Art and politics in Brazil
It is impossible to deny that art and politics are intertwined. Whether due to the artist's willingness to express his position or his absence, in one way or another, art transmits a political message. One of the wills inherent to the human being that motivates this manifestation is the aspiration for freedom. In the Brazilian historical context this would not be different. After all, the practice of making art in Brazil is, in itself, a political act. With that in mind, in today's article we are going to address the intersection between art and politics in the work of Brazilian artists and their impact on the country.
Art is political!
Art is and has always been a powerful tool for political expression. It's possible to analyze this link in different historical moments. Whether in the Renaissance, when paintings were commissioned and executed according to the political position of the buyer, or during dictatorships when art was censored. Art is political and artistic expression has a force, whether intentional or not.
When creating a work of art, the artist can choose to speak out against the system, against oppression and against outdated norms of society, for example. There is an infinity of statements that an artist can employ in their work. Just as there are also artists who do not seek to express a political position, however, the absence of expression is an opinion in itself.
Contrary to what many people think, the connection between art and politics does not need to have a "pamphleteer" nature. In other words, to radically and massively support an idea. The simple fact that certain artists express themselves and demonstrate their reality in their works is a political act.
When we talk about art and politics, it is also common for the majority of people to understand this as an imposition of indoctrination on the spectator. However, reality proves that this is a shallow thought and without much foundation. After all, art is subjective and interacts with each individual in different ways. Artistic expressions can impact and cause several impulses on the viewer and it can depend on their cultural, political and social baggage.
Art and Politics in the Brazilian Context
In Brazil, a country rich in culture and diversity, art is a strong political tool. To illustrate this, we drew a timeline with the work of Brazilian artists and their impacts on society.
Almeida Júnior - Caipira cutting tobacco
The artist lived in the 19th century, more precisely between 1850 and 1899. Almeida Júnior is usually associated with a word that can be seen as pejorative: “caipira”. This relationship comes from his representation of the Brazilian people in their plurality, focusing on “ordinary” people and avoiding the representation of the aristocracy, as was usual.
Oswald de Andrade - Manifest Antropofágico
The 1920s are a historic milestone for Brazilian art. 101 years ago, the Modern Art Week took place, starting the modernist movement in the country. A few years later, in 1928, Oswald de Andrade published his "Manifesto Antropofágico". Inspired by the ideas of the artist and political activist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the creator of futurism in art, Andrade founded a historical movement.
The artist published his manifesto in the magazine Antropofagia, in São Paulo, with the aim of “swallowing” techniques and influences from other countries. In this way, Oswald de Andrade encouraged the creation of a new Brazilian artistic aesthetic.
The movement took its name from promoting the “cannibalism” of foreign culture. After all, foreign culture greatly influenced Brazilian art. The artist's objective was to promote a new, multicultural and original Brazilian identity, as well as its people.
Tarsila do Amaral – Abaporu
One of the most famous paintings by the acclaimed Brazilian artist, Abaporu dialogues directly with the work of her husband, Oswald de Andrade, in Manifesto Antropofágico.
The painting features a seated man with disproportionate limbs, with enlarged hands and feet and a tiny head compared to the rest of the body. In addition, the sun in the center of the painting and the representation of a cactus reinforce the idea that we can understand from the painting.
The work is seen as a critique of physical work, exhausting and with little critical thinking, representing the reality of a large part of the population at the time. The painting was painted in 1928 and marks the artist's anthropophagic phase, which lasted until 1930.
Art and politics during the Military Dictatorship in Brazil
During the years 1964 and 1985, Brazil went through the Military Dictatorship, a dark and repressive period. There were almost 30 years of military oppression and artists, of course, were one of the big classes affected, persecuted and censored by the dictatorship.
Art as politics has not been silent, on the contrary. Even living in a time of censorship, many artists used their work in favor of freedom of expression, which was increasingly silenced.
We separate some of the artists who stood out in the fight against an oppressive and dictatorial system:
Cildo Meireles - Desvio para o Vermelho ("Redshift")
Cildo Meireles is a Brazilian artist known for his pioneering work in creating art installations in the country. During the dictatorship, the artist demonstrated a strong political position, which we can analyze in his installation “Desvio para o Vermelho” (1967 – 1984). The installation is marked by these two dates as it marks the year it was conceived (1967) and the year of its first assembly (1984).
The work is divided into three rooms painted in red and articulated with each other. In the first environment, "Impregnation", we are inserted in a white room filled with furniture and works in shades of red. This is contrasted in the penumbra of "Surroundings", the second environment, where it is possible to observe an overturned bottle, with a red liquid flowing in a totally dark environment. In the last environment, "Shift", the sound of running water guides the viewer into a completely dark room. The darkness is broken only by a funky sink, where red water flows, creating sound.
Hélio Oiticica – Tropicália
Tropicália is a term created by the artist Hélio Oiticica and represented in an installation exhibited in the Nova Objetividade Brasileira show, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 1967. The work is an environment composed of Penetráveis, PN2 (1966) - Pureza É a Myth, and PN3 (1966-1967) – Imagery. This was the work that inspired the aesthetic creation of the tropicalista movement between the 1960s and 1970s.
The work is rich in elements typical of Brazilian popular culture, such as sand, earth, tropical plants, fabrics, among others. All these elements together subverted the aesthetic order of European modernism.
Anna Maria Maiolino – "What's left"
Through political and provocative work, Italian-Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino explored different materials and means of expression. During dictatorial periods, the ever-present questions were: “How to speak? How to communicate in times of dictatorship?”.
These doubts are expressed in the artist's work, such as the photograph “What;s left” (1974), which shows a woman with her tongue exposed between scissors. Through her art, the artist questions her surrounding reality.
The artist has a unique vision and work. His work starts from a question: “What if the walls had viscera, muscles and blood?”. Adriana Varejão is among the most important names in Brazilian contemporary art and has a pavilion dedicated to her work at Inhotim, the largest open-air museum in the world, located in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais.
However, his work is not limited to the idea of walls that simulate human entrails. In her works on display at Inhotim, the artist criticizes the wounds left by Brazilian history.
The artist expresses her art through painting, photography and video, with a strong political nature linked to current issues about feminism and survival in a universe that is still misogynistic and sexist. Regina Parra addresses themes such as oppression, insubordination and female resistance in her works.
Art and politics in the current scenario of Brazil
Brazilian politics has been disruptive, to say the least. It was four years of a government that was openly against artistic expression. The Ministry of Culture was extinguished right at the beginning of the former president's term, the audiovisual sector was scrapped and art was discouraged.
The year 2023 began with the change of this government, but the transition has not been smooth. The current president of Brazil, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, took office on January 1st and, just a week later, supporters of the former president invaded the buildings of the three powers in Brasília. The terrorist attacks carried out by an articulated group left a devastating scenario.
The country's public property was destroyed or damaged, including priceless works of art. Among the losses is the painting As Mulatas, by Di Cavalcanti. It is a horizontal panel with great emphasis on four female figures working superimposed on a large landscape. They are brown-skinned, mestizo and mulatto women.
In this painting, the artist uses the same logic as Almeida Júnior, which is to give prominence to marginalized and socially oppressed figures, but who are the core of the functioning of our social fabric. Estimated at BRL 8 million, the work in question was located in the Great Hall of the Planalto Palace and had seven tears in its canvas.
In addition to the acclaimed work of Di Cavalcante, several works of art were hit and destroyed in the terrorist attacks of January 8, 2023.
The destruction of this heritage by extremists proves that art is political! It proves that art is indeed necessary. After all, the Brazilian reality expressed with the intention of coping generates discomfort even in the most lay people. Art is political and always will be, regardless of how many opposing forces arise.