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Reflections on Brazil: Alison Stirling, Projects Director, Artlink.

by Alison Stirling

Research trip to Brazil led by the British Council and supported by Creative Scotland, September 2014.

This blog contains what for me are the highlights of the trip. I will miss out some of the spaces we went to. Not because they weren’t interesting, but because we saw so much art that by the time we left, I had the art equivalent of snow blindness. We were an odd bunch of people and at points the combination felt like some sort of social experiment or reality tv programme.

Ultimately I had no expectations of my trip to Brazil My intention was to allow myself the time to take everything in, to gain a little understanding of the culture and the country. I also understood that I would have to take time, let it all sink in and then look for crossover, possible collaborations.

Sao Paulo
We arrived in Brazil’s Spring, from Scotland’s Autumn.
My very first impression of this vast city are the ‘gates’. I have seen some gated communities but I’ve never seen gated street houses and blocks of apartments.
Everything is gated. By this I mean the majority of property is fenced in, with security gates. It takes a bit of getting used to.

Some of the spaces we visited:

MASP – Museu de Arte de São Paulo
Perhaps I heard wrong but the Amazon Jungle is in the city. It looks like its in amongst the buildings. Its in MASP.

I’ve just eaten my first plateful of fejopia. I feel full.

The space is beautiful a hulking block, standing on concrete legs. Its seen better days. Inside, they are hanging an exhibition of Schnabel paintings. The space is vast. Sloping concrete ramps cutting across vast gallery spaces. We then go into a series of dark spaces. They have covered the beautiful windows with dark coloured boards.

A community hub of visual art, sport, library, education, workshop. The architecture of the spaces relies on the fact that Brazil is mostly warm and sunny. That the links to spaces and vast openness of the interiors, need sunlight to make them the communal arts and social spaces the architects intended. It’s a very well used space. People sitting reading, playing board games, gives it a real sense of community.

How would a space like that work in Scotland?

We walk to the gallery through what feels like a really rough part of the city. We snake our way through the streets, sticking together for fear of losing our wedding
fingers. Something we had read in the information we had received from the British Council. This knowledge keeps the group together. The gallery itself is artist run space, an old house, rooms off rooms, a maze of exhibits. From the gallery window I looked onto a huge building. We were told it was a squat. Children’s clothes hung on lines stretched across its open windows. We were told they were about to be cleared. Its odd. We get bits of information but to form an opinion is difficult as I don’t have an understanding of the culture, the history…… anything. I am very conscious of this.

Instituto Tomie Ohtake
Beautiful gallery space. There was an exhibition on slavery, artefacts, objects, sculpture informing audiences of the history of slavery in Brazil. It would seem that Brazil was the last nation in the Western world to abolish slavery, and by abolition had imported an estimated total of four million slaves from Africa.

Instituto Acaia – NGO
We drove to the community arts space past a city favella, running alongside a huge market, where vegetables and fruit are trucked in from all over the country. We pass parked truck after parked truck, stray dogs and people lying or sitting at the side of the road. Being in the Instituto Acaia was like a breath of fresh air. It works with children from the favella that we passed. It’s a beautiful little place of learning. We are told some stories about the background of some of the children that attend the school. What can I say?

The Bienalle
Mind blowing. So many contradictions. Such a huge space. My head hurts. I found it difficult to blank out the poverty and concentrate on the art until I visited the Sau Paulo biennale. I know the curators had had a hard time, that arguments and politics had at times almost stopped the biennale. As I watched the arts ‘elite’ view images of abject poverty, police brutality, isolation, religious extremism, mass murder. The art on the walls was one way of opening up ways of thinking, talking and highlighting issues. It was one of the most thought provoking shows I have seen in a long time and I know the work and my memory of the visit will stay with me for a long time.

Centro Cultural São Paulo – CCSP
I was taken down to the library for people with sight impairment, We talked about
access, what was available for people with sight impairment in Scotland compared to Brazil. We extend the conversation to include wider support systems – talking about support for families, education, rural versus urban. Again I’m only touching on things. Its too short of a conversation. I can see that the difference is vast, that the systems that we take for granted just don’t exist here.

I left it too late. The plan (last minute) was to go to a psychiatric hospital to see the work that was being made there. Its too far away. We cant go. I go along with the group to the galleries instead. In the evening we meet with some people from the galleries for a drink. Our conversations are more relaxed, helped by the Caipirinha. The conversations point to some possible crossover, ways of working which could be further built on.

The gallery owned and managed by the bank’ stands out. They have huge audiences, big crowd pulling shows. It’s a well funded gallery. The gallery sits right next to the site of the largest slave market in the world. Before everyone flies off home or to other galleries, we indulge in the biggest meat fest I have ever participated in. Every time I turn around someone is offering me a different cut of meat. I get to eat some more of the lovely Feijoada.

On the last day we have a few hours before our flight. We go see Christ the Redeemer. The view from the statue was incredible.

Artlink work with people who are very marginalised, who for reason of disability (in its widest sense) are dependant on the dwindling resources of the state. In recent times, attitudes to these people have changed, there is very limited understanding of the situations people find themselves in and a growing resentment of the resources they take from the public purse. What we try to do is enhance the situations people are in, make links for them, educate their care structures and try to encourage the general public to look at the individual with disability in a more positive light. To do this we work with contemporary artists.

What I learned from Brazil, from the people I travelled with and the people I met there, is that we should learn to respect difference and not use it as an excuse to exclude. Learning encourages tolerance and the potential for change. In these times that is very important.

‘The Bank’ –the bank funds the arts through tax concessions. Most organisations
referred to funding from ‘the bank’. In fact some were owned by ‘the bank’.

‘Favella’. – They are such a part of the city you cant miss them. Their presence and the fact that its not safe to visit them, created a feeling of ‘them and us’, which made me feel uncomfortable.

‘Difference’ – people we met within education, access or community work, referenced difference. Working with drug users, children and young people from favellas, libraries for people with sight impairment, street people or indigenous people, the difference between each of the groups was always stressed. By this I mean difference through expectation, circumstance, experience, wealth or social standing.

Caipirinha – a delightfully refreshing and powerfully alcoholic drink based on cachaca. Very pleasant if you drink one or two, lethal when you drink three or four. Which we did.

Feijoada – meat stew with black beans. Incredibly delicious.