I didn't know what to expect when I touched down just before dawn in Rio de Janeiro, but a cab driver with an affinity for loud Whitney Houston music was not it. We drove through the streets as the sun and heat rose over the city, and my new friend spoke and drove at a very rapid speed. I would later come to know this enthusiasm as the typical Brazilian sensibility, a character trait that makes even the most un-Brazilian visitor feel welcome.
The country of Brazil is at a fascinating place in its history. A recent economic boom has placed it as the 5th largest economy in the world, and the steadfast growth has given rise to a renaissance of sorts. Galleries from São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro are successfully showing at international art fairs such as Miami Basel, and people are looking with fresh eyes at what the Southern Hemisphere has to offer.
For me, this visit was a chance to see first hand how a city such as Rio is negotiating its own cultural priorities and traditions while moving forward in an international arena. This is not a discovery, but instead an exploration. What I found didn't surprise me, but ultimately reinforced my notion of Rio as an artistically inclined and culturally vibrant city.
I began my stay in Lapa, the notoriously dangerous and bohemian neighborhood district far from the tourist coastline region. My mid-January arrival coincided with the height of summer's pre-Carnival fervor and I wish I had something less cliché to say than people were dancing in the streets, but people were dancing in the streets.
I was lucky enough to catch an opening on my first night in town at the atelier on my road, Casa Z. The small solo show by Brazilian artist Raimundo Rodriguez consisted of several hanging assemblage pieces. Rodriguez had constructed neat rectangular frames filled with painted and overlapping industrial metal panels. The muted colors and haphazard compositions couldn't help but be visually linked to the hillside favelas sitting atop one another down the street. While the work itself was beautiful, albeit slightly unoriginal, the atmosphere buzzed with a casual attitude and dress. Artists and art lovers, in what felt more like a family gathering than a white cube space, spilled out onto the streets where beers were purchased from a man sitting on his bike. Although the only spoken word in the room was Portuguese, people circled the room in the universal language of mingling.
Call me naive, but I selfishly assumed that the art world in South America would utilize English as a second language as actively as any European art hub. While several top galleries do conduct business in both Portuguese and English, I was given an odd look when I re-entered Casa Z the following day to ask some questions, none of which could be answered in more than awkward smiles, shrugs and again, rapid Portuguese. That said Casa Z is not insular in their international perspective. The space generates revenue off of a back storage closet/bookstore that sells a mixture of publications by Latin American's art superstars, small-size print editions and international catalogues.
One photo-based zine of black-and-white images caught my eye. Created in Rio but produced by German artist Anton Steenbeck, the seven-page publication titled Gaivotas, meaning seagulls, catalogues the simple black graffiti scrawl that is abundant on the streets of Rio. Steenbeck has captured these repetitive gestural symbols independently and en masse with birds in a conceptual photo diary pointing to an urban impediment on our natural world.
This odd proximity of natural beauty and urban development is something that is very apparent in Rio. Drastic inflation has created an even larger rift between rich and poor, resulting in a class division that is palpable. For every sandy beach, lush jungle refuge and quaint colonial architecture, there exists in equal measure violent crime, poverty and pollution.
This clash between culture, social issues and landscape is no more apparent than at the city's Museu de Arte Moderna. Affectionately called MAM, the industrial structure is an ominous concrete building that sits in the city's Parque do Flamengo. Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes' installation has taken up the institution's infamous main hall. A curatorial nightmare, this second floor room is composed entirely of glass walls that provide a sweeping panoramic views of the bay and bulbous mountains that jet up from Rio's cityscape.
I attended the show on a national holiday, a day when the city had almost entirely shut down, and I had the museum almost entirely to myself. Gomes had filled the wall-less room with everyday objects. String, cardboard, glass, and fragmented furniture lay in casual groupings and arrangements that allowed me to walk through and over the discarded items. I was able to meander in the way I imagine Gomes had intended it - in silence. The humble objects are transformed into a micro landscape within themselves, a connection that was further highlighted by the postcard-esque views that surrounded them. The installation retains a poetic simplicity that acts as a reminder of objective beauty regardless of worth. It was the one place in the city that was quiet and I found myself so pleased to be surrounded by the sublime silence of the visual.
Somewhere between the atelier and the monolithic institution there lays a small but ever-growing gallery scene. A Gentil Carioca has two locations, one in Rio and one in Berlin, and is led by artists Ernesto Neto, Laura Lima and Marcio Botnia. The original space opened its doors in Rio's Centro district almost a decade ago with the purpose of elevating artistic and critical debate cross-culturally.
This sentiment of global expansion was echoed by Juliana Cintra, co-director of the esteemed Galeria Silvia Cintra + Box 4. Although the summer show was still in the process of installation, Ms. Cintra and I met at the gallery's new location to discuss Rio's burgeoning scene. Her opinion? "There is not 'South American art,'" the gallery owner tells me. "Latin American artists are talking about the same thing at the same time," Ms. Cintra explains further citing that the majority of her artists for her upcoming show are based in Berlin, Rio and New York.
Will Rio become the new cultural epicenter? I'm not sure. But the city itself is an undoubtedly exciting, established cultural hotbed in its own right. The city sits as a cultural nexus between African, Latin and European cultures and I can only hope the international conversation heads farther in that direction.
(All photos by Devon Caranicas)