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As a Brazilian who has lived in the US for the past 10 years, I’ve found Americans’ growing enthusiasm for Brazilian culture and politics both welcome and bothersome. It’s been great, for instance, to see retrospectives of some of our most accomplished artists at important museums. But there is also this sense that Brazil has somehow been “rediscovered,” when really it’s that most people haven’t been paying much attention, and, as with most trends, there’s always the lingering question of how much of this recent attention is born of actual, substantive interest.
The Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade’s current solo show at Alexander and Bonin is, I suspect, a product of this trend. The gallery announced it would represent de Andrade when he was featured in the Guggenheim’s contemporary Latin American art survey last year, a show that Holland Cotter, when he reviewed it for the New York Times, prefaced his write-up with: “In these days of international markets and cosmopolitan tourist flow, it pays for Western Modernist strongholds to look culturally embracing.” The show focused on art responding to Latin America’s social inequalities and colonial pasts, works that have gone unnoticed not only in the West but likely in their home countries as well, including memorable pieces by Adriano Costa, Amalia Pica, and Erika Verzutti. But there were also a number of artists who did little more than fall within the exhibition framework, delivering work that relied on its message, including de Andrade.
“Cartazes Para o Museu do Homem do Nordeste,” de Andrade’s installation at the Guggenheim, which is also included at Alexander and Bonin, features posters of brown-skinned men posing for the camera with the words “Museum of the Northeastern Man” printed across their bodies. The work is a response to the existing ethnographic museum of the same name in Recife that, in departing from sociologist Gilberto Freyre’s seminal work, describes Brazil’s racial history as uniquely diverse and harmonious. In parodying the museum, de Andrade exposes the illusion inherent in Freyre’s ideas: namely, that Brazil is free of racism.
This denial of racism is prevalent in Brazil and de Andrade is right to point it out. He does so, mainly, by illustrating Brazil’s inherited reality of slavery (only abolished in 1888). For “Cartazes Para o Museu do Homem do Nordeste” he placed various ads in local, Northeastern newspapers seeking “descendants of slaves” and “brown-skinned” men “with strong hands.” His other works at Alexander and Bonin explore a similar population. “Zumbi encarnado” (2014) is a series of freestanding blocks imprinted with photographic close-ups of a black man looking slightly crazed, including fragments of his wide eyes, clenched fist, and mouth agape. The work alludes to the myth of a slave who famously escaped to become the leader of a fugitive settlement. “40 nego bom é 1 real” (2013) provides instructions for making a typical, banana-based Brazilian candy along with poppy illustrations of black men at work. On the opposite wall hang individual silkscreen print portraits of actual men in the industry, all shirtless, holding knifes, bananas, and crates. To accompany the portraits, there are placards with information like, “lost a finger while working”; “135 reais per week”; “stole from his employer.” Finally, “ABC da Cana” (2014) consists of photographs of workers making letters of the alphabet out of sugar cane stalks.
The men in most of de Andrade’s photographic portraits appear very much aware of being on display. Their poses are calculated, their expressions self-conscious. As a result, when viewing them for the first time, the works felt gimmicky to me, and, in searching for more, I resorted to written information. Though the messages behind the works are resonant and true, the literal and dependent relationship between the works’ concepts and visuals cut my engagement short. In the back of my mind lingered John Berger’s belief that art should be led by the imagination, for “truth,” he writes, can only be “discovered in open space.”
In serving foremost a purpose — to illustrate racial roles — the portraits are absent of any sense of the actual people. The portraits do not communicate empathy; there is no palpable dynamic between the photographer and his subjects beyond the formal roles of portraitist and sitter. As part of “Museu do Homem do Nordeste,” de Andrade includes transcripts of his exchanges with subjects who did not wish to be photographed. In one account, a subject accuses the project of creating an “invented Northeast.” Next to this comment, the artist reacts with “???” implying the stranger’s reaction is absurd. Though I don’t think the project “invents” a Northeast, it does construct one.
I was reminded of what James Baldwin said in 1949 of the protest novel, that its stories of American black oppression resort to familiar narratives of destitution, violence, and ignorance. Baldwin accuses these novels of painting portraits of black Americans that lack dimension and of therefore being a “rejection of life, the human being.” Baldwin’s points are complex and beyond the scope of this review, but they aided my thinking about de Andrade’s work. The irony is that while his images expose a form of hidden racism in Brazil, they also represent its stereotypes. The brown-skinned men do not transcend their working lives or poverty, and though this is, to an extent, the point — to reveal that the stereotype is darkly real — in the end, I could only hear de Andrade trying to tell me this, while the voices of his subjects were muffled or lost.
The ideas behind de Andrade’s work are important. They are also ideas that Western cultural institutions are eager to get behind. And though it is good to see interest in Brazilian artists — specifically in artworks that have generally gone under the radar — my possible streak of cynicism will only go away when the tale grabs me before the teller.