By Nathan M. Walters, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A secretly bold creator, Joana Cesar is an artist that both embraces and defies traditions of the street art genre in Rio. She is transforming the street medium into an elegant contradiction, intimate yet for all to see, an evolving talent determined to both peel away and live within the layers of modern life.

Joana Cesar, Rio art, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
The Cesar Code, photo by Joana Cesar.

Cesar’s story reads a bit like a Dan Brown novel, The Cesar Code if you will. For many years she has been known for painting on the street in a secret personal code. The messages were intimate, scathing, erotic, powerfully cathartic, but safely shielded from exposure by a complete series of glyphs known only to Cesar.

But codes always run the risk of being deciphered, and when local math wiz kid Paulo Orenstein identified the pattern of Cesar’s work he took it upon himself to break the code, unlocking some of Cesar’s innermost thoughts.

“If you want to cover something, it must be coverable,” explains Cesar. “I put those very personal messages on the street because no one understood them.” To this day very few, if any besides Orenstein, understand the messages, and even then the code is changing as Cesar changes.

Secret codes are not new to graffiti in Brazil. Pichadores, pixação (the graffiti style originating in São Paulo) writers, use coded messages; a secret language understood by only a small group. It was the pixação that first prompted Cesar to paint on the street.

The Artist and Her Work, Joana Cesar, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
The Artist and Her Work, photo by Joana Cesar.

“Pixação is a marginal movement, pichadores leave their signatures on a city that doesn’t see them. When I first started working in the street I identified with the energy of the writing,” she explains.

Pichadores still work in a grey area, to some it is simply vandalism but for others, including Cesar, it upholds a powerful apolitical means of self-expression.

Cesar has adapted her interest in the life of the street to a collection of pieces that blend paint, sculpture, collage, photography, and, in an odd way, public performance. Her work is now on display at Athena Contemporânea in Copacabana, through May 2nd, and at the Gramáticaurbana Exhibition opening this week at Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oticica.

These exhibitions include recent works that blend the artist’s fascination with the images and messages that evolve from the natural process of urban life and her obsession with the layers of modern existence.

Cesar explained the process of her recent works, “I started by collecting blocks of public announcements, months of paper glued on top of each other. I would peel back the layers of paper, revealing different colors and forms. I would insert something, a photo, or something personal, then reapply different layers that had been peeled away. I wanted to participate in the process that had occurred on the street, to be in the layers.”

The artist’s innovative techniques have earned the respect of the Rio graffiti community. Still, Cesar remains one of the few women working in a male dominated genre.

Her thoughts and technique are unique as a result, though she still feels alone in her work. “It makes me very happy when women appreciate my street work, more females should be involved.”

Cesar is an enigmatic innovator championing the use of public art as a means of both introspective self-expression and community empowerment.  Her work is one more example of the dynamic street art scene that continues to evolve in Rio.






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