BY: JC RODRIGUEZ
A fascination with the human figure. That is at the center of the work of Emanuel De Sousa. The artist from Portugal currently lives and works from Edinburgh. With his surreal portraits, De Sousa takes us in a journey through his mind. With his exquisite technique and touch to the canvas, he takes us through a journey in every work of art. I can't help but stay engaged with his work. The type of art that begs you to look at every inch to make sure you didn't miss a single reference. That is the type of work I enjoy looking at, one that calls you to look closer. I find the work truly fascinating yet it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe it's the sight of clowns or bird headed humans? But this is what makes it so great to me. It's that uncomfortableness that makes me want to explore further. It's an intimate look at the mind of a very talented artist.
We had the chance to ask Emanuel De Sousa about his work. We touched on how he developed his style and subject. We discuss the important of self exploration and being honest with yourself in order to develop your artistic aesthetic and style. Finding personal references and nostalgic emotions is where his work currently sits. It is this exploratory journey that I find myself wanting to learn more.
© Emanuel De Sousa
Tell us a bit about yourself?
As a kid, I was the only child in my neighbourhood and because of that, I would either play by myself, running around the rocky terrain behind my parents house, or building my own toys but the thing I was completely addicted to were superhero comics. I was around 5 or 6 years old when I first started drawing my first super heroes, cutting them out and making my own action figures, as my parents couldn’t afford the real deal, but the ones I made, they felt like the real deal, so I was happy... so we’re talking mid to late 80s, early 90s. I started developing human anatomy drawing skills as I wanted my “action figures” to be as perfect as possible because I had a financial plan to sell those to my classmates... I was able to sell a few actually (don’t tell Marvel).
When I was 12, I was already using watercolours and guache to paint still life motifs and imaginary landscapes (I remember my dad being frustrated with me as we couldn’t afford to waste paper on drawing/painting as it was a waste of time and wouldn’t get me anywhere). During that winter, I met this elderly Norwegian couple (they used to spend winters in Porto Santo island, my hometown in Portugal); she was a piano player and he was a retired NASA engineer and a amateur watercolour enthusiast. I was painting outside and one day they approached me and bought one of my watercolours, making my first sale as a “fine artist” and from that moment on they decided to take me under their wing fir that winter and show me techniques, paintbrushes, paper, etc, so I could develop my skills even more... and that’s how it all started. At the age of 18 I enrolled in university and everything became serious and real.
© Emanuel De Sousa
Tell us a bit about your process/mediums and how you developed your style over time?
Well, this one I have to set it up first. In art school, my degree had the duration of five years: the first three you’d develop Painting, Sculpture and Design, and the last two years, we would choose one of these areas and specialise during the remaining time.
When I was 19, during a silk printing class, I developed a severe health condition that put i]me in a hospital bed for over a week; according to the doctors, I had developed a severe contact allergy, which almost killed me, due to the use of turpentines and a number of other chemical cleaning products that did not agree with me. They told me I had to quit any class or activity where I had to breathe or touch such components, therefore I had to quit those areas, especially oil painting. That was gut wrenching as I wanted to follow Painting... a few weeks later I came back to school and had a long conversation with my Painting teacher, professor Isabel Santa-Clara, where she advised me to try out acrylics and see how I felt with that material and medium. And my whole approach to painting had to change, I had to learn everything about acrylics and adapt to them, I had no choice. Over the years, I’ve been developing my own technique, adding a number of thickening gels, pre mixing my paint into large plastic containers and trying every possibility under the sun in order to respect and preserve the feel of oil technique, the look and deliver, the opacity and variation of tone and chromatic impact; not only that, but I had to transform and reshape my paint brushes in order to bring out the edginess and porpoise of my intentions on a canvas.
Like so many other artists, I had my idols, from Paula Rego (my all time favourite) to Eric Fischl, Edward Hoper and later on, Lucian Freud, Tai Shan Schieremberg, Neo Rauch and a few others, like the school of Russian Impressionism; and having all these influences, I had to bring this spirit into my acrylic world.
How important is being vulnerable through the creative process and opening yourself up by showing your work?
Vulnerability is crucial to developing your aesthetic and intelectual honesty, as it reveals the most delicate and precious intimate values and structures of your character as a person and artist. Through these moments that you deliberately have to shed any shielding to get to that core, you will expose your fragility and fear, your work is up there for everyone to see, leaving your ego open to be potentially severely wounded.
This sacrificial offering, with your bare and open artistic persona, is a thing of delicate beauty and as terrifying as it is potentially rewarding... unless you pretend to be harder and unreachable than you really are.
What are some of the subject matters you like to touch on with your work?
Nostalgia is the main motivator for my work during these last 5 years or so, and attached to that like a conjoined twin at the hip, the dream like memories and recollections (always based on true stories, no matter how made up they are). This fascination thrusting momentum helps me to build up my painted narratives and aesthetic choices (like certain objects, colours, patterns, wardrobe and characters): from the “Bruce Lee shoes” (where I got influenced by the spaghetti Hong Kong kung fu cinematic explosion form the 60s/70s) to “RetroFuture” (based on the sci-fi retro stories, of movies like “2001 a space odyssey” or “Zardoz”) to my most recent project called “Black Hats, White Hats”, where the intrigue is completely subjected to free interpretation and opinion from the viewer, where anything and everything goes, it only depends on your own biases and imagination.
© Emanuel De Sousa
Fun question, what do you like to listen to when you are painting?
I listen to quite a wide range of music, as long as it’s related to whatever project I’m working on: during the “RetroFuture “ series, I was listening to a lot of 60s and 70s jazz, as well as some contemporary experimental jazz, electro french music and some movie soundtracks, from the period I was researching. But from Rock, Metal, Funk, Indie, Electro, Goth, Industrial, Native/cultural, anything that can bring me imagery and strong feelings; I don’t like to waste time with music just to fill the air. Lately I’ve been listening to Sahara Rock and Funk sounds... incredible stuff.
How has the lockdown over the past year affected your work?
The lockdown came to bring this pandemic into a real and rough texture. It gave me gravitas and a sense of how fragile reality is.
The day-to-day life didn’t change that much, the same safe routine of studio and home life, but the normality of assuming you can just travel anywhere, be with anyone, do anything, that was gone out the window! That’s was hard to manage, I haven’t seen my parents or siblings in two years...
But it also gave me a porpoise of trying to become this positive force, to use what I do to reach out to people, share and bond, even through a digital device screen, and hopefully bring positivity and joy, things to appreciate and look at, think and develop curiosity, bringing a different reality and universe than the one we currently occupy.
What do you plan on doing for the rest of the year?
I have the same plan as I’ve had for many years, keep exploring, keep painting, diving deeper and deeper into the things I still don’t know, to discover more and be part of the universe’s expansion... everyday is a school day.
We are giving you an open platform. What do you want to tell the people out there?
What I want to tell people is sappy and romantic and childish and even naive but it’s the truth: to be positive, to be aware we’re all together and we all need each other. We need to take care of our loved ones, our community, we need to share and help, to be Human, and maybe, with a lot of work and good will, we can start a real change, a true and hopefully more permanent betterment of us. We are overdue a true Humanistic revolution; it’s the XXI century and there are things still going on, very present, that need to stop existing, all these forms of hate, racism, xenophobia, political entrenchment, social exclusion and the list unfortunately goes on and on.
Happiness is right here on Earth, we just need to work for it (I do love the Mars mission though)...
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