Looking at Brazil’s favelas from a Venetian harbour

In this post, I discuss the extent to which the assemblage of Brazilian landscapes during the Venice Biennale of Architecture may be more problematic than it seems.

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Back in 2017, I discussed in this post the representation of “native” landscapes of Brazil at the 57th Venice Biennale of Art.

While visiting the event for work, I was struck by the attempt to “recreate” the Amazonian indigenous culture and practices through a series of installations and performances.

At the time, these artworks seemed trivial and far from the committed purpose that allegedly guided the artists. Artists sought to teach visitors how to sing old Amazonian songs, invited local “shamans” to give talks, and simulated the routines of socialisation and gratitude of these communities. Little of it seemed to contradict the well-known stereotype of wild and exotic creatures, which Europeans have created and reproduced over the centuries.

Ernesto Neto at the 2017 Venice Biennale of Art

More recently, I came across an interesting paper that also engages with this topic. It focuses on the assemblage of Brazilian landscapes during the Venice Biennale of Architecture, taken place in 2016, wherein favelas also appeared as part of installations. Simone Kalkman made a very appropriate point about the multiplication of these aesthetics in European events:

The incorporation of favelas into European art contexts is inextricably related, first, to imaginaries of Brazilian nationality and, second, to the idea that the global North can learn from favelas. 

Kalkman refers to the public art group Projeto Morrinho, which has created mini favelas out of bricks and small figurines and presented in the form of big installations. Kalkman’s article explores the ethical and epistemological contradictions that stem from building up a specific element from a country’s landscape, regardless of its original geospatial, socioeconomic contexts. In this case, it resulted in a demonstration of Brazil’s “informality”, as she points out:

I argue that ethical and epistemological questions are inextricably intertwined when exhibiting Brazilian favelas in Europe, which implies recognizing the complicity of academic research in this process of knowledge production

When I first saw Projeto Morrinho‘s work (back in 2015 during a reporting trip), I found their large installation very appropriate and well-placed at the hall of the Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro.

It was a location that allowed for dialogues with the city’s fabric, which is made of a set of contrasts and contested legitimacies. That struggle seems embedded in the group’s statement that accompanied their Biennale work (see picture above), it reads:

We invaded the Venice Bienale (sic), we are the bosses. Get it? Italian man? We are prepared for any criticism

But, instead, they were not in Rio, but in the Venetian harbour. To what extent is it possible to skip that fact?

I am not so sure. As I had argued regarding the indigenous culture transformed into art to entertain the mass of visitors at the Arsenale pavilion, the case of favelas as “architecture” carries similar issues of appropriation vs commitment. It is true that these communities remain under the gaze of tourists that flock into favelas during all year long, but in this case, the dislocation and re-assembling of communities’ houses, habits, and culture meet a circumstance that makes them no favour.

In this appropriation of all things local by the multi-billionaire global art circuit, there is an exposure that puts pressure over communities so as to make them create a repertoire for an outside viewer. Inevitably, these communities are required to stand out and dramatise, de-naturalise what turns out to be an inherited part of their everyday life.

What I argue, probably in consonance with Kalkman’s article, lies in aestheticising what could rather be a political expression. It does the opposite, tokenise these natural aspects of their dwellings and expressions to the extent that it boosts the quality of mass exhibitions.

In other words, populations do not exist in their right, but to fit into Europeans’ eagerness for filling their own blanks with regards to diversity and inclusion. These are not the needs of these communities, as far as they remain newsworthy for their exotic potential in the media, which lives to confirm old and easy stereotypes. The “indigenous” is “wise,” the favela is “spontaneous and gracious”.

It is enough to remember that a big hit in the European summer was a song about “living” in a favela, “loving” and “dancing capoeira”, sung in Italian and made for Italians. Its video boasts more than 130 million views on Youtube.

Ernesto Neto, “A Sacred Place” (2017)- The Venice Biennale of Art

In art, these same aesthetics has become a subject-matter for the debate by those who are neither living in these communities nor in any position to engage with their daily issues. In the end, the art elite can afford time and resources to invest in their particular form of gaze; they fly indigenous or favela representatives to speak out and attend events, but this elite can hardly ensure anything other than a fine event.

It is not a matter of politicising art or staying on the side of the identity politics. I still believe that artists should be free to impersonate anyone and draw on any culture they wish to. The problem arises from the “knowledge production” that Kalkman discusses in her article. Academic research, the art circuit, and the media can count with very disputable intentions to discuss underprivileged cultures that will finish as a new raw material for pop culture and commodification.

Without suggesting anything like political correctness or censorship, I still believe that the time has arrived for a more critical consciousness regarding the politics of silence and noise of mega art events. Some subjects are much emphasised, as far as others are quickly forgotten. The process of making it remains obscure and curatorial decisions float in without proper depth.