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Reflections on Brazil: Lucy Askew, Senior Curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

by Lucy Askew

Research visit to Brazil, led by the British Council and supported by Creative Scotland.

As my first visit to any country in South America, pretty much everything about the visit to Brazil was new. We were welcomed wherever we went with tremendous hospitality, and at every turn encountered extraordinary things and people: the architecture (a concrete/brutalist-lovers heaven), the food, the sheer scale of Sao Paolo and Rio, innovative educational programmes, fascinating and thought-provoking exhibitions. The visit gave an opportunity to hear about how visual arts organisations function within a completely different political and economic landscape, provoking many conversations between the delegates about how we ourselves work back in Scotland. It was fascinating to learn about specific initiatives established to support artists and curatorial development. Simultaneously, it was hard not to be struck by the complexities of the country and particularly the inescapable divisions in society, made visible by the invisibility of the favelas on the map of Rio, and the high, double gates surrounding almost every house or apartment block we passe

After visits to over 15 visual arts organisations in both Sao Paolo and Rio, as well as a day exploring the Sao Paolo Biennale and a visit to the extensive sculpture park of Inhotim, it was an enormously rich and stimulating experience, full of discussion and debate, but also a complex and sometimes conflicting and overwhelming one.

The highlights were many. On our first day we visited the Itaú Cultural Institute in Sao Paolo (funded by the Itaú bank). There we were introduced to their ‘Rumos’ programme, an initiative made possible – like all cultural initiatives in Brazil we came to understand –through the government’s tax incentive scheme. Rumos has supported artists and early-career curators across Brazil since 1997, and an exhibition surveying the work of artists who had participated was on show at the Institute. Our guide was a curator who had himself took part in the programme, Paolo Miyada, now curator at the Tomie Ohtake Institute which we visited later in the week. The exhibition we visited at Tomie Ohtake, Histórias Mestiças was a deftly curated examination of the history of Brazil’s mixed-race society. Produced through a collaboration between an art historian and a social anthropologist, historical artworks and artefacts were shown alongside contemporary art in thematic rooms in a moving and utterly illuminating way.

Another inspiring experience was at the Museum of Modern Art where we were met by Daina Leyton from their education department. Daina explained that a third of the staff are employed within the education team – a statistic unlikely to be found in many UK contemporary art galleries. Amongst their learning and outreach activity is a long-running project with young people with hearing impairments, initiated 12 years ago, which has discarded conventional approaches. Instead of translating from English into sign-language, the team work in an integrated way with young people, enabling them to find their own expressions in sign-language to communicate about contemporary art with their peers and others. This exceptional programme has developed the expertise of a new generation of educators – young people who took part in the first years of the project are now employed at the museum and at other museums in Sao Paolo and elsewhere.