The elections in Brazil are not over. While millions took to the polls last October, marches still rage through the streets of the country’s major cities, both in support of the re-elected president, the Worker Party’s Dilma Rousseff, and, more vociferously, against her. Not long ago, a crowd blocked Paulista Avenue, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, with banners asking for the return of the military dictatorship: a regime that plagued the country from the 1960s well into the ’80s. In sharp contrast to this unlikely uprising, the president was recently handed a government-commissioned report by a group of historians and intellectuals on the number of assassinations and an updated count of those who disappeared under military rule.
Rousseff, who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship, read a short statement to the press in a ceremony later broadcast on television. Her tough stance crumbled before the cameras, albeit for a few seconds. When she mentioned those who perished under the abuse of generals, her eyes filled with tears. The room fell silent for an instant that seemed like an eternity and those present stood up and applauded, before the president returned to her scripted style of awkward pauses and dramatic phraseology.
It was a crack in the mirror, like an actor breaking character. No one in Brazil is under the impression that things are all right. Ghosts of the past seem to haunt the present more than ever, and the present is as strange and corrupt as can be; it’s as though the raw energy that fuelled the revolts of June 2013 has entirely dissipated, leaving behind only a massive political hangover and a general feeling of hopelessness. The country’s economic crisis has resulted in stocks plummeting, inflation skyrocketing and the value of the currency falling dramatically.
These are ugly and uncertain times. And, with money short, culture is the usual victim. Investigations into corruption charges against Brazil’s main public enterprise, the oil giant Petrobras, have lead to the imprisonment of several corporate executives and the company’s near demise. Since Petrobras was the country’s biggest visual arts sponsor, museums are now finding themselves strapped for cash. The Museu de Arte de São Paulo, the famous glass box on Paulista Avenue designed by Lina Bo Bardi, has increased ticket prices to curb the effects of the economic downturn. Ivo Mesquita, the celebrated director of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, recently stepped down due to the lack of funds available to stage the shows he wished to at the museum.
In a country where the cultural industry depends on corporate sponsors – who get hefty tax breaks for each initiative they support – the vitality of the art scene is jeopardized with each and every jolt felt by the economy. While the current administration has made some efforts to review this model, culture in Brazil, especially the visual arts, remains the plaything of marketing departments in big corporations, be they state energy giants or major private banks.
Itaú – the biggest bank in the country and the financial lifeline of the Bienal de São Paulo, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo and the Instituto Moreira Salles, among other prominent institutions – has just unveiled a new permanent display of its Brasiliana collection: a sprawling set of archives, etchings, paintings and historical documents that dissects the twisted origins of this giant nation, from exploitation colony to member of the BRICS group of countries.
So it should come as no surprise that the show which made headlines last year wasn’t Charles Esche’s tepid installment of the Bienal de São Paulo but Adriano Pedrosa and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s ‘Histórias Mestiças’ at the city’s Instituto Tomie Ohtake: a major investigation into the ways in which race relations have manifested themselves in Brazilian art since the 16th century. This is a time to reflect on the past and try to shape a better future in order to leave behind the turmoil of the present. I can’t help but think of a song penned by Cazuza, the legendary Carioca composer who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. The verses of ‘Brasil’ – the theme song to Vale Tudo (Anything Goes), a popular soap opera that aired in 1988 and which is regarded to this day as a classic of Brazilian pop culture for its sharp allegory of the country’s political situation – ask Brazil to show its face, demanding to know who picks up the bill for the country’s rampant inequality. Coincidentally, the creator of Vale Tudo, Gilberto Braga, has been working on another major tv series, expected to premiere later this year; Braga, it seems, is ready to ask the same questions again. Vale Tudo ended with the rich villain flying away in a helicopter and giving the whole country the finger. Let’s hope things are different this time around.