How Mendes Wood DM Became the Brazilian Art Market’s Most Prominent Champion

Mendes Wood DM founders and partners. Photography by Bob Wolfeson, 2023. All images courtesy of Mendes Wood DM.

One day, when they were two philosophy of art students in Paris in the mid-2000s, Pedro Mendes and Matthew Wood dragged a sculpture by Sonia Gomes around every gallery in the city, pitching the work to a series of ever-more bemused dealers.

“There was a resistance to the aesthetics of Sonia and her history in Brazil, so we thought France might be more receptive,” Mendes recalls. The textile artist, whose work mines Afro-Brazilian tradition, was an old family friend of his. They had no takers, but Gomes would go on to become a key figure in the success of their future gallery, Mendes Wood DM.   

Mendes returned to Brazil in 2007, with Wood, who is American, following him. Together, they founded an artist residency in the city of Belo Horizonte. Next door, Felipe Dmab was operating an artist-run space. “If you think we sounded determined in Paris, Felipe turned out the most tenacious of all of us,” Wood says. “Felipe would drag works by Sonia to the moon.”

Ebecho Muslimova, "Rumors" (Installation View), currently on view at Mendes Wood DM São Paulo. Photography by Gui Gomes. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Three years later, the trio combined forces and opened their commercial gallery in São Paulo, bringing with them many of the artists who had passed through the doors of the non-profit ventures. Now, these figures, who include Gomes, Paulo Nazareth, Marina Perez Simão, and Lucas Arruda, are some of the most famous—and expensive—in Brazil today. 

Next week, the gallery is returning to Art Basel in Switzerland (it “graduated” to the main section in 2018). The booth is a reflection of their increasingly influential program; a decade and a half into their trajectory, it seems like the world is finally catching up with the gallery's vision. Among the works on view will be a sculpture by Gomes, who was practically canonized with a vast showcase at last year's São Paulo Bienal; Julien Creuzet, who is representing France at the Venice Biennale; and Rubem Valentim and Amadeo Luciano Lorenzato, both of whom were in the historical section of "Foreigners Everywhere," the main show at the Biennale curated by fellow Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa. 

They've come a long way. “We didn’t have a plan when we started, just a mission to build a community around art,” Mendes explains, sitting in the garden of their hangar-like São Paulo headquarters. Dmab, beside him, agrees. “I think galleries who start with a plan don’t work out so well—they become so focused on the idea of what they want to be, they don’t recognize what they need to be,” he says. 

Josi, "arrastar chãos, juntar imbigos" (Installation View), currently on view at Mendes Wood DM São Paulo. Photography by Gui Gomes. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Hospitality, including paying airfare for collectors and curators to come to Brazil, was one of their biggest overheads in the early years, and it remains an expense—in Venice, they hosted a buzzed-about boat party down the Grand Canal. It's an investment that's paid off. Names previously unknown outside the country, including sculptors Paloma Bosquê, Adriano Costa, and Obá, gained market and curatorial attention. The gallery started to work with international artists in 2013, showing the Dutch painter Maaike Schoorel, exposing her and others to Brazilian audiences.

“It was important that the international artists felt a connection with Brazil,” Dmab says. “There were artists that we brought over, but they didn’t really connect with the country. Brazil has played such an important part in our story—it's the roots, the heart of the gallery.” The British sculptor Michael Dean and the Paris-based artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy both fell in love with the country, he notes, while a fast-rising star at the gallery, Alvaro Barrington, “has dreamt of visiting Bahia since he was born.” 

Inaugural exhibition at the Tribeca Mendes Wood DM gallery space. Paulo Nazareth, “Nosotros los otros" (Installation View), 2022. Photography by Olympia Shannon. Image courtesy of the artist. 

In 2016, the gallery inaugurated its first international space on the Upper East Side of New York before moving to a 7,000-square-foot storefront in Tribeca. They opened their first European gallery in Brussels in 2017, with a Paris space following in 2023. The expansion was fueled by reasons both romantic and pragmatic.

“We’ve all been wanderers. It was inevitable. In a Shakespearian way,” Wood says, joining over a video call from New York. Mendes adds, “To have an international contemporary art gallery based in São Paulo is logistically difficult—it's expensive. Even stupid things like sending an artist’s monograph costs a lot of money. It might not arrive; you need to pay a massive amount of import tax to get anything into the country.” 

Kishio Suga exhibition currently on view at Casa Iramaia, 2024. Photography by Gui Gomes. Image courtesy of the artist. 

As well as the permanent spaces, they have an ever-changing rota of temporary exhibition sites, in invariably bucolic locations. They will soon open a group show in a 17th-century church in the charming Dutch coastal village of Retranchement. Meanwhile, Edgar Calel, a Maya Kaqchikel artist from the midwestern highlands of Guatemala, will show at their residency in Germantown, New York. Last year, Perez Simão was the third of their artists to exhibit at a 19th-century estate they occupied in the Italian countryside. 

So many venues means that their travel schedule is phenomenal, and they are barely in a location for more than a week. “We love doing projects, and we don’t like holidays. So many people are dreaming of their two weeks away from work, we never want to be away from all this,” Dmab says. “We are messengers. Travel is the job. Just drink lots of water, dress comfortably and get some exercise in.”