“Celeste” by Werllayne Nunes
“Celeste” by Werllayne Nunes; courtesy of Mehari Sequar Gallery

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Painting was not Werllayne Nunes’ first career choice, but it was always a true love. After completing medical school in 2003, Nunes decided to become a full-time artist. His current show, Palace of Power, at Mehari Sequar Gallery proves he made the right decision.

Nunes is the portrait of the quintessential genius artist. Just disheveled enough, he looks as though he might begin painting at any moment. His hair is graying and stands wildly atop his head. His mannerisms are quiet and shy. And his speech—Portuguese is his first language—is sort of erratic.

Growing up in Brazil, Nunes didn’t dream of being an artist and he wasn’t exposed much to art. But his father, a sign painter who would make large signs for Mother’s Day or Christmas, bought him his first set of oil paints. With those art supplies, Nunes confesses, he painted like a kid would—houses, trees, birds. He didn’t know being an artist was possible. “I didn’t know I could be in museums or galleries,” he says. “I knew I liked to draw and paint, but I didn’t have anybody to give me information. They didn’t teach this in Brazil at that time.”

As a young man, he decided to go to medical school because he knew his parents wanted a good life for him, and, as the eldest of three children, he would set an example. He went to school in Spain, where he went to a museum for the first time. He was 23. 

When he saw the art, he realized, “That’s what I want to do.” But he was hesitant to tell his mother, he says. “I didn’t want to steal her dream. My dream is not only about me … it’s about my mom too. It’s about everybody that’s around me. My family. So, the dream that affects me, affects everybody.”

Soon after realizing he wanted to paint, he went to his mother and got her blessing. He gave up medicine to create art full time. “People said, you can do both,” he recalls, “but if you want to be good, you have to choose. Painting is not a hobby. No, this is serious.” 

Nunes paints every day. “If I don’t paint, I’m very cranky, my humor changes, and I start to think I’m going to be the worst artist ever.” Though the details in his artwork might suggest otherwise—because he paints with such passion—Nunes is completely self-taught.

Palace of Power, the name of his current exhibit at the Northeast D.C. gallery, speaks to the idea that even places considered meager by some have the ability to be palaces for others. In the center of the gallery space is a corrugated metal structure, mimicking a home in Brazil’s favelas. Above it, hangs a chandelier. “When I was a kid, I heard this guy say that living in a favela is like living in a castle, and I never forgot that,” Nunes says.

He believes in visual magical realism—the concept that the magic existing within his sitters can be rendered onto their portraits. Nunes takes pictures of Black children and places them on canvases with colorful, geometric backdrops suggesting that magic exudes from inside of each of them rather than capturing their lived environments, which often are not the safest or most fruitful in terms of resources. While he photographs his subjects, he also gets to know them and what they like.

“I have to put these kids in the best environment possible,” says Nunes. “They deserve to be in the best perspective ever.” He paints children because they remind him of his childhood—full of play and imagination. But it’s also about realizing that it’s important to cultivate power to help kids grow their self-esteem and confidence. 

In one of his most striking artworks, “Celeste,” he notes that she loves her community. It was not something Nunes expected from someone so young. He decided to place her image foreground to the favelas, though she is not from there. In this complex painting, Celeste’s arms mimic a horizontal line across the canvas that creates a horizon. The favelas are reflected as if water has created an identical mirrored image. Each minute element of the favela is replicated in a mirrored way below the horizontal line. In another work, “Us,” he repeats this mirrored image style and it’s masterful.

The beauty in the way he renders his subject suggests it comes from love. Each coil of hair in his paintings are detailed and attentive. The shadows replicate photographs. And the details, up to the dirt on a subject’s elbow, deceive the eye into thinking the subject is real rather than an image captured in oil. To truly experience Nunes’ work, his paintings need to be seen in person—photos don’t do them justice. Seeing the quality of paint on canvas helps to understand that these aren’t photographs. They’re paintings amazingly created by the human hand.

Palace of Power is on view through Feb. 26 at Mehari Sequar Gallery. meharisequargallery.com. Free.