I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Brooke Alfaro is a quiet man, so I feared that interviewing him would be arduous, but I was wrong. The conversation flowed for hours, as he told me about his youth and nearly suppressed artistic aspirations, his struggles with overwhelming success as a painter and the new world he is discovering as a video artist.
I have followed Alfaro’s creative work since the early 1980s, when he painted young, innocent models of femininity that now seem like mere tools in the process of developing his masterful technique. Over the years, those women would give way to increasingly grotesque views of humanity, images ranging from the artist’s own extended family to contemporary Latin American society, with the natural world—raging seas, thick jungles-as backdrop. Saints, priests, politicians, friends, society matrons, military leaders—Alfaro’s relentless mockery spared no one. Ironically, in many cases, the very people Alfaro ridiculed were desperate to buy his works.
Often, the models for the characters in his perturbing paintings were people who lived near him in the run-down neighborhood of San Felipe, in Panama’s colonial center. Human beings with difficult lives hold a deep fascination for the artist. In the late 1990s, when Alfaro surprised everyone by putting away his easel and taking up an old aspiration to create videos, those unusual friends and neighbors became the explicit protagonists of his work. His videos of the last few years—Comanche, Aria, Haircut, Yuri and, most recently, Nine—have required the collaboration of people who live in conditions of extreme poverty, including alcoholics, thieves, prostitutes and gang members. The deceptively simple titles of these videos belie multifaceted works of art that hover on the line between depressing reality and sublime poetry.
Mónica Kupfer From the ’70s to the late ’90s you developed a successful career as a painter and earned the respect of critics and the public alike. You could hardly gather enough paintings for a show because collectors were buying them so fast. You had solo exhibitions in Mexico in 1997 and Miami in 1999, and in between you were included in a New York exhibition of contemporary painting from Panama. You showed your first video at the Lima Biennial in 1999. Since then you have worked full-time creating videos, a field in which you had to start from scratch, especially in technical terms. What happened? Is the painter in you dead, on sabbatical, active but in hiding? What made you turn to video and leave the comfort of your success as a painter?
Brooke Alfaro I feel that it’s a sabbatical. Painting is my real and most intimate artistic expression. Regarding video, I always had a liking for filmmaking. I took a course when I was 18, but I got frustrated and dropped it because the technique was tedious and expensive. Years later, after becoming an architect, I began to study painting; I was 29. I started video at 50.
MK But you had painted before you began to study painting.
BA I always had a need to express myself creatively, but I never considered the possibility of doing it professionally. I came from a traditional family that encouraged me to go into a socially acceptable career. I started by doing three years of pre-law in the States. Then I was in a motorcycle accident and spent three months in the hospital—plenty of time to really think. It made me realize that I needed to create. Soon after, I was in architecture school.
MK Was your father a lawyer?
BA No, he was a very intelligent and conservative person who never had the opportunity to get a college education himself, so he wanted his two children to have respectable careers. It was impossible for him to see, much less encourage, my artistic inclinations. I didn’t fully understand them myself.
MK So when you decided at 29 that you wanted to be an artist, did you have to give up the ideals that your father had for you? Was that part of the process?
BA Eliminating law studies was like getting rid of a first layer. Then, after studying architecture and working at it for three years, I decided that I needed to paint. So I quit that work and took a job as a photographer to make money as I painted. I felt completely fulfilled. Then, yes, I did go against my father’s wishes and went to painting school. He wasn’t too happy.
MK So what happened when you turned to painting?
BA My first show was successful, and for the first time in my life I felt connected. I went to study at the Art Students League in New York. It was wonderful. To have talented professors help me improve my painting skills was terrific.
MK You felt you were speaking the right language.
BA Right. I spent about three years there off and on, learning mostly academic painting, although I dabbled in everything from abstraction to Impressionism. I felt a need to know my craft well.
MK What year did you leave the Art Students League?
BA I left around 1982 or ’83 and painted continuously until about 1999.
MK And then what? You drop something you do very well and start something you don’t know how to do?
BA I never felt I knew how to paint well; I feel lacking in almost every sense, in my drawing, in my use of color, and I always wanted to learn more and to have more contact with other artists. It’s an isolating profession, especially in Panama, where there are very few artists. In all those years of painting, I never really sat down with someone to discuss my art or get a critique of my work. I do feel comfortable in my capacity to express myself, to put a little soul into my characters and into my landscapes, but I always thought I had more to learn. Anyway, I haven’t painted since I started doing video two years ago.
MK What a radical switch! What made you want to do that first video, Comanche?
BA I was invited to do an installation for the 1999 Lima Biennial. I lived and worked in the old part of town, and from my studio I could hear this interesting character, an alcoholic and drug addict who stood in the plazas and gave speeches to nonexistent crowds. Although he had a very good vocabulary and was up to date on current events, his speeches were incoherent. His mind was totally burnt. I wanted to document this guy, so I borrowed a camera and followed him around. It fit right into the Biennial project.
MK Were you ever scared of him?
BA I was a little apprehensive, because he was really an extreme character. One day he saw me filming him and we spoke for the first time. He told me to turn the camera off, then said, “I’m hungry.” I bought him some sandals because he was barefoot, and I took him to a restaurant and we talked. I filmed him for three months; he was a terrific subject, totally uninhibited with the camera. I made a seven-minute video that became part of the installation.
MK He is a good example of your current subjects: street dwellers, people on the margins of society. The characters in your videos bear no relation to your personal background but have now become a part of your life. The characters in your paintings, on the other hand, even though they became more and more distorted, come from your world; they are political figures, religious figures, even members of your family. What is the relationship between the people in your videos and those in your paintings?
BA Actually the people in the videos were also the models for my paintings. I feel closer to and more comfortable with this type of people than with people of, say, higher economic standing. When I first came back from New York, I didn’t make the connection right away. I was painting pretty girls with angelic faces, soft easy paintings—until it just clicked into something that was more intimate for me.
MK Beauty is not intimate?
BA Beauty is intimate, and to me everything I paint is appealing. I feel I’m painting real people who are beautiful to me but unsettling to others. But I’m not trying to make a political statement.
MK You’re not even trying to make a social statement?
BA No. I’m doing exactly what attracts me. Maybe with a little sense of wanting to shock.
MK “Maybe”? The people in your paintings are disfigured, even abnormal; some hold grotesque human-shaped blobs. You know that you are shocking and offensive in the way you distort women’s limbs and bodies. I think you do want to shock, both in your paintings and your videos.
BA Yeah. There is an intention there that appeals to me.
MK Are you still trying to shock your father?
BA (laughter) It could be that. It could. Definitely the people I enjoy shocking are the ones in high society. And ironically, those are the people who buy my paintings. It could very well be a rebellious action against my past. As a child, I needed my father’s acceptance; I tried really hard to fit in.
MK Every child feels the need to please the parent.
BA Right. And when your parent does not support or encourage you, you feel frustrated.
MK Were you already artistic as a child? Were you undisciplined?
BA I had talent for art, but overall I was a bad student. I was well-mannered and respectful, but I did not perform well in school. I felt constant pressure and was scared to death of failing. I never felt integrated. It wasn’t until I went to architecture school that I finally began to get good grades. I made the Dean’s List.
MK It’s obviously a matter of making a choice, as you did with painting and now with video.
BA Right. When I look back, I regret not having been able to begin a career in art earlier. I think if I had started to study art at 18, I would be in another place.
MK Who knows, maybe if you had started at 18 you wouldn’t have had the maturity you had at 29. You’ll never figure that one out.
BA You know, marriage is the same thing. I married late.
MK (laughter) Oh, so you think you should have married earlier.
BA I would have liked it. Maybe I would have been happier. I always wanted to get married and have kids, but I didn’t do either until I was in my forties.
MK How can you tell me that you haven’t had anybody to talk to about art? Until recently, you were married to an art critic. What does she think of your videos?
BA She likes my videos more than my paintings.
MK Is that part of the reason you’re doing videos?
BA She did encourage me to go ahead and explore video more profoundly because she knew it was dormant in me. I wanted to film. It is so accessible nowadays: you buy a camera and a computer and you’re off. I got a tutor who showed me the basics. I’m still learning.
MK So how do you rate your videos?
BA I like them, but I think I need to study filmmaking: directing, editing, camera placement, lighting. What I’ve done so far has been based on my own intuition. Someone told me once that my videos are more honest than my paintings, but I don’t feel it’s true. I felt I needed to distance myself from painting for a while in order to return with a fresh mind, with new material in my head—although, as you said, my subjects will probably be the same… .
MK And yet they’re not the same. In the paintings, they look like they come out of your imagination. And in the videos, they stem from real life, out of the everyday in one of the city’s sleazier neighborhoods. I would divide your videos into two categories. In some, like Creisi Blue and Aria, you write the script, decide the music and tell the characters what to do. The scenes are shot in the Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter, and the characters are played by your friends, the people from the neighborhood. In other works, like Haircut or Yuri, they’re doing their own thing and you’re just there, as a voyeur, recording their words and body language. Some of your shots are playful, even funny, and others not at all. In the haircut scenes, for instance, the supposed barber looks like he’s going to tear off part of the man’s scalp. It’s a rough, grotesque kind of haircut, and a rough story about the barber’s life as a thief, which he delivers in the tone of a normal conversation. This surely goes back to your desire to shock. Do you agree? And the confrontation with the prostitute Yuri, life-size and naked, makes the viewer take a step back. She seems very, very real.
BA You’re right. I’m working with the same group of people, and with these two approaches that you describe. I usually film their everyday lives and have them narrate their experiences, which can seem extreme to us. I’m constantly filming them, except when I’m editing. They are totally accepting of me.
MK Don’t you ever want to help them instead of film them?
BA I pay them for their work and help out in other ways, with school, food, et cetera. They are constantly in need; it’s a sad situation. I spend a lot of time with them and they make me feel welcome. When I film I feel that I’m invisible to them. They are so natural: they shower, eat, fight—
MK You have filmed them having sex, haven’t you?
BA Yes, I have, but it was acted, not the real thing.
MK What did you say to them? “Do you mind if I film you while you have sex with your wife?”
BA It was his girlfriend, and when I asked if he would do a nude scene he liked the idea. They weren’t really having sex. I told him, “Act as if you were.” They did end up, well, getting a little carried away.
MK Was that fun for them, to have you film them?
BA She was a little apprehensive at first but went right along with it.
MK What’s in it for them if you film them? Did you pay them?
BA I would pay them, say, 30 dollars each for about an hour.
MK You paid Yuri, too, when you asked her to stand naked in front of the camera and speak?
MK What’s the difference between you paying her to stand there naked and some other guys paying her to lie down? Aren’t you her client too?
BA I guess my paying her makes me a client, but I feel like a friend. We have a good rapport, and I help her out whenever I can. I think she is very happy doing what she does for me, because it takes her out of that really low end of life to another echelon, where she can make some money without sex and the risk of the police or diseases. We feel comfortable with each other. I first met her while filming Comanche; she was one of my subject’s homeless friends. I ran into her years later, while filming Aria. For Aria, I used a lot of little kids who lived in the crowded complex downtown. I took them to McDonald’s to get sodas because the video required them to have paper cups and straws—
MK —to make the background noise.
BA Yes. The idea came to me a few years ago, when I had a bunch of kids in my car. They all had their McDonald’s sodas and they started moving the straw up and down making this strange noise. They did it in unison and it sounded fantastic. Anyway, the day of the shoot we went to buy the sodas, and it just so happened that Yuri saw me inside McDonald’s and knocked on the window. I had been thinking of filming her, so it was a happy coincidence. She told me she had just been released after five months in jail for indecent exposure, and she needed money to buy panties and stuff. So I gave her some money and we agreed to meet the next day. We met in a park; she got into my car and I told her I wanted to film her, and she was delighted. We went to a pension close by and rented a room for a day. That first day she was a little nervous, a little self-conscious about the whole thing.
MK Were you self-conscious? Because I think you are a quiet sort of person.
BA I guess I was, yes. But I pushed it to the point I felt I could without ruining it, without letting things fall apart. So I was pushing her, pushing her to—
MK To reveal more.
BA Yes, but I didn’t want to offend her, or have her reject me. That day I got her to take her clothes off for the camera. Despite being a prostitute, she was not completely comfortable at first. I asked why, and she said, “Because I’m fat and I’m not attractive.” I reassured her of her beauty. She was feeling uncomfortable, not because of the camera, but because she was revealing herself to me. Once she got used to me seeing her body, it just clicked for her. She was a natural, completely unaware of the camera.
MK I can see the excitement of filming this. I can see how you are pushing the barrier further and further, which is probably a personal barrier also. You’re pushing yourself to be increasingly daring, but where does that leave aesthetics? Where is balance of color and form, where are all the things that have been concerning you as a painter all these years?
BA It’s Yuri’s personal history, her life story that I’m mostly attracted to. The visuals are important, but what I’m most interested in is the testimony, her life, her reality, which is so crude, unique, so hard to swallow, so difficult to fully understand. She’s giving me information that amazes me. It’s like watching a movie and not knowing what to expect from one moment to the next.
MK Why does she have to be naked?
BA She told me a story about when she showered in jail, how she got turned on by looking at the beautiful young girls. She got very excited while talking about it. I developed an idea for a video where she would repeat this story, naked, directly addressing the female viewer. For that piece, her body is divided into many small squares, each filmed separately and then put together in the computer. The result was very complex and somewhat disturbing, both visually and in terms of the audio content. I must make a parenthesis here: my paintings all are about nakedness.
MK That’s true.
BA I paint naked people because I like to, and also because it’s easier than having to paint clothes. I just go to what comes easiest.
MK The naked bodies in your paintings aren’t beautiful bodies in the traditional sense, are they?
BA No. I don’t want to do those kinds of bodies. If I distort the figure, I create characters that are more authentic, more unique. In the video of Yuri, her naked body is not attractive, but it challenges me, and the viewer, and I like that.
MK I think it also has to do with the fact that she is exposing her inner feelings. She is describing a moment of pleasure in a life full of horrors. When I first saw it, there was something very disturbing about her bare, scarred, tattooed body, no matter what she says. The nude bodies in your paintings can also seem disturbing.
BA Right. Well, that’s what I find attractive.
MK Is there any excitement for you in all this?
BA No, sometimes it is even repulsive, but that’s the side of it I want to portray. I find the whole procedure of filming exciting. Just to think about the end product is exciting. Maybe it’s a way of shocking. We spoke earlier about the shock element in my work: I like to shock myself and I like to shock others. The more society rejects my work, the more satisfaction I get. It goes for my paintings as well as my videos.
MK You wanted to shock them, but they were buying your work.
BA I know! I was rejected and accepted at the same time. A lot of people appreciate my paintings, but I think the majority feels uncomfortable with them. Some you wouldn’t want to have in your living room.
MK Do you have an explanation for why uncomfortable paintings became a status symbol?
BA All painters who get some recognition become a status symbol.
MK There is a sense of irony in your images. You are capable of painting beautiful bodies, yet you seek out someone whose body reflects an “ugly” life, which holds a certain fascination for you. You’re like a latter-day Bosch with your gardens of earthly delights that are actually scenes of decadence. For your videos, you seek out people whose lives are unbearably difficult, but you find each has its own beauty. Where is the line between your interests and those of an anthropologist or even a social worker? You’ve said that you are most concerned with the testimony, and I get the feeling that if you could improve their social condition, you would, but you get to a certain point and stop in order to come back to being an artist.
BA My friendship with them gives me more of an insight as an artist. They are so marginalized, and so very, very poor, that one wants to help out. I am learning a lot from them, but I am not studying their situation as an anthropologist would. I filmed in this one house where eight families live. There is only one person there with a full-time job, one person in eight families, and he is a garbage collector. The rest go out and try to make a living in whatever way they can. They have very limited and few opportunities in life. They have to look for food each day. One parks cars; another goes out and steals. The house has been condemned for years; there are no toilets in there, and the roof is totally corroded and falling down. It rains right into their rooms. I can feel these people crying out for help. And I can also feel them accepting their destiny. They are suffering profoundly, but at the same time they’re joyful people. They interact with each other in a festive way, always laughing, drinking beer; they have a rich social life. They interact wonderfully with each other and with me.
MK Is there any part of you that takes issue with their reality? Do you judge them?
BA I don’t judge them at all. I defend them. I’ve ended up in jail for that.
MK But you are also not their savior.
BA No, and they don’t see me that way, but they do seek me out at times. I try to help out.
MK How do you know how far to go? Or do they know how far to go?
BA They know and I know. Only when they’re really in need will they ask for help. I do not want to be seen as a giver or a constant problem solver but rather as a friend, as an equal, in that they wouldn’t react differently to me than they would to the guy next door. And I think I’ve achieved that.
MK I can see why it is important to you that they see you as an equal, but how much of that do you think comes through in the video? And is that the purpose of the video, or is the ultimate purpose to produce a work of art from your relationships with them?
BA Well, they live interesting lives that I want to portray in an artistic way.
MK Would you hang out with them even if you weren’t filming them?
BA I lived in their neighborhood for many years and we became good friends. I’m not there 24 hours a day filming; we interact in many other ways.
MK But when the purpose is a video, what changes?
BA They are quick to focus on my idea.
MK Do ideas come from having filmed something or do they come before?
BA Both. When I have an idea, they are my actors. But many times I’m just filming their everyday lives. I have a lot of raw material and out of that material, ideas come together.
MK Is that the way the ideas for your paintings would come?
BA Yes, I just start with a general idea and the story develops as I go along.
MK There is always a story in your work, isn’t there?
BA The end product may seem like it, but it’s not intentional. A painting could take me months and months; I work on several at the same time.
MK And several videos at the same time too, right? Why do you break up the image in some of your videos into smaller, moving compartments—the little squares in the haircut piece, for instance?
BA I guess it’s a trick to make the video more interesting visually.
MK To make it dynamic.
BA Yeah, there is an interaction between the viewer and the video. The video of the haircuts turned into a sort of game, because the screen is divided into 16 squares in chronological order from the beginning to the end of the haircut. You hear the person talk, but you have to search carefully to find which square he is speaking from.
MK Do you think you are part of a movement in video, perhaps a Panamanian or Latin American trend?
BA Well, Latin American in subject matter, but I don’t feel myself falling into any movements.
MK What do you want to do next?
BA A distant dream is to do a short film. I’m toying with the idea of a script, of maybe finding someone to write it, but that seems difficult.
MK The narrative in your paintings has always been your own story. You’re the one who decides the message, so to speak; you are the source of the idea and the image. When are you going to start painting again?
BA I don’t feel the need for it right now. Well, that’s not quite true. I do want to paint, but I can’t do both at the same time; one would take away from the other. In a couple of years maybe. Video, I must confess, is becoming more and more attractive to me.
MK Could video become a lifetime project?
BA It could be. But I can’t imagine giving up painting.
MK I guess that is who you are: an artist who does videos but has not lost the desire to paint.
BA I think I’m fortunate. I wouldn’t classify myself as happy. (laughter) But I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I like most.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee