = Fine Arts."
As Mário de Andrade stated this equation in the first part of "A Escrava que Não É Isaura" [The Slave Girl who Is Not Isaura] (1922-1925), whose result was poetry, I could borrow his formula to try to describe Daniel Melim's visual arts. However, I would add the present (historical + social + political + economic + cultural) context of the artist born in the late 1970s in São Bernardo do Campo, the main territory of the ABC region located in the Metropolitan Area of São Paulo. The city was marked by significant industrial development as an organisation of production and a type of trade union action specific to the working class.
Daniel Melim's work is inscribed in the inevitable intersection of these various layers of references to his reality. His production can be located within this totality. And let it be clear: this text is a balance of the artist's journey through his steps on production, which is in constant progress.
An artist's production is inseparable from the interconnections between the time and space in which it took place. In turn, these relationships become a way of expressing forms of social organisation sustained by narratives of the historical moment, thus revealing ontological concepts of that particular context.
Daniel Melim was born in 1979 in the Ferrazópolis neighbourhood of Jardim Leblon in a street of houses occupied by many families from different parts of Brazil. These families moved there because of the region's industrial boom, and there were two terreiros [sacred spaces for worshipping the Orixás, name of the African Gods and Goddesses] - one of Umbanda and the other of Candomblé. Melim was a son of a Volkswagen metalworker father and a primary school teacher mother. From an early age, he had a very close relationship with a couple of his parents' friends who became his uncles of consideration and a great influence in his life. "Uncle Pedro was very engaged; he was always on a striking front", Melim recalls.
The artist took part in some strikes with his mother, who had a keen political conscience and no one to leave him with, in these situations. As a child, he had much access to books, and the illustrations always caught his attention. While still in primary school, he drew for the school newspaper. As he was an assiduous reader of comics, he loved to create stories for his mother.
In 1992, when he was only 13 years old, Daniel Melim started going to the first skateboarding lane in São Bernardo, located in the city's central region and had an aesthetic appearance characterised by the pixo and the graffiti. He met the stencil there, which was the predominating street art technique in that space. The interventions were made by names that became very well known in the urban scene of ABC, such as Jorge Tavares, Job Leocadio, Marcio Fidelis, Vado do Cachimbo, Celso Gitahy, Ozi Duarte and Numa Ramos.
Fascinated by those drawings that valued repetition and illustration, Melim began to try to reproduce them on his own. He rescued traces of the comics language to illustrate his first character, a figure of a woman crying. In the sequence, he made a man screaming. "The idea was to make a small stencil sized as a sulphite sheet which would have an impact and some appeal," he says. "The Conan, The Barbarian magazine in B&W (black and white) was also a reference. As you cut the comic by removing the image from its original function and covering it with spray, you transform the figure and create a new context, deploying a new narrative. The irony of the stencil is that the person who makes it is more properly an image editor than a cartoonist. At first, I used to mark the place and the paths where I passed, something more territorial. Only later did I understand the power of applying the stencil to the city", says Melim.
He graduated from ETE Lauro Gomes [State Technical School Lauro Gomes] and worked for four years with industrial mechanics. "I used to do maintenance of measuring equipment for a company in the region". He even studied at an engineering college for six months, but he saw right away he was in the wrong area. "At the same time, I was taking a course on comics at ABRA [Brazilian Academy of Art], and Professor Rubens Souza was a great incentive for me to start thinking about another field of work". At that time, he decided on the friend's recommendation to study art education at FATEA [Integrated College of Teresa d'Avila] in Santo André. "It was something more tangible because then I could teach, which means I would have more possibilities in the professional market than simply being an artist". During this period, he met Rodrigo Souto, who is also known as Maionese [Mayo]. "He had a lot of information about art, graffiti, and the aesthetic notion of hip-hop. (In one of the meetings,) he showed me a magazine edited by the duo OSGEMEOS [famous duo of graffiti artists]". From that moment on, Melim decided he would do graffiti and create in partnership with Maionese and three other graffiti artists known as Ignore, Sapo [Frog] and Tomate [ Tomato]. They were the DuContra Crew [The Against Crew]. It was the early 2000s when he was working on an art education project in the municipal schools of Guarulhos, where he lived until 2005.
The group opened doors to a new street art world, escaping from the aesthetics of hip-hop. They painted in São Bernardo and its neighbouring neighbourhoods, as well as in the capital of São Paulo. "We had to be 'ducontra' [against it]: if the hot thing was to make lyrics, we would go and do something different. We didn't follow fads. We even created the "No Spray" event (the original idea was Ignore's), that is, you couldn't spray ink in an abandoned space at the Jockey Club in São Bernardo. The technique of dripping ink and the deeper look at textures [which he takes to his current work] emerged there; nothing was controlled. There was latex which left a huge stain too," recalls Melim, who painted freehand and then began searching for an identity. He exchanged a lot of information with the artists Izolag and Kaleb at that time.
Meanwhile, Daniel Melim started a post-graduation course in visual languages at Santa Marcelina College and dedicated his time to an artistic production during school holidays - both from his work in Guarulhos and his classes at the University. "Until 2005, I used to paint under the short roof of my parents' house when I would go there for recess. I used to buy about seven small and medium format canvases, more or less, at Praça da República [Republic Square] in São Paulo. (In an experimental process,) I would paint, register the paintings and then erase them to paint again on the same canvases. It was a way of optimising the material and keep on practising", he says. "It was an intense search to mature my style. I was building an identity that went through the stencil and into the pursuit for new textures which I observed on the walls of the industrial district, the aesthetics of punk rock and its record covers," he says.
Melim was rehearsing a change in his dynamics of acting and producing at this moment. He decided to appropriate the stencil technique by making it systematically the primary language of his work and thus generating its DNA. "The stencil has a unique dynamic of image construction. A matrix is created in which you can replicate. It is not restricted in itself; there is always possible to resignify it," comments the artist.
COMMUNICATION AND ACTION
In late 2004 and early 2005, the artist's need to put together a portfolio of his graffiti, canvases, and collages arose with the intention of presenting himself to galleries. He showed his work to the Choque Cultural Gallery in São Paulo, a space owned by Baixo Ribeiro and Mariana Martins. "I was very shameless and sent an email!". The artist started selling his small stencils as engravings in the gallery that same year, which he carried in a briefcase.
Daniel Melim composes the body of artists of Choque Cultural up to this day. At that time, he realised he would not continue to teach in Guarulhos and that he would take up painting as form of work once and for all. He began to build his studio in São Bernardo do Campo, allowing him to expand even further his research and compositions, which also ended up becoming his home. "My work grew together with my living space. It was a matter of time to understand what I was doing as well," he recalls.
This choice has made Melim ally his art with a personal change in his life and social action. From his perspective, his social function relies on the role as a citizen, independent of his profession as an artist. In 2006, he joined his two friends Vanderlei Viana and Fabio Mendonça, who had been teaching capoeira and percussion voluntarily since 1997 in Jardim Limpão, the Ferrazópolis neighbourhood of São Bernardo do Campo. They created art workshops for young people and children. In a community marked by violence, human rights violations, and intense drug trafficking, he organised activities, kept records of the events and took care of the platforms in addition to teaching classes. Today, Jardim Limpão Project is more focused on capoeira and street activities (because of space and the pandemic), and Melim continues to organise artistic activities and create new actions in the community, such as stencil classes with the SHN collective.
IN THE BASKET OF LIFE
It is known that art has the ability to sum up its own time, whether from its aesthetic assumptions or from social experience, activating both the individual creator and the relationships he establishes with other human beings with whom he shares his historical context. In this sense, it is a fact the artist is nourished by different publics between times and contexts. Melim has also coexisted with various places of speech through his approach to multiple ways of life, which has enabled interdisciplinarity in various literacies. If it is true that the artist carries with him the potentiality to create meanings in dialogue with reality, Daniel Melim is a happy example of it. From the encounter of his artistic power with the uncomfortable realities that call for transformation, his work came to light legitimised both from the perspective of the market's practices of art institutionalisation and the discussion of themes related to minority groups of black people or women.
Melim has managed to absorb the social elements and contradictions that pulsate in everyday life, registering them in the sphere of art and providing answers to the possibilities of concrete reality. It is a challenging task of reflecting on his historical time by providing the viewer with an opportunity to absorb the experiences which feed him. Melim captures aspects of this historical contrast through his drawing techniques and narrative construction by approaching his works to the universe of comic strips and the pop art movement, which move between high and mass culture. Thus, he determines his current artistic identity. Such an approach allowed the artist to fragment the planes of his images, his vision of reality and his territory to better express himself and society. According to this perspective, he establishes the debate focus from the size of his aesthetic slices. It is possible to diagnose in his choice the social strata divided between oppressed and oppressors, whether it is on canvas or in murals. Melim's production brings back childhood memories as it stands recurring issues of gender and race.