Here I summarise a few of my recent or upcoming publications: An art review, an academic paper and news about the new book.
The assemblage of Brazilian landscapes during the Venice Biennale of Architecture may be more problematic than it seems.
In this review, I focus on the ambitiousness of saying that one can portray “another kind of life”, as there are limitations found in and out of the art world. I welcome the exhibition due to the great names it can gather, and yet I lament the lack of boldness in stressing the contradictions between “marginality” and “fashion”, especially in a time when everything visual is a commodity.
In Brazil, there has been a myth of studying abroad as a way to good job prospects and professional prestige, which is not necessarily false. However, as I point out to in this article, some drawbacks that are not entirely known by the ordinary student. Departing from a story at Folha de S. Paulo in which Brazilian students complain about higher fees recently imposed on them at Coimbra University, I review the “dark” side of the higher education using the case of England. High fees, poorly-paid staff and an increasingly marketised industry, are some of the aspects, on which I invite readers – students and non-students – to reflect if it is indeed what they want to join at such astronomic costs.
Optimists or Uninformed? A reflection about Brazil’s international bloggers and their cosiness in being abroad
I discuss my reading of a few blogs authored by journalists based overseas. Hosted in the some of the country’s most prominent mainstream publications (Folha de S. Paulo and Estado de S. Paulo), I argue that these blogs had the duty to present more critical points as opposed to seeing life abroad as positive and flawless, which confirm myths of inferiority and backwardness, still held by ordinary Brazilians.
Featured image: Marc Chagall I and the Village (1911)
I won the City University’s Images of Research award with an image that represented my PhD research.
The photo shows one of the gigantic sculptures by Projeto Morrinho, an art project that started out from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. It consists of – literally – a mountain of bricks colourfully painted in a way to represent a favela community, with its tiny streets, and colourful dwellings up on the hill. It carries positive messages and small figurines, which give a realist but with a touch of fun and grace.
I had captured the image while on a visit to the Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro, in 2016, then recently refurbished.
I thought this image illustrated my research because it had everything I looked at in media producers from Brazil’s periphery: It showed improvisation, community-spirit, and the right of self-representation, which is a new possibility for Brazil’s disadvantaged populations.
The way that Projeto Morrinho has proudly assembled the installation, which showed one of the region’s which Brazilians had been most ashamed of, either because of its poverty or precariousness, explains how the perception of these communities has changed, within it and outside. They communicated not only hope but a will to confront reality with joy, strength and creativity.
It sits on a medium-size, industrial city at the heart of Germany’s Hesse State. The city of Kassel receives once again the Documenta 14. Although the art show has had an earlier edition in Athens, Greece, it is here that we better acknowledge its spread, disarticulated, and site-specific project. Without wrapping itself in only one sign, as the Venice Biennale does to Venice, or the São Paulo Bienal dwells on a big modernist building, the Documenta is distributed in multiple sites; it is impersonal, and does not have a big crowd, though it still conserves a certain charm.
From the short visit I paid recently, I attempted to summarise the key trends, as curators seemed particularly anxious to talk colonialism, globalization, and democracy.
1. Parthenon of books, Marta Minujín
As one of Kassel’s big feats of this year, the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín has recreated that old Greek Parthenon by attaching books to large, real-sized structure. Appropriately, Minujín has chosen titles that were banned during the Argentinian dictatorship. As an archetype of democracy, and culture as social justice, the construction sounds like a cliché. However, it ends up complying with Documenta’s ambition to discuss it as an ideal. First, curators seemed much influenced by the Athens’ edition. Second, as found elsewhere in the Documenta, Minujín mimics in her construction not the whole democratic project in the shape of a building, but seems to agree that “democracy” has to be re-enacted as utopia, as no building is sustained only by books. In fact, by underlining her work with bloody, and, somehow, unresolved legacy of the Argentinian dictatorship, the artist rightly recovers some degree of originality by also highlighting the slow reconstruction of democracy in her home country, since the early 1980s. The monumentality of the work at Kassel’s main square eventually helps us to forget the common place in which the artist operates.
2. Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper – Guillermo Galindo
By appropriating remains or reliquiae left behind by those rushing to cross the US/Mexico border, Guillermo Galindo gives us a powerful image of an important issue of our time. If migration is rather abstract and ephemeron, the artist gives to it an image of a hanging boat wreckage. If the news media exploits the portrait of migrants arriving in Greece from the East; or lining up to crosses fences in Calais, swimming to escape drowning in the Mediterranean, Galindo reverses this repertoire by promoting absence and nostalgia. Emptied bottles, a weathered plastic comb, animal bones are other parts of his imagery, as if they were monuments in praise of those who are neither there, nor here; they are gone. Such enormous drama echoes O’Keeffe with her carcasses, which also runs in risk of commoditising hardship, and the run of those souls through the desert, and yet, what happens is the opposite: the artist sensitizing us about the questions that stem from these hanging remains. The calm that arises from the still life does not explain the whole story, nor it should.
3. Proud and Well – Ali Farka Touré
It is easy to say that de-colonial art is something about identity and that’s it. In fact, many contemporary artists have embarked into the train of the so-called ‘identity politics’. Different from that expectation, part of the first floor of the Documenta Halle building featured the interesting work of Ali Farka (1939-2006). We find his records, posters, clothes, guitars as his resumé, which are testimonials of the exuberant career of the Malian artist. We see that part of the effort of privileging non-mainstream starts cannot escape from the mission of documenting it. It is not only about discussing it, or making it controversial, but gently memorializing it as part of collecting the relevant and the admired far from the heyday, as it happens with Touré.
4. Democracy and its Greekness
Apart from the main sites, there is much more to be seen and critiqued at Documenta 14. I tried to group some of the main works that are highly representative of other smaller initiatives. For instance, Ibrahim Mahama’s great installation that covered a pair of old buildings in central Kassel with jute sacks to remind of colonialism. Oliver Tessler’s videos on democracy, featuring commentators from different countries giving their views; Moreover, one sees the Parliament of Bodies (picture above), an interactive installation where visitors are invited to sit on military-dressed cushions and debate, as in the old Greek agora.
These works dialogue with the crisis of democracy of our time. If on the one hand, the guest artists are well positioned to draw a consensus on what are the authoritarian forces we should fear; on the other, we are still dwelling on one kind of democracy, the Western-centric myth that has in Greece its epicenter, which is a rather restricted thesis about it. The universality which Documenta has over the years called to itself, firstly by Arnold Bode in 1968, does not appear to subside new visions. It is all about contemporary Europe and viewing the world from here. As far as this view still invites key issues to other non-European societies, in next editions the show must dare to break with its Eurocentrism in benefit of other kinds of realities, elevating them to the status of documents, as it has done it, over the years, with the so-called Western heritage.
To pay homage to the world’s indigenous communities, the Biennale creates unnecessary mysticism
The 57th Venice Biennale decided to dedicate a large pavilion of its Arsenale section to the art of native communities around the world. An example of this incursion is the large embroidered hut designed by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, entitled “Um Sagrado Lugar” or A Sacred Place. Neto’s original proposal was not only to debate shamanism by reconstructing a type of dwelling found in the Amazon forest, as he also invited a few members of a tribe to the show’s opening, straight from north Brazil. At the occasion, a few members of the community spoke with the artist, as they performed rituals in circles, sang typical songs.
One month later, whoever visited the Arsenale would see a slight diversion from the “sacred place”. In fact, what old shamans took millennia to protect and cultivate, one Biennale is enough to turn it mainstream and consumerist. The layout of Neto’s installation is still the same, but the mystery and the genuine performance of the indigenous culture now appears as a mere object for thousands of visitors’ appreciation, who have gone through the gigantic exhibition. Would these visitors care if they are seeing Appalachian art, or Masi art, or Dengese art? They would be all branded as native and that is fine.
That means that the indigenous hut was nothing more than shelter for children and their parents, as millenary songs were now entertaining the crying babies. In brief, Neto’s curation of indigenous art, brought here for being authentic, was the delight of foreigners in their sightseeing vacation programme. While fitting well into the Biennale’s proposal, the problem is whether his pieces could still bear any relation to the indigenous people, whose cultures curators vow to defend and revive.
It is not the case of vilifying Neto for his sincere interest in importing the unknown from Brazil to international stage, which would inevitably produce a commodity. This is not the point. The problem behind opening what ethnic minorities do in their native lands in this way, alongside selling their rituals as ready-made (useful enough for the “world” gaze and re-enactment) is at the limits of this ambition, and at the generic frame adopted by artists and curators alike.
There is a breaking point between the revival of what once was genuine, as found at its birth place on one side, and the legitimisation of the fake, on the other. One thing is the religious and reverent side of shamanism, another thing is the irony and mockery as result of its exhibition and foreign reconstruction. The question is whether Neto’s attempt to talk indigenous to this audience adds anything in their consideration (or knowledge) for the ancestral non-Western cultures, therefore, then generalising the crushed indigenous history in the West. That question would apply to the entire pavilion and the event’s bona fide will in general.
On the other hand, it is also important to recognise that other artists in this Biennale have also developed a sincere relationship with all things indigenous. For them, what was really at stake was the critique, while still a comfort zone, gave visitors more things to consider. Juan Downey’s work, for instance, is more sensitive to the mediatisation of the indigenous as of Latin American culture and politics. Downey places old TV sets in circle broadcasting what seems to be indigenous ceremonies continuous programme, which includes images of Chile’s colonial and authoritarian past, as if they belonged to the same context of colonisation and power. Although not putting it in that way, Downey’s repertoire is doubtlessly aware of the limitations to portray the indigenous, which is for a great deal of the population media images only.
Indeed, the very problem of ‘going native’ at the Biennale lies in the extent to which artists do recognise mediatisation as their take when moving forward on this subject. Amid droves of tourists circulating in the legendary city, the question is less who-did-what-and-where, and even lesser about playing the political correctness card, and more about the de-politicisation of others’ culture. Shall artists, such as Neto, still try to broker the objective presence of such distant, imaginary environment on this stage, or should they deliver artistic, intellectual, or creative analysis or critique of how indigenous materiality has been appropriated, sold, destroyed, and imitated by the “white man”?
Less ambitious works have invested in the second hypothesis. Artists have created beautiful pieces in which indigenous or colonial memories do not try to play the spectacle for the audience and do the “such extraordinary thing”. Abdoulye Konaté’s produced a large textile piece named Brésil (Guarani). Konaté has travelled across Southeast Brazil to re-connect what he found as similarities between the art produced by Brazil’s tribes with that of his native Mali. The result is a multicolour fabric piece starting from tones of indigo, but converging into a full variety of other tones. It is about recognising the variations of a same culture when forcedly or spontaneously seeded in multiple sites.
Another example exists in Nicolás Garcia Uruburu, from Argentina. In a work originally shown in the 1970s, Uruburu painted everything in green, colouring the many canals and old buildings in Venice. As far as the core of his interventions is purely at designing a new environment and an echo from ecologist movements, it has also encapsulated a fundamental debate on colonisation and de-colonisation as change, mix, or otherwise, conservation, without raising an eyebrow by manipulating ancient cultures on their iconic value. He has crafted his own icons to talk about changing others’ environments.
Thus, no shock effect is necessary to bring the powerful and powerless, victims and agents closer. While vocal on art that aims to revenge against colonialism, the shamanic in the Venice Biennale sets another return to the visually exotic, but comfortable enough for the likes of European audiences, cuddling each artists’ ego as both victim and protagonist. Part of this agency is creating a new modern, international traveller indigenous, but which, otherwise, drives visitors away from the state of preservation into a state of trivialisation.
To wrap it up, it is not a matter of artistic cynicism only, but of ignorance. By not granting visitors a chance for self-criticism, particularly regarding the century-old European voyeurism to the disadvantaged natives (as everyone is native at some point), curators seemed to privilege interpretative, mockery art on top of the real thing. It is if the real thing could not exist without mediation, let’s say it. The same problem seen decades ago in Magiciens de la Terre, the controversial French exhibition. That had given us so much to think about in the last decades. In brief, it told us that there is no need to invite shamans if curators are the first ones to create mysticism and alienation.