Damage to the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF) of Brazil following a riot the previous day led by radical supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro (photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

When pro-Bolsonaro rioters invaded the National Congress building, Supreme Court headquarters, and Palácio do Planalto in Brasília on January 8, 2023, they damaged numerous treasures of national art. Emiliano Di Cavalcanti’s famed 1962 “As mulatas” painting was perforated seven times. Sculptor Bruno Giorgi’s “O flautista” (c. 1960) was pushed over and broken in three places. Jorge Eduardo’s 1995 painting of a waving Brazilian flag, which reads “Order and Progress,” was found covered with footprints, according to the National Historic Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), which released a 72-page review of the vandalism and recommendations for restoration.

Now, in addition to those plans, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration is collaborating with the Ministry of Culture to organize a response to the riot: a multi-faceted public monument provisionally called the “Museum of Democracy.” 

Hyperallergic spoke with Cecília Sá, the sub-secretary of Spaces and Cultural Equipment for the Ministry of Culture and the main coordinator for the initiative, about its goals and intended impact. 

“The project was born of the idea that we must reassert just how fragile our democracy is,” said Sá. “We need a space for the public to remember that Brazilian democracy is very recent.” 

Cecília Sá speaking at a Ministry of Culture strategic planning meeting (photo courtesy Filipe Araújo from the Ministry of Culture)

Brazil completed its transition back to democracy just over 30 years ago, following a 21-year military dictatorship. In 1964, a US-backed coup d’etat paved the way for two decades of persecution and censorship. Since the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship, only seven presidential terms have elapsed, and two sitting presidents have been impeached. The most recent impeachment occurred in 2016, when Dilma Rouseff was ousted due to accusations of fiscal and budget law violations. Rouseff succeeded Lula da Silva’s first two terms; many of their supporters still refer to her impeachment as a second national coup. The objective of the museum, Sá explained, is “to remember these moments of rupture in our democracy, while also recalling the moments of resistance and hope.”

Sá noted that the project is still in flux, and is in need of “social dialogue” in order to fully take shape. As part of the Ministry of Culture, Sá is organizing an open seminar in April about memory and democracy, which will likely take place in one of the three palaces that were invaded on January 8. Part of the seminar will be dedicated to a community conversation about the memorial project, including representatives of IPHAN, UNESCO, and the Brazilian Institute of Museums, or IBRAM.  

Employees specializing in art conservation sit near a painting by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti damaged during the January 8 coup. (photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

It is still under debate whether the project will be “a memorial, a museum, or an exhibition gallery, if it will lean more artistic or historical,” Sá said. “We want to hear the response of our society and specialists before we push this project forward.” 

Some plans, however, have already been established. On September 15, which is the Day of Democracy in Brazil, an exhibition will open in Brasília that will formally introduce the Museum of Democracy proposal to the public. Sá says they plan to display police video of the destroyed art and architecture from that day, as well as some of the damaged artworks, while also letting contemporary artists address the destruction “according to their own visions.” 

“Art is essential to a democratic culture,” Sá said. “The [first] exhibition will be more artistic than historical.” 

Hyperallergic also spoke to Fernanda Castro, the president of IBRAM, about the wider-reaching goals of the Museum of Democracy project. She stressed that the final iteration will not be exclusively focused on the events of January 8, but will address the history and state of democracy in Brazil more largely.

“It will function as a center for the promotion of democracy, with education activities, cultural programming, exhibits, and the reception of groups working towards the construction of democracy in Brazil,” Castro said. “It will include various participatory curatorships that take artistic and historical approaches to the concept of democracy.”

Alfredo Ceschiatti’s “A Justiça” sculpture defaced during the protests (photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

Although Lula da Silva won the Brazilian election by a razor-thin margin in October, Sá believes that the memorial will speak to all Brazilians, regardless of their political affiliation. 

“Even though the elections were very fierce, polls have shown that the majority of the Brazilian population was against [the attacks],” she said. “It is terrible for people on the right to see their patrimony destroyed … It was very shocking for the entire society.” 

Sá thinks the Museum of Democracy project will provide a needed corrective to what she calls the Brazilian tendency to forget difficult moments. 

“We need to keep the wound open,” Sá said. “And in that way, stay open to a place of hope and transformation. The museum will show these two moments: the power of destruction, but also the reaffirmation of democracy.” 

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Sage Behr

Sage Behr is a writer and actress originally from Iowa City. Sage graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Comparative Literature with a focus on Literary Translation. She is currently a Fulbright...

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