Kunsthal KAdE presents, from 21th May until 28th August, the group show “Soft Power. Arte Brasil.” – a major exhibition featuring a range of 38 contemporary Brazilian artists and artists’ groups working on issues currently facing their country.
The exhibition is prompted by the prospect of the Rio Olympics: the second global sporting event to be hosted by Brazil within a few months, following the FIFA World Cup in 2014. In Soft Power. Arte Brasil., Kunsthal KAdE asks what sort of country chooses to showcase itself in this way. Part of the answer to that question can be found in the work of the visual artists and artist collectives currently active in Brazil. Their art addresses a wide variety of issues, from the position of indigenous peoples in the north of the country to the water shortages in São Paulo and government economic policies.
Economic, political, social and ecological context
Over the last decade, Brazil has attracted attention as one of the BRIC countries: a quartet – Brazil, Russia, India and China – that has become a major economic power outside the usual grouping of Western capitalist countries. But the country’s booming economy has concealed a number of fundamental problems, not only economic and political, but also social and ecological.
The BRIC countries are now doing less well. Brazil’s economy is weaker, while a number of fundamental problems still exist: destitution (even if the position of the poorest has improved over recent decades); corruption (with the Petrobras oil company scandal as an all-time low); racial inequality (although the position of the black and indigenous population has improved somewhat over the last fifteen years), and major ecological problems (deforestation in the Amazon basin and water shortages around São Paulo). Behind the glamorous façade of the two great international sporting events, these issues continue to fester. And to be addressed in the work of many contemporary artists.
But Brazilian art is not all gloom and doom. Brazil has a deeply rooted tradition of ‘modernity’ and ‘utopianism’. The clearest illustration of this is the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, who designed major buildings in many of Brazil’s cities. Moreover, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the ‘concreto’ and ‘neoconcreto’ movements echoed contemporary artistic developments in Western countries, although the artists concerned never renounced their Brazilian ‘roots’. While these movements are now a thing of the past, their influence continues to resonate in the art of today (for example, in its sensual aesthetics and pleasingly refined abstractionism).
All these elements – from the socially engaged content to the distinctive aesthetic – occur in the works featured in Soft Power. Arte Brasil.
‘Walls’ play a major role in communication in present-day Brazil
Brazil’s urban environment has seen great changes in recent decades. Since the military dictatorship ended in the 1980s, the Brazilians have reclaimed the streets (as one professor at the University of Leiden puts it). Residents have reverted to playing an active role in the life of the city. This, plus the slow but steady improvement in the position of the black and indigenous populations, has produced both a new street scene and a different use of public space. Black and indigenous people now have jobs and better housing, making them players in city neighbourhoods where they were previously virtually invisible. As part of this change, ‘walls’ have become a means of communication and a platform for self-expression. They are now ‘canvases’ for huge murals and a new and specific type of graffiti called Pixação: hieroglyphic-like tags, often painted just below the roof-line and acting as a means of coded communication between street gangs.
But there are also ‘walls’ of another kind: divisions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Some residential developments are now surrounded by high walls, turning them into secure gated communities for the wealthy. One of the earliest examples was Alphaville, outside São Paulo. On the other hand, the disadvantageous segregation of indigenous peoples creates invisible ‘walls’ shutting them in.
Walls are also frequently used in an ornamental way. The murals mentioned above are one example of this, but decorative wall surfaces also have a place within architecture. Many of Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings feature walls with tiled patterns designed by Athos Bulcão.
A unique project in this respect is ‘Favela Painting’. Initiated by Dutch artist duo Haas & Hahn in the Vila Cruzeiro favela (Rio de Janeiro), it involves the adornment of crumbling façades with brightly coloured painted patterns. The project was resumed with renewed energy in 2015. And then there are the posters, advertising signs and political messages that adorn walls all over Brazilian cities.
The frequent use of ‘walls’ in the street scene is reflected in the art world. Many artists have created ‘walls’ at one time or another, in versions ranging from wall paintings to physical, three-dimensional objects to video recordings. Major galleries like Vermelho in São Paulo and A Gentil Carioca in Rio de Janeiro run special wall projects. The latter is in the heart of downtown Rio, triggering frequent social interaction with the local community.
The ‘walls’ theme has been integrated into Soft Power. Arte Brasil. by commissioning the design of a series of walls and bringing Brazilian artists and designers to Amersfoort to execute them on site. The resulting walls will act both as autonomous artworks and as contexts and stage sets for the individual statements of the other artists and what they say about present-day Brazil. The walls can be formal in nature or have a stratum of symbolic meaning, producing a complex and multi-layered exhibition environment.
Many Brazilian artists present their themes with great sensitivity. However hard, confrontational or distressing the subject, they manage to package it in a way that is ‘soft’, tactile and communicative, often laced with humour, ebullience and spontaneity – a ‘soft power’ approach that blends aesthetic appeal, craftsmanship and poetry with a conceptual philosophy, and still resonates with the legacy of the ‘concreto’ and ‘neoconcreto’ movements.
Title ‘Soft Power’
The ‘Soft Power’ title of the exhibition derives from the 2004 book ‘Soft Power, the means to success in world politics’ by American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (b. 1937). Nye describes the ‘Soft Power’ method as a way of influencing people’s behaviour in order to achieve your own goals. It is a tactic that works indirectly and by roundabout routes to nudge the context within which people take decisions.
This is exactly what many artists do: they influence our perception of the world by holding up a (more or less subjective) mirror to reality. Many of the artists in this exhibition seek to change viewers’ perceptions of political and social issues. They convey their message ‘softly’ but without compromise.
The way people in Brazil have reclaimed the streets or improved their lives in the favelas over recent decades can also be seen as an exercise in ‘soft power’: they have turned themselves into a group that can no longer be ignored and is therefore a factor to be reckoned with.
Brazil’s use of major sporting events to position itself as a world player is also a ‘soft power’ strategy. Brazil sees itself as part of the modern ‘Western’ world and wants us to know it. It has found a way to put itself onto our TV screens day after day. But what image of Brazil do we see there? In this exhibition, Kunsthal KAdE aims to counterbalance that media image (which is often dictated by commercial interests) by providing the ‘inside view’ of Brazil presented by the country’s own artists.
The exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive programme of activities, including talks, workshops, music, film and dance. On Saturday 21 May there will be a symposium at which Brazilian artists, critics and gallery holders will discuss the position of Brazilian art today.
Soft Power. Arte Brasil. Is composed of two elements: ‘walls’ created especially for the exhibition and, arranged between them, works by individual artists.
Participating Brazilian artists: Efrain Almeida | Jonathas de Andrade | Lucas Arruda | assume vivid astro focus (Eli Sudbrack & Christophe Hamaide Pierson) & Lenora de Barros | Tonico Lemos Auad | Rodrigo Braga | Athos Bulcão | Angelo Campos | chameckilerner (Rosane Chamecki & Andrea Lerner) | Marcos Chaves | Sandra Cinto | Favela Painting (Haas & Hahn) | Frente 3 de Fevereiro (group) | Grafica Fidalga (group) | Cristiano Lenhardt | Cinthia Marcelle | Tiago Mata Machado | Marcellvs L.| Thiago Martins de Melo | Virginia De Medeiros | Gisela Motta & Leandro Lima | Paulo Nazareth | Maria Nepomuceno | Rivane Neuenschwander & Cao Guimarães | Paulo Nimer Pjota | OPAVIVARÁ! (group) | Poro (Brígida Campbell & Marcelo Terça-Nada! | Sara Ramo | Marina Rheingantz | Arthur Scovino | Beto Shwafaty | Gustavo Speridião | Adriana Varejão | Paulo Vivacqua | Roberto Winter | Carla Zaccagnini.
View artworks by the artists:
“Soft Power. Arte Brasil.”
Opening: 21th May
On view through: 28th August
Eemplein 77, 3812 EA Amersfoort (Eemhuis) Eemplein
Working hours: Tuesday-Friday 11.00 – 17.00 hrs | Saturday-Sunday 12.00 – 17.00 hrs
T: +31(0)33 422 50 30