Brazilian artist Simone DeSousa has held her studio practice in Detroit since 1999. She has exhibited extensively in the metro Detroit area and nationally, and her work is part of several private and public collections, including the University of Michigan, BonSecours Hospital, Precision Capital, Compuware, and Luciano Benetton Collection. She is also the founder of Simone DeSousa Gallery and EDITION, a gallery and art project in Cass Corridor, Midtown Detroit, since 2008, where she has organized almost one hundred exhibitions. DeSousa holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Brasilia, Brazil.
How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?
I was paired up with Timothy van Laar by one of the early organizers of the project—which wasn’t at that time called “Dual Vision” yet, but was always about collaboration and Detroit. She saw parallels between our works, and was aware that Tim and I knew each other from the community, and were interested in each other’s works. I met Tim when he moved back to Detroit in 2015. In the past years we have had many conversations about art practice, the art world, and our Detroit creative community. I am intimately familiar with Tim’s work, but had never collaborated with him in creating an artwork before.
Tim, who is also a writer and educator, was actually going to school in Detroit back in the 70’s, and was a part of the Cass Corridor community of artists then. The Cass Corridor “movement” (late 60’s and early 70’s) was the first contemporary art scene out of Detroit, a history that I became deeply interested in recent years, especially since my gallery and curatorial project has been based in Cass Corridor for the past ten years. I have had the honor of personally meeting and curating works by some of the main figures of that time, who are still practicing today.
When I was invited to work with Tim I immediately said yes, as I know the passion and care with which he approaches art making, and how deeply he cares about art and its reflections on society.
Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?
Tim and I sat down in my backyard in Detroit—remember, this is during the pandemic—and started talking about the similarities we saw in our works, and the things that we both respond to, or are interested in.
After we gathered a few key intentions, we let those “words” reverberate in our minds for a little while. The title for our piece, “Repercussions,” actually emerged during this time. In one of our meetings, I mentioned that simple acts have repercussions, and how we mostly live unaware of our own actions. Tim responded to that specific word, and it became kind of a guide towards the overall intention of the piece. Then we started a series of meetings to freely sketch out some actual visual ideas. Interestingly, we were very much in sync about wanting the work to not be a painting—we both primarily work in painting—but rather a hybrid of architecture, sculpture, installation, and painting. We wanted it to be experiential.
Everything in the piece was decided together, and intentionally. The raw construction of the wall in contrast to the pristine finish of the red beam-like shape. The red shape is very much about a disruptive act that ultimately brings balance to the entire assembly. A little bit like life, we need to shake up the conventional structures, and dismantle assumed forms, to find the true energy of progress and evolution. A painting as a window into something, a window into a painting, a painting as a ceremonial moment, a completely obscured black painting signifying the infinite of possibilities…. All of those moments are brought together into a structure in which the viewer becomes an active part of the composition. The curiosity of the viewer guides the experience, the unveiling of the different layers and potential relationships.
Once we arrived at a sketch that we were both excited about, I transferred it into a technical drawing, and we had some final conversations about specific dimensions, materials, and their finishes, and what they meant within the context of the piece. Due to the pandemic, and our inability to physically work together in the indoor studio space, we decided to engage a local fabricator we know to build the walls of the piece. This also became a welcome aspect of the collaborative nature of the work. There was a sense of joy throughout the entire process, including having the wall structures of the piece translated from a drawing into a physical object through hands other than ours.
What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone?
The two processes—individual and collaborative—are just conducive to different types of work. I happen to be interested in both. The more intimate, solitary, individual painting work speaks to my interest in meditative states, and the understanding of the Self. This type of exploration does require a quietness and a complete focus on your own individual process. The collaborative work, on the other hand, connects me to our shared world, to the interdependent nature of all things, people included.
My current studio practice is very intimate, since I went from having a large shared studio space back to having a small studio at home at the beginning of 2020. Throughout the pandemic I was quite prolific in the small studio—sometimes working in my backyard too—and all the works produced throughout 2020 were more related to my existential inquiries.
My last solo exhibition in Detroit was in 2016 at the Holding House, in Southwest Detroit. It was an exploration of deconstruction of paintings into small installations of minimally painted multiform panels. I was interested in isolating moments, and presenting them in relationship to each other, and the viewer. At that time, I thought the natural next step for the work was to create small immersive painting environments. The MOCAD exhibition gave me the opportunity to go back to that intention, and now better yet, with the additional input and energy of a collaborator.
Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?
The explicitly collaborative work is just a more evident example of what is inevitably happening all the time in life: that all is interconnected.
We humans have grown to experience life in a very disconnected divisive way. This has negative consequences both individually and collectively. If we felt others as a part of ourselves, where would be the question of how to act towards “the other”?
I believe that you cannot heal and evolve things collectively without doing the individual work of self-awareness as well. Doing collective work without self-awareness can lead to the same problems of ignorance and prejudice. Seeing others as separate from ourselves is at the very core of all societal pain. Our realities obviously emerge first in our minds, both individually and collectively, so where are we unconsciously going when the driver has no clue they are even driving?
Better things happen when we are unconcerned about preserving our opinions and positions, and are more interested in genuinely exploring the possibilities in the situations that are presented. In our distinct art practices, I tend to be intuitive, and action driven, while Tim is analytical, and reflective. We both felt that the merging of our different “methods” of approaching art making expanded and enriched the scope of the piece. I am a Brazilian woman with obviously completely different life experiences from Tim. In a sense, our different default references, as well as the conversations we had around what matters in terms of art making at this moment, in the specific context of our time and place, were invaluable to the conceiving of the work.
Going off of the title of the exhibition, how do you and your collaborator see your specific work differently?
I think we actually see it in a very similar way, as an object that refuses a specific definition: it is architectural, sculptural, a deconstructed painting, a collaboration where you cannot identify where one person’s work ends and the other’s starts…