An Artist’s Dreams of Happiness

Werllayne Nunes, a self-taught Brazilian painter, has captured the admiration of Austinites since his arrival in 2008. KLRU, the local public television station, just launched a video featuring the artist and his work, called Behind the Colors. It is a must see for anyone to appreciate this incredible talent and his underlying message of the resilience of the human spirit. A nominee for the 2012 Austin Visual Arts Award, Werllayne has two paintings in The People’s Gallery through January 2013 at Austin City Hall.

Werllayne’s artistic career traces to a fall morning in 2003 as he sipped coffee over the El País newspaper in a Madrid cafe. “Nigerians are the happiest people in the world…,” the headline proclaimed, according to the World Values Survey. Nigeria? This was a country known for corruption, violence, and poverty. Money, the article continued, repressed happiness.  Of modest beginnings and on scholarship, Werllayne worked through medical school in Spain–as he believed he should to support his aging parents. But it was not his calling. He asked himself:  What does it mean to be happy? What does it look like to be happy and poor?

Werllayne knew the life of a doctor was not for him soon after his 2003 show at Casa do Brasil in Madrid. His current series launched in 2003 with an oil painting, called Agua Viva (Living Water), portrayed a Nigerian woman balancing a pot of water on her head. His subjects later turned to people living in Brazilian shantytowns, known as favelas. Werllayne’s work contradicts the perception of poverty as mere misery and the poor as powerless.

 “You can be happy for simple things,” he reminds us. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. What matter are the community you’re from and the connection.”

One harsh reality in his homeland of Brazil revolves around racial discrimination. The vast majority of an estimated 54 million favela dwellers are black or of mixed race. Werllayne eschews telling others what to think about his art, but, in the end, he says, there is talk of racial issues.

He strives to challenge stereotypes of the poor by conveying the favelados’ imagination and joy. Magical realism, bright colors, and contemporary patterns fuse with cultural and religious symbolism. Individuals have the power to confront harsh realities with fantasy and indomitable spirit. “I show the contrast and the reality of poor kids when they are happy,” explains Werllayne. “The happiness transforms into virtual art as towers, doves, or elephants.”

The subjects and spirit of Werllayne’s work have appealed to organizations dedicated to learning and celebration of African diaspora. Locally Werllayne has shown and discussed his work at the George Washington Carver Museum; the Brazil Center of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin); the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, UT Austin; and Austin City Hall.

Werllayne’s next major project in development is Bringing the Brazilian Favela to Austin, slated for early 2014. The multimedia art installation will include twelve to fifteen original oil paintings, an actual favela shack and other items from Brazil.  With the support of the Public Engagement office of UT’s Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), Bringing the Brazilian Favela to Austin will serve as an interactive stage to teach middle and high school students about Brazil as well as the broader issues of global poverty and development.

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