Exploring the Common Grounds: Brazil and the U.S.

Although social issues such as anti-racism, feminism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ+ rights have prompted museums to diversify their collections and include artists from social minority groups in their exhibition programs, and counter-hegemonic notions of art and aesthetics have been vigorously debated by academics, artists, and curators, effective political and epistemic changes in the global contemporary art system have yet to occur. On the contrary, as a result of the contemporary neoliberal instrumentalization of identity-based agendas, the art system has integrated these agendas through a process that, primarily driven by the art market, de-potentializes and commercializes them.[1] So, while social minority eventually obtain representation in the art system, their political demands, identities, and traumas are used to benefit the dominant order. This paradoxical outcome emphasizes the importance of developing separate political acts and cultural interactions capable of dismantling colonialism and capitalist institutions that still exist within the art system.

 In recent years, Western art has grown inextricably linked to calls for epistemic decolonization and fairness for social minorities in a variety of cultures. 

I encountered the impact of colonialism and neoliberalism in an art institution. When I first visited the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM Rio) as a "mixed race" working-class teenager living in Duque de Caxias, I felt as if the museum's collection was vibrating as a sad and contradictory modernity in front of my eyes.[2] It is generally known that Brazilian modern art, from anthropophagy to Tropicalismo and Cinema Novo, was influenced by the need to problematize, explain, and construct a modern tropical national identity that reflects the country's complex ethnic and racial variety. This impetus introduced the visual presence of the lower classes and disenfranchised racial groups into the institutional space of MAM Rio, where the artworks are on exhibit. However, something weirdly echoing at the museum prevented me from forming a solid connection with the contents and the museum itself. First, the innovative architectural proposal created by Affonso Reidy astounded me with its elegant modernity and incorporation into the Rio de Janeiro setting. The museum's V-shaped columns provide views of Guanabara Bay and the mountain of Pão de Açúcar. The columns also elevate the museum, creating a large space beneath for social interaction that connects to the garden designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and the adjoining Flamengo Park. Inside the museum, vast rooms with broad windows place museum visitors and artworks in the scenery surrounding the building, reminding us that we are in the tropics. This aesthetic encounter drove me to ponder, "What kind of Brazil is this?" 

During my first visit to a modern art museum in the early 2000s

The artistic refinement and luxury I discovered in the museum's spatial architecture did not reflect the reality I was used to seeing in Duque de Caxias. Second, the museum's collection introduced me to a Brazil that appeared to be formed by a foreign aesthetic. Although all of the exhibited pieces were created by prominent Brazilian artists such as Anita Malfatti, Antônio Dias, Hélio Oiticica, and Anna Bella Geiger, their perspectives on Brazil differed from mine, as they were white middle- and upper-class people. There were evident class and racial conflicts between these artists and me. So, when viewing the masterpieces on display at the museum, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. This emotion was not new to me, as I often feel like a foreigner in Brazil when I visit places frequented by the wealthy. However, MAM Rio, as an institution, told me that I did not deserve Brazilian modernity. The sense of not belonging was so overwhelming that I felt worldless.[3]
In 1965, at the opening of the group exhibition Opinião 65 at MAM Rio, Hélio Oiticica and members of the samba school Estação Primeira de Mangueira were unable to complete a work they had planned. I later learned this as an art student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. On this day, Oiticica planned to enter the museum's exhibition area with musicians and dancers from the samba school, who were scheduled to play and dance samba while wearing the artist's "Parangolés". Nonetheless, the museum's director banned the artist and members of the samba school from entering the institution. The problem was not Hélio Oiticica, one of the show's exhibiting artists, but rather members of the samba school. They were working-class people of color and Mangueira Favela dwellers who, since they did not meet the museum's social norms in 1965, were barred from joining the modern surroundings. In response to the prohibition, Oiticica chose to continue his intervention outside the museum, changing it into a carnival party for everybody (fig. 1).

Only in 2020 did MAM Rio choose a person of color as artistic director, underscoring how, for decades

individuals of my social class and dark skin colors were permitted to visit the museum only as works of art or as subaltern laborers, never as protagonists.[4] For me, the lack of representation of the lower classes and people of color in art institutions equated to a sense of alienation. However, this sensation was merely a symptom of a larger historical issue that I was unaware of at the time: the persistence of colonialism as a social trauma that shapes the Brazilian state.
My observation is peculiar to Brazil and points to a historical issue that exists in Brazilian art institutions. Racialized poor boys from other nations may have a distinct perspective on Western art when they visit a museum for the first time. I honestly don't know how a poor black Dutch youngster would react to seeing Rembrandt, Mondrian, and Viviane Sassen's paintings on display in an Amsterdam art museum. People's and cultures' histories overlap and hybridize, resulting in the formation of new global cultural identities. Nonetheless, each location has distinct (hi)stories, knowledge, and traumas that make sense in their respective circumstances. For this reason, I decided to start my argument by telling personal tales about Brazilian social difficulties. I wanted to emphasize that my understanding of Western art, as well as political philosophy and society, is influenced by my social situation and culture.


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