LOS ANGELES — Brazilian Art under Dictatorship, a new book by John Jay College’s Claudia Calirman, takes a look at the works of three artists: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles. These artists worked during the height of Brazil’s most repressive military regime in the late 1960s and early 70s. The work strikes a personal tone for Calirman, who lived in Rio de Janeiro during that same time, where she witnessed, in her words:
… on the one hand, the arrest of my friends from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro during the street demonstrations against the dictatorship; on the other, our gatherings on the sands of Ipanema Beach, where we witnessed the era’s evolving counterculture.
As in many cases in history, art emerged in response to these repressive conditions, albeit in a modified form as artists sought ways to adapt their work to the political climate while responding intelligently to it. The specific artists Calirman focuses on took multiple approaches, often by necessity.
The chapter on Antonio Manuel, a performance artist, opens with the story of his entry for the XIX National Salon of Modern Art in 1970. Identifying himself as the work of art, he caused a stir by challenging the rules of the salon, which forbade the artist from being present during jury deliberations. Ultimately rejected, he attended the show as a guest and stripped naked. What might have been seen as a juvenile act in one context was a strong challenge to political authority in this one. As Calirman writes, “His spontaneous act, however, became not only a symbol of defiance against the arbitrary rules of art salons and exhibitions, but also representative of the lack of consistent criteria for censorship of the arts by the military regime.”
Artur Barrio embraced materials as the foundation of his work, but instead of expensive materials he chose to use items like “garbage, urine, raw meat, spit, saliva, tampons, and toilet paper.” It was as much a commentary on technology as on economics, a commentary on materials available to him at the time. In his P…H… (the initials for “toilet paper” in Portuguese), he threw rolls of TP at Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM/RJ) and the ocean to create random patterns based on the wind. More controversially, he distributed some twenty kilograms of meat and bones from a slaughterhouse in different rivers and sewers. Part of Do Corpo a Terra (From the Body to the Earth), an exhibition in Belo Horizonte city, the works were meant to appear as human remains, perhaps those of torture victims under the military regime.
Cildo Meireles grappled with a conceptual art practice formulated under a society facing constant censorship. The chapter on his work opens with interesting but relatively tame descriptions of his earlier work, but it was the increased repression under the regime in 1970 that led him to take a more radical turn. His “Tiradentes: Totem-monumento ao preso politico” (Tiradentes: Totem-Monument to the Political Prisoner) consisted of ten live chickens tied to an 8-foot-tall wooden stake and set on fire. The work referenced Afro-Brazilian rituals on the one hand and the country’s brutal treatment of political prisoners on the other. His choice of the title Tiradentes refers to the pen name of a colonial-era dentist who was beheaded after being accused of attempting to overthrow the Portuguese government.
The book offers a broad overview of different works from the perspective of these three artists, all in a specific period of time in Brazil’s history. I admittedly am not well versed in Brazilian art or history, but Calirman takes us carefully through the art historical and cultural context of the artists’ engagements. Many of them continue to resonate today, and while the focus of the book is appropriate where it stands, I wish there was more time spent looking at how these earlier artists’ works might have affected today’s artist-activists.
There is a striking passage on an intervention led by Manuel, in which he distributes fake newspaper headlines — recalling, to me at least, the Yes Men’s infamous New York Times stunt. Another work by Meireles features stamps on banknotes asking “Who Killed Herzog?” which refers to journalist Vladimir Herzog, who was allegedly assassinated. The open-ended question reminded me of the Where is Weiwei meme after the Chinese dissident artist’s detention.
I most appreciated Calirman’s conclusion chapter, where she tackles the popular myth that political repression breeds great art and dispels any romanticism around producing art under a dictatorships. She also takes time to look at how Brazilian artists borrowed from global art dialogues at the time but produced work entirely of the Brazilian context:
“In their adoption of global trends they created not derivations or replicas of their North American or European counterparts, but highly individualistic, local responses to the dilemmas imposed by the military dictatorship.”
Claudia Calirman’s Brazilian Art under Dictatorship (Duke University Press Books, 2012) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.