Lucia Nogueira, Refrain, 1991-1998. 33ª Bienal de São Paulo. 02/09/2018. © Leo Eloy / Estúdio Garagem / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

The São Paulo Bienal opened last month in the lead up to one of the darkest moments in Brazil's democratic history and the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president. With recent threats to freedom of expression lingering, and an extreme right-wing leadership now in place, will the Brazilian art world suppress or ignite its transgression? It’s currently doing both.

In Gamboa, Rio de Janeiro, is a mass grave, hidden under streets, parks and supermarkets. I was at a bar in the area and asked a friend about a museum close by called the Institute of Research and New Black Memory, and she explained: “it’s a cemetery… we’re sitting on top of people’s bones.” This is one of the world’s largest slave burial grounds, with over 20,000 bodies having been piled atop one another after countless treacherous journeys from the African continent. Gamboa’s history has slowly been rediscovered, mainly by accident, and often during the area’s gentrification. In this country – the last to abolish slavery, destroying many official records after it did so in 1888 – a culture of overlooking, distorting and erasing persists.

The night after I learnt what lay under the streets of Gamboa, the National Museum in Rio went up in flames, and along with it, most of its 20 millions artefacts. This came four years after extreme budget cuts, leaving it knowingly vulnerable. A week later, Jair Bolsonaro, who Brazil just elected to become their president, was stabbed at a rally, leaving this vast country brutally divided, with disinformation rife. Violence and deception have played a key part in this election, which saw a final runoff this past Sunday between Bolsonaro, and Fernando Haddad, the leftist Workers’ Party candidate who ran in place of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, who is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, was leading in the polls despite being in jail, with countless supporters believing in his innocence. Yet after he was barred from running, Bolsonaro rapidly and terrifyingly took the lead. Nicked-named “Trump of the Tropics” and synonymous with misogyny, homophobia, racism, and nostalgia for the military dictatorship, Brazil’s new populist president has garnered an unforeseen amount of supporters, drawn to his promise to ruthlessly clamp down on violence and corruption. Like the supporters of Donald Trump, some overlook his bigotry as a trade-off for his iron fist.

O Instituto de Pesquisa e Memória Pretos Novos (Institute of Research and New Black Memory), in Gamboa, Rio de Janeiro

In this country – the last to abolish slavery, destroying many official records after it did so in 1888 – a culture of overlooking, distorting and erasing persists.

Paradoxically, the endemic violence at the centre of Bolsonaro’s campaign, overwhelmingly affects the subjects of his intolerant rants: Afro-Brazilians, women and LGBTQ+ communities. Civil rights activist Antonio Carlos Rodrigues compared the buried slaves in Gamboa to the “thousand or so young Brazilians killed in the city’s drug conflicts each year, predominantly impoverished Afro-Brazilians aged 15-24,” in an article in The Guardian in 2005, which is even more shockingly pertinent over a decade later. “Until Brazil faces up to the realities embodied by the cemetery”, he suggested at the time, “racist legacies of slavery will continue to blight its society”. Recent violent deaths have become symbolic of communities that are under attack, and most disregarded. Specifically the violent murders of art student Matheusa Passareli, who identified as non-binary, and Marielle Franco, a black city councillor and lesbian who fought against racism and homophobia.

The beautiful, flowing exhibition spaces of the Bienal building in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park are eerily sparse, with interjections of artworks disconnected from this turbulent time.

Visiting guests during the pre-opening of the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo walk past a work by Nelson Felix. 03/09/2018 © Pedro Ivo Trasferetti / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo

The nuances and consequences of overlooking

In the meantime, the beautiful, flowing exhibition spaces of the Bienal building in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park are eerily sparse, with interjections of artworks disconnected from this turbulent time. For this 33rd edition, Bienal curator Gabriel Perez-Barreiro chose to disrupt the art world’s structural hierarchy – the relationship between artist and curator – rather than the political status quo. Seven invited artists curated presentations including their own work, as well as those with whom they share “affective affinities” (the title of the Bienal). These contain moments of beauty and brilliance, yet they appear as disconnected islands. Perez-Barreiro also included posthumous exhibitions of three Latin American artists – Lucia Nogueira, Aníbal López, and Feliciano Centurión – who he felt were overlooked while they were alive. These feel more like introspective amendments than urgent statements, raising the important question of unsung significance, without answering it. Some put the scattered nature of the Bienal down to budget cuts rather than a curatorial decision. Some spoke of self-censoring. Although the Bienal organisers could not have predicted Bolsonaro’s meteoric rise and win, this did not take place in a vacuum. It comes after right-wing activists and evangelical politicians waged a remorseless campaign last year against the country’s art world, most memorably with the exhibition, Queermuseum: Cartographies of Difference in Brazilian Art, closing early in Porto Alegre after violent protests. In this context, the emptiness of the Bienal building offers a series of awkward silences – all the things that are not being said.

Dalton Paula’s painting Zeferina, (2018) portrays the Angolan abolitionist leader who joined forces with escaped slaves and indigenous communities in a rebellious uprising in 19th century Brazil. 

What is the responsibility of the art world during harrowing political times? Is it the duty of the Bienal, which expects to receive over a million visitors, to be candidly addressing turbulent histories and how they fit into the current political landscape?

Public culture as an act of dissent

And yet, what is the responsibility of the art world during harrowing political times? Is it the duty of the Bienal, which expects to receive over a million visitors, to be candidly addressing turbulent histories and how they fit into the current political landscape? In contrast to the Bienal’s aloofness, other major and independent spaces and events reveal the potency of public culture as an act of dissent. In Rio, smaller spaces are tackling historical oversights that have engendered neglected communities, such as the Institute of Research and New Black Memory. On the same street, Lanchonete<>Lanchonete, an art organisation run by artist Thelma Villas Boas, holds workshops with favela residents, confronting the detachment that many working class Brazilians have towards the elitism of the art world. Major exhibitions are hitting home with strong political messages, particularly ART UTOPIA DEMOCRACY at Museo de Arte de Río, citing the murder of Marielle Franco as a barbaric attempt to halt the powerful imagined life that motivated her. Queermuseum finally reopened in late August in Parque Lage in Rio, prepared for the expected conservative protests. At São Paulo’s Tijuana book fair, Matheusa Passareli was memorialised in a poignant procession of students reciting an essay Passareli wrote titled “Rio de Janeiro remains beautiful and oppressive”.  Afro-Atlantic Histories, held concurrently to the Bienal opening across both Instituto Tomie Ohtake and Museu de arte de São Paulo (MASP), underlined the legacy of the 1888 “Golden Law”, which perversely evaded a social integration plan, resulting in enduring economic and racial inequalities. Featuring hundreds of works by artists who have been little seen before within these contexts, a work that burns in one’s memory is Dalton Paula’s Zeferina, specially commissioned for the show. The Angolan abolitionist leader, who became a symbol of resistance when she joined forces with escaped slaves and indigenous communities, finally enters historiography.

At odds with Bienal’s aloofness, other major and independent spaces and events are revealing the potency of public culture as an act of dissent.

Matheusa Passareli, who was burnt to death in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, was memorialised in a poignant procession of young students reciting an essay Passareli wrote in self-published zine titled “o Rio de Janeiro continua lindo e oppressor” (Rio de Janeiro remains beautiful and oppressive).

Also at Instituto Tomie Ohtake is probably the most timely exhibition of the moment, AI-5 50 YEARS – it still isn’t over yet. In light of the 50th anniversary of the totalitarian toughening of the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship, which officially lasted from 1964-1985, the show explores the grave consequences of lost democratic rights. Showing works that were previously banned, hidden or destroyed, the exhibition most pertinently points to how, during humanity’s darkest times, art offers a powerful language that can incorporate but also transcends the spoken and written word. It includes testimonies and works by those who challenged the system at the time, and younger artists who continue to work in this spirit, such as Paulo Nazareth. At the opening of the exhibition he said to me, emphasising the show’s subtitle, it’s really not over yet: “this dictatorship continues”.

Perhaps the subtext written into the empty spaces of this year’s São Paulo Bienal is that it is not necessarily the duty of artists and arts institutions to speak to the political status quo. And yet, many Brazilians are grateful for those proving how remarkably powerful and influential it is when they do. Here’s hoping that this critical defiance continues, especially as the reality of entering a fresh hell, ready to suppress it, hits.

Poster for the exhibition AI-5 50 ANOS – Ainda não terminou de acabar (AI-5 50 YEARS – it still isn’t over yet) at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo.

The exhibition AI-5 50 ANOS – Ainda não terminou de acabar points to how, during humanity’s darkest times, art offers a powerful language that can incorporate but also transcends the spoken and written word.