Brazil: Being local, becoming global

The art scene in Brazil is booming but what are the implications? ArtReview chairs a discussion with a panel of knowledgeable insiders, in conjunction with latitude, at ARCO, Madrid 2014

By Oliver Basciano

Brazil’s art history stretches back a long way, and from the era of western colonisation to the present there has been cultural exchange with Europe and North America. In the modern era, however, this dialogue has been dominated by the towering figures of Brazil’s mid-twentieth century avant-garde – the likes of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark – with little else besides the legacy of Modernism making its way into the global arena. Yet in conjunction with the country’s recent economic boom, the international art market has begun to sit up and pay attention: Brazilian galleries have multiplied, institutional attention has intensified and a whole generation of younger artists, along with overlooked figures from a previous generation, has come to wider attention and secured representation, critical coverage and collectors from abroad. The art scene, it would appear, is booming. But where does this leave the art and those who make it? What happens when an art object shifts from its local context into a global one? What nuances are lost, what new connections are forged? ArtReview puts these questions to a panel of knowledgeable insiders. Luciana Brito is the owner of the eponymous São Paulo-based gallery, which represents both Brazilian and Brazil-based artists – including Rochelle Costi, Héctor Zamora and the estates of Geraldo de Barros and Waldemar Cordeiro – and international names like Alex Katz and Leandro Erlich. Pablo León de la Barra is the UBS MAP Curator, Latin America, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Pablo Lafuente is a cocurator, alongside a four curatorial colleagues, of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, which opens in September. The discussion is moderated by Oliver Basciano, managing editor of ArtReview.

OLIVER BASCIANO: Pablo Lafuente and Pablo León de la Barra, you are both outsiders to Brazil – albeit highly informed ones. At what point did Brazil’s art scene make an impact on you?

PABLO LEÓN DE LA BARRA: Brazil has always occupied an important place in my mental map. I’ve been travelling there once a year since 2001 and I’ve seen the economic transition happening, specifically since the arrival of Lula as president [in 2003]. So I’ve also been witness to the concurrent transition in the artworld. As a person of Mexican origin, I’m going to say the ‘discovery’ of Brazil totally changed my world map. In Mexico we always had, as a point of artistic reference, New York, and then perhaps later a strong relationship with Madrid. Suddenly discovering that there was another city, São Paulo, down south, that had all these buildings, that had this economy, that was not New York but that could be a New York of the south and that had its own references, its own very strong art history and art traditions; that totally changed my map of the world. I could say that something similar to Joaquín Torres García’s América Invertida [Inverted America, 1943] happened to me. My references were turned upside down and I started investigating the south, not only Brazil, but expanding my research and my work to latitudes in art that were not oriented towards the European–North American axis.

PABLO LAFUENTE: I think something similar happened to me too, because if you are in Brazil for long enough – I’ve been living there since August 2013 – then New York, London or any of these supposed art centres become tiny, shortsighted, even arrogant. Suddenly the things that are supposed to be important when you are living or working in those cities seem not so significant any more.

OB: Luciana, Brazil is your native country, and although it has a much-respected art history – with its modernist avant-garde in the mid-twentieth century and the importance of the Bienal, the second oldest biennial after Venice – do you think you can identify a point when a wider international market, and the attention this brings, for Brazilian art started to become apparent?

LUCIANA BRITO: I opened my gallery with only four artists in 1997. During this period it was very difficult to have a space to sell contemporary art in Brazil. Indeed, I think it still is very difficult to have this job in Brazil. In 1998, however, the gallery, alongside a couple of others, started showing at international art fairs – there were about five of us at ARCO Madrid, for example – and I think it was that that was the turning point in the internationalisation of Brazil’s art scene. The same year the 24th Bienal de São Paulo was staged, which was cocurated by Adriano Pedrosa, who is a key figure perhaps in the country’s recent art history and its internalisation.

Brazil is a country that has been intensely focused on telling its own history

PL: I think Brazil is a country that has been intensely focused on telling its own history. There have been a number of brilliant sociology, philosophy and cultural history authors throughout the twentieth century who have attempted to narrate the story of Brazil, and to articulate it through the notion of diversity: Brazil as a country that gathers up different elements, shakes them up, consumes them, even vomits them out and puts them together again. That culture, however, does not exist in art with the same scope. At the Pinacoteca in São Paulo, the director, Ivo Mesquita, has organised a new display of the collection that attempts to tell the history of Brazilian art or of Brazil through art, and one of the revealing things about it, perhaps the thing that comes through immediately, is that at least in its beginning it’s not a history told by Brazilians. It’s a history told by recent immigrants. The production of this culture starts with French artists arriving, painting and others following. National narratives subsequently have had ups and downs, with the dictatorship, social inequality and economic crisis undermining the ability to articulate in a propositional manner. Around the period Luciana set up her gallery – around the new millennium – there was the beginning of a recuperation, the emergence of a certain pride and a new narrative of national construction, accompanied by a shift in the economy. That moment was remarkable, a moment in which the cultural and artistic sector became energised, at least in some areas.

OB: So can we define Brazilian art, or is it dangerous to do so – is that turning the ‘local’ into a sort of brand for export?

LB: I think it’s a little bit dangerous to try to fix Brazilian art with a label, because I think Brazil, in its origin, is a very mixed country, both culturally and socially speaking. Of course Brazilian artists find their poetics and their themes from Brazil, but from the beginning Brazil had been globalised. Our population originates from a mix of cultures, and of course Brazilian artists come from this too, and their work is a product of this mix.

PL: When we started to work on the 31st Bienal we didn’t want to think of art in terms of passports or national borders; however, when you’re invited to curate the Bienal de São Paulo, you have to first start thinking about where it takes place. What is São Paulo in relation to what surrounds it? Rio de Janeiro is very close, and there’s an intense exchange mixed up with cultural rivalry. But there are many other cities within Brazil, like Belém, Salvador or Recife, which have their own particular cultural histories and contemporary scenes, and whose exchange with São Paulo is fragmentary and often unequal. Then there are cities outside of Brazil such as Lima and Buenos Aires, which are relatively close, and not necessarily in dialogue. Part of our concern was how to deal with that, and even to facilitate an exchange that doesn’t take place according to its potential.

I agree we’re in a postpassport era, but still, I think, it’s sometimes helpful to identify certain specificities about Brazil that could be useful in changing how society understands itself

PLdLB: I agree we’re in a postpassport era, but still, I think, it’s sometimes helpful to identify certain specificities about Brazil that could be useful in changing, not only art, but also how society understands itself. Pablo says that intracontinental exchange is zero, but Latin American countries not only share a similar colonial history and similar languages, they also have similar recent histories: quick periods of economic growth, especially in the postwar era from the 1940s though to the 50s, followed by repressive governments and moments of economic crisis. Now in the 2000s these countries have either seen a turn towards new left policies, new socialism and new populisms or a turn towards a new neoliberalism and a new capitalism and relationships through free trade with the United States and Europe. Basically you have, in very broad terms, two Latin Americas. So although this new economic boom has led to an art economy where galleries are selling and artists can live off their work on a scale that hasn’t been seen before, artists are also critical about what is happening, and there’s a strong awareness that things could change again at any moment. OB One obstacle to the internationalisation – or wider communication – of Brazilian art and its nuances is the language barrier. While there’s undoubtedly an academic history to Brazilian art criticism, historically, popular criticism has been thin on the ground, and what there is tends to be in Portuguese. Outsiders therefore get to see the art but are cut off from the conversation that encircles it.

PL: There has been some fantastic art theory and criticism published during the last 80 years, but largely this has not been translated into English, as far as I know. The Anglo-Saxon and wider European artworld, the context where I’ve worked for the last 15 years, seems uninterested in it until it impinges on their activities. This material should be translated to allow for a more nuanced view of Brazilian art. Work also needs to be done domestically, though: I feel there is a need for more critical discourse in the country, for more writing platforms. There doesn’t seem to be enough critical writing around the art being made today, and about how the art system functions.

There is a need for more critical discourse in the country

PLdLB: What gets lost in the translation towards the global arena? What doesn’t translate or what specificities must be sacrificed in order to make what’s happening in Brazilian art understandable to a wider public? I think this is a key problem. A case in point is perhaps the work of Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. Outside Brazil the work that is known is their constructivist period, which is also the work that gets the higher prices on the markets. Their whole contribution to art, however, was about the process of making; it was about the lived experience, and not just the finished artwork. An extreme consequence of not understanding that happened at Art Basel in 2013, where there was one of Lygia Clark’s works from the Bichos series, a work which she had not actually made herself, and that had been recently fabricated from a found maquette. It’s crazy to do that.

LB: For better or worse, though, art fairs have historically been one of the key arenas in which Brazilian art has come to the attention of a wider, international audience. A gateway for Latin American artists to the rest of the world. For example at ARCO Madrid [in 2014] there were 12 Brazilian galleries taking part, many of them presenting younger artists. It was the first big art fair to which Brazilian galleries were welcomed. Spain is possibly a key country for the European market – despite not sharing a language, we have, to some extent, the strongest cultural links here, and I think the discussion programme that surrounds the fair is very important for Brazilian artists and galleries to contextualise the work for international curators or institutions

OB: Is there a downside to the economic boom?

PLdLB: For me, there was a great frustration when the economic boom happened in Brazil, and I found myself nostalgic for something that was starting to be lost as the country grew financially stronger. A way of doing things that was being forgotten in the haste to accelerate economic growth. It seemed that everything had turned to this ‘mega-capitalism’, where it was only about the purchasing power of the middle classes and having access to those commodities that they hadn’t had previously.

PL: Maybe the economic boom is creating activity for some artists, curators, gallerists… and these are benefiting, but many are not. Rental prices in São Paulo and Rio are extremely high. I don’t have data to prove it, but often it feels as if São Paulo is more expensive to live in than London. The idea, then, of launching a nonprofit space is hard, and this way the freedom to work collaboratively, or to develop a collaborative practice, is being eroded. There are, however, interesting initiatives in occupation, where political and cultural activity are being addressed together. There is also very rich cultural activity developed in the periphery, with little or no contact to the art ‘centre’.

The recent widespread street protests are cause for hope

PLdLB: The recent widespread street protests might not be in relation to art specifically, but they are cause for hope. In June 2013, as thousands of people came onto the streets of multiple cities in protest of the route the country was travelling down, I realised that maybe not all of Brazil’s radical spirit had been lost and that there is still a kind of resistance happening in Brazil. It a resistance to the kind of fast-paced macro-intensive capitalism of football games and major sporting events like the Olympics. Let’s call it a kind of microrevolution.

PL: It is as if an unknown social body had emerged, one that is refusing to say yes to political and economic developments that are not good for them or for the whole of society. This goes from large to small scale. For example, recently a group of teenagers occupied a cultural centre in the east of the city, in the periphery. They were protesting the opening times of the centre, and the type of cultural activity programmed there. They wanted it to have longer opening hours, and to programme content that it didn’t include. This makes me optimistic about Brazil: you have teenagers occupying a cultural centre and saying, ‘That is not the way this should work, it should work this other way if it is meant to be a cultural centre for the community.’ This is happening all over: people are going out in the streets to demonstrate, even though the police are very often responding with extreme aggression. Society at large is not conformist, it’s not depressed, it’s not pessimistic. And that is both an inspiration and motivatio.

This conversation is an edited transcript of a discussion organised by ArtReview, in conjunction with Latitude: Platform for Brazilian Art Galleries Abroad, at ARCO Madrid in February 2014. It originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue

The 31st Bienal de São Paulo runs from 2 September to 7 December