Ethnography and Contemporary Art: Creative Tensions in Brazilian Culture
In recent years, the Brazilian art scene witnessed a number of exhibitions that sought to question the national artistic canon. These shows placed modern and contemporary art pieces in view of archaeological and ethnographic collections, suggesting disciplinary intercrossings that sought to erode the categories of a so-called Brazilian artistic production. Although such exhibitions brought to light the colonial legacy behind local art history, their critics maintained that they only tangentially responded to the hierarchical agency of black and indigenous cultures in Brazil’s artistic institutions.
By way of example, in 2000, the Mostra do Redescobrimento, inspired by Mario Pedrosa’s 1978 Museu das Origens project, marked the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese “discovery” of Brazil. Directed by Nelson Aguilar, it presented a sequence of separate units dedicated to Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, baroque, folk, modern and contemporary art, among others, in a exhibition area of 60 thousand square meters at the Ibirapuera Park (São Paulo).
The highlight of the indeigenous unit was a Tupinambá feather cloak with an extraordinary transatlantic trajectory. Taken from Brazil to the Netherlands by Maurice of Nassau in 1664, and eventually integrated into the collection of the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, the cloak raised unexpected claims by an indigenous group of Olivença (Bahia) who visited the show: “We are Tupinambá and want the cloak back!” Largely portrayed by local newspapers as an ordinary fait-divers, this episode points to the multiple political implications that underlie the appropriations, temporalities, and semantic layers of objects in an exhibition setting.
Lately, the arguments surrounding such curatorial strategies came back to the center of the debate with the opening of a series of exhibitions in Sao Paulo. Among them have been Histórias Mestiças (Instituto Cultural Tomie Otake, 2014), curated by Lilia Schwarz and Adriano Pedrosa, and 34 Panorama da Arte Brasileira Da Pedra Da Terra Daqui (Museu de Arte Moderna, 2015), curated by Aracy Amaral and Paulo Miyada. While claiming a historiographical and epistemological reassessment of Brazilian art, these shows converge with a postcolonial agenda that emerged in several museums and biennials in the last decades.
Do these curatorial perspectives challenge or sustain the colonial view toward non-legitimized forms of art in Brazilian institutions? Do they point to new policies for collection building and strategies of display in local museums or echo international curatorial trends? In addition, what are the political implications of contextualizing certain works according to the principles of contemporary and modern art?