Interview: Béco Dranoff

Featured Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi

For Chapter 50 of the Frank151 book in 2013, we looked at Brazil, its culture, its history, and its political realities. Now with the whole world watching the country during the 2016 Summer Olympics, we revisit some of the defining articles

In the documentary Restless: Keith Haring in Brazil, directors Guto Barra and Gisela Matta rediscover an original piece by Harin, the iconic 1980s artist, done on the floor of a beach cabana. The film follows the restoration of this piece that was fading away on the floor of a straw hut in Serra Grande, a remote coastal village in Bahia. Barra and Matta also explore Haring’s relationship with Brazil as a place to creatively recharge, showing us never-before-seen drawings done during his Brazilian vacations.

We spoke to Barra to learn about how they uncovered this tale.

An original Keith Haring piece in an isolated Brazilian coastal village, how did this happen?

Keith used to spend time in Bahia, a famous Northeastern state of Brazil, in the 1980s with a group of friends. Vacation time was a rare thing for him and Brazil became his favorite spot. While there, he could not help it and would paint or draw constantly.

How did you come across this discovery?

In 2010 I had the pleasure of meeting Julia Gruen, the Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation in New York. While talking about how relevant his work is in Brazil these days, Julia told me about the works that Keith had produced in Bahia. I immediately thought this was a very cool subject for a film. Very few people are aware of these great works.

How often did Haring go down there?

Keith’s first visit to Brazil was in 1983 for the São Paulo Biennial, where he met and bonded with graffiti artists and other locals. The following year he started going to Bahia to visit his friend Kenny Scharf, the New York-based artist who had married Tereza, a Brazilian lady, and bought some land there. Keith went down numerous times, spending about a month each visit. The place is called Serra Grande and used to be a very remote village with no electricity and no running water—worlds apart from his jet set party life in New York City. That was probably why he liked being there so much.

What’s Serra Grande like now?

Serra Grande is still a small fishing village that will probably be gentrified in the next decade. It’s a stunning area of Brazil. It sits between the towns of Ilhéus and a very well-known surfing destination called Itacaré.

What was his inspiration for Haring’s piece?

The artwork that is restored in the film is a circular painting of about 12 feet in diameter, covering a cabana floor, a few steps from the beach itself. It’s a multicolor design with dolphins, which can be seen somewhat frequently at that beach, and dancing men.

What was the state of the piece when you first saw it?

After 20-some years of “natural sand-blasting” and ocean air, the artwork was in very poor condition. It took ten days of meticulous work for Kenny Scharf and Alex Neroulas, an art restorer, to bring it back to life. As a reference for the missing portions, they used a lot of the original Polaroids that Keith took when he completed the piece. The painting was fading and disappearing very quickly and probably would not have lasted another year.