The Myth of the Brazilian Artistic Canon

August 12, 2016

Recently, the greater inclusion of Brazilian artworks in other contexts—particularly in the US and Europe, and the growing foreign historical and critical approach to it—have exerted considerable pressure for the establishment of a Brazilian artistic canon. In what measure has the canon of 'Brazilian art' been outlined to fit the idea of 'Latin American art' according to the geopolitical parameters of the market and art institutions? To what extent is the demand for an artistic canon more an external than an internal requirement?

Unlike within other socio-cultural contexts, an art canon has never been objectively and rigidly established in Brazil. Certainly, there were, and are, dominant values determined by various agents and institutions. There is not, however, an art canon with a strong presence in Brazilian society that has been consolidated by public and private collections, exhibitions in museums, university syllabi and school curricula, or art history. The canon, to the extent that it exists, has been a set of names discussed and disseminated in restricted circles of experts but not spoken of and shared with the wider public. Questioning this canon’s post-colonial agenda has also followed this pattern.

Nationalist, and based on the "myth of the three races" (the supposed harmonious relationship between indigenous, European and African peoples), the vague artistic canon existing in Brazil has included, at least since modernism, representations of the nation's ethnic components. However, the self-representations of indigenous and African descendants were always kept in a secondary, marginal condition.

Despite the totalizing and nationalist character that guides Mario Pedrosa’s plan for the Museu das Origens, his project is remarkable for its inclusion of Indian and Afro-Brazilian artefacts as art. The same can be said of its two recent unfoldings—the Museu de Artes e Origens, the exhibition curated by Dinah Guimaraens and presented at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro between 1994 and 2003; and the Mostra do Redescobrimento, curated by Nelson Aguilar and presented in São Paulo in 2000.

Inducing controversy in the debate on the country’s ethnic and racial relations by reconsidering the currently much-criticized idea of racial mixture, the 2014 exhibition Histórias Mestiças dealt with representations of different ethnic groups rather than with their self-representations. As it included few works generated by mixing their artistic and aesthetic systems, the miscegenation was curatorial, remaining as a provocative challenge proposed by Adriano Pedrosa and Lilia Schwarz.

It is worth mentioning the proposal advanced by Aracy Amaral and Paulo Miyada, curators of 2015’s 34˚ Panorama da Arte Brasileira – Da pedra Da terra Daqui, to see as art artefacts that were not produced with this purpose. Nevertheless, this proposition still demonstrates the nationalist bias for presenting objects made by autonomous social groups who occupied a vast territory long before that territory was named Brazil, as “Brazilian.”

In addition to these exhibitions, other attempts to understand the achievements of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultural groups as art should be mentioned. Among those are: Raimundo Nina Rodrigues’ texts on black art; Ernesto da Cunha Araújo Viana’s inclusion of embroidery in art history; research and texts on popular art made by Mário de Andrade and Luís Saia; Berta Ribeiro’s books on indigenous art; the Candomblé art produced by Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos, Mestre Didi; the collection and actions of the Centro Nacional de Folclore e Cultura Popular; and the Museu Afro Brasil, created and curated by Emanoel Araújo. Together, they comprise a set of achievements that could sketch an alternative canon for art in Brazil, were they also socially assimilated.