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Despite Political Crisis in Brazil, a São Paulo Art Fair Preserves the Status Quo

As riveting as many of the works on show were, I wasn’t the only one to notice that the fair presented itself as a bubble, completely disconnected from the reality of current Brazil.

Installation view of SP-Arte 2018 (image courtesy SP-Arte, Jessica Mangaba)

SÃO PAULO — SP-Arte is considered one of the most important art fairs in Latin America. I cannot speak for previous years, but the current edition, featuring 164 exhibitors, includes a spectacular array of works, from Brazilian and international artists, positioning the fair on par with other global brands.

The country has very high taxes on importing artworks — according to multiple gallerists at the fair, up to 50% (although business at the fair benefits from a 25% waiver) — but this didn’t stop major galleries such as White Cube, David Zwirner, neugerriemschneider, or Galleria Continua from participating with blue chip artists.

Highlights include the “Repertório” section, curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, which honors past editions of the fair. This year is focused on the ‘80s, and for the occasion Marian Goodman brought back Christian Boltanski’s “Monument” (1987). At Sé Gallery, there are especially beautiful vernissage invitation cards by Arnaldo de Melo, a contemporary graphic designer and artist trained as an architect from São Paulo. In the “Solo” project-based section, curator Luiza Teixeira de Freitas included historical presentations such Dieter Roth’s hand-cut books, a collection of loose pages that can be assembled freely.

Christian Boltanski, “Monument” (1987), 3 framed black and white photographs, 28 framed color photographs, lamps and electric wire (image © Christian Boltanski / Marian Goodman Gallery)

As riveting as many of the works on show were, I wasn’t the only one to notice that the fair presented itself as a bubble — as many other art fairs do — completely disconnected from the reality of current Brazil. Nothing about the political turmoil that is polarizing the country and that lead to the arrest of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) for corruption is on view.

Opavivará! (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“There is so much going on in the country, and all you see here is abstraction,” commented young collector Ademar Britto, a cardiologist who lives in Rio de Janeiro. Little of the art on view reflects Brazil’s diversity, its varied society and skin colors. On opening night, the crowd was made up almost exclusively of white VIPs — Britto was one of the very few Afro-Brazilians on the grounds. “It is very normal here,” Britto told me, before he went to point at the works of the art collective Opavivará! at the booth of A Gentil Carioca. The installation, a set of three pairs of black mannequin legs wearing skirts made of spoons and forks, draws from the utensils being used to make noise at protests.

There are a few other local artists of color, including Maxwell Alexander, who comes from the Roçinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, and who has presented a wall painting on tarp that echoes the cheap swimming pools used by people from the favelas. On it, he has painted symbols from his immediate environment, often making critiques on status and wealth. One image depicts a Kanye West-designed Yeezy shoe — a very popular item in the favela, even if many are fake — while another shows people playing on their iPhones.

Aparelhamento’s intervention at SP-Arte 2018 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“I think it will slowly happen,” said the director of the fair, Fernanda Feitosa, about the lack of representation of black artists in the Brazilian art scene. Feitosa is optimistic, citing, for example, the solo exhibition of works by naïf Afro-Brazilian painter Maria Auxiliadora (1935–1974) at MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art, which has been committed to reexamining the work of overlooked local artists.

At the fair, some artists tried to break the silence around current politics. The artist collective Aparelhamento performed an intervention on opening night by throwing black and red flyers that mimicked police “wanted” posters with the faces of people currently in government, to denounce what they call the coup currently going on in the country. Around me, many agreed that Brazil is undergoing a very difficult crisis, but that the silence around it in the art world is voluntary.

Vermelho gallery, one of the most progressive spaces in town, is showing a work by Jonathas de Andrade from his series Me, Mestizo, which he began in 2017. The work is based on an early 1950s Unesco-funded study about the perception of skin color in Brazil. In de Andrade’s iteration, he asked participants to share before the camera their emotions and thoughts about the 1950s study, thus identifying various clichés and formulating a kind of critique. Perhaps this cathartic approach suggests the beginnings of a more open conversation about Brazilian society and its multiplicity.

Installation view of Jonathas de Andrade’s Me, Mestizo at Vermelho (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

SP-Arte 2018 continues at Pavilhão da Bienal (Parque Ibirapuera, portão 3, Avenida Pedro Álvares Cabral, s/n, São Paulo, Brazil) through April 15. 

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