L’Enfant: creativity and being naïve.

Interview with L'enfant - André do Santos

The first thing that strikes you about André dos Santos is how little he resembles the staunch, turgid figure of an establishment artist. Sitting in a room filled with diverse and beautiful artworks, there is little resemblance between him and the stereotypes of creativity that render the creative a chore. Having recently moved back to Berlin after spending some years in London, L’Enfant has returned to the country he grew up in, after moving from his native Portugal at an early age. But regardless of the challenges of Brexit and COVID which have made a life for so many of us, both inside and outside of the artistic community, more of an ordeal than it ought to be, André is always creating.

“It’s all about freedom. It always returns to freedom.”

Dos Santos spent much of his life living in a family home where the formulaic and authoritative were the norm. He tells me that so much of his life was procedural, yet he was always running away with it. Talking to him it seems like possibilities are open to him in a way that they are simply not for others. The world shows up as a playground, and endless experimentation is the status quo, rather than something he must step into. I mention to him the famous Picasso adage – that it takes longer to learn how to be a child than how to learn one artistic technique or another. It is so hard to claw back naivety once you’ve lost it. “That’s why my style in painting is all so childlike. It’s extremely important to me not to kill your inner child.”

AFREEKWUH, L'enfant, Cover Art for Afriqua, 2020

The list of works attributed to L’Enfant is endless: he works across categories, on multiple pieces at a time, tackling artistic projects from every direction. For one-piece, he discovered objet trouvé style a pair of jeans on the city streets. Using his experience in sewing, he meticulously picked apart the jeans and fashioned them into a dress, styling them on a model before doing a video shoot. From start to finish, every aspect – from the couture to the careful crafting of the aesthetic to the camerawork and editing – was done by his own hand. Although he sometimes collaborates on projects like this, the breadth of his practice is something he prides himself on. “I’m always challenging the boundaries of the human mind, seeing how far I can go. I want to push myself, find the limits of my brain. I can’t be happy otherwise.”

André began his professional life in the fashion industry, after moving out of the house at 17. Initially enrolled in an art school, he quit after a year to transfer to Fashion Institute Mannheim when his father pointed out the shaky prospects of a creative career. Styling work was the more fiscally consistent remedial option. After graduation dos Santos moved between firms, his work spanning every day and the recherché, but what he talked about in brightest terms was his experience in haute couture. Moving to Amsterdam to work with Iris van Herpen, his creativity was propelled by the experimentalism that museum and gallery pieces afforded. The intimacy of craft from start to finish also had its own boons. “We had to hand-stitch everything! It was a crazy experience. Really, one I’ll never forget.”

It was not long before he found himself drawn back to the arts, and the brilliance he displayed in the clothing he created for the runway began to shine in other endeavours. Encapsulating the art of L’Enfant in a few quick phrases is, I’m ashamed to say, difficult. Right now he’s working with eight different mediums. “I have to check my Instagram to remind myself of everything I’m doing”, as he listed out works of photography, sculpture, videography, digital art, and painting, along with numerous interdisciplinary combinations, that are occupying his spare time. And yet it all starts with a coffee and a walk in the park.

“I need a bit of nature, to clear my head, to clear my soul.”

It’s simple joys that occupy lockdown, but André uses the time he spends every morning in the local urban greenery pedagogically. Inspiration for him isn’t something that can be pinned down to a favourite artist, creator, or genre; although he does like Dada. Rather, it’s something that can strike whilst immerse in the everyday. One grand project which he’s trying to get off the ground is a film called Diamond Sword. The film is set in a phantasmic realm of political struggle between two solipsistic sisters, who compete to attain a hereditary weapon. Set amongst three different classes of society – including a privileged elite which uses exclusionary technology to live amongst the clouds – it tackles some very poignant themes that dos Santos tells me he has been gestating since childhood. “I would wake up each morning after having nightmares about it. That is where this idea came from.”

When I ask him what his favourite piece is, he runs across the room to retrieve a painting. It’s a beautifully detailed, ethereal scene of a humanoid figure floating transparently amidst shimmering flower-jewelled waters. It took him four months to do and was a rare exercise in focusing on just a few things. “Usually I’m working on pictures for one hour, then I’m doing installations, then I’m doing my movie the next. I’m just constantly…juggling.” But with this, he focused on detail even beyond what his mind could conceive. It was sticking to the painting and developing his technique that proved the challenge. “With art, it is so easy to start something and so hard to finish it. The ideas are always just popping into my head, and with this, I had to do a couple of other pieces at the same time to channel that energy.”

“You need to create your own waves. Why else would you be an artist?”

Above all, what oozes from André is vivacity. His whole living room is covered, floor to ceiling on all the walls, with his work. It’s a haven of zealous, idea-driven creativity, the sort that knows no bounds and indeed tries to challenge them. But sometimes, attempts to go beyond repetition and conformity can be misunderstood. Giving a passionate exegesis on the role of the artist, he could hardly contain his dismay with an established practice. “People feel alienated by you if they think you’re too far in front. There’s something local about human psychology. Beyond a certain radius and the art becomes uncomfortable.”

L’Enfant intends to list his works for sale on Chimera, and he seems most excited about the sculptural installation pieces. Playful cubic figures, fashioned all by hand out of wood, he calls toys. Elsewhere, eerily galactic constructions spawn from recycled packaging and materials. But in a refreshingly un-performative reflection of his nom-de-brosse, he also demonstrates a poised and contemporary maturity in his subject matter. He decorates a stem-smashed wine glass prettily with its own lost shards. And he has released digitally an enticing teaser in animated form for the film he wants to make.

André dos Santos carries all the hallmarks of genuine creativity. Works that seem to defy the canon and the interpretative vocals we draw from it. Oodles of passion, sincerity, and accrued wisdom. But beyond and before all that; the ability to let go. “You have to be able to see things from a meta-basis, to not restrict yourself to one form or way, to be free.” Not just to go beyond representing the past, but to go beyond one mode of representation. In that way, he wants to reflect human behaviour and its full, authentic range of performances.

“I think there’s a special relationship between naivety and intuition”, he says. “And intuition is at the root of art. If you’re not taking risks, why be an artist?”

Discover more of L'enfant works by following his Instagram @lenfant

Follow Oliver on Instagram @o.i.banks