Gabriel Abrantes practice revolves around painting and film, having first gained interest in cinema while studying at Cooper Union in New York City. Currently living in Lisbon and New York, the artist has been making many videos documenting postcolonial, gender and identity issues. These he writes, directs, produces and sometimes acts in. We spoke with him about his films and how he plays with absurdity, folklore and humour. 
For those who don’t know you, how would you describe yourself?
I am an artist living in Lisbon and New York. I studied at Cooper Union in New York City, and then Le Fresnoy in Paris. For the last ten years, I have been making many films: I write, direct, produce and often act in them. The videos address historical, political and social matters, while also discussing postcolonial, gender and identity issues. I try to create layers of unlikely readings by altering traditional narratives and by playing with absurdity, folklore, humour and politics.
You were first interested in painting when studying at Cooper School in New York City, but you were told not to focus on one art. Why did you decide to stop painting and focus on cinematography?
I’m preparing a painting show, so it was more of a hiatus than a full stop. At Cooper, they wanted students to loosen themselves from the binds of the craft obsession that often dominates high schoolers with fine art aspirations. They wanted us to work with our heads, to be able to talk about work intelligently, rather than support ourselves with a crutch of technical proficiency or virtuosic craft. But to be fair, I do think there is a school of thought within many BFA programs that still ascribes to the ‘painting is dead’ spiel, and there was a fair amount of that at the schools I frequented. I remember one teacher, while looking at a student’s work, saying “Whoever thinks painting is still interesting is an idiot.” I did partially fall for this ruse, but that was only temporary; I love painting. I started getting involved in filmmaking because I wanted to explore the utopian ideals of collective art production inherent in the seventh art, and was curious about working in a form that has the social impact of mass media.
What have your studies at Cooper School, Le Fresnoy, and L’Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris taught you? What was the approach in each of these centres? How have things changed since you moved to Europe?
I miss all of these schools. I made some of my best friends, whom I consider some of the most brilliant young artists working today, at these institutions. I grew enormously because of my teachers and my colleagues. Cooper freed me up a lot, introduced me to postmodernism, poststructuralism, Wittgenstein, the nouvelle vague, the cinema of attractions, Hollywood as a propaganda tool, and the hilarity of Niki Logis, who was famous for her one-liners when students were careless with their diction: “Your ‘roots’?! You have no roots! You are not a tree!” or “The ‘essence’ of the work? What essence? Vanilla? This doesn’t smell like vanilla, this work stinks.” At Le Fresnoy I met Ben Crotty and Mati Diop, who are some of my best friends and collaborators. This school is focused on the intersection of art with new technologies and cinema. At L’Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts it was a pretty loose time. I spent a lot of time with Nancy Lupo there, who was also from Cooper and who really changed the way I thought and what I thought art could do.
I’ve read that you have taught cinema at the Haute Ecole d’Art et Design in Geneva. How was this experience? Are you still a teacher, as well as an artist? What is the most important lesson you wanted your students to learn?
I really love teaching. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I cared immensely for the students and for their work. I started off the year telling them the story about the second volume of Aristotle’s poetics. There is the well-known volume on tragedy (about catharsis, continuity of action and time, composition of heroic character, etc.) and another volume on comedy, which was lost – the last copy supposedly reduced to ashes when the ancient Library of Alexandria burned. I asked the students if they thought that the history of drama might have been different if the comedy volume hadn't been lost, if instead tragedy had burned up. Might comedy have been regarded as more important than tragedy? Might Nietzsche have written the Birth of Comedy instead of the Birth of Tragedy?
There is a parallel didactic analogy with Michelangelo’s misreading of ancient Greek statues. He thought they were originally white marble because of the simplicity and purity that the Greek sculptors were trying to achieve, whereas we know now that the ancient Greeks painted their sculptures in incredibly gaudy colours. I was trying to get the students to think about the fact that people are shaped by a genealogy of prejudices that are ingrained through the haphazard vectors of history, socioeconomic backgrounds, and the very words we use, and that most of the time we live out and express these prejudices in a state of complete oblivion. I think this is something Niki Logis impressed on me and that I wanted to pass it on to the students.
How would you describe yourself and your style as a director? What filmmakers influenced you? Have you been marked by any films?
My films have different styles. There are technical aspects that unify them, such as shooting on 16mm, working with a small team, playing documentary strategies off of Hollywood references, ‘guerrilla' filming tactics off of underground film references. In terms of content, most of them relate interpersonal relationships (friendship, filial relationships) with post-global politics, anthropology, art history, technology, and ecology.
I would say the directors who have most influenced my work are Pasolini, Lubitsch and the film studio Pixar. Lubitsch and Pasolini are both filmmakers with populist beliefs, who found themselves in a peculiar part of several leftist movements, and who dedicated much of their career to inverting stereotypes (in Pasolini’s work real life pimps and prostitutes are soundtracked by Bach’s holiest music, and filmed as if they were saints; in Lubitsch’s films bumbling actors take down Hitler or a notorious thief realises the best transgression is to get married to an haute-bourgeois perfume company heiress). Another film that really influenced me is Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Along with Lubitsch and Pasolini’s films, this film posits that comedy is sometimes the most politically effective genre.
How can you explain your interest in documenting the art of mocking/teasing? And what is the message hidden behind your films?
Wittgenstein said that "A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Sullivan’s Travels says that a serious and good political film could be made consisting entirely of jokes. I believe in this. I believe that comedy is one of the most complex ways to communicate, very similar to poetry, where pleasure and meaning are derived from inverting common readings, playing with words, and transgressing norms. With most of my work, I have been trying to break apart preconceived notions of certain important cultural icons and identities – such as Manet’s Olympia, Brancusi’s Princess X, the Portuguese poet Camoes, the failed utopian architecture of Brasilia. All the films try to cross wires and apply some ironic torsion to an established figure, object, genre or movement, inverting their common meaning and offering a strange new perspective of these icons.
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Your works have often been realised with low budget. Is that because you want to give a special hallmark to your projects?
I am a huge believer in amateurism and the inventive power that naturally occurs within amateur practices. I have always tried to be ignorant of or consciously ignore certain traditional filmmaking rules or conventions, in order to allow for the natural experimental process that occurs in a state of oblivion to standard practices. I make experimental films and try to invent novel images and structures, and I think that working with an amateur, low budget production model gives more room for such experimentation. 
In some of your works, in addition to being the director, you are also a model or an actor. How do you handle these two roles within the filming process? Why you?
I enjoy acting in my films. I don’t act in almost any other director’s films. It is a chance to make fun of myself and make myself explicitly complicit in the content of the film.
Could you tell us a bit more about Olympia? Why did you want to make ‘alive’ the famous work of Edouard Manet?
Manet’s Olympia is one of my favourite paintings. It is a radical piece of work. At the time it was made, it destroyed the genre of the mythical female nude. This was one of the most prevalent genre’s at the salons Manet participated in, and was a shoddy way to justify making soft-core erotica for the male bourgeois gaze by dressing it up with an allusion to Greek myth. Manet decided to rip this genre apart by having no mythical allusion, and painting a well-known prostitute with a confrontational stare and harsh lighting. The public at the time found it quite distasteful and scandalous. I see it as a critique of what Manet found to be a sexist and stale community and genre. Manet twisted the established genre by changing a few things, and in that way managed to create a vicious attack on the mores of the spectators of that genre. I find this to be very inspiring.
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What did you want to highlight in your short film called Liberdade?
The film I think germinated from my love for a Godard quote: “Les travellings sont affaire de morale.” I think it means that a certain technique, aesthetic, or practice is imbued with a moral charge that comes from its history and the kind of perspective it gives to a work. Crotty and I wanted to use a sleek, commercial Hollywood aesthetic, using exclusively Steadicam and aerial footage, as well as filming mostly at sunset, to film a context that we considered morally at odds with this kind of imagery. There is a monstrousness in filming a vertical slum with a helicopter, and we intended this as a metaphor for inequality, especially as subliminally represented through commercial filmic languages.
Can you tell us about why you sometimes associate and mix several of your films together? For instance, your film called Pan pleure pas gathers Ennui Ennui, Liberdade and Trapobana. What is the link between those three? And why did you decide to merge them into one film?
I have distributed a few of the shorts as feature films to be released in cinemas as standalone works, rather than as shorts before someone else’s feature film. Ennui Ennui, Liberdade and Taprobana are all about post-colonial or colonial conflicts (European diplomacy and charity in tribal communities, Chinese power and influence in Angola, and the Portuguese cultural, political and economic presence in Sri Lanka.) They are very different, taking place in very different geographies and time periods, and using different genres and tones, but they all have an irreverent and chaotic perspective of power dynamics between advanced and emerging market economies.
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Tell us about your latest film entitled Tristes Monroes. What is it about? How was the whole process, from the first idea to the final result?
The film is about the soccer player who gives up on his professional career, due to age as well as emotional confusion. He ends up adopting a young immigrant, but who is lying about her identity. Antics ensue. The film has been in gestation for five years, and has gone through a million versions. Schmidt and I are in the middle of editing. No prognosis yet.
What are the next steps in your career? Any future projects you can share with us?
I'm working on a short animation about a young sculpture who comes to life, escapes from the Louvre, and joins a protest at the place de la République, only to learn that maybe she wasn’t ‘made’ for politics. I’m also working on a series, short ten-minute episodes, each about the history of one iconic artwork - a bit like A Brief History of Princess X, about the Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Courbet’s Origin of the World, Gauguin’s Barbarian Tales, and others.