Viana’s street art is playful and whimsical, as well as unusual. His figures—which have continuity in personality and attitude as much as physical form—inhabit and interact with the sites where they are painted. One such figure, the King of Insomnia, originally inhabited Rio de Janeiro’s streetscape but recently began occupying museum galleries. The King first appeared in 2010 as a two-dimensional graffiti character, black in tone but covered in a weaving-inspired white pattern, with neon diamonds as eyes that make an eerie, almost-human face. After a residency in Paris, Toz chose to expand the idea of the King of Insomnia, creating an entire Insomniac people with its own traditions, histories, and culture based on an amalgamation of Brazilian, African, and contemporary references. The exhibition Insomnia (2017), displayed in the Chácara do Céu Museum in Rio de Janeiro, takes the visitor into that imagined culture.
As the story of Insomnia developed, so did its materiality: the Insomniac people take on a three-dimensional, corporeal form in the recent exhibition. Never taking the space of his art for granted, Viana’s work is not traditionally displayed in the museum, which is the nineteenth-century home of eccentric businessman and art collector Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya. The Insomniac mannequins literally occupy the space. They are present in each room in the museum’s permanent collection, at first quietly and subtly, standing next to a painting or pausing on a stairwell. As the visitor moves farther into the museum, their presence grows. Groups of mannequins take over a colonial dinner table, and they stand in the garden with drums as their music also floods the space through a sound installation.
The materiality continues diversifying to include Insomnia artifacts, portraiture, and family photos. On the one hand, the exhibition delves into the intimate everyday of the figures, but on the other, it creates a sense of collective identity. The visitor physically enters a fictional (hi)story—one that both contains and contradicts Brazil’s real past, articulated in the museum’s permanent collection of art and historical objects.
Popular culture, artistic references, real cultural heritages, and everyday life in Rio de Janeiro meet in Toz’s consciously eclectic images. The formal references to individual paintings within the Insomnia exhibition gesture to the Brazilian artistic canon, as curator Anna Paola Baptista points out: in formal aspects of Toz’s portraiture we find visual parallels to Di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral, and Alberto de la Veiga Guignard. But it is through Toz’s focus on immersion, materiality, and visitor interaction—elements more closely related to an Hélio Oiticica or Cildo Meireles exhibition—that Insomnia builds narrative. The story functions as a suggestion, a plot carried through sound and light and tone, leaving ample room for interpretation of the literal content. Ultimately, it is the visitor wandering among the sleepless figures in Castro Maya’s occupied home who fully articulates their story.
The Povo Insônia (Insomnia) exhibition began with a single figure, the King of Insomnia, which you have included in your work before this show. Do you consider the King of Insomnia and the other figures in Insomnia to be characters?
I’ve always created characters, ever since I began to draw. The King of Insomnia is the evolution of all of these characters. I mixed together different influences I’ve had over the course of my life. As a kid, I spent all my time drawing or copying comics and daydreaming about superheroes. When I got into graffiti, I immediately started to come up with characters. The only difference between me and other street artists is that I develop personalities for my characters. I create an atmosphere and a universe for each one, which then allows me to draw them in new contexts.
Insomnia was no different. I had just separated from my ex-wife and I was going out a lot. I wanted to make a character of the night, one that doesn’t sleep, that exists among DJs and bartenders and partygoers, but that also connects to the creativity of insomnia. This character is also the person who can’t sleep because he’s up writing, reading, or drawing. That’s how I started to think about this character, nameless beyond the word “insomnia.” One of his visual characteristics was his eyes, and I chose to make the character black, initially because of the connection to night. And with that, I made the first version of the King of Insomnia, a small one.
It’s a very Brazilian idea. Brazilians have an ability to take different influences, swallow them, digest them, and then spit them back out as something totally different and equally good. That’s what this project was for me. I started to develop the character through various influences. Since I’m from Salvador, Bahia, a very Afro-Brazilian city, I started to study more about the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé. In researching and reading, I began to see how the idea of insomnia ties into the religion.
I later decided that the King of Insomnia wouldn’t be alone. He’s part of a culture, with family and others like him. That was also influenced by my trip to Europe. I was there during an influx of immigration, and I thought about how all human beings at some point need to move to another part of the world, be it for war, ambitions, or personal dissatisfaction. The mystery of these connections, the mixing of people and of migration is what made me decide to take the aesthetics of the King and, from him, create an entire people from Insomnia, a culture made up of characters.
It’s interesting that you mention the influence of immigration. On a figurative level, the King of Insomnia migrated from graffiti to the museum. What is your process for constructing characters in a museum? Did the space affect your characters?
I had already made the artwork, but I needed to adapt it to the museum, which is a house. The director of the museum and I came up with the idea of having Insomnia occupy the entire museum, and the museum very kindly let me use all of the components of the space.
The occupation gave more life to the characters. It created a very intimate, very real setting in the domestic sphere. I had created the people but had never imagined how those characters would behave in a house as individuals.
The project is adaptable. Now I’m going to do a show in a gallery, which will be different. While the first exhibition was about the individuals and families that traveled, the migrations, and the interpersonal ties, the next show will be more about Insomnia’s culture. It involves cultural objects and paintings that tell the story of the King of Insomnia. One installation involves a photo booth, but when you take the picture, your own face turns into that of Insomnia. To be honest, it’s very different from the first exhibition. The house was such a specific space.
Let’s talk about the space of the house. It was built in 1876, and though it was renovated over the years, certain aspects of the building carry Brazil’s colonial past and history of slavery. This is explicit in one room, where the Insomnia family portraits were displayed alongside drawers filled with etchings from the nineteenth century that depict slavery in intense detail, which are from the museum’s permanent collection. Does your history of Insomnia enter into dialogue with the colonial history of the house?
I love the space of the museum exactly for those qualities. Along with the etchings, the museum also has paintings by Portinari, a genius of Brazilian painting.
But Insomnia is not based on a real culture. It’s a fictional people with connections to the night, to the big city, but also to the jungle and the forest. There is no explicit link to suffering. I want to activate the visitor’s ludic imagination and to take them to a world that doesn’t exist. In that world, the visitor can imagine thousands of ways in which Insomnia relates to those issues.
For me, the etchings that depict slavery represent something that exists today in Brazil in new forms. If you go to Ipanema Beach, you will see very few poor, black people enjoying themselves. Most of them are working, selling things. Few realities have changed from colonial Brazil to the present day. But on walls and in my canvasses, I try to send other messages. I’m more focused on peace, love, beauty, and interpersonal connections.
I’m very deeply influenced by African portraiture, and specifically by the great photographers Seydou Keïta and Malik Sidibé. They reveal their subjects’ spirits through photography. Images that show beauty and pride and strength of culture draw me in. That was my starting point for Insomnia. The image of a child starving in the desert never appealed to me. My reference was always beauty, not just of these African cultures but also of Brazilian culture. Candomblé, a religion that is still very discriminated against in Brazil, was another one of my conscious choices of influences.
The Insomnia exhibition can be seen as a subtle social critique. Because of the characters’ very position and pose, the way they behave, and the clothes they wear, you see that the people must have undergone suffering, difficult border crossings, an escape from war, or the destruction of culture. The colonizer did not just dominate. He also robbed culture and enslaved people. It takes centuries for that to change. The exhibition shows more than the colorful side of the story, hinting also at the reality that cultures carry histories of violence.
Tell me a bit more about the connection with candomblé. Is there a figure in that religion that has to do with insomnia?
I’m not an expert, but I have read about the religion and also talked about it with people who are, like a man named Teacher Olímipio, from Cachoeiras, Bahia. He spoke to me at length and showed me two amazing temples in Salvador, A Casa Branca and Pilão de Prata. There, I had more conversations, met a priest, and sat in on a few ceremonies. I’m not religious, but I believe in the power of an individual asking the world for something. In that sense, I believe in faith.
In candomblé there are different orixás, which are like gods or entities. They have a connection with humans. Each person has an orixá that guides them, almost like a guardian angel. One figure in candomblé is Exú. Colonizers actually thought that Exú was the devil. He has an erect penis and seems very sexual, and so when the colonizers saw the offerings for that orixá they said, no, that must be a devil. That became a myth, but it’s not true. Exú is a messenger, an orixá who connects people. He’s here, in between people, and he makes connections. So, when you set out an offering, which is usually an object set out to an orixá to ask for something, you also have to set something out for Exú, since he’s the one who will take the offering and bring it to your orixá. I began to think about that with Insomnia. I think he has some of Exú’s characteristics, since he makes connections between the real world and, rather than the spirit world, the world of imagination.
My plan was to make a superhero, one that intervenes in the lives of people who suffer from lack of sleep and nocturnal anxieties. He’s the man who lives in the forest and, at night, comes down to Copacabana and slips into the crowds of people, saving one, saving another. That was my original idea, and afterwards came the connections with candomblé. As I explained the King of Insomnia to Olímpio and other experts in the religion, they said that dreaming is a kind of Exú. I began to notice those connections.
The space of the exhibition was very interactive. As I went through the occupied museum, I felt as though I myself built the narrative about who these figures are and their history. What do you see as the role of interaction in the creation of a visual narrative?
I’ve always loved telling and writing stories. In my exhibitions, I try to do the same thing and tell a story, capture a moment, a meeting. For that to happen, I think about how people walk around the exhibition, how they walk in. I think from that perspective. What is it that I want to awaken? I always like to have music because it makes the visitor even more immersed in the work. I also like to change the light. Those are the kinds of elements that have to do with the narrative. If you start with one kind of light and end with another, you’re telling a story. Day starts and day becomes night. If you start with slow music and it begins to speed up at a specific moment, you build emotion and create a narrative. It progresses.
A tiny fraction of our population goes to museums. As an artist who paints on the street, I can bring in a lot of kids from public schools and social projects to the show. One of my goals in any project is to bring together different groups in society in that way.
For you, what defines a visual narrative as opposed to visual representation?
I think a narrative doesn’t need to have different settings. I can make a narrative from a single image. Some images summarize entire stories. But, for me, a narrative relates to the process of articulating rhythm and creating a path. People will always have free interpretation, as with any narrative. It’s something you instigate without forcing, and maybe people will want to start at the end instead of the beginning. There are people who read the end of a book first. It makes me happy that there aren’t rules, because that’s the beauty of the thing. I suggest, I propose, and the visitors take that information, that inspiration, to use as they wish. That’s the best thing about a narrative. It’s proposing something that has a rhythm. Then you immerse the public in that story, giving them direction and an environment that will generate things for them. Personally, I still haven’t left this story. I still haven’t found the image that will complete it.
Many of the best narratives do not have a definitive ending.
The ending that gestures forward is better than the one that just stops. That’s what I’m hoping for with Insomnia. A half-open finish, primed for new interpretations.