Research trip to Brazil led by the British Council and supported by Creative Scotland, September 2014.
I often find myself taking pictures of signposts when I travel – the way a country speaks to its citizens can often communicate far more of a sense of place than any guidebook. Brazil was no exception. One of the first pictures I took on arriving in Sao Paolo was of a single post hosting a stacked array of signs pointing, variously, to Dentistry, Swimming, Theatre, Childcare and Exhibitions. The signpost stands at the entrance to Sesc Pompeia, one of a family of 33 cultural centres spread through the capital and state of Sao Paolo. Founded in 1946, Sesc (the Servicio Social del Commercio) is a private institution, funded through subscriptions raised from commercial businesses, established to promote social welfare and improve quality of life. The result is a unique model which brings together health services, sporting facilities and cultural spaces under the one roof. I had heard of Sesc prior to visiting Brazil, but found it impossible to imagine what such an approach might look like; and from a distance, my initial expectation was that it could only be achieved through a distinct watering down of the cultural elements. In the flesh, I found Sesc Pompeia profoundly inspirational – a complex of warehouse buildings redesigned by the Brazilian architect Lino Bo Bardi, which brought together gallery spaces, theatre and live music events with a library, dental clinic, and dedicated workshops for classes on printmaking, ceramics etc. On the evening I visited, the building was filled with people of all ages, including one particularly energetic 75 year old widow who told us that, having been forbidden to dance as a child, she was determined to spend her remaining years on the dance floor. The exhibition space was showing a survey of work in the Video Brasil collection – challenging and complex work, ably introduced by a young visitor assistant.
It’s hard to know precisely what made it work so well, though it felt that the web of porous communal spaces which tied together individual elements of the complex were critical. There was an open fire; an open plan library, tables at which people were playing chess. Food also seemed crucial, with many people queueing for their evening meal. The environment alone was inspiring for the quality and integrity of its architecture, but it was all the more so as the embodiment of an approach which recognises that culture is as critical to quality of life as access to a good dentist.
Sesc Pompeia was clearly engaging a wide public, though predominantly middle class and/or employed. The security guards and gated entrance made it impossible to avoid the impression that Brazil is vastly divided as society, with life lived in a series of self-contained communities (from rich and gated; to favelas and those living homeless), with very few points of intersection. Several of the venues we visited were attempting to explore this. Historias Mesticas at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake brought together historic and contemporary work to explore the diverse origins of contemporary Brazilian society, from indigenous tribes to descendants of slaves, as well as successive waves of immigration in the twentieth century. One label explaining contemporary attitudes to work will stay with me for a long time: “For a long time, in Brazil, the concept of work was linked to slavery and was therefore disparaged. In a country that implanted a system that supposes the ownership of one man by another, and which unfortunately went down in history as the last Western nation to abolish slavery, daily toil was stigmatized.”
Most of the work included in Historias Mesticas was completely new to me, but it was equally rewarding to experience work well-known to me from presentations elsewhere – Ernesto Neto, for example – in the country of its origination.
The Sao Paolo Biennale also sought to find a language to address the divide which permeates Brazilian society. Titled ‘How to (…) things that don’t exist’, it
reflected on its theme through work drawn from all over the world, including much of it from Latin America. Overall it was incredibly strong, although I found the approach which sought to plot different narratives physically against the architectural framework of Niedermeyer’s pavilion less successful.
In Rio, we visited the new Museu d’Arte do Rio situated in the harbour area of Rio – the entry point for European colonisers, and then the main harbour for docking slave ships, and directly adjacent to Brazil’s very first favela, founded by disenfranchised war veterans in the 19th century. The museum provoked strong reactions in our group. Its place within a much larger project of gentrification, which was displacing thriving local communities; and also the sense in which art was being instrumentalised to tell a particular history, invoked a profound discomfort in all of us.
The project and the questions it raised seemed, like so much of Brazil, familiar and alien at the same time. As a country settled by Europeans, much of the architecture draws on recognisable forms; and yet, it is deeply strange to visit a place where they can precisely pinpoint to the day, time, and place, the foundation of their city and country (at least in one colonial version of their history). The impulse to ‘regenerate’ and associated debates about gentrification are well rehearsed in our own context. And yet everything in Brazil is on a scale far beyond our experience – Rio is home to more than the entire population of Scotland, the population of Sao Paolo city is 11 million, or 27 million if you count the surrounding metropolitan districts; the country occupies a landmass the size of Europe. If I have to take away one thing from Brazil, it was an abiding impression that we could all do well to engage more ‘with things that don’t exist.’