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Photography Marcelo Mudou, make-up Julia Tartari

Ana Matheus Abbade: my nails are a weapon

Sylvie Macmillan shines a spotlight on the 22-year old nail technician from São Paulo, who beautifully documents the journey of her natural nails

I've always been obsessed with hands. Not only with how they look or what they can achieve, but by how expressive they are. We can train our faces to appear cool and collected, yet a sweaty palm or a clenched fist can give your game away. Providing people with manicures is emotional: nails are a way for people to live their dream selves, as opposed to their reality. It’s a beautiful thing to give someone. Fresh Set will be a regular platform for me present technical information and theory about nails, as well as highlighting those whose lives have been enhanced by the keratin on our fingertips.

My natural nail heroine: Ana Matheus Abbade

When it comes to nails, Instagram is generally a vortex of picture-perfect manicures, so it was a total breath of fresh air to come across Ana Matheus Abbade, a 22-year old nail technician from São Paulo, who beautifully documents the journey of her natural nails. It’s not uncommon for Ana to post images of her snapped nails or her worn polish; a relatable reality for anyone who works with their hands. Although trained, there is an outsider quality to Ana’s work that I deeply admire. She has an open fresh mind and often collaborates with the natural qualities of nails as opposed to fighting them, working with their natural wear and tear. I’ve been wanting to hear Ana’s story since I started following her. Because of her artistic background, I knew she’d have an interesting theoretical approach to nails. However, I really wasn’t prepared for the eye-watering story of how painting, shaping and growing her nails became essential to her existence, as well as a tool for building herself up from life-altering trauma.

Ana, I want to start by saying how much I love your nails! What do they look like at the moment?
Ana Matheus Abbade: Our admiration is mutual indeed! My nails are short now - different sizes and yellowish, like amber. I am testing a formula I made - an antioxidant nail polish. Even though it looks yellow, because of the high concentration of vitamin E and essential oil found in Indian cloves, a base of this will lighten the nail and aid the hardening of keratin layers.

When did you become interested in doing manicures?
Ana Matheus Abbade: Back in 2015… It was an intense year of change. I was living in Rio de Janeiro and studying Visual Arts, the whole city was troubled by the holding of global events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Around the same time, I was physically and sexually assaulted. After this, I felt the need for my body to be reborn, and I began by gender transition. I also started painting my nails, over and over, for several days. I would share photos of my nails on Instagram, with the hashtag: #unhaénavalha (which translates as “the nail is a razor”). A razor is a tool for cutting, it can separate one part from another, it can pierce if need be. I wanted to use my nails as a weapon. At the beginning I did not see it as an artistic gesture per se, it was something I had to do.

I love your attitude to when your nails break and the fact that they are unapologetically different lengths, there’s a lot of romance in letting go and allowing them to be what they are. What is your relationship with your nails and how do you feel when they snap?
Ana Matheus Abbade: It’s the greatest proof that my nails are natural. They break. Assumptions are made by those who see the photograph. Was it after some attack? Did I bite them? Showing your broken nail signifies the beginning of another growth. The fact that each one is in a different size marks a moment of each nail in its journey.

You manage to create some really beautiful and unusual paint effects, can you tell me a bit about your experiments and what inspires you?
Ana Matheus Abbade: I'm interested in all the different sculptural and pictorial effects that can be accomplished within a manicure. After each service, the client can take their painting away with them. An example of a technique I do is to layer the varnish and the pigment in a raw way, then gently use remover to expose the layers.

What kind of manicures and pedicures do you offer? Is there anything different about the way you work?
Ana Matheus Abbade: Creatively, I like to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with nails. I promise long and unbreakable nails that bend but don’t break. I look for materials that have properties to enhance the growth, strength and vitality of the nails, and offer a customised service for each client. My manicures often include the use of ucuúba butter, extracted from the Amazon tree, natural oils such as sunflower and additives such as keratin and d-panthenol. I also like to combine my nail art with my artistic practices. Recently I took part in ‘Surra de Unha', a three-day event at FAAP's Artistic Residence. I also held 'Manicure Show', a multi-disciplinary production which combined manicures, dance, music, performance and video.

What are your favourite aspects about doing nails?
Ana Matheus Abbade: I love the constant reinvention of the ways of using materials within the small area of the nail. I find it a challenge. I also love the relationship with my clients and other manicurists.

You live in São Paulo, what is nail culture like there?
Ana Matheus Abbade: My first contact with other professionals in São Paulo was during my manicure and pedicure training. I met women from all the neighbourhoods, together we experienced intense moments of empathy and inclusion. The training centres have become popular with the increase in demand for correct knowledge. We studied contours, colours, neon tones, reflections and diverse skin tones. We also studied acrylic nails. However, I avoid acrylics because they are damaging and instead focus on practices that bring vitality to the nail.

Not that it matters, but I’m interested to know, how do people react to your nails?
Ana Matheus Abbade: Brazil has the highest murder rate for trans people. When people stare at me, it’s not about me, it’s about what they believe. My nails suit me, they make me feel complete. If someone observes them excessively I blow them a kiss. It is not the metabolic production of the body that must structure our separation of genders.