A Brief History of Identity in Brazilian Art

From the Brazil supplement, with the September 2012 issue

By Felipe Scovino

Cinthia Marcelle, Cruzada (Crusade), 2010. Courtesy the artist André Komatsu, AK-47, 2008. Courtesy the artist Marcelo Cidade, Tempo Suspenso de um Estado Provisório, 2011, sculpture. Photo: Rafael Assef. Antonio Dias, Incomplete Biography, 1968. Photo: Maura Parodi. Courtesy Galeria Nara Roesler, Såo Paulo

In Cinthia Marcelle’s videowork Cruzada (Crusade, 2010), 16 musicians meet at the centre of a crossroads. They arrive in separate groups of four, each group approaching from a different pole and sporting colour- matched shirts and matching instruments (the ‘yellow’ group, for example, carries cymbals, the ‘red’ drums and so on). As the groups arrive, one at a time, their playing is little more than chaotic noise. When they all meet, face-to-face, at the centre of the crossroads, they begin a choreographed ‘battle’ in which musicians exchange places to create four bands of mixed colours and mixed instruments. Now playing in harmony, the musicians leave the scene.

Questions of identity and the ‘postmodern subject’ have been prominent in Brazilian art of the last few decades.

Questions of identity and the ‘postmodern subject’ have been prominent in Brazilian art of the last few decades. In line with current thinking, Brazil’s visual arts sees the postmodern subject not as something or someone whose identity is unified and stable, but rather as something fragmented and, like Marcelle’s marching band, comprising multiple identities that may at times be contradictory or unresolved. During the 1950s and 60s, however, everything was different. Back then, Brazil witnessed the construction of what it was hoped would be a ‘new’ identity for the country – an idealised image that was purportedly free of exotic influences and pockets of poverty. In America, filmmakers translated this image into the myth of Carmen Miranda. In Brazil the transformation was achieved via a fusion of intensive industrialisation, the newly popularised bossa nova and the constructive vocabulary of the neoconcretism movement in architecture. But when extended to the visual arts, the creation of this cocktail marked the beginning of a misunderstanding that would afterwards be perpetuated at biennials and triennials the world over.

Generally speaking, at such exhibitions you’ll find a particular interest in the work of Brazil’s neoconcrete artists – especially Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape – and in its participatory aspects at the expense of almost everything else. Yet while these artists were intent upon establishing a history or genesis of participation in art, this was not necessarily their ‘main interest’; in truth they were more fascinated by the body than by the spectacle. The risk, then, is that the dominant international reception becomes the only possible reading of these works. And it’s dangerous because this is a reading that repeatedly ignores the specific context in which the concepts behind the works were forged. Of course this comes about, in part, as a result of the limited dispersion of the Portuguese language: Brazilian critical thinking does not circulate in the same quantity and quality as do Brazilian works of art. Nevertheless, at stake is what Homi Bhaba has called ‘the right to narrate’ your own story.

Nevertheless, at stake is what Homi Bhaba has called ‘the right to narrate’ your own story.

From the 1970s onwards, the international community so repeatedly and badly appropriated architecture, neoconcretism and bossa nova as the new models and symbols of Brazil abroad that they became little more than elements advertising a few of the bigger clichés deployed to refer to our culture. For while this trinity of Brazilian modernity embraces highly original artistic creations that are important to any understanding of what Brazil is today, it is by no means the only reference. A dense, dirty, noisy, unfinished and pessimistic atmosphere lives side by side with all the (supposed) optimism built into these other elements.

Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil lived under a dictatorship. Contrary to what many people think, the works produced during that period were not part of some artistic guerrilla movement; rather, they were individual acts that delved into allegories and metaphors for what took place during those violent years of repression. Take, for example, Antonio Dias’s painting Incomplete Biography (1968). There is no image of the artist or of any other person in the work; only an allusion to form and space (the word ‘desert’ is written in the middle of the canvas), a cartography that brings to mind the infinite by offering us a territory without walls, a territory propitious to freedom, in counterpoint to a society that was being so oppressively overseen. Dias, after all, an artist from Paraíba, had by then passed through (or lived in) Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Milan and New York to escape repression as well as look for new forms of improving his art. How does one locate oneself in a world whose borders are to one extent or another closed?

Despite differences in terms of technique and poetics, there are many similarities to be found when the works of Dias and artists from a younger generation – André Komatsu and Marcelo Cidade, for example – are placed close together. Whether their art takes the form of canvases that represent army camouflage (in Dias’s case), installations that represent a bunker (Komatsu’s AK-47, 2008) or sculptures made of reinforced glass with apparent gunshot wounds (as in Cidade’s Tempo Suspenso de um Estado Provisório/Suspending Time for a Provisional State, 2011), the works of all three foreground signs of conflict as well as its incorporation or reversal. Different poetics from distinct generations become visible through a discussion involving politics, fear and conquest of territory, building a web of meanings that end up in a discussion of the notion of ‘collapse’ in the contemporary.

In a sense this is a vague theme – in art over the last few centuries there has been no shortage of collapse, transformation and reconfiguration. But collapse in the work of these artists does not presuppose an idea of the end of art; rather it is the product of a political and ideological worldview. Cidade and Komatsu’s works do not relate to a specific place, but rather to a desire to make the world’s shared failures transparent (although that does not necessarily impose a nihilistic outlook on their production). There is no folklore or exoticism in the works of these three artists – or in much post- 1970s Brazilian visual art – precisely because what the spectator expects, thinks or imagines about Brazil is so far from the experiences they invoke. As pointed out by the critic Paulo Venancio Filho in 1989 with regard to the work of Cildo Meireles and Tunga (artists who emerged during the early 1970s): ‘Whoever expects Brazil to be thematised, with all its local color, will certainly not find it here.’

‘Whoever expects Brazil to be thematised, with all its local color, will certainly not find it here.’ – Tunga

The Oiticica and Clark retrospectives held in American and European museums during the 1990s and 2000s (at the same time as artists such as Adriana Varejão, Beatriz Milhazes, Ernesto Neto, Jac Leirner, José Damasceno and Valeska Soares emerged abroad) confirmed the growing interest in and importance of Brazilian art on the international stage. Nevertheless, the themes with which these works are associated still revolve around a narrow view of politics, the body or participation: commentary around them easily slips into descriptions of a certain exotic touch or some element that joins inventiveness to a Brazilian ‘personality’. The period during which Clark and Oiticica were emerging – the 1950s and 60s – culminated in the rise of abstraction in the country, which little by little replaced the desire of preceding generations to display Brazil and its people as they really were: the victims of social and political negligence, or else rich in terms of culture and nature.This period, sometimes described as ‘late modernity’, also coincided with the beginning of mature and relevant institutional practices in the country – the first São Paulo Bienal was staged in 1951, and both the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo and its counterpart the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro opened in 1948 – and the creation of new experimental and ultimately poetic conditions, exemplified in the interaction between sculpture and performance in works by Antonio Manuel, or indeed in Oiticica’s Penetrables (which the artist produced throughout the 1960s and 1970s), that allowed artists to engage with issues of silence, utopia and highly complex instances of subjectivity. These themes can also be found in works produced by Clark or Mira Schendel (which in turn should neither be confused with a ‘different’ and ‘exotic’ state, nor so readily related to conceptual art). And it is this development that is essential to the generation of artists that emerged during the late 1980s: it eliminated the artworld’s expectations that Brazilian artistic production would be directly and necessarily associated with problems of national identity.

This article was first published in the Brazil supplement with the September 2012 issue.