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His assistant, María, guides us through the labyrinth of the still-closed museum to a small staircase leading to his private studio. The anteroom is a large chamber with walls covered with paintings and a big window that opens onto a balcony and the omnipresent sea. A few steps more take us into the workshop, which is almost split in two by an enormous table with a cheerful jumble of piles of books and magazines, canvases, brushes and jars of paint. From a corner near the window, Carlos Páez Vilaró emerges from behind the computer. He is all friendliness. We sit at the other end, near the chimney and the leather chairs.
Páez Vilaró’s conversation is a leafy tree branching out into infinity. He starts on one branch, stops at a leaf, returns to the trunk, descends to the roots and crouches on a knotty bough to suddenly jump to another branch with no warning. It would be nice to have infinite time to listen to him. He is an expert in interviews. One must be very expert to know when to interrupt him and when to forget about the prepared questionnaire, because one does not have infinite time.
Carlos, how did you become an artist?
It is very difficult to analyze life backwards. I think art lies in the fingers of a child who begins to draw cartoons and to copy Walt Disney, and he begins to gain confidence and find nourishment in everything he sees. That is what happened to me in Argentina, after becoming familiar with the great Argentinean cartoonists of that era: Dante Quinterno, Lino Palacio, Divito. I realized that I could also learn to draw. But I never dreamed that I would become a professional painter. I always did everything joyfully, as if it was an act of creation; I was so pleased to be able to get happiness from art.
But how did you go from being a person who liked to draw to being not only an artist, but a renowned artist?
What happens is that you try to improve yourself when you walk the road to art. You have to walk the road, trying to absorb everything that can stimulate what you are doing. My road was lined with influences. For example, this house recalls a farmer who builds an adobe house. My first paintings were strongly influenced by Pedro Figari, the Impressionist painter of the Uruguayan colonial era.
Did Figari influence you to approach negritude, or rather did you approach Figari because of his paintings of black people?
The topic of negritude came up because I had been living in Argentina, living the tango and the cabaret, and dancing in those dives on Leandro Alem Street and in the underbelly of Buenos Aires, I had immersed myself in the life of the city slums, of the great composers Di Sarli and D’ Arienzo. I felt that Montevideo’s street folklore fell far short; Montevideo was missing the tango. I said to myself: What do I do about this? Do I go back to Argentina? And then, when I had decided to return to Argentina, a black carnival band passed in front of me. A small carnival band. An old black woman was dripping with jewelry; she was covered with necklaces and held an open umbrella that remained balanced as she moved. An old herbalist, an old man tapped along the street and the cobbles with his cane, looking at the sky in search of a cure for black women’s lovesickness. In front, there was a sorcerer-sweep, who according to poet Fernán Silva Valdés, sweeps the sky of Carnival. And of course, there was the fearsome bear, a kind of King Kong of sackcloth, frightening the children as it went along, collecting coins for Christmas. Behind came the drums, fiery drums, with blood coursing through the drum skins, euphoric… And I said to myself: “This is the Montevideo that will keep me here!”
And then you went to Mediomundo…
Then I followed the carnival band as if I was being pulled along by a magnet, and suddenly I found myself at the entrance of the Mediomundo tenement. It made me think of a mouth; the clothes hanging on the line were teeth and I let myself be chewed up. I let myself be swallowed by that mouth, I went in, I went up a staircase that looked like it was made of tin, and reached a room called Yacumenza… It was called that because when the drums began to play, a Brazilian lady used to say: “That infernal noise is beginning (Ya cumenza).” I set up my studio there in Yacumenza, and was able to become part of the black community living in the tenement; I became one of them.
Did they accept you easily? Because it’s a different world, isn’t it?
You know what happened? I have always believed that we are all one family. There are people who … People are afraid of each other. You take the bus and there is a man reading the paper and he does this... [laughing] and he puts it away. Instead of offering: “you want to read it, buddy?” This absence of human generosity, this anxiety to destroy what has been built is typical of modern humans. I, on the other hand, perhaps because I traveled, realized early on that we are all one family. Negritude fascinates me so much that I not only paint, but compose music. I draw the clothes of the white Candombe players, I squeeze into the carnival bands, I play the drums, I take the buses, I get on stage and I forget that I have a family in Carrasco. I lead a double life - a life in the tenement and a life in my house in Carrasco. And in that double life, I find that my passion really is negritude. I feel part of it. I say “the black man” and I say it with love; in Africa, I was in the minority and they called me “the white man.”
How long were you in Africa?
Ah, I traveled so much… I went several times for periods of time. My passion for black folklore took me to places where the black community had a presence: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela… But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to reach the roots of Uruguayan negritude, but where were the roots? In Angola, Lubito, Lubango, Benguela, Mozambique, Kenya… I went there. Without having realized it, I arrived at the time when Africa was awakening and wanting to be free. It was throwing off the shackles that had bound it for centuries, and wanted to return to its native roots, to leave behind the imported languages, and to have new flags...
When exactly was that?
In 1962, I arrived just when the revolution broke out. Or, was secretly being organized; people were taking up arms, making arrows in the neighborhoods and the markets. At that time I toured seventeen countries in Africa. Painting and traveling around, I made myself part of the African revolution, painting very abstract messages in order to not be beheaded.
Quite an adventure, an artistic adventure to boot…
My entire life has been an adventure in art. I have tried to find it, I have sought it everywhere, like the sun. And I could never touch it. It’s strange. One of the pleasures, perhaps the greatest, is to never reach the destination. To feel that it is behind every door and that it awaits me, but I cannot...touch it. That gives me the strength to continue on. Obstacles really stimulate me. Another thing that really stimulates me is to be close to young people. And performing a Christmas act every day gives me pleasure.
A Christmas act?
I call a Christmas act smiling at a sad person, or helping a woman walking alone in the rain by saying to her: “put away your umbrella, I’ll take you.” These kinds of little things, like giving a book to someone who likes to read and can’t buy one. They are small things; it is not giving away money. I do it every day; it’s wonderful. And that has given me great strength.
Carlos, among all the talents you have cultivated like painting, sculpture, pottery, muralism and architecture, is there one form of artistic expression you feel represents you best?
I think that what represents me best is friendship. And that goes beyond one’s personal achievements. Of course, while I’m painting, I lean forward into the stretched canvas like a cyclist and I’m happy all day long. But the other thing is permanent. The other day, for example, an ordinary group of people from Carnival, a group of parodists, paid homage to me. They were doing the story of my life as a parody that they were presenting at the Summer Theater. I was curious to see myself, reflected in the ordinary people who were telling my story. Suddenly I saw myself acting, painting in the Mediomundo tenement…
You saw yourself in a mirror?
In a mirror. And what most moved me was that I had reaped a harvest of affection. I am far from Montevideo. And then I realized that there were five or ten thousand people who loved me. I thought, is it possible that this invisible army of ordinary people might feel some affection for me? And that just choked me up, to the point that I got up from my seat and embraced the boy who was acting in the role of Carlos Páez, and when I hugged him, I was hugging five thousand Uruguayans who, in some way had followed my adventure during eighty-five years. That is why I say that the successes of friendship are marvelous.
María, the assistant, has looked in several times. Now she enters to tell him that they are waiting for him in the car. Páez Vilaró wants to add something before finishing the interview:
The important thing is that you see that I’m active, strong and with a great desire to do things… Well, at least inside anyway; I do have some aches and pains [he laughs]… And I’m surprised that at this age, I can go out to play the drums in the carnival parade.
We say goodbye affectionately. We leave Casapueblo through the museum. It is full of people, and a bus packed with tourists has just stopped in the street.