CONTEMPORARY ART IN BRAZIL AND THE THINGS THAT (DON’T) EXIST




TEXT BY FABIANA LOPES
THIS TRANSLATION WAS ENCOURAGED BY THE GOETHE-INSTITUT
TRANSLATION BY SARA HANABURGH
REVIEW BY LAIS KALKA
MARCH/ 2016




I was leading a group of North American collectors around to visit galleries in São Paulo during the SP-Arte in 2014. Observing the works in one of the city’s large galleries, one of the collectors was confronted with the following question: “How would you describe your collection?” After thinking for a few moments, he answered: “My collection is composed mainly of works by black artists and by women.” Seeing the representative of the gallery smiling back at him surprised, I added, curious: “You are, clearly, interested in a very specific discourse, aren’t you?” He smiled in agreement, and the collector came over to me to continue the conversation. I found the gallery representative’s surprised look intriguing as well as her apparent inability to sustain a conversation that combined the topics of contemporary art, art collection, race and gender.


“I thought I was going to see a lot more art that dealt with questions of identity, a greater production of black artists,” was the comment the editor of a North American journal made as we rode in a taxi to the Mira Schendel exhibit at the Pinacoteca do Estado in September 2014. During our conversation, I shared the common belief among the local art circuit that black artists simply do not exist or, rather, that their insertion in it is considered irrelevant by gallery owners, art collectors and curators.


When Oscar Murillo – Columbian artist who lives and works in London – presented his work during his residency in Rio de Janeiro in September 2014, he had no idea how profoundly his work was echoing the densely political production of his black Brazilian contemporaries. Instead of producing painting, as he was expected to, Murillo joined the civil servants of the residency program in a house in the Botanical Garden, and he spent ten days carrying out daily domestic chores: cooking, cleaning, taking care of the garden. This was the response of the artist to the inequality he encountered when he arrived in Brazil – a situation very distinct from the idea of harmony and equality generally shown in advertising campaigns for Brazilian soccer. It was also his way of overcoming the emotional impact generated by an environment that the artist considered semi-colonial. For gallery owners and Brazilian collectors – agents that define the modus operandi of mainstream Brazilian contemporary art – Murillo’s work could seem out of place and with no clear aim: a project that deals with things that don’t exist or, if they do exist, it’s an issue that mustn’t be touched upon. Nonetheless, Murillo’s oeuvre weaves a rich dialogue between artistic manifestations, which, in spite of their rare presence in the mainstream, are in sync with the challenges that are involved in existing and being in the present. Murillo’s intervention, as well as the reflection it provokes, led me to think immediately of several works I’ve come across recently. Works that, in a rather deep way, deal with questions related to the construction, perception and negotiation of racial and/or gender identity in a society that is openly discriminatory.


Such is the case in the work Bombril (Steel Wool, 2010) by Priscila Rezende (1985), a performance in which the artist uses hair to scrub the surface of metal domestic utensils commonly found in the kitchen, proposing to openly confront the discriminatory discourse directed at the body of the black woman. Additionally, the works of Janaína Barros provoke this discussion, mobilizing objects in domestic context, such as gloves and kitchen aprons that are custom designed with sequins, lace, embroidery and pearls. Another example is Moisés Patrício’s Aceita? (Do You Accept This? 2013-2014). In his photo series, the artist uses, in part, the body to provoke, among other references, the essential feature of the economy of Candomblé, operating within a field of open resistance. Renata Felinto, in Danço na terra em que piso (I Dance on the Land Where I Step, 2014), creates an effusive exhibit of the image of her black feminine body in movement, strategically positioned in spaces permeated by the history and memory of the city or of the artist’s personal biography. With this performance piece, Felinto appropriates the physical spaces in which she moves and reconfigures them, celebrating her roots and making an eloquent political statement. Yet another example is Merci Beaucoup, Blanco! (Merci Beaucoup, Whitey! 2012), by Michelle Mattiuzzi, a performance in which the artist sets in motion a process that destabilizes social constructions about the black feminine body that exist in the Brazilian imaginary. And also Paulo Nazareth, who, in the series Cadernos de África (Notebooks from Africa, 2012) dislocates, through his own itinerant body and the production and/or appropriation of ephemeral objects, the fixed positions of racial stereotypes within our society. In the work Sem título (Untitled, 2013), one of the pamphlets of the series, the artist directly defies the validity of Eurocentric epistemology as sole referent to “observe,” “describe,” “interpret” and “understand” the world.


TALKING ABOUT THINGS THAT (DON’T) EXIST


While this relevant contribution runs its course, alongside an avalanche of artistic expression and socially and politically informed narratives; and, whereas these artists are leaving to future generations precise records of what it means to be present and connected with the challenges life presents, in the Brazilian art circuit there seems to be, across the board, a systematic negation of the existence of these productions – a negation of the very existence of colonialism as socio-historical process and of its aftermath: economic and social, its effects on the history and memory of populations, the shifts in ways of being and perceiving reality, in the modes of communicating, expressing oneself, in the values associated with cultural symbols or usages that come from them. Brazil has wished it were European since the second half of the 19th century, but its idea of Europe, predominantly colonial, is outdated and needs revision. And caught up in this fervor to be European, supported by the illusion of Eurocentrism – central to the Occidental way of living and being in the world, of knowing and showing one’s culture –it fails to recognize the ways of knowing and functioning that do not respond to, or dialog with, the European tradition, that don’t translate its epistemology. (1)


In contrast, and as the narrative bits at the beginning of this text attempted to illustrate, it is possible to see the result of gaps that have started to open over the last three decades. In New York, for example, as many public institutions as commercial spaces exhibited Afro-descendent artists’s work who gained international status discussing themes that were part of their personal experience, including racial and gender identity, racism and sexism, class issues, and other issues such as invisibility. These sorts of topics are considered taboo in Brazil, even though, as I am trying to show, there is no lack of artists addressing these issues. During the winter of 2013-2014, important exhibitions were held in at least three of the city’s institutions. The Studio Museum of Harlem displayed the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art (from November 2013 to March 2014). With more than thirty-seven artists represented, the show explored the contribution Afro-descendent performance artists have made from the United States and the Caribbean over the last 50 years. Radical Presence… coincided with the retrospective Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (from January to May 2014). The retrospective of the artist whose works invited contemplation of questions of race, gender and class was presented at five institutions throughout the country and culminated with the presentation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York. (2) Radical Presence… also coincided with Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey at the Brooklyn Museum (October 2013 - March 2014), the first panoramic exhibition of the artist’s career in the United States. By combining found objects, pieces of magazines, sculpture and painted images, Mutu’s (1972) work explores questions of race, gender, war, colonialism, global consumerism, and the exoticization of the black feminine body. The artist is known for her collages of feminine figures in fantastical landscapes, images that challenge our impulse toward facile categorization and identification.


Among the highlights of the spring and summer of 2014 was the first large-scale public project by Kara Walker (1969) organized by Creative Time, A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (3) an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant (May-July 2014). Sited in an old Domino sugar factory, an industrial relic of Brooklyn, the work was a response to the factory building and to the history of sugar. Shaped as a sphinx-like woman, the installation is, according to curator Nato Thompson, a “hybrid of two racist stereotypes associated with the image of the black woman: the sphinx has a black feminine head with a tied headscarf, a reference to the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families, especially the care of their children, and the body is a caricature of the hyper-sexualized black woman, with prominent breasts, enormous buttocks and protruding vulva that is quite visible from the back” (4). And if this evocation of both caregiver and sex object, accentuated by her covering in white sugar, feels offensive, the curator informs that that is exactly the point of the work. And being provocative like that is in part what Walker is known for. The series of exhibitions of Afro-descendent artists in New York institutions closed with Chris Ofili: Night and Day (from October 2014 to February 2015), the first retrospective of the English artist Chris Ofili (1968) – a member of the Young British Artists – in the United States. The exhibit was organized by the New Museum.


And whereas Brazilians are rarely represented in commercial spaces (in spite of abundant high-quality production), I noticed a few exhibitions by black artists in galleries from August to October 2014: in São Paulo, Paulo Nazareth, in Mendes Wood DM, Sónia Gomes (1948) in the same gallery and Priscila Rezende in the Rabieh Gallery – the same does not occur in international galleries. Large commercial North American galleries also presented individual exhibits with Afro-descendent artists throughout 2014. In April, the David Zwirner Gallery in New York presented the first solo work of the artist Oscar Murillo, A Mercantil Novel (from April to July 2014). In his exhibit, Murillo reproduced, within the gallery space, the candy factory (Colombina) whose headquarters are in his hometown, La Paila, and in which the majority of the members of his family, including his mother, work. The Jack Shainman Gallery opened its new space in May in Kinderhook, Nova York, with an exhibition and performance by the artist Nick Cave (1959). Throughout September and October, Cave had simultaneous solo shows at two galleries in Chelsea. During the second semester, the Jack Shainman Gallery still had on display the young Nigerian-American artist, Toyin Odutola’s (1985) solo show, Like the Sea (May 2014), artists El Enatsui’s (1944) Trains of Thought (October-November 2014) and Kay Hassan’s (1956) Everyday People (October-November 2014), as well as English painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s solo show (1977), The Love Within 1 and 2 (from November 2014 to January 2015). Also during the second semester, Metropictures displayed Gary Simmons’s (1964) solo show, Fight Night (October-December 2014) and the Sikkema & Jenkins Gallery showed Afterword (November 2014-January 2015), Kara Walker’s solo show based on the creative process and results from her public project at the Domino Sugar Factory. The exhibit included the notes and sketches that culminated in the sculpture, drawings made during the exhibit in the factory and documentary material on taking the installation down. The main room of the gallery exhibits the left fist, cut from the sphinx-like woman, the gesture resembling an Afro-Brazilian talisman. Even in São Paulo the White Cube Gallery inaugurated a solo show by the artist Julie Mehretu (1970) in September 2014, which was preceded by the artist Mark Bradford’s (1961) show from April to June 2014. In Rio de Janeiro the David Zwirner Gallery used a considerable portion of its stand at ArtRio 2014 to display the works of artist Oscar Murillo.


Although not as recent as last year’s shows, it is worth citing an exhibit that was on display in a private collector’s exhibition space in the United States. In December 2008, the Rubell Family Foundation in Miami launched 30 Americans. The exhibit presented the work of many of the most important Afro-American artists of the last three decades. According to information available on the collection’s website, the show, which by now has traveled to six national museums, focuses on questions of “racial, sexual and historical identity in contemporary culture while exploring the powerful influence of artistic legacy and community across generations”.


In London, during the week that coincided with the Frieze art fair in October 2014, there were exhibitions on display by important artists such as David Hammons (1943), in the White Cube Gallery, Karry Marshall James (1955), at David Zwirner, and Wengetti Mutu at Victoria Miró. The existence of institutions that are dedicated exclusively to minimizing the problem of cultural invisibility and a lack of diversity in the programs of mainstream cultural institutions contribute to the dissemination of more inclusive art practices. One example is the Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts), an institution whose mission is to address the disparate representation of culturally diverse artists, curators and writers. Another example is Rivington Place, an art space dedicated to furthering debates about the visual arts and reflecting the cultural diversity of contemporary society through the presentation and dissemination of largely marginalized practices. And the Autograph ABP, that advocates the inclusion of historically marginalized photographic practices, addressing questions of cultural identity and human rights.


These examples show a difference in positioning among public institutions, galleries, and private international collections and their Brazilian counterparts. The mainstream of contemporary international art, at least in the examples analyzed here, appears to be more open to mirroring the cultural diversity of its respective contemporary society. However, in the Brazilian contemporary art circuit, and I would say in Brazilian society as a whole, cultural diversity is perceived as taboo and because of this, must remain out of sight and outside of any aesthetic discussion and enjoyment. Thus, constrained, as they seem to be in a conservative definition of art and society, the promoters of contemporary Brazilian art disregard what may be one of the key, definitive and defining characteristics of so-called contemporary production: responding to what is now (5), connecting with the challenge, the uncertainty, the discomfort, “the bad and the good of being who we are”. (6)






ENDNOTES


(1) - The Peruvian thinker and sociologist, Aníbal Quijano, introduced the concept of coloniality at the end of the 1980s (the original article written in Spanish was published in English in 2007: Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality Modernity/ Racionality,” Cultural Studies Vol. 21, Nos. 2-3 March/May 2007, 168-178). The concept departs from the notion that the process of colonial domination is to be understood not only in external terms of subordination of other cultures to Europeans (colonialism), but also in terms of what the author defines as “subordination of the imagination of the oppressed.” As the process of coloniality developed, the European culture became a seductive force that gave access to power, occupying the position of “universal cultural model.” For Quijano the concept of coloniality implicates two aspects that are intrinsically connected: coloniality of power – a matrix of political and economic dependence based on racial division and the workforce; and coloniality of knowledge, which expands the principles of dependency to the sphere of knowledge. The answer to this scenario is, according to Quijano, “epistemological decolonization” – a way of opening paths to new intercultural communication, to an exchange of experiences and meaning. The concept of coloniality (and of colonial difference) is important because it provides a space for new narratives and discourses to flourish, offering alternative perspectives to understanding and interpreting the world.


(2) - The exhibition was on display at the following North American museums and institutions: First Center for the Visual Arts (September 2012-January 2013), Portland Art Museum (February-May 2013), Cleveland Museum of Art (June-September 2013), Cantor Center for Visual Arts (October 2013-January 2014), and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (January-May 2014).


(3) - Sugar Baby makes metaphoric reference to the term used by the young man or woman who receives financial gains from a “sugar-daddy” or “sugar-mama” in exchange for her/his company. A more literal reference are sugar coated caramel candies known as sugar babies.


(4) - See Nato Thompson’s curatorial statement on the website: creativetime.org.


(5) - The expression is borrowed from the curator and art consultant, Simon Watson, from the introductory text published on his website: simonwatsonarts.com.


(6) - Reference to a verse from Caetano Veloso’s song Dom de Iludir (Gift to Deceive, 1986): “each one of us knows the bad and the good of being who we are…”







FABIANA LOPES is an independent curator and lives and works between New York and São Paulo.

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Priscila Rezende
Bombril (2010) - Guto Muniz photography
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Priscila Rezende
Bombril (2010) - Guto Muniz photography
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Priscila Rezende
Bombril (2010) - Guto Muniz photography
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Priscila Rezende
Bombril (2010) - Guto Muniz photography
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Wangechi Mutu
Suspended Playtime (2008)
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Kara Walker
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
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Kara Walker
A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
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Michelle Mattiuzzi
Merci Beaucoup, Blanco! (2012) - Hirosuke Kitamura photography
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Michelle Mattiuzzi
Merci Beaucoup, Blanco! (2012) - Hirosuke Kitamura photography