BY Silas Martí in Features | 23 MAR 20
Featured in
Issue 209

Art Under Bolsonaro Turns to Brazil’s Rural Frontier

One year into the authoritarian president’s term, Brazilian artists are pushing back against state violence and censorship by summoning the spirit of the ‘sertão’

BY Silas Martí in Features | 23 MAR 20

In a 2019 video posted on Instagram, 19-year-old Bernardo Soares Capim explains to the camera – and to other young black men his age – what happens when policemen stop and frisk him in Belém, the biggest city in the state of Pará, in northern Brazil. They tell him to stand up straight and ask where he gets the pot they assume he smokes. Two months after the video was posted, Capim was shot and killed on his way back from dinner with his girlfriend. No local newspaper reported on the murder, as homicide is rampant in the region.

Capim and several of his friends were part of the 100-strong cast of Skin Gymnastics (2019), a new film by artist and forensic investigator Berna Reale. In the film, aerial shots of a street in Belém show young men marching to the shrill sound of Reale’s whistle. All of them have, at one point or another, been stopped and frisked by police. They stand in a gradient of colour, from darkest to lightest skinned: more than two-thirds of them are black, reflective of the racial disparity in Brazil’s prison population. Rounded up under the blazing sun, the men are reminiscent of inmates ready for inspection. Several such line-ups have been broadcast on television following a riot last July at Altamira prison in Pará, which left 57 dead, 16 of whom were decapitated.

Few artists could know more about the reality of crime, police brutality and incarceration than Reale, a cop who examines the bodies of murder victims when she’s not in her studio. In her earlier works, the horrors of homicide and police impunity were masked by colourful sets and props, elaborate choreography and music; in Skin Gymnastics, however, that violence has never seemed more real. Reale told me that she removed close-ups of Capim from the final cut to spare his family further grief. She had never expected her film about the vulnerability of young Brazilian men would itself become secondary evidence of a crime.

Escadaria do Decapitado (Staircase of Beheading, 2019), a painting in Thiago Martins de Melo’s recent exhibition at Galeria Leme in São Paulo, also recalls the beheadings of the Altamira prison riot. In the background of the painting, Martins de Melo has reproduced a famous photograph depicting the mummified heads of Lampião’s notorious gang of bandits, including his girlfriend Maria Bonita, who terrorized the rural frontier of northeastern Brazil during the 1920s and ’30s. Their heads were displayed in the city of Piranhas as a gruesome demonstration of police power. Yet more unsettling in its allegorical representations of gore, Martins de Melo’s painting Necrobrasiliana (2019) depicts the severed heads of tribal chieftains, pierced with arrows and mounted on totems alongside the body of Carlos Marighella, a black guerrilla leader killed by the country’s repressive military dictatorship in 1969.

Thiago Martins de Melo, Necrobrasiliana, 2019, oil on canvas, 2.6 × 3.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Leme, São Paulo; photograph: Filipe Berndt 

Pará and the adjoining states that make up the northeast of Brazil span the Amazon rainforest, vast rural scrublands – known as the sertão – and major cities, such as Recife and Salvador, along a lush Atlantic coast. Its population is mostly black or indigenous and poor. Criss-crossed by drug trafficking routes that serve São Paulo to the south, it has long been plagued by gun violence – both at the hands of gangs and the cops who hunt them with impunity. The federal government is mostly viewed with suspicion there. In the 2018 presidential election, the region voted heavily for the unsuccessful socialist candidate, Fernando Haddad. His right-wing opponent, current president Jair Bolsonaro, has praised vigilantism, pressuring lawmakers to ease firearm regulations by mimicking the motion of a loaded shotgun. His administration has treated the northeast as a wild frontier where extrajudicial killings might be not just tolerated, but openly encouraged. In response, artists on the left have embraced the northeast as a symbolic frontier of resistance to the right, and its landscape has become increasingly central to their depictions of an ever-more brutal and polarized Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s first year in office has been marked not just by rising violence, but also a string of environmental catastrophes that have disproportionately struck the northeast. Fires tore through the Amazon, beginning in Pará in January 2019. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, satellite data showed an 84 percent increase in the quantity of rainforest burned since Bolsonaro’s election, with large swathes deliberately destroyed to make way for farmland and cattle ranches. (Agribusiness barons are among the president’s most ardent supporters.) In August, long slicks of crude oil washed up on the pristine beaches of the northeastern coast. For months, before an investigation pointed to a leak in a Greek tanker, the case remained a mystery, only adding to the hysteria. Then, in July, a horrific scene seemed to underscore the region’s desperation: when a whale beached on the shores of Salvador, a ravenous mob tore it apart and barbequed its meat on the sand. Some fought for the best flesh with long knives, while others loaded up buckets with fat they tore off with bare hands. The frenzy recalled the mermaid washed ashore in Gilberto Gil’s 1994 tropicália hit single, A Novidade (The Novelty). ‘Some lusted for her goddess kisses, others lusted for her tail for dinner,’ he sings. It was, in Gil’s words, a ‘paradox stretched out on the sand’, reflective of Brazil’s grim class divide: those desperately scrounging for food to survive are also likely to be hardest hit by climate change.

‘Sertão’, an exhibition held last autumn at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, curated by Júlia Rebouças, situated the eponymous frontier at the forefront of left-wing resistance to Bolsonaro. The region’s rugged landscape, which is difficult to police, featured in a number of works in the show, as both a topography and a state of mind. Lise Lobato’s As facas de meu pai (My Father’s Knives, 2005), a collection of shivs, or handmade knives, was installed in grid form on a gallery wall, like prison contraband. Tropeiros (Muleteers, 2019), Paul Setúbal’s installation of black metallic targets and shields, alludes both to the bandits that used to roam the sertão and to the artist’s upbringing on the outskirts of Brasília, where children play with discarded weaponry and violence pervades drug trafficking routes. More oblique was a 2019 series of untitled sculptures by Daniel Albuquerque made from black knitted yarn, suspended from the ceiling or folded atop pedestals throughout the galleries. The soft black fibres, reminiscent of skin or hide, served as a barrier to passage, especially when reams began to loosen from their moorings. The largest of Albuquerque’s works hung like the carcass of a cow against the gallery’s white walls. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, the artist invokes philosopher Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics: the idea – posited in his eponymous 2003 essay – that nation states may derive their power from their ability to kill their citizens or threaten them with death. It’s the same theory as that evoked by Martins de Melo in Necrobrasiliana, the title of which suggests a mortal threat unique to the country. As the sight of blood on the sidewalk or shotgun-wielding police officers have become increasingly normalized in places like Brasília and Belém, growing numbers of Brazilians have begun to feel a target on their backs.

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau, 2019, film stills. Courtesy: Mubi and UniFrance

The sertão also served as the allegorical setting for Bacurau, the most sensational Brazilian film of 2019. In one of the movie’s final scenes, the heads of the white foreigners who have attempted an unsuccessful siege of the titular village are piled up in the middle of its main square. Villagers who defended Bacurau display the severed heads like trophies in a vitrine. The film’s co-directors, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, hail from Recife, the cultural capital of the northeast. The sertão is idealized in Bacurau as a land of resistance to oppression – although the invaders mostly hail from the US. (Bolsonaro’s strongest foreign ally is US President Donald Trump.)

The discussion at the heart of Bacurau goes beyond foreign relations: it divides families across Brazil, dominates small talk and casts a shadow over national identity. Political polarization has torn the country in two – between supporters of Bolsonaro on the right and, on the left, supporters of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, recently released from prison but still facing corruption charges. Between the self-styled gente de bem, or good people, who call out Lula’s schemes, and the Lula livre team, who insist he has been a political prisoner, sits a centre ground that has been overwhelmed by misinformation and noise.

Last November, Chico Buarque – a bossa nova star and a historical critic of the junta – published a diaristic novel, Essa gente (These People), which follows a writer, modelled on the author, as he roams around Rio de Janeiro, musing about his failed career. As he witnesses beatings and shootings, he grows disenchanted with literature and deems art frivolous. In Buarque’s novel, violence is so pervasive that it seeps into people’s pores, becoming a kind of collective disease.

Rosângela Rennó, Brasil, 2019, customized Havaianas flip flops and plexiglass support, 31 × 23 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo 

Essa gente’s publication followed the announcement, in May, that Buarque would be the 2019 recipient of the Camões Prize for Literature – the highest honour given to a writer in the Portuguese language. Bolsonaro refused to endorse the award, a joint initiative of the governments of Brazil and Portugal. The snub was reflective of his administration’s broadly antagonistic stance towards the arts: since taking office, he has imposed a strict cap on the amount of money companies can deduct from their taxes to fund museums, orchestras and theatres, and scrapped public funding for several projects, including Transversais, a documentary series about transgender people in Brazil, as well as two of the country’s major film festivals. Under pressure from the government, the country’s biggest public financial institutions, Banco do Brasil and Caixa Econômica Federal, have withdrawn support from a number of exhibitions and film programmes, such as a series of screenings of work by pioneering lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner. Plays critical of authoritarianism, or those featuring openly gay or transsexual cast members – such as Dos à Deux’s dance spectacle Gritos (Screams, 2016) by Cia and the drama Abrazo (Hug, 2018) by Clowns de Shakespeare – had their runs at bank-owned theatres cancelled. Lectures by leftist thinkers, such as Marcos Nobre and Tatiana Roque, were similarly scrapped. 

The threat of censorship took a turn for the worse in October when, according to reports by Folha de S.Paulo, agents responsible for awarding Caixa’s grants to artists and producers revealed they were being asked by the government to report on the political inclinations of applicants and monitor their social-media accounts for potentially ‘embarrassing’ content that might disqualify them. The government made no secret of its intentions: both Bolsonaro’s son, state senator Eduardo Bolsonaro, and economy minister Paulo Guedes have spoken publicly about reinstating AI-5, a notoriously draconian law passed in 1968 that dissolved Congress and established full censorship of all media.

Renata Lucas, Andar de cima (Upper Floor), 2018, flag and pole, 15 m high. Courtesy: the artist and Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; photograph: Edouard Fraipont 

For many, the fear of a return to dictatorship has cut much deeper than the arts, to the very core of Brazilian identity and the values enshrined in citizenship. Fittingly, many artists have recently used the national flag as a symbol of bitter irony in their work: for instance, in her solo show at Galeria Vermelho in São Paulo last November, Rosângela Rennó singed a pair of green and yellow Havaianas sandals and nailed them to a gallery wall (Brasil, 2019). The most popular flip flops in the world – and, at one point, the standard footwear of Brazil’s poor – they suggest, in the colours of the national emblem, that right-wing politicians are, quite literally, letting the country burn. For Rennó and others, the flag’s motto – Ordem e progresso (Order and Progress) – serves as an ironic retort to national turmoil. At Casa do Povo in São Paulo, for an exhibition that opened just after Bolsonaro won the first round of the October 2018 elections, Renata Lucas installed an enormous flagpole in a gallery with ceilings too low to accommodate it, so the national flag she foisted on it lay flaccid on the floor (Andar de cima, Upper Floor, 2018). Beto Shwafaty similarly incorporated the colours of the national emblem into a March 2019 show at Galeria Luisa Strina, where they served as a backdrop to bronze plaques engraved with sombre statements such as: ‘We have a long past ahead of us,’ and ‘Tomorrow I won’t remember anything.’

Government censorship of the arts is unlikely to abate anytime soon in Brazil, as public debate becomes more polarized and Bolsonaro seeks to bolster his right-wing electoral base. Artists, however, are more unified in their opposition to the president’s abuses than they’ve been on any level in recent memory. If, during the years of the dictatorship, figures like Buarque and Gil had to veil their political messages in metaphor, the current generation has taken a more openly combative stance, emboldened by the pitch and speed of social media. For these artists, the sertão is a compelling symbol: progressive, diverse and working-class, situated at the forefront of state violence and climate change. Its red earth is a new kind of flag.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘Frontier Justice’.

Main Image: Berna Reale, Skin Gymnastics, 2019, film still. Courtesy: © Berna Reale and Galeria Nara Roesler, New York 

Silas Martí is a writer based in São Paulo, Brazil, and an editor at Folha de S.Paulo newspaper.