Cruzamentos. In English it translates to “intersection” or “crossroads,” but like a handful of words specific to Brazilian Portuguese, it has a much deeper meaning. For Brazil, the next several years will certainly be a crossroad. Whether it’s this summer’s FIFA World Cup, or the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the South American powerhouse will be in sharp focus for the rest of the world to see.
But is the rest of the world versed in the arts and culture that reflect Brazil, and the country’s global impact, in the 21st Century?
That’s a question the Wexner Center for the Arts aims to answer with their prescient Via Brasil project. Four years in the making, Via Brasil is a constellation of events including film, dance, music and even a book translation. It’s anchored by the Cruzamentos exhibition, a survey of contemporary art in Brazil curated to express the contrasts inherent in being Brazilian. (Nearly a case in point, the title of the show uses the Portuguese spelling of the country’s name, “Brasil.”)
“I think the ideas that foreigners have about Brazil is that it’s this booming country that has solved all of its problems, but that’s not the case,” explains Paulo Venancio Filho, professor of fine arts at the Federal University in Rio and co-curator of Via Brasil. “Brazil is still a country that has strong contradictions. I don’t think there is a unique definition of Brazil. So this idea of cruzamentos, of crossings, of showing that our country is always headed in multiple directions, really speaks to what Brazil is.”
Indeed, it would have been easy for the curators who helped shape Via Brasil to cull only well-established artists from the São Paulo/Rio axis. Exploring work which has never shown in the U.S. from cities like Belo Horizonte and Recife, though, was more in line with the challenge presented to the Wexner Center when they were first approached by the Mellon Foundation to conceive the project. To show Brazil in all facets, as both triumphant and tragic, modern and primitive, and indelibly diverse, was paramount, according to Wex director Sheri Geldin.
“We were told to be ambitious, be mission-centric, something that is meaningful to the academic community and the center and then go,” says Geldin of Via Brasil’s inception. “We had very few restrictions and nothing but opportunities. This is meant to be a truly immersive look at the creative vitality of Brazil across multiple art sectors.”
The exhibit displays that vibrancy in a number of forms. Everything from inkjet prints to rotting fruit and dust from the Brazil’s arid sertão region are fair game when it comes to the medium. In Tatiana Blass’ Penadurado, a paraffin figure of a dog is hung from the ceiling, arched over a heat plate that will slowly melt the sculpture in time. Gisele Carmango’s Capsula paintings are massive assemblages of smaller components, while Rosângela Rennò’s piece is a series of photographs of Rio’s famous Christ monolith shot from nine perspectives (with each camera framed to the side). The thread throughout is to constantly re-invent the Brazilian identity, but to make-do with what’s at hand, or “gambiarras.”
“Gambiarras is more than just art, it’s a way of solving problems,” Filho said. “Let’s say you don’t have a pillow: you can put your head on a coconut. It’s improvisation. We never had a rational formation for culture in Brazil, so much of the formation of our culture is improvisational.”
That aesthetic is readily noticeable in the show’s centerpiece, Laura Belém’s Venice of Brazil installation, which contains three clapboard shacks floating on the gallery floor as portable fans breeze from the perimeter or in Jonathas de Andrade’s O Levante, a mixed media work of film, pictures, posters and maps which documents an illegal horse race he staged in the streets of Recife. It’s a spontaneity that even seeps into Cruzamentos’ accompanying film series (see sidebar), comprised entirely of documentaries that give a narrative to the diversity and hybridism of modern Brazil, as well as blurring the line between memory and reality.
“We feel ourselves as a country that plays a role in the global scene now. The sense of being an undeveloped third-world country is over,” Filho said. “We feel the sense that our future is coming and that we’ll solve our problems and move ahead. I think this is a feeling that has been spread all over, not just from the inside but from the rest of the world’s perception of Brazil.”
To that end, the totality of Via Brasil is quite staggering, a veritable primer for anyone hoping to discover a country that’s been overlooked and underrated for too long. And in the grand scheme it serves as just the first step in a global gateway initiative between Ohio State and São Paulo, where the university set up a satellite earlier this year.
“In many ways this gateway is designed to foster not only academic and business exchange, but also civic and cultural exchange,” concludes Geldin on Via Brasil’s mission beyond a mere exhibition of art. “So here’s an opportunity for arts and culture to lead the establishment of some of these relationships.”
Via Brazil will show from February 1 through April 20. For more information and complete list of events and times, visit www.wexarts.org/viabrasil.
From Brasil, with Love
As a complement to Cruzamentos, curator Chris Stults has assembled a film series surveying the oft-overlooked world of Brazilian documentary. Much like Cruzamentos’ art exhibit, the works on view show a complex and diverse portrait of how Brazil is adapting in the face of constant progress.
“In researching Brazilian cinema, I found that the country has a rich tradition of documentary film, with almost no exposure in North America,” Stults said. “The country is changing so much, so I wanted to do something that speaks to this moment.”
Here are four selections not to be missed:
Twenty Years Later
(Eduardo Coutinho, 1985)
Considered the classic among Brazilian documentaries, Twenty Years Later starts in 1964 with the assassination of a rural activist until director Eduardo Coutinho was forced to stop filming by the country’s military regime. Coutinho returned in 1984 to follow-up with the survivors and how the effects of the dictatorship shaped their lives.
Prisoner of the Iron Bars
(Paulo Sacremento, 2003)
Filmed in the years preceding the demolition of São Paulo’s infamous Carandiru prison, there’s a gritty realism portrayed as the director gives his cameras to the prisoners to reflect on their primal and hostile conditions.
(Josè Padilha, 2002)
Padilha is best known in the states for his underrated Elite Squad films, but he began with Bus 174, a documentary detailing the hijacking of a Rio bus, which transpired live on national television.
(Marcelo Machado, 2012)
The music and ideals of the Tropicàlia movement remain Brazil’s most recognizable export. Serving as the newest selection in the Cruzamentos series, the film details how Tropicàlia came to be and why it was so important in building the Brazilian counter-culture.