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With the Election of Jair Bolsonaro as President, Brazilian Museums Must Become Centres for Promoting Democratic Values

Bolsonaro’s repeated insults towards women, people of colour and the LGBT community, should have been enough to derail his campaign – it wasn’t

It was a regular Sunday in October in São Paulo – sunny and chilly. My original plan was to walk towards Paulista Avenue – one of the city’s main thoroughfares – to see the exhibition ‘Afro Atlantic Histories’ at MASP (the São Paulo Art Museum), which was closing that day. The survey – included 450 works by 214 artists from Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe, and spanned five centuries – promised to weave together multiple strands of Afro-Atlantic visual culture and provide a starting point for discussing colonial legacies and identity politics. Brazil was one of the last major countries in the world to abolish slavery and has the largest African-descendent population in the planet – it’s about time these pressing issues appear in art programmes. On my way to the show, I bumped into a demonstration in support Jair Bolsonaro – the far-right politician who was, after this writing, elected President by a wide-margin – that stretched for a few blocks of the avenue’s extension. Speakers, placed in front of the museum, amplified his delusional and repulsive speech and blasted it toward anyone entering MASP. I suspect this was deliberate.

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‘Afro Atlantic Histories’, 2018, installation view, MASP, São Paulo. Courtesy: MASP, São Paulo

While he was mayor of São Paulo from 2013–17, Fernando Haddad – the Workers Party candidate who ultimately lost to Bolsonaro – closed down the lengthy Paulista Avenue to cars every Sunday to allow cyclists, strollers and skaters roam free. Back in 2016, I remember feeling that my city was finally in tune with progressive discussions about mobility and the environment. On the Sunday of my visit to MASP, walking down the avenue, I felt like I was witnessing the antagonism between Haddad and Bolsonaro take material form: a tragic encounter between the avenue’s regular strollers, museum visitors and a euphoric Bolsonaro group dressed in the colours of the Brazilian flag.

The crowd stared anxiously at a giant screen mounted in the middle of the avenue while blowing annoying plastic horns (remember the ‘vuvuzelas’ from the 2010 World Cup?) and waving the Brazilian flag. Suddenly, in an Orwellian appearance, the wannabe despot rose up on screen. Livestreaming from his home in Rio de Janeiro, where he was recovering from a recent stabbing attack, Bolsonaro promised that a vast ‘cleanse’ will soon take place, sending all opponents to ‘the edge of the beach’ (ponta da praia). I didn’t understand what he meant, but later learned that this was a reference to a naval base where the opponents of the regime were murdered during the dictatorship. This threat, along with his hankering for the country’s military past and his persistent insults towards women, people of colour and the LGBT community, should have been reason enough to end his campaign. But it wasn’t.  

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View of supporters of Jair Bolsonara from MASP, São Paulo, 2018. Courtesy: Fernanda Brenner

View of supporters of Jair Bolsonara from MASP, São Paulo, 2018. Courtesy: Fernanda Brenner

From MASP’s staircases, I watched this digital Bolsonaro, with his square, angry head barking on screen, entice his audience with his flashy, disturbing rhetoric. Composed mostly of white families or men wearing military attire, the crowd was livid for ‘revenge’ – against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the ‘red-outcasts’ of his Workers Party, whatever this means. That image struck me, Big Brother Bolsonaro courting his followers. Not because of the size of the crowd (the opposition’s events I attended seemed larger), but for the violence of their obvious racial and class hatred. Somebody holding a microphone sneered: ‘These hipsters wearing sandals will turn your kids into communists. These weird people, these intellectuals.’ I said to my girlfriend that they must be talking about us.

That afternoon, the museum’s partially levitating concrete form, designed by the Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, was really floating above the sea of protestors. Museumgoers, now stuck together in this fragile moment of intimacy, talked with one another in ways that would rarely happen otherwise. I spoke with strangers about the need for safeguarding cultural institutions and protecting Brazil’s democratic values. (The dictatorship only ended 30 years ago.) I randomly met some friends who were also catching the show’s last day, all with heavy hearts like mine. We discussed resistance strategies, ranging from learning how to use a bow-and-arrow to internet piracy to the most suitable verbs for our coming political campaigns. MASP’s concrete walls never felt thicker.

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Rosana Paulino, A permanência das estruturas (The Permanence of Structures), 2017, digital print on textile, cutout, sewing. Courtesy: the artist and MASP, São Paulo

Rosana Paulino, A permanência das estruturas (The Permanence of Structures), 2017, digital print on textile, cutout, sewing. Courtesy: the artist and MASP, São Paulo

How the hell have we ended up here? How could a once irrelevant, ultra-right congressman become the next Brazilian president? Perhaps Rosana Paulino’s A permanência das estruturas (The Permanence of Structures, 2017), which was included in the show, offers a clue. Paulino sewed pieces of cloth carrying diagrams of a slave-ship, sketches of skulls, pictures of black bodies in positions that resemble criminal data-bases or forensic analysis and Portuguese tiles. The mosaic includes the inscription: ‘the permanence of structures’. Jair Bolsonaro sells himself as an avenger ready to upend the political establishment and put the country ‘back on track’. When museums and forests are burning, when hard news and facts are disdained and discredited, it is easy for an authoritarian bravatta to take place. Certainly, Brazil’s most sordid structures are still there – rock solid – shouting in the streets.

On that particular day, I saw ‘Afro-Atlantic Histories’ as a beautiful counterargument hovering over the angry crowd on Paulista Avenue. All the critical and ‘curatorial arguments’ I’d normally have had seemed irrelevant when listening to what came out of the speakers downstairs. Artists, curators, writers and historians are often unsure about the resonance – not the importance – of what they do. But the exhibition –inside Lina’s utopic concrete box, built by a woman who herself had fled a world ravaged by right-wing violence – with people I knew and people I didn’t gave me the strength to walk back home while holding my girlfriend’s hand all the way.

Main image: View of supporters of Jair Bolsonara from MASP, São Paulo, 2018. Courtesy: Fernanda Brenner

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze

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