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  • Writer's pictureFlavia Totoli

Iconic Women: a talk with the painter Flavia Totoli

By Paolo Basurto - original interview (Italian)

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"Yes, Totoli is an italian surname. My great-grandfather was italian. I lived in Milan for a while and I’m curious by nature. I love to travel. I'm staying still for the time being and will see what happens. I'm not as young as you think, I'm 38 years old, I was married and now divorced. I'm Brazilian, born and raised in São Paulo."

She puts her hair up to alleviate the heat. Her black and brilliant gaze falls on me with s

ympathy. It's a penetrating look, but also peaceful. I was expecting a sharp blaze, like a passionate feminist warrior. I saw her in a line in La Bibliomusicinetec, a cultural institute with a complicated name and full of beautiful initiatives. They were talking about Flavia's exhibition "Iconic Women".

I wanted to see it.

The paintings were impressive. Potent and essential. They celebrated women's beauty, black women beauty, their faces and particularly their hair. Even when they were not there, as it was the case of a beautiful bald womanNow, Flavia is here and patiently accepts my little provocations to try and know the always mysterious secret of inspiration and expressive techniques.

Artistic Inspiration and its limits – PB: Frida Khalo said that she didn't'’ put limits on her inspiration. Is this how art is supposed to be? A tool to express emotion, intuition, a supposed truth? Something one cannot express in a different manner, because it transcends the conscient rational reality? 

You can't control inspiration. The way I was raised made me appreciate freedom as one of the most important things in life. It's important to express yourself regardless of the possible repercussions. The art that matters is the one that can move people, that can't take people away from their comfort zone and affect them emotionally. Art demands you express yourself and tell your own truth. Art happens in relation to the other, always. Art doesn't necessarily need the spectator, although they are its final destiny.

I realize late in life that painting could be the best way for me to communicate, to create, to speak up, to do art. II love writing and I write a lot. I realized though that I had gotten to a point where I couldn't say or do what I wanted only by writing and that I could express myself better and in a different way through painting. I started realizing that when I was 32 years old, after my divorce. Writing wasn't enough anymore. The sense of urgency I had inside me was strong and complex. A vital and positive urge that also led me to experiment with different techniques to find the best way to say what I wanted. To me the technique is crucial. It'’ a way of bringing the emotion to the surface. In my Iconic Woman series I used techniques I really like and yet I still feel I'm evolving with these women.

My Black Women are beautiful and have extraordinary hair and I used ink and pen to create them. My choices aren't accidental. The idea came to me when I was living in Milan and started with the "Anonymous". The black woman who sings their beauty like any other' , that's happy with herself and ready to fight if it's required of her, with her beauty and for her happiness. But, as a mirror, it was the "Anonymous" that mande me realize the need for the "Iconic", of the women who accomplished her dreams and inspire us: the "Anonymous", to pursue their potential. My process, my decisions are also the result of studying the life of them, their personality and personal struggles. This's how I comprehend their message. It's individual and yet it's for all women. A message of rescue and survive.

ART and POLITICS – P.B.: Can Art serve as a tool for social rights? Which rights would that be? Human rights? Solidarity, love? Rights to which "morality" considers as a right? Or, or you think Art shouldn't be at noones service and the artist should be only focusing on making art?

Politics is important. I actively participated in politics when I was younger, I worked with political marketing in an electoral campaign in the northeast of Brazil. If you ask me where I am in the political spectrum, I'll say I'm definitely a leftist. There's no fanaticism about it. The left was in power for many years and also had made mistakes. The main one? They created consumers instead of citizens. Citizens with social dignity and awareness that a community is not real without solidarity. But Brazil is a huge country and full of diversity and contradictions. It'’ easy to talk about community, but it's not so easy to put those ideas into practice. 

This is the only explanation I can think of for us to have elected the current president. Probably the worst in our history, only compared with Trump. The lack of social education, reflexion seems to give us clues as to how and why so many people fall for these characters, who sell simple, magical and completely impossible solutions for complex problems.

In the 1960's and 1970's many black artists in the US asked themselves how they should be part of the civil rights movement. The dilemma was: should we put our art in service of the movement or should we be black artist creating art, which for some of them was already revolutionary in itself. I love politics, it interests me a lot and I believe that to live in to make politics. You can avoid it. I can't paint without having in mind the social and political motivations that drive me. This doesn't mean instrumentalizing my art, but it creates a very intimate bond.

I'm going through a phase in which, how can I put this… that existential, internal, personal matters absorbs me greatly. And yet, those questions haven't diminished my interest in politics. Politics can also be an existential matter. Since I was very young, I suffered from panic attacks and that prevented me from participating in traditional political activities. I couldn't bear to be in a room full of people or even protests in open spaces. So I painted, I drew. It was my way of expressing myself and to say what I wanted to say. It was my way of following politics and supporting the causes that were dear to me.

VIOLENCE - P.B. Could art be aggressive? Art that shakes, denounces condemn? Arte that provokes, incites violence? Revolutionary art and a tool for human progress?

First of all it's important to say that art, any art, shouldn't ignore the historical context. Could it be violent? Of course. But it's not art that it's violent. Violent are the times we're living in. I think that it's impossible to be an artist and not end up being aggressive, even if it is to defend oneself. If defense is the best atack, then we should atack. If violence is necessary, then art will also be violent. I'’ love to live in a peaceful, egalitarian world, in which everyone had the same rights and lived with dignity. Unfortunately this isn't our reality and as an artist I feel this in a very strong way and I can't avoid this topic. I feel this is how art can be successful in shaking, agitating, creating awareness and gathering people around reason and facts.

Yes, it's true that my portraits don't explicitly show violence or aggression. They show beauty, strength, intelligence. Particularly of Black Women. I'm not sure if it's appropriate to explore this topic further here, but there's no doubt in my mind that the violence I'm referring to is the one that can shatter patterns of prejudice and racism created to justify and carry on abuses.

I'm a feminist and a few months ago I went to an exhibition here in Barcelone about this topic. And it was shocking to me not seeing the work of black women, there was none. Black women are always absent and white people don't even notice it. When they are portrayed is always in a diminishing or secondary position. The fact that black women alone are the subject of this exhibition and that they're represented at their best, as women and citizens: their beauty, intelligence, strength makes my exhibition an aggressive response to this marginalized palace where they put black women. To be more clear: imagine that you, a white man, realizes that everywhere you go, you're always the only white man in the room. These situations are not merely unpleasant… they're violent

Homem-Mulher – P.B. Do women know men, their vulnerabilities, fragilities enough to change their hearts and minds?

The relationship between women and men is surely important on all levels. I believe women don't really understand men's souls and men don't understand women's either. The gender issue is complex and urgent. But this isn't present in my work as an artist now and to be honest, men don't'’ interest me as a subject, for the kind of art I'm Interested in making right now. Men were always present in the art world, as its center, its priorities. And in this moment of my trajectory they don't inspire me artistically. I don't perceive men as an "enemy", I believe that they should be a part of the changes we strive to make, towards a more equal society. We should be capable of working together. With that said, I'm much more interested in portraying womens, specially black women.

LOVE-PLEASURE-BODY – P.B. What do you think is the relationship between art and pleasure? Does it lack morality and is this, at the same, time essential for creativity? Painting a body would be like poetry in a sense? Caress it, penetrate it, to know its soul?

I feel that I'm committed to political and cultural issues. My commitment shows in my paintings and my main concern is the women's figure. Love is a mysterious topic, difficult to define. I'm not sure how to put this, but love is not an inspiration, it doesn't help me to express myself. It's ephemeral. 

Pleasure is more concrete, less mysterious. But romantic love doesn't inspire me. I painted some things related to pleasure in the past, but it didn't move forward….

My interests are definitely in the female figure. And on the other hand there's my own internal, existential search, that evolves every day. My women are only heads, faces. Surely the body is important as well, but for now my attention is in their faces, which for me is the most expressive part of the body. They show beauty, intelligence and strength. The hair is crucial.

When I was a child the racism I suffered was always connected to my hair. It's what takes up most of my time, it's where my attention is the longest. 

I don't like rigidities and labels. Surely my interests will evolve, but what I can say for sure now is that, this's the path I'm choosing to walk through. 


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