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Rafael Lopez Saubidet, aka Rafa is an Argentinean surfer and painter. At 50 he quit his city life and his job as agro-economy consultant, moved to Praia do Rosa, in the south of Brazil, and devoted himself to surfing and painting. He traveled around the world for two years and he then settled in Bali where he has been living for two years now.
– the birth of the artist
Rafa, how did you discover your artistic sensibility? It was by chance really, some ten years ago. I was 48 then. Already a grown man and still living in Buenos Aires. I had ordered a couple of custom-made surf boards and I wanted to add some tribal drawings to them. I started with black and white and then I bought some colored pencils and started drawing on paper. Later, a friend gave me some paint pommels and little by little I started painting. I tried with acrylics and oil. Now, I basically paint with acrylics or with water colors if I am travelling.
At first, painting was a small part of my life and time. When I moved to Brazil, I devoted myself to the fullest.
What motivated you to move to Brazil? Basically, I was looking for a lifestyle change. As a kid I lived in Mar del Plata, a city on the coast. I started surfing at 12, but as I went to university and then onto a job, life took me to cities and places far from the ocean. I was only able to surf during holidays, if I had holidays. Fifteen or twenty days per year. I always had yearnings for the life by the ocean and surfing every day. At fifty, I said to myself “what I want is to surf”. By then I had enough financial resources. I quit my job and left to the beach in Brazil. I lived in Praia do Rosa for 5 years surfing and painting. A radical life change… Yes. I had been separated from my wife for five years. My three children were already grown up. I became a father relatively young, at 25. Everything that I wanted to do at that age in a way I postponed it and did it 25 years later. My youngest child, my daughter, was 17 at the time and she was maybe the only one who didn’t take it all too well. In any case, it was not a sudden thing. I had already been announcing that that was what I wanted to do in my life. At one point I thought about Costa Rica. It was the place to go at the time. But in the end I decided on Rosa. The water is not too cold and besides, it was a place that I was already familiar with. We used to holiday often in Rosa with my family. It was a familiar place where I also had friends. Also, my family was going to be able to visit me during their holidays. What was the catalyst moment for that change? At one point in my life (living in Buenos Aires), I did some therapy with a psychoanalyst. I explored my angst and I was trying to become conscious of what made me happy and what did not make me happy. I remember at one point, the psychologist asked me what was the moment in my life that I felt the happiest. “When I’m entering the water to surf”, I replied. That’s when I feel fully happy. Living in Buenos Aires made it hard to go surfing. The closest waves are about 400 km away and the water is cold. Basically, I had to travel to go surfing. One year, we went back to Rosa for holidays with my family. I was in the water surfing and that’s when I became truly conscious that I didn’t want to surf fifteen or twenty days out of the year. I wanted to do it every day. There and then I made up my mind. I went back to Buenos Aires to wrap up some matters and three months later I was back in Rosa without a return ticket. I stayed for 5 years. And you had more time to explore your art… Yes. I started painting a lot more. I remember a friend telling me about an artist, Basquiat. I had no idea who he was. I searched him on the Internet and wow!, my jaws dropped. “What a painter!” For me it was a before and after moment. Basquiat showed me that I had to paint however it came out. Without care to whether I knew what I was doing or not. To free myself from any preconception. I started loosening up more and evermore. I had only ever taken one art class. I graduated and worked as a veterinary and then worked as an economist. So my background was in medical sciences and economics, all branches of knowledge that are quite structured. I mean, science is science and figures are figures. I was sick of rules and structures. I started painting like whatever comes out, comes out. “I’m gonna be totally free, without anybody telling me what or how to do it”, I said to myself. I was totally free. Although later on, I wasn’t that free anymore (laughter). I look at the painting of my beginnings and I say to myself “how free I was!”. Although I was free more from ignorance. I didn’t know anything about painting. They were more authentic, without too much thought, more raw. Later, I travelled for two years. It was hard to paint so I would draw more. I would draw each place I visited. In my style, all kind of distorted. When I came to Bali, I started to paint again on canvas. There was a change in my art then. Those two years of travelling and drawing began to express themselves on the canvas, here in Bali. My art used to be more abstract and now it’s more figurative. I would say that before it was more figurative abstract and now it’s more abstract figurative.
– the art
Each painting is a story. It’s a dialogue through lines and drawing and colors. It’s a personal dialogue with the canvas. That’s why, many times, my initial idea, when I start painting, has nothing to do with the final result. And I love that. When I paint, it’s me and the canvas. Nobody else is allowed in. It’s my personal world and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
I’m an artist who paints with a lot of strong and loud colors and I lit my painting with piano keyboards. I give them light with pianos. They have no musical connotation. Neither I nor anybody in my family plays the piano. I just like the light effect it projects. At the same time, they are lines that cross the painting giving it harmony. I remember being in Berlin where there’s a lot (and a lot of types) of public transport. Trains, buses, subways, cars, planes… And I would see those lines in motion and I liked them. I liked that image. Then I added the fish, the birds and the rest. In my art there is always a big bird flying over the ocean which is me, three little birds that are my children. There is now a fourth smaller one that is my grandson Jacinto. I also identify personally with the piano keyboards. I guess I should go to a painting psychoanalyst to tell me what can be seen in my art. (Laughter)
My art is very intense. Someone once told me about having empty spaces in paintings for the eye to rest. In my art, forget it. If you are admiring my art, you won’t be able to rest. In what stage is your art at present? I’m in a kind of conjunction of the whole of the previous process adding to the images that I imbibed through my travels through Asia, mainly India, Thailand and Bali. There came the elephants, the shivas… Bali gave me fluorescent colors and warm colors. At this stage, my paintings are very warm… I am also trying to kind of go back to something more abstract. Get out of the figurative… but it’s hard. I can’t get out. And I get mad. I try but I’m not convinced. At the same time, I think I found an identity. Anyone who sees my paintings knows “ah, that painting is a Rafa”. On one hand, that is good because you are being recognized and that’s good from a commercial point of view. You sign your paintings as Wasamara… Yes, at this stage. When I left my country I experienced a radical change in my life. Wasamara is in a way the rebirth of that identity. And at the same time it gave me a certain anonymity which is necessary sometimes. Wasamara is like an expression that expresses the moment right after an impact, after a great effort. It’s also at the same time the impact but also the rest from that impact. It’s where ecstasy rests.
Tell us about your clothing Wasamara. Bali inspired me. I think it’s a place where there are opportunities to create your own clothing. In fact, almost everyone I know in Bali has had at a certain point an awakening in the fashion world.
At first I thought about printing t-shirts with a photo of a painting. That is, the typical black t-shirts with a painting in the center. But then I wanted to go beyond that totally integrating my art with the clothing. I have always been very creative. For a year I learnt about clothing-making and what and how I liked it.
What has been people’s reaction to your clothing? They vary. Wasamara clothing is very powerful. People like it but maybe not all would wear it. People like what is different but maybe what is not so different. People that wear Wasamara are those that really look for originality. There are people that dress like the rest and there are people that like to be original. Wasamara is innovative. I am very innovative. Wasamara is for the person that likes innovation. I think that we are starting to see a bit more of clothing that is a bit more out there. Sometimes my problem is that I am not a very commercial person and I forget to keep in mind the commercial aspect of an artistic enterprise. I should be a bit more commercial. Regardless, what I like is that, after being closed off in my personal world with my art, I can give people part of that world. Dress them up with my art. When I paint I try to pass on healing energy to the painting. I have been told that I have a healing gift. So I like to believe that the person who wears Wasamara receives in a way part of that healing energy. Besides, I have also found a new dimension to my art. When people move, my art moves. The painting moves. It’s awesome. With my art or with someone else’s. What happened? Before paintings were on the walls, then printed on a t-shirt. Art was always kind of outside the person. I love to see people get inside the painting, become part of the painting.
I use hand-printing techniques. At first I used digital, but commercially it’s not so viable. It’s too expensive. But I’m happy that in fact it’s hand-made. Even the labels are hand-made!
– the surfer
I started surfing at 12 or 13. My father encouraged me in away. This was in 1970. There were practically no surf boards in Buenos Aires. They were expensive. I bought a second-hand one with the money that I put together from my birthdays. There was no leash in those times. My father promised me a neoprene suit if I passed all the subjects at school that year. I delivered and so did he. I surfed until I was 17. Then I left to university and Buenos Aires, far from the coast. Surfing was relegated for a long time. At 32, I started holidaying in Brazil again and little by little I got back into surfing too. During the past 10 years, I have surfed almost every day (when my 58-year-old body allows). I now feel that I am really a surfer. It’s what I do. And in fact, I feel like I surf much better than when I was younger. Bali gave me the opportunity to improve. There are always waves. World-class waves. Long, glassy, steep, opening, very often big, perfect… and warm water! The level in the water is also very good. That has helped me improve a lot. I like the rainy season better. I’m regular and I always prefer the wet season right-handers. Thanks for the interview, Rafa. Good luck with everything. Same to you.