Representation without Participation

August 12, 2016

Thinking about the possibility of a post-colonial agenda in Brazilian contemporary art is not an easy task. Considering that among Brazil’s demographic 51% of the population see themselves as non-white, the questions that immediately come to mind are who is the “other” within that configuration? How do those identities resonate in Brazilian art? Some recent exhibitions that took place in São Paulo tackled this problem using curatorial strategies that intended to build a more inclusive environment. I will focus on two of these: 34 Panorama da Arte Brasileira (2015) and Histórias Mestiças (2014), which  came in the footsteps of Mostra do Redescobrimento (2000), probably the largest exhibition presented in the country to engage with Brazilian identity, and the first to use some of the strategies mentioned in Sabrina Moura’s proposal to this debate.

In 34 Panorama da Arte Brasileira, curators Aracy Amaral and Paulo Miyada took as their point of departure the most ancient artworks found in Brazil: sculptures in polished stone. They then invited six artists to create works that could propose a "link " between past and present. Visitors to the exhibition could expect to see a line connecting these primordial expressions to contemporary art. This experiment, however, raised some perhaps unintended questions: is it possible to trace a connection between this primeval art and contemporary art? If we consider contemporary indigenous Brazilians to be the heirs of these so-called native cultures, and if we consider what they made to be art, why do we not see any of their current production in the Brazilian contemporary art scene?  And, perhaps most importantly, are their works even considered to be art?

Maybe a show with a more ambitious scale such as Histórias Mestiças  could shed light on the questions related to this debate. A large project including 400 works from 90 artists from Brazil’s past and present, Histórias Mestiças  resulted in a curious reunion of very good artworks in a problematic exhibition.

A section of the show devoted to Brazil’s indigenous people presented historic artefacts such as small sculptures, terracotta, and “tangas”, thus reinforcing the idea of a culture locked in the past. Even the inclusion of some contemporary drawings perpetuated this concept of a traditional native production, ignoring the widespread use of new technologies by native Brazilian artists to document their cultures. The room that showed the works of photographer Claudia Andujar together with colonial representations of indigenous people, presented an environment where, despite the importance of Andujar’s photos, those people were portrayed as having no voice in recounting their own history, relying instead on others to tell it for them.

Regarding art produced by Afro-Brazilians, the exhibition employed the the strategy—common in Brazilian society—of avoiding discussions of race. By moving away from showing works engaged with contemporary problems such as police violence, social justice, and gender, to mention a few, the exhibition missed the opportunity to discuss what mestiçagem really means in Brazil and to reflect the most current debates in this society. The space reserved for artists who openly address these issues was minimal. Labor relations—a sensitive problem in this country with a history of more than 300 years of slavery—were presented by an artist who,  in the complex Brazilian system of color identification, is considered white. All these choices indicate a tendency to ignore the existence of black artists working with the above-mentioned themes. They also cause us to ponder why Brazilian curators frequently avoid these artists as well as their strong and politically charged production.

Even considering the impact achieved by Histórias Mestiças, it seems that the so-called minorities who were included entered in the game only to recall the necessity of bringing the country up to the international debate. Until we are seriously committed to making a change, indigenous people, blacks, women, and other minorities will occupy the place that they have always occupied: the margins.