Museum of Presences

August 12, 2016

The important exhibitions in this debate—the Mostra do Redescobrimento (Biennial, 2000), Histórias Mestiças (Instituto Tomie Ohtake, 2014), and the 34 Panorama da Arte Brasileira da Pedra da Terra Daqui (MAM, 2015)laid bare the complex pluralism of Brazil’s art histories. All three shows introduced Brazilian archaeological and ethnographic objects to wider audiences, but did so specifically within the well-financed apparatus of São Paulo’s institutions dedicated to modern and contemporary art. What, however, has been the overall impact of such shows and their afterlives in Brazil? What is the political weight of such exhibitions for cultural institution building, especially in relation to underrepresented segments of Brazil’s population?

These exhibitions created new aesthetic inter-crossings, and generated new contemporary artworks. All of these shows drew upon curatorial techniques familiar since the 1980s, especially juxtapositions of historical artifacts with high modern or contemporary art; scenographic displays; and ethnographic objects installed to reveal colonial violence.

Cited by Nelson Aguilar as the muse for the 2000 Redescobrimentos biennial, Mário Pedrosa’s 1978 Museum of Origins project proposed a radical reorientation of Brazil’s museum infrastructure. In the wake of the catastrophic fire at Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna, Pedrosa suggested creating five independent, state-run museums: the Museums of the Indian, of Virgin Art, of Modern Art, of Black People, and of Folk Arts. Echoing a sentiment repeated since the advent of the avant-garde, Pedrosa’s never-realized project conceived of historical and ethnographic art forms as having fundamental value in serving as inspirations for contemporary artists.

How might we rethink Pedrosa’s idea 38 years later, in 2016?

Today, new museums are emerging at a rapid rate. In Rio alone, the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) and the controversial Museu do Amanhã are two that come to mind, at the same time that other more traditional museums are shutting down, like Casa Daros­. In many of these institutions, juxtapositional displays of old and contemporary objects are deployed with new goals in mind. For example, the MAR combines contemporary artworks, historical objects, texts, and other media to mount thematic explorations that function more like a historical society than an art museum. Some installations have included Rio’s colonial history as a slave port, the dislocation and rebuilding of Rio’s urban neighborhoods, and Amazonian cultural and ecological environments. While the MAR’s installation practices have been jarring to some visitors accustomed to a cleaner, more pristine space, one must admire the teeming energy of the place, which is always packed with Rio’s school students.

In the Museu Histórico Nacional (MHN) –– less sexy, but one of my favorite Rio museums –– the curators contextualize Brazil’s cultural history in chronologically organized thematic rooms. At the MHN, visitors might find Afro-Brazilian ritual objects, slave jewelry, and early photographs alongside a contemporary artist’s installation of a candomblé-inspired altar. Then, in a nearby room, they encounter a reconstruction of a colonial pharmacy, showing how theatrical staging is alive and well in permanent museum installations. The point seems as much to evoke an archive of memory and history as it does to elicit an aesthetic response.

Following the examples of MAR and MNH, more could be done to elucidate the city’s history through institutional collecting and display. For example, Rio’s rich Afro-Brazilian collections, much originally confiscated during police raids, are currently dispersed in various spaces: the Museu da Polícia Civil, the Museu Nacional UFRJ, as well as the MAR and MHN. How might museum administrators, curators, and intellectuals work together, in the spirit of Pedrosa’s imagined museum, to unite these disparate collections, building new exhibitions and public institutions that are deeply connected and relevant to Rio’s diverse constituents? Might the Museu Afro in São Paulo or the Museu do Índio in Rio stand as models? In 2016, in place of Pedrosa’s Museum of Origins, I would propose a Museum of Presences: new institutions dedicated to Afro-Brazilian or popular culture that explore the complex urban landscape of cities like Rio, not merely as the inspiration or “origins” for contemporary artists, but as public spaces exploring Brazil’s rich cultural heritages in a thriving, living metropolis.