Culture and Vultures: They do things differently in the northeast of Brazil

Oliver Basciano takes a trip to the northeast of Brazil, to meet artists Berna Reale, Armando Queiroz, Alexandre Sequeira, Thiago Martins de Melo and Éder Oliveira

By Oliver Basciano

Armando Queiroz, Urubu-Rei, 2009, video, 9 min 32 sec. Courtesy the artist Éder Oliveira, Untitled, mural, Belém, 2013. Courtesy the artist Alexandre Sequeira, Armadilha para discos voadores, from the series Entre Lapinha da Serra e o Mata Capim, 2010. Courtesy the artist

The thing with vultures is that they only prey on the wounded or the dead. It’s no accident that the collective noun for them is ‘wake’. In Belém, a city that sits at the entrance of the Amazon in the northeast of Brazil, I saw such groups of bald, hunched birds picking at fish carcasses in the port. They descend in waves as the fishing boats arrive, the latter fresh from trips up the Amazonian waters, the former ready to receive whatever the trawlermen chuck from their haul.

You can also see vultures in a work by artist Armando Queiroz. And they make an appearance in one of Berna Reale’s performances. Queiroz, who also acts as director of Belém’s main contemporary art centre, the Museu Casa das Onze Janelas, captures the birds in his 2009 video Urubu-Rei. It’s shot in a busy public space by the river. The lush green of a thick forest of palms is visible on the shore opposite. Queiroz enters the frame and sits on a chair. He is dressed in a black suit and wears a vulture mask, similar to that of the birdfaced commedia dell’arte character, the Plague Doctor. From a traditional bowl used by indigenous inhabitants of the Amazonian region for sharing food, Queiroz throws out fish flesh and guts, to the delight of the birds that flock around him. Reale used a similar setting for her performance Quando Todos Calam (2009). The artist lies naked on a white lace-covered table in an area by Belém’s Ver-o-Peso fish market. She is covered in fish flesh, and a series of carefully composed photographs, which document the performance, capture the birds mid-swoop against stormy skies, pecking with precision at her horizontal body.

Queiroz’s work perhaps relates more exclusively to concerns of the Amazonian region than does Reale’s. So while the viewer can see Quando Todos Calam as a straightforward polemic on feminism and the objectified body, Queiroz explains that he sees the masked vulturefeeding figure in his work as emblematic of the kingpins of the virulent local drug trade. In general, however, both artists’ works feed off the proximity of death and violence to everyday life – and the business that feeds the brutality – in this part of Brazil.

While the casual visitor isn’t likely to experience anything untoward in the busy, noisy streets of the city centre, statistics tell another tale. Belém, population 2.1 million, is one of the poorest cities in the country. It is also marred by one of the highest murder rates in the world, with a reported 48 homicides per 100,000 people last year. Other cities in the northeast have even worse statistics than this, and conversely, Reale’s work Palomo (2012) draws attention to the state aggression that has a symbiotic relationship with the narco-violence.

This performance, staged, like all the artist’s work, in the public realm, saw her ride a painted blood-red horse through the streets and out into the countryside. Wearing an entirely black padded protective outfit, leather shoes and gloves, with her hair in a severe crewcut, the artist adopts the masculine, aggressive appearance of one of the many highly militarised local cops who, clad in body armour, seem almost cyborgian.

A litany of trauma, from slavery to the destruction of the rainforest, overshadows the history of the African and Amerindian people in Brazil. You get the sense that to be subtle would be to fiddle while Belém burns

Both Queiroz and Reale’s works are symbol-heavy, theatrical affairs. Neither is particularly subtle in his or her references to death and ceremony, but then the north of Brazil is not a place where subtlety comes naturally. The heat is humid, an effect of the physically and culturally ever-present rainforest. The architecture is laden with ornamentation and a bright, vivid use of colour. The all-conquering pop music of tecnobrega – music distributed via cheaply copied CDs by street vendors all over northern cities, but particularly Belém – is brash and camp. Even the food is typified by its heaviness and strong flavours. Historical narratives wend their way through these phenomena. The Brazilian art market and the collections of the national museums are dominated by work from the modernist period and those working through its legacy, all of which has roots in European art history. In the northeast of Brazil, however, there seems to be a culture of some resistance to these prevailing trends, manifested as a rejection of formalism and abstraction.

Instead, far from the hubris of the gallery system, the artists tend to take cues from both African and indigenous cultural histories. Working with this heritage means that the drug trade is not the only source of violence and oppression that haunts artmaking here. A litany of trauma, from slavery to the destruction of the rainforest, overshadows the history of the African and Amerindian people in Brazil. You get the sense that to be subtle would be to fiddle while Belém burns. This is an updated version perhaps of what the twentieth-century poet Oswald de Andrade identified in his 1924 'Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil' as a culture emerging from the ‘wild wilderness’ of Brazil to offer a ‘counterweight of native originality to neutralize academic conformity’. It’s a move that’s also relevant in the current global artworld (and Brazil is now a preeminent member of this, even if this particular part of the country is more often overlooked), in which the production of art seems to be increasingly homogenised in terms of outlook and reference. To build a local ecosystem, with its own distinct history and frames of reference, seems radically pertinent.

Alexandre Sequeira’s interest in exploring local culture extends far into Brazil’s boondocks. Between 2009 and 2010, for example, he came into contact with a young boy called Rafael, whom he met while on one of his frequent solo expeditions into the rainforest. This sort of chance meeting, which develops into an artistic collaboration, is typical in the artist’s practice. Sequeira’s work is located not in objects – the artist does take photographs or make sculptures to document his trips, but they are usually exhibited (and sometimes made) in the remote locale itself, with a wider audience often only seeing them through documentation – but can be found in the relationships and bonds he forms with and between his lay collaborators. In this case the artist’s friendship developed on the back of Rafael’s folkloric tales of a ‘burning woman’ and the spaceships that he claimed plagued his village. In presenting his project – a performance of sorts that shows the artist and his new friend on a stakeout for the fiery figure of myth and their building of various ad hoc devices to capture the UFOs – through slides and lectures, Sequeira describes these supposed fantastical visitations as symbolic of the increasing westernisation of the village. Which in many ways amounts to the fear of contamination by the social problems of the outside world. It’s a beautiful project on the nature of belief and communication, on isolation and exposure.

Alexandre Sequeira’s work is located not in objects but can be found in the relationships and bonds he forms with and between his lay collaborators.

Alienation – social and artistic – together with a political anger are concerns of painters Thiago Martins de Melo and Éder Oliveira. As it is with Queiroz and Reale, to study Martins de Melo’s work is a workout in semiotics. The São Luís-based artist paints highly detailed, hellish visions, full of fire and brimstone, and starring a cast of figures from both folk and contemporary culture. For example, in the six-pane oil on canvas work Kwaku Ananse Revive o Karma do suplício do Bastardo da Brancura sob as Botas de Mercadores de Ferro Sujo (2013), the viewer can see Kwaku Ananse, a mythical god originally of Ghanaian fable, represented here in the form of a spider terrorising a group of indigenous Amazonians. It’s a disturbing, brilliantly violent image. Yet the artist would not see these scenes as dystopic in the sense of something that’s too bad to actually happen. For him they present the contemporary political state of his country, particularly the north. ‘Brazil is a genocide culture,’ he has said in an interview with curator Gunnar Kvaran, referring to the construction of the European colonial project of ‘Brazil’. In A Rébis Mestiça Coroa a Escadaria dos Mártires Indigentes (2013), another oil on canvas work, this time almost four metres in height and width, we see the violent history reach some sort of denouement, as the artist constructs a grisly tableau in his lurid palette. In ghastly detail, Martins de Melo depicts the indigenous people of the region slain by gangs of aggressors ranging from gun-wielding police to workers with chainsaws.

If Oliveira’s blocky portraits, painted both on canvas and as murals, seem less sensationalist on the surface – and he is alone among this group of artists in his rejection of symbolism in favour of realism – then the work exhibits the same level of fury bubbling underneath. In his studio, in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bélem, Oliveira has a table laid out with pages from the weekly crime supplement published by the local newspaper. This is his regular source material. The format for the articles is identical: a large photograph of the suspect, his arms cuffed behind his back (and the examples I see are mostly male, often topless). A short text, offering no contextualisation or biography of the person depicted, runs alongside the image, with a few scant, but often gruesome, details of their alleged crime. The people photographed in this set format are also invariably black. The artist tells me it is pretty much the only time – in a country where over 50 percent of the population is not white – that he sees people with a similar skin colour to him represented in the media.

His works – the way the figure fills the frame and their faces stare blankly out at the viewer – remind me of Cândido Portinari’s portrait O Mestiço (1934). In that oil painting, a young labourer of mixed race (the title is an outdated colonial term for someone of European and Amerindian blood) stands, arms folded. Oliveira’s work runs in Portinari’s lineage of social realism. There’s a flatness to Oliveira’s portraits, a broad and uniform paint handling that ensures his figures become almost caricatures. Portinari drew attention to the poor and their oppression – in O Mestiço the youth is stripped to the waist, with rough, farmed fields in the background – reminding his peers in the intellectual elite not to render the rural poor invisible within their brand of utopian Modernism. Likewise Oliveira’s work is a project of remembering a sector of society that continues to be oppressed, be it in the casual objectification of the young black man as a criminal by the newspaper reports, or in what Oliveira sees as the attitude to people of colour at large in contemporary Brazilian society.

Here we can perhaps turn back to de Andrade and the most famous of his polemics, the 'Manifesto Antropófago' (1928). De Andrade asserted that to evolve the national identity, artists must not ape the Old World, nor avoid it, but ‘devour’ it. Queiroz makes direct reference to this in his video performance Bebendo Mondrian (2007). In it, the artist can be seen drinking from four glasses, filled respectively with thick black, red, yellow and blue liquids, a palette derived from the Dutch painter of the work’s title. Yet we can see it in Oliveira too, devouring the media and reclaiming the classical portrait for political use, and in Martins de Melo’s use of iconography and tableaux, in the ritualism of Reale’s works and in the fables evoked by Sequeira. The art of the north is one that is characterised by opposition to the established norms of the dominant cultural narrative – of oppression, of European influence, of the legacy of Modernism, of the Brazilian artistic powerhouses of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It doesn’t ignore those lineages, but spits them out.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue