Brazilian street art don Mundano talks Pimp My Carroça, making cactus art in California, and his new collaborative exhibition with Subway Art photographer Martha Cooper
You met Subway Art photographer Martha Cooper last year at the Amaphiko Academy in Soweto. Can you tell us about the collaborative exhibition you’re planning together?
Me and Martha are creating a massive collaborative exhibition. After Soweto, Martha got engaged with Pimp My Carroça and she started to send me catador pictures from everywhere she’s travelling.
So I decided to make an exhibition of these pictures. Then Martha came to shoot the catadores and we’re creating an exhibition opening in December in São Paulo.
Besides her photos we’re going to have an installation. We are inviting people to talk with a catador from their city, take a picture and post this picture with the hashtag #vivaoscatadores.
These pictures will be shown on the exhibition. We want to engage more people and we want and to give visibility to catadores and their important work. They do a massive part of the recycling on our planet without recognition.
When did you first notice that art could have an effect on society?
I started doing canvas paintings in 2002 with the idea to make an impact. But then I got frustrated because the people weren’t looking for that kind of stuff. They wanted art that could match with the sofa.
After that I started tagging and painting on the streets by myself, without knowing any other artists. People started to see my work and start to talk about it.
In 2007 I started to write messages with my graffiti. I started to use this as a weapon to make my artivism, to try and change things in my city. I started in São Paulo, then I started to travel to other cities, other countries and now I’m global. I realised the power of art on the streets and I never stopped.
What about you? What was the first artwork you remember seeing as a kid?
I started writing on the desks at school when I was young, trying to leave my mark, to leave my message. I don’t know how old I was. It’s something like the first human beings who left their marks on the caverns. I feel I need to leave my mark.
Were you aware of other people doing political art?
I was just doing it, it was natural. In Brazil, graffiti was more about having fun, vandalism, murals that are trying to create something beautiful.
I was interested more in making people reflect about traffic or favela removals or corruption. My main theme when I started was the environment, the preservation of nature. That’s how I got to the catadores.
How did you end up in California making artworks about drought?
First São Paulo has 12% of the water in the world. We have a huge river system, really abundant water here, but since last year we are under our worst water crisis. I started doing expeditions to the reservoirs, making protests, making graffiti. Then I decided to plant real cactus with faucets.
I started to create this intervention and these pictures went worldwide, to call attention to the drought here that was being hidden by the government.
I was invited – I am a TED Fellow – to the TED Fellow retreat in California. They are in a serious drought so I started to research and after the retreat I decided to go on a road trip to the main reservoir.
They are in the worst drought in 1,200 years. They have water only for one year. It’s crazy. The old trees are dying, everything is brown, there is no more green grass. They produce 25% of the food of the US so they are in a big problem.
I’m trying to use the symbol of the cactus, a symbol of desertification. I used this in Peru last year at the Climate Conference. I’m going to Paris for COP21. They are deciding our future and we need to put big pressure on the world leaders.
People talk about environmentalism in terms of preserving it for future generations but this is something for now, for the next few years, not for our kids.
I saw that the authorities in São Paulo confiscated the catadores carts recently. How did you respond when this happened?
That was a shame. These things have happened for decades, but now we have Pimp My Carroça that has the support of hundreds of artists and of civic society.
When I heard what had happened I painted a cart with a message saying that they were arresting the catadores and the authorities should learn from them how to recycle. It was really efficient. Within a couple of hours the authorities tried to make a meeting. We did the meeting and we stopped the confiscations.
Months later, for the first time, in the history of the city, they gave the confiscated carts back to a small group of the catadores. We are trying to get more back. There are dozens and dozens of carts that need to come back. These are their tools.
I know it’s not a formal profession or the perfect way to recycle but the bigger part of recycling in São Paulo. 95% of all the trash that is recycled is collected by these people. They are doing a public service. They should get a salary, not have their tools confiscated. This is a good example how we can use art to make transformations on the city.
We have a new action, #Reciclovia. Cycle paths are starting to become constructed in São Paulo. The catadores started to use the bike paths because it’s safer. But it’s not allowed. We’re trying to get permission for them to use these paths.
We had 40 activists that did this action, allowing the catadores to use the bike path and now the city is studying how they can allow it. If we win this battle it would be first time the catadores are mentioned in the transit code and laws. There are more than 20,000 catadores in our city alone. It’s huge – 30% of the number of taxis.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to use art or creativity to change something in the world?
Use more the streets. They are a big blank canvas and this is the way we can back the people for free. We don’t need to pay for advertisement. We need to do things not alone. We need to work collectively so we can have a huge impact.
Mundano will be at the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy which is happening now in Langa, Cape Town.