Interview and translation by Vivian Zavataro
Eu sou meus ancestrais e eles são eu.
Eu estou neles e eles sempre estão comigo, pois vivem dentro de mim.
Eu sou o povo antigo e o povo antigo sou eu.
Eu já vivi neles e eles hoje vivem dentro de mim.
I am my ancestors and they are me.
I am inside them and they are always with me, as they live inside me.
I am the ancient people and the ancient people are me.
I have lived in them and today they live in me.
Potiguara means “shrimp eater.” Poty is “shrimp,” uara is “eater.” The term can also indicate “the one who is knowledgeable of the art of catching shrimp.” The Potiguara are Indigenous people whose homelands are in Northeastern Brazil.
Vivian Zavataro: I have known you for so many years now, but I have never asked you where everything started. When did you start creating art?
Thiago Cóstackz: I cannot say if every artist is born an artist, but I certainly have been one since I can remember. I have always had an incredible sensibility to find a sometimes imperceptible sense in different things. This unique way of seeing the world, to me, always resulted in the creation of art. I grew up extremely poor. I did not have any resources to purchase art materials, but that never stopped me. Since I was very little I would make art with whatever I could get my hands on. Objects and supplies I found in the trash, the remains in construction sites and kitchens—everything had the potential of being transformed into art. I drew constantly. Sometimes in school, I would be expelled from the classroom for drawing and not paying attention to the teacher.
I come from an artistic family. Many of my family members were connected to art somehow. Therefore, my first artistic experiences happened at home, especially with my great-grandmother Nazaré. She was Potiguara, one of the Tupi tribes. She taught me and influenced me so much. It was with her that I started working with ceramics. Even though I have been creating since I was very little, it was not until I was 20 that I became a professional artist—now more than 15 years on this journey.
VZ: When experiencing, studying, and observing your work, it is obvious that you are not only an incredibly talented multimedia artist but also a passionate activist. When did you start getting involved with activism?
TC: The love for Mother Earth has always been an intrinsic part of me. Therefore my activism also started at an early age, when I was around ten years old. Back then I would summon my school friends to go to the streets and protest for preservation, conscious farming, reforestation, and also against pollution of the water sources in my town. The sugarcane plantations would dump enormous quantities of waste in the Ceará-Mirim River. We were still in the middle of the 1990s then.
As you know, this debate would take many years to intensify, to be even relevant to authorities and such. Back then, voices like my own were not heard, but things are changing today. When I moved to São Paulo in 2007, I was 21 years old. My projects started getting bigger, I founded S.O.S Terra. More and more I have been able to stand up and bring awareness to environmental and Indigenous issues as well.
VZ: Tell me a bit about your childhood, where you grew up, and how that has influenced and still influences your work.
TC: I am from Rio Grande do Norte, a state located in the northeast of Brazil. It is one of the poorest regions of the country. Growing up surrounded by so many difficulties and hardships made me more sensitive and open to understanding what the core of Brazil really is. It made me comprehend the Brazil that is in the margins of huge metropolises, like Rio and São Paulo—the one that no one pays attention to.
Even with many scarcities, many times of hunger, I had a childhood of freedom. I would ride my bicycle to remote places. I hiked in jungles, fished, forged friendships with a great variety of people, listened to their stories, and learned a lot from them. Growing up I suffered a great deal of prejudice for being gay, “excessively” artistic, as the region I inhabited was so conservative. When I was 13 I was banished from my own home and had to move in with my grandparents from my mother’s side. My grandfather’s family was marked by the history of slavery, and my grandmother had Potiguara heritage. Living with them was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles became true friends and inspirational mentors. These people have so much empathy; their humanity is palpable. They were always helping people in need. Having them as examples, it is no surprise I became an activist and a person so conscious of social injustice.
My grandfather João was a great supporter of the arts. My aunts introduced me to music and literature, and my great-grandmother Nazaré was always around teaching me about herbs, history, and ceramics. I feel blessed and lucky to have been raised in such circumstances as it makes me who I am today.
VZ: A lot of the concepts used in your work are influenced by your Indigenous roots. How do you connect your ancestral cultural expressions and incorporate these in your projects and visual art?
TC: My ancestry is part of who I am. I am a Potiguara man, artist, gay, with my roots in the northeast of Brazil. It is my duty to keep my culture alive—an act of resistance in a way. I am incredibly proud of carrying my Indigenous blood in my veins. I am a descendent of a warrior tribe of Amazonian origin, one of the ethnicities that bravely resisted the colonizer. Even though this heritage is unimpressive to many Brazilians, the Potiguara culture remains vibrant and alive even 500 years after the European invasion. In a general sense, the culture of the state of Rio Grande do Norte carries a lot of Indigenous ancestry in juxtaposition with the medieval European customs that arrived with the colonizers.
My great-grandmother and her teachings keep coming back to my practice. There were so many stories, myths, and legends she shared with me that connect me with my roots. When producing art, I gather this ancestral knowledge—these stories—and transform them into references for my creative process. Many of my ceramic sculptures, performances, writings, and even some of my songs are engulfed with the sophistication of all of my cultural heritage. I believe my generation is rediscovering the meaning of belonging; I feel that I can collaborate with this reconnection, with this “return to home” through my work.
VZ: It is evident that you have an extraordinarily rich source of inspiration. Are you also inspired by other artists?
TC: I try not to look into other artists’ works so I do not deviate from my own authorial path. I end up being influenced and inspired by what I see in my daily life rather than the works of other artists. I know it is incredibly difficult to create something from nothing, especially after all that has been produced by many geniuses; we are all influenced unconsciously.
My creative process can be associated with Gesamtkunstwerk, the concept of “art in its totality,” generally attributed to the German composer [Richard] Wagner. Gesamtkunstwerk incorporates different facets of art, resulting in the union of visual arts, music, theater, literature, and dance. I consider myself a Renaissance man of sorts; therefore, I work with many ways of producing art. I am influenced by the corporal aesthetics of the Renaissance period. I deeply admire [Sandro] Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. I am also captivated by the Movimento Armorial  and its attachment to the Brazilian Northeast culture; Art Nouveau, with its natural and organic forms; the Pre-Raphaelites, the revivalist movements (including the one inspired by Native Brazilians). As a contemporary artist, I love combining, questioning, instigating, and deconstructing dogmas and obsolete minds trapped in time.
A lot of the artistic concepts that influence me are not necessarily connected to visual arts. For instance, music, science, anthropology, and literature are great portals of creative sources. However, if I had to talk about artists, I would say that the unknown sights of my people left many vestiges that have survived through archeological finds and oral history. In music, I am instigated by historic instruments and ancestral sounds. I profoundly admire David Bowie, Abba, Queen, Igor Stravinsky, [Pyotr Ilyich] Tchaikovsky, [William] Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, [Mikhail] Bulgakov, Franz Kafka (I am also partially Slovakian and also connected to this aspect of my heritage), Rita Lee, Caetano Veloso, Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Hans Arp, Anish Kapoor, and other sages who have walked on this planet.
VZ: A lot of your oeuvre has environmental action as a base. Can you tell us a bit more about how your project S.O.S Terra sprouted?
TC: Not all of my work has environment as a central focus, but even when the main theme diverges, the artistic production always respects strict rules of sustainability. I never use any materials that come from animals, unless I know they were sourced cruelty-free.
S.O.S Terra is a project that utilized the instigative power of art to shine light on environmental issues of our times. It started in 2008 as a single event, an urban intervention on Paulista Avenue—the most well-known and popular avenue in São Paulo. As the situation of the planet continues to worsen, the project continues to be relevant and gain traction. In 2020, we are in the twelfth edition of this project. S.O.S Terra matured into an international endeavor. We have done numerous interventions all over the world. These are also integrative educational programs in order to teach the public about our responsibilities as humans toward our planet. The intent is to promote debate and show how urgent the need is for humans to change harmful habits to our planet.
VZ: Tell me about some of these environmental actions that happen through S.O.S Terra.
TC: I am proud to say we have done so much in the past ten years. We have given away more than 60,000 eco-bags in São Paulo. We had an exhibition at MASP [Museu de Arte de São Paulo], Brazil’s most important museum. We have organized parades with gigantic floats and 3D mapping projections of 546 square meters in the old center of São Paulo. We have exhibited numerous performances involving body art as a way to humanize the problems and environmental disasters that affect thousands of animal species.
My intention with these artistic interventions is to instigate and guide the viewer to reflect on the issues being explored by the works. For instance, our actions have brought attention to many Indigenous communities affected by mining and farming in the Amazon. We also show that not only Brazil but also nations such as the United States are negatively impacting the planet with their inhabitants’ habits of consumption. People need to know that there is no point of having sustainable farming practices in Europe while their animals are being fed with harvests that caused the destruction of tropical forests. Therefore, the focal point of S.O.S Terra is to show that there is no “we” or “them” when we talk about environmental problems. Everything matters to all of us. There will not be any immune places with climate change, so it is extremely important that the general population have access to this kind of information, wherever they might be living.
Every event and action of S.O.S Terra is free of charge, therefore accessible to all. In 2013, we accomplished the first international expedition to ten threatened places in the planet. We covered more than 62,000 kilometers, in which works of art were installed, connecting these places with the environmental issues they are facing. These expeditions resulted in the movie and book Caminhando Sobre a Terra: Uma Viagem a 10 Lugares Ameaçados (Walking on the Earth: A Journey to 10 Threatened Places). Thousands of these books were given away together with talks in public schools around Brazil.
In January 2018, the book Física 2 (Physics 2) was published with data acquired during our voyage to the Arctic. This book was distributed by the Brazilian government to millions of students attending public schools. In 2018 four other publishers used information from S.O.S Terra to produce educational books. A whole lot more is coming. Go, Planet!
VZ: What fascinates me the most about your art is the way people interact with it. Besides the visual aspect of your work, how do you think your interventions affect the public, especially in big cities?
TC: Well, it is not every day that you see a gigantic octopus flying over your head between the skyscrapers of a big city. You have to be creative in order to engage the citizens of a city like São Paulo that has more than 22 million inhabitants [who are]always focused on their own lives. I love these urban interventions as they change the landscape of the city—making the viewer stop and interact with the art. People always want to know what the concept is, they stop to talk and take pictures. Some will engage deeply with the subject we are exploring. It is impressive to know that even with all the access to the information we have today, many of the environmental issues and the human impact on the planet are still a novelty to many. Information and quality education still face barriers, especially in societies with great economic inequalities such as Brazil and the United States.
It is always interesting to see how different the reception to these interventions is, too, from city to city. We have had happenings in Venice, Amsterdam, Reykjavík, St. Petersburg, New York, Copenhagen, and Frankfurt. The result is always unexpected, and it varies depending on culture, the day, the season, the light at the moment, and even the mood of the people. In Amsterdam, I installed an inflatable sculpture Mr. Planet, a metaphor for the planet. There, people interacted, played, petted, and punched the art piece. Everyone was invited to relate to the work, showing how they “treat” the planet in their daily lives. The same piece was installed in Saint Petersburg, and the reaction was the complete opposite. Since Russian legislation prohibits protest related to human rights, people did not want to involve themselves with my work. In less than 15 minutes, after we placed the sculpture in a piazza, the police showed up. They were aggressive and almost arrested us.
VZ: In your book, Tupiland Goes to Greenland: Expedição 2019 à Groenlândia e Amazônia, you write about the journey of being an activist. The question that you propose is, “What can art do when civilization collapses?” So, what can art do to help our planet and environment?
TC: As I mentioned in the book, “Art is not necessarily created with the intent of being connected to activism, but if we can use its power toward activism, why not?” I do not believe art will save the planet, but I think it can be used as a tool, sort of a mirror facing us, showing who we really are as humans. It is impossible to not imagine art as a reflection of our times. Therefore, what can art do when civilization is about to collapse? Maybe the answer is to instigate this civilization to face itself, to self-criticize, to ask where we are heading as a species and living beings. How do we want to be remembered? If we are not willing to question ourselves we might endure indifference.
VZ: Your work is always political. You explore concepts of sexual and cultural identity. Tell me about your choice of including some of these themes into your practice.
TC: I am an artist today, and as most human beings are, I am diverse, I occupy the multiple. Artists are sensitive beings, incredibly perceptive of societal changes. Most of the time we are the first ones to notice some of these. The artworks we create are mirrors of our times; therefore, I could never ignore the struggles of minority groups—of peoples that are left to the margins of our society. We live in a time of change, of facing conservative forces that want to keep our voices silenced, that want to deprive us of rights and sometimes even existence. Therefore, I am an artist of my time, an artist of the rainbow.
VZ: What does the future hold for you?
TC: At the moment, I am working on a project that has as its main goal to rescue the Indigenous culture of Rio dos Índios in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. With this project, I want to empower the community so they can be aware of their rights and be able to re-establish themselves as a Native people. Between April and May this year, I will be publishing my new book and documentary, in collaboration with Irmãs de Criação and Younik [a Brazilian video production company], titled A Terra de Frente (Facing the Earth). This project could not have been possible without the sponsorship of Air Liquide, our biggest supporter in this fight.
1. Movimento Armorial is an artistic, theatrical, and philosophical movement that draws heavily from Portuguese and Afro-Brazilian history. Brazilian playwright Ariano Suassuna (1927–2014) was a prime motivator of Movimento Armorial and was interested in updating historical forms of popular expression. Launched in 1970, the movement is particularly inspired by the woodblock-printed pamphlets and music of Northeastern Brazil.