Brazil is mind-bendingly big. It has a population of around 200 million, with a landmass of over 8,500,000 square kilometres. Which makes writing about its art scene naturally reductive. Gulp. What I’ll try to do then, is narrate some of the interesting things I did discover visiting two of Brazil’s most prominent international cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Clearing my head of kashasa, and getting over the size of the country (I am from the British Isles, which could fit into the coin pocket of Brazil’s underpants) – with a deep breath, I started to tenatively visit some galleries.
“There isn’t really a gallery-going culture in Rio,” Clarisse Lima of HUMA Art Projects explained. In São Paulo, the spewing, sprawling, post-apocalpytic tangle of skyscrapers and traffic, I visited the biggest exhibition of works by Caravaggio to have been displayed in Brazil, at the city’s MASP. Winding queues formed (Brazilians are excellent at queuing, incidentally). “People never queue to see art here!” exclaimed the artist Marcos Chaves, who is based in Rio.
It is hard to say if public attitudes to art are changing, or whether public institutions are upping their game as Brazil’s economy continues to rise, but alternative ways of presenting and assimilating art do seem diffuse in the cities' crop of young and emerging venues and galleries; with less of the elitism and snubbery that proselytises London galleries, for example. “We want to be there [at the São Paulo Bienal]; we do not want to be separate from the rest of contemporary art,” a manager at Galeria Logo, one of São Paulo’s most prominent street art galleries, told me.
HUMA Art Projects is one of spaces making its mark in a new generation in Rio. The gallery relaunched recently under a revised team of directors, with a refurbished space and fresh approach. Money has undoubtedly been injected into the project: the formerly residential house has been beautifully renovated, and a number of staff are kept busy there, from in-house design to a cook. They currently represent six artists, working in various media.
HUMA’s lively ongoing programme of events – the initiative of its directors: lunches, discussions, presentations, and talks happen regularly during the run of an exhibition – combats the relative lack of "passing trade". This kind of approach seems to be popular too in São Paulo: at A7MA, a gallery, café and shop space in the heart of Vila Madalena, local walking art tours wind up in the gallery. At Choque Cultural in Pinheiros, São Paulo’s renowned street art gallery, a chalkboard at the entrance declaims a regimented programme of weekly workshops and additional events stretching into a two-month period. There are government initiatives too. Street artist Nega, who we caught in action in Vila Madelena, told us that she began painting on the street five years ago following a workshop organised to encourage women graffiti writers. Government initiated street "interventions" are also everywhere – while I was in Rio, a big campaign had been organised to coincide with a local gastronomy festival, inviting local artists to create murals around the theme. The work wasn’t exciting, but it’s using space, and supporting art outside of galleries, in a way that just doesn’t happen in Europe. The legal stance is that if painting is considered "art" then it’s permissible – tagging and bombing, however, is still classified as illegal and an arrestable offence.
While both cities are replete with street art and galleries who are keen to break down conventions – such as the artist-run A Gentil Carioca, now internationally acclaimed and celebrating its 9th year this month – there is an equal number of clandestine arts spaces, perhaps a reaction to counter the multi-coloured art-covered streets.
Marcus Andre, Untitled, 2010, Macheterie e encaustica, 73x79 cm, Edição 3; Courtesy Multiplo Espaço Arte.
In Leblon, one of Rio’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, Multiplo is a hidden away in a quiet corner, inside a secret shopping centre. It’s a real gem. Its owner, Cristina, is a shy woman with a serious collection. Part dealer part public gallery, she houses some of the best names in contemporary Brazilian art – as well as a few international greats, like editions by Man Ray. Back in São Paulo, in the heart of what locals dub "crackland", is Estúdio Lâmina, on a top floor of a former residential block on Avenida São João. A kindly Japanese lift attendant took me up, and luckily I ran into one of the artists on his way out of the door. The space is inhabited by a collective of artists, mixed in age, background and disciplines, who have created a welcoming, positive community in the dark heart of the city. Split across two old apartments, their current exhibition retains the feeling of a home. “As Margens No Centro”, curated by Luciano CortaRuas, among the furniture and the living areas, was an expertly woven journey through the emotional, physical, historical and social aspects, feelings and sensations of living in São Paulo, a city that confuses, delights, and distorts, by twelve artists working in entirely different media – from paint, print, sculpture, video, and sound, to photography and performance. As a visitor, I felt like I’d stepped into the pysche of the city, if only for a moment – and yet the fundamental question "what IS this city?" remained unanswered – as I was soon being led out into the street to watch more friends play rock and roll to a crowd of locals, most of whom were drug addicts.
Of course, the secretive locations of these arts spaces could be viewed as prohibitive, a way of keeping the public masses out. It took me three attempts to visit the Lagoa branch of A Gentil Carioca – one of Rio’s most prominent galleries for contemporary art, yet located above a bar in an umarked and unassuming apartment building. This seems to both reflect and exacerbate the view of there being no "gallery going" culture.
Beco Do Batman, Photograph Charlotte Jansen.
Yet as I alluded to earlier, art in both cities is ubiquitous, and artists are prolific. São Paulo has become known as one of the global centres for street art, and its unending buildings are covered in colours. The "Beco Do Batman" is a testament to its reputation. A kind of open-air gallery, the Beco is a cobbled, broad alley, flanked by walls – walls that are entirely painted by street artists from around the world, continually evolving as new artists are invited to paint and repaint. It’s a rich, urban tapestry, entirely absorbing, and a taste of the diaspora of artists who pass through this entrancing city. Though not self-contained in the same way, Rio de Janeiro’s Rua Jardim Botânico creates the same effect: a roadside wall carved up into a reel of murals that stretches for a kilometre running alongside to the botanic gardens.
Whatever happens in this enormous and diverse country over the next four years, as it welcomes international crowds for the World Cup and the Olympics, these spaces will continue in their mixture of elusive and capricious charm and reinforce Brazil’s importance on the contemporary global art scene.
(Image on top: Paola Alfamo; Courtesy Estúdio Lâmina.)