As the São Paulo Biennial 2023 draws near, the Galeria Estação team, led by Giselli Gumiero and Rodrigo Casagrande, approached me with a brilliant idea that I wholeheartedly embraced!
Having been involved in the art world since 1986, my passion for the work of non-erudite artists, previously referred to as popular or primitive artists, has never wavered. Over the years, I have witnessed the inclusion of many of these remarkable artists in numerous biennials.
From the prestigious Venice Biennale and São Paulo International Biennial to the Latin American Biennial, Mercosul Biennial, Naïf Biennial of Piracicaba (although I have reservations about the use of the term "naïf," I recognize the significance of this event, promoted by Sesc, which shines a light on many talented artists), as well as the Amazonians Biennial. Just to give one example, the esteemed painter José Antonio da Silva from São Paulo has participated in a staggering seventeen biennials worldwide, yet his contributions remain relatively unknown.
Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos, Alcides, Agostinho Batista de Freitas, Antônio Poteiro, Aurelino, Chico da Silva, Chico Tabibuia, Conceição dos Bugres, Elza de Oliveira Souza, G.T.O. (Geraldo Telles de Oliveira), Júlio Martins da Silva, Louco, Madalena dos Santos Reinbolt, Maria Auxiliadora, Mestre Didi, Mirian Inêz da Silva, Neves Torres, Nino, Ranchinho, and Samico are artists from our collection who have participated in one or more of these diverse biennials.
The choice of Ayrson for this undertaking was based on his trajectory in the art world, and we are very happy with our partnership. The selection of guests made by him includes Volpi, Djanira, Antonio Bandeira, Marepe, J Cunha, Heitor dos Prazeres, José Adário, Lúcia Suanê, Marco Paulo Rolla, Juraci Dórea, and Xadalu Tupã Jekupé. A significant, democratic, and inclusive dialogue.
Ayrson brought Emerson Dionisio into the project, a professor and researcher with a focus on popular artists in biennials. A perfect match!
There couldn't be a more opportune cultural moment for this exhibition. Finally, we find ourselves in an era of inclusion, where prejudices and paradigms are being shattered.
I feel happy and fulfilled for believing in and working with the strength and talent of these self-taught artists for 38 years, artists who have always been part of the art market and are now included in gallery circuits and institutions.
Throughout all these years, I have consistently said that art is art because of its excellence and should not be confined to separate categories.
Join us in celebrating this extraordinary exhibition!
Outside artists at the São Paulo Biennials
The history of some cultural institutions may seem so intertwined with the history of Brazilian art that it becomes difficult to understand them separately. Perhaps this is the case with the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes (Imperial Academy of Fine Arts) for artistic production in the 19th century, the Week of 1922 at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo for modernism, or even the São Paulo International Biennial for artistic production in the second half of the 20th century. However, it is necessary for our historiography to constantly revisit such institutions and perceive them from different angles. Few Brazilian institutions can be considered privileged vantage points for observing the behavior and functioning of culture and the arts in our country like the São Paulo Biennial. If we were to recount the history of this biennial from the perspective of the popular artists selected to exhibit their works, this "story" would be more prone to surprises, setbacks, censorship, forgetfulness, and unspoken admiration than to a mere logical chain of events. Certainly, in October 1951, when it opened its doors for the first time, the Biennial was a risky bet, and its future did not seem as certain or obvious as it does today. Young, like the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (São Paulo Museum of Modern Art) (1948), the Biennial relied on the Venice model and the gathering of an international elite capable of ensuring the success of the endeavor in a city that aimed to secure its place on the global scene of the visual arts. Faced with the aesthetic concerns of the post-war period, the desire to present the novelties of European art, the rise of abstraction, and the tributes to the modernist masters, it is likely that two tempera paintings on canvas, Jesus Healing the Leper and Palm Sunday, by the young "primitive" painter from Pernambuco, Lúcia Suanê, which received the attention of critics and collectors such as Quirino da Silva and the Bardi couple that year in 1951, garnered little attention from the critics.
Long before that, Suanê was already characterized as a "primitive artist," a label that today seems inadequate or even hostile. At the time of her first solo exhibition at the Itá Gallery in São Paulo in 1946, the critic Luís Martins, in Diário de São Paulo (3/4/1946), already stated: "It is indeed the ingenuity, the sadness of primitive roads, the candor of popular celebrations that she shows us in her multicolored kaleidoscope." In a review of the exhibition in Diário da Noite (1/4/1946), Quirino Silva remarked that the artist's works "bring to the metropolitan environment of São Paulo the scenes of festive and mournful naive joy and silent suffering of the people that spreads throughout this vast country." These two texts already contained the interpretative keys that, in the following years, would define the critique not only of Suanê's work but also of other artists whose "purity of intentions" characterized the heterogeneous continent of popular-primitive production.1 Elements such as nativism, the absence of external influences, archaism, creative sincerity, authenticity, gratuitousness, and self-taught nature were present in the vocabulary of critics at least until the early 1980s.
Alongside Suanê were José Antonio da Silva and Teresa D'Amico, recurrent figures in discussions about primitive production. In the history of the São Paulo Biennial, the 1950s were the most promising for so-called primitive or popular artists, from the mainstream art scene's surprise at Heitor dos Prazeres' award in the first edition of the Biennial with his work Moenda, to the presence of artists whose popular marks were undeniable, such as Djanira da Motta e Silva and Alfredo Volpi. During those years, beyond the debates between abstraction and figuration, and between new experiments and the legacies of the early modernisms, another question mobilized critics, artists, and collectors: the limits and configurations of outsider art, art brut, raw art, and folk art, among other variations that are not synonymous but intersect. These labels functioned as excluding delimiters, but not necessarily exclusive ones, and they shaped projects within the different times of modernisms, as complementary narratives or as poetic facts intrinsic to the dynamics of hegemonic aesthetic regimes, as the conceptual prerogatives that underpinned "anthropophagy" as the epicenter of Brazilian modernism – or rather, as the epicenter of the intellectual elite of São Paulo in the 1920s, would warn us.
Therefore, a new class of artists is reconfigured after the Second World War, whose premise aimed at a production "untouched" by the official traditions of fine arts. However, the aforementioned debate seems to have sustained the presence of popular artists, whether or not they were encoded by pejorative primitivist discourses. At the same time, the presence of such artists was articulated with the modernist tradition of the 1910s and 1920s, which had transformed the meanings of the "primitive," associating it with a unique, Brazilian, and Latin American modernity. This inheritance of our "primitive" modernism reached and nuanced the criteria used by critics to understand the production of Djanira, Heitor dos Prazeres, Lúcia Suanê, Agnaldo dos Santos, Cidinha Pereira, José Antonio da Silva, Rosina Becker do Valle, and Elisa Martins da Silveira, who are among the most well-known popular-primitive artists selected in the first five editions of the Biennial. This reach aligned with the changes in the reception of popular art since the previous decade, giving it a particular place, but not necessarily privileged, in the discussions about the constitution and personality of Brazilian arts, as evidenced by the engagement of figures such as Luiz Saia, Lina Bo Bardi, Augusto Rodrigues, José Valadares, among others.
In the 1960s, the Biennial, in its first three editions (1961, 1963, and 1965), remained open to artists whose languages were inspired by popular culture or directly derived from it. Samico, Eurydice Bressane, Raimundo de Oliveira, Mirian, Grauben, Zé Inácio, and Antônio Maia made their debut at the event during that period of intense political mobilization, both inside and outside the country. The majority of popular artists welcomed by the Biennial in the early editions were selected again by the organizing committees. Initially, the same biennials that awarded Iberê Camargo and Lygia Clark (1961), Yolanda Mohaly and Darel Valença (1963), Danilo Di Prete and Maria Bonomi (1965) did not show any opposition to welcoming the works of Heitor dos Prazeres, José Antonio da Silva, and Cidinha Pereira.
In its sixth edition, Mario Pedrosa explicitly stated that in the Brazilian Section, "all the trends that mark contemporary art are represented here: from the primitive and figurative to the latest abstractionist manifestations, geometric, concretist, neo-concretist [sic], tachist, informal […]."2 In other words, the sense of contemporaneity incorporated the popular-primitive artists.
However, if these artists were more or less associated with valued representations of the different primitivisms converging with modernization, urbanization, and nationalization in Brazilian culture, in the following decades – for different reasons – the process of accommodating popular production changed at the Biennial. We can see the attempted censorship of the so-called primitivists at the 1967 Biennial, nicknamed "The Pop Biennial," as a milestone of this change.
Even with the expansion of debates on new languages in art, the reaction of the 1967 jury to popular-primitive production could not be predicted. That year, except for Mario Schenberg, the other members of the jury for the Brazilian representation initially made a decision: to exclude "primitive" production from the ninth edition of the Biennial. This was an unprecedented fact. The absence of popular-primitive artists was initially justified by the choice of experimental artists concerned with new languages and aesthetic innovations. In other words, the counterpoint supporting the exclusion lay in the intention to publicize new research, innovations, and presentations of new formats, both in material and conceptual terms.
Thanks to the intervention of the Biennial Foundation's board, censorship was not implemented. In a sort of "second chance," a modest number of names were selected, whose poetic production was associated with the "primitives": Grauben de Monte Lima, Clodomiro Lucas, Waldomiro de Deus, Chico da Silva, and José Antonio da Silva, along with Mirian with two engravings. Thus, the IX Biennial was symptomatic of a change in attitude regarding the presence of such artists – as we said, often classified as primitives, naïve, naifs, outsiders, virgins, etc. – in spaces dedicated to modern-contemporary Brazilian production, breaking away from a tolerated coexistence in previous editions of the Biennial. It is particularly telling that at the moment when Anglo-Saxon pop art was openly debated in Brazil, we shifted to rejecting popular production as a guiding force for a sense of contemporaneity, which in this aspect was never intended to be inclusive, nor did it even disguise its pretensions. Equally contradictory is to observe that, already in the 1970s, an increasing number of experimental artists chose to research in the "archaic" field of popular arts and its developments in a culture undergoing massification.
In this first moment of the history that interests us in the São Paulo Biennial (1951-1967), one name stands out when we approach the archives and careers of different creators: José Antonio da Silva, who participated in six out of the first nine editions. We can easily point out three reasons to explain his recurrence in the event: his talent, his critical acclaim, and the role of collectors in his career. Regarding talent, it is enough to highlight his ability to bring together themes that connect the nostalgia of rural São Paulo, with its lyrical and nostalgic power, to the suffering and pain resulting from adverse conditions. The society that created the Biennial – eager for progress, industrialization, and urbanization – was the same one that admired Silva's free and vibrant brushstrokes, and his graphic ability to synthesize familiar rural elements that, in their own way, anticipated the disappearance of an ideal world. The plastic qualities and expressive coherence of the painter rallied many art critics, from Lourival Gomes Machado – nothing less than the first artistic director of the Biennial – to Paulo Mendes de Almeida and João Cruz Costa, responsible for "discovering" Silva in an exhibition in São José do Rio Preto. Accompanied by favorable reviews, his trajectory was "meteoric" in the art circuits of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the following years. Worth mentioning are the acquisitions of the artist's paintings by Pietro Maria Bardi for the collection of the newly created São Paulo Museum of Art (Masp) in the late 1940s, and for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on the occasion of the 1st São Paulo Biennial, which demonstrates how Silva was accepted by collections and collections of different personalities. In this sense, Ana Gonçalvez Magalhães highlights the support of Matarazzo Sobrinho (Ciccillo) for so-called primitive artists, especially for Silva's career.3
It is difficult to calculate how much Ciccilo's admiration for the so-called primitive artists may have influenced the decision to revoke censorship in 1967. However, a new phase of rapprochement between popular artists and the Biennial begins to announce itself from the 1969 Biennial, when no artist from the popular vocabulary was selected to be part of the "Magical, Fantastic, and Surrealist Art" Room.4 The 1970s celebrate this new phase with the establishment of the National Biennials (including the Pre-Biennial of 1970) and the edition of the Latin American Biennial in 1978. Both projects were crucial to restore the presence of popular artists in the selections made by the Biennial Foundation.
In the four editions of the National Biennials, we had both experienced artists in the event, such as Chico da Silva and Clodomiro Lucas, and newcomers, such as G.T.O., J Cunha, Mestre Dezinho, Conceição dos Bugres, João Sebastião da Costa, Mestre Expedito, Mestre Dezinho, José Valentim Rosa, Ranchinho, and Antônio Poteiro. The aim of these events was to meet the demand for more national participation, or in other words, the participation of artists from the "rest" of Brazil, residing outside the Rio-São Paulo axis. To select artists from all over the country, the Biennial Foundation organized exhibitions in different regions – Belém, Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Curitiba, Florianópolis, Goiânia, and Recife – and sponsored trips by managers and critics throughout the national territory, as well as accepting recommendations from the cultural sectors of the states themselves. Each edition adopted different methods that suited the specificities of each context, as demonstrated by the title "Brasil, Plástica72" during the celebrations of Brazil's 150 years of independence, or the 1976 Biennial, nicknamed the "Biennial without rejections," as it presented the impressive quantity of approximately 1,200 artworks. Zago5 emphasizes that the National Biennials aimed to resolve contradictions between an emerging global contemporary art and the regional artistic experiences in Brazil, appealing to the variety of artistic production in the country. It was in the name of "variety" and "plurality" that popular art (also known as the maligned primitives6) was welcomed in the events of that decade organized by the Biennial Foundation.
In this sense, a special case was the Latin American Biennial of 1978, whose project brought the contemporaneity of artistic propositions of popular matrix and inspiration closer together. The theme of the Biennial, "Myths and Magic," which was openly controversial, reflected an engagement for a unified Latin identity, gathered around magical realism and the redefinition of the participation of popular culture, which was revalued on the continent through the concept of "pluricultural societies." Once again, popular art, now originating from different regions of Latin America, tensioned its presence in the global contemporary art system, reaffirming a regional-continental identity. Popular artists such as Chico da Silva, G.T.O., Alcides Santos, Antônio Maia, João Sebastião da Costa, and Antônio Poteiro were presented in the exhibition through a broad range of works. The popular, anthropological, and documentary bias of the Latin Biennial was attacked both by defenders of experimental production, who saw the search for identity and the vernacular as part of the dictatorial regime's project, and by defenders of popular culture, such as the critic Mirko Lauer, who was irritated by the fetishistic isolation of the presented works from their agents, groups of artists, and production conditions.
We cannot fail to emphasize the absence of crucial artists for the debate on popular production, such as Maria Auxiliadora and Madalena Santos Reinbolt. During that decade, for the international editions, works by Chico da Silva, José Tarcísio, José Alves de Oliveira, and Messias das Carrancas were selected, and a tribute was paid to Heitor dos Prazeres in 1979. We are familiar with the frank criticism of the artist from Piauí, José Alves de Oliveira, known as Mestre Dezinho, who, although selected in the National Biennial of 1974, had his works ignored by the organization and the jury, who were concerned with well-known national figures and the large number of foreigners.7 This example unveiled a discursive game that sought, since 1970, to create an "inclusive" form in the selection of Brazilian artists.
If José Antonio da Silva's career was crucial for understanding the early years of the relationship between the biennials and popular-primitive artists, the trajectory of Chico da Silva – and the artists of the Pirambu8 workshop or school – stands out in the later period. His work managed to bypass censorship attempts in 1967 and was present at the Pre-Biennial of 1970, being selected for the International Biennial the following year and included in the collection of paintings chosen for the Latin Biennial. Francisco Domingos da Silva was a wall and mural painter who started his career at the III Abril Painting Salon in the city of Fortaleza in 1944 and was "discovered" by Swiss painter Jean-Pierre Chabloz. Before reaching the 1967 Biennial, Chico da Silva's work had already been presented in six international exhibitions and at the Venice Biennale. From the second half of the 1960s, he became renowned as a painter of animals and other fantastic beings. The visibility of the artist's production, who was descended from indigenous people, also came through the hands of two influential foreign gallery owners and collectors based in Brazil: the Romanian Jean Boghici and the Italian Franco Terra Nova.
The absence of Chico da Silva's works in later biennials was not solely due to the artist's health conditions during those years, but rather due to a crisis that was being announced at that time. The experiences of the National and Latin American Biennials posed a dilemma for the Biennial Foundation in the late 1970s: whether to invest in continental themes or realign with global art. In 1980, the decision to maintain an internationalist character and the subsequent rise of curatorial culture would have a special impact on the participation of so-called popular-primitive artists.
The decades of the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the participation of only a few artists from this artistic axis, although one can easily point out the presence of different manifestations of popular cultures in the works of other Brazilian artists and even in the representations of foreign countries. The subsequent biennials, especially those curated by Walter Zanini, Sheila Leiner, and later Nelson Aguilar, redefined the presence of "primitivist" proposals, allocating them to special rooms and sections, with a focus on presenting outsider art.
This perspective becomes evident in the organization of the exhibition "Uncommon Art", curated by Annateresa Frabris and Victor Musgrave, for the 1981 Biennial. In this initiative, the works of Antônio Poteiro, G.T.O., Eli Heil, and Casa da Flor by Gabriel dos Santos – presented through the photographs of José Roberto Cecato – are treated under the common platform of "brute art," where self-taught methods and psyche are invoked to interpret the selected Brazilian and foreign artists. Fabris' brief text on Poteiro exemplifies this interpretive movement: "The unique world of Poteiro, born from dreams but more frequently from those deep layers of the psyche that Jung calls the collective unconscious, reveals to us an imaginative and creative richness that drives him to constantly seek forms through which he can express his own longing to shape new realities.”9
In response to Leonor Amarante, Walter Zanini, the general curator of that Biennial, clarified the distinction between "uncommon art" and "popular art": "any language that remains distant from erudite art and is also distinct from all production considered popular.”10
Another similar initiative was the presentation of the "Brazilian Popular Engraving" room, which showcased part of the collection from the Museum of Art of the Federal University of Ceará, at the 1985 Biennial. Organized by Zuleide Martins de Azevedo, the room featured woodcut prints by artists such as Mestre Noza, Walderedo Gonçalves, Álvaro Barbosa, Antonio Lucena, and Damásio Paulo, as well as works by unknown authors.
"Uncommon Art" and "Brazilian Popular Engraving" are symptomatic categories of how popular production was segmented in the subsequent biennials. With the redemocratization in 1985, this segmentation became more pronounced. Except for rare exceptions like Poteiro, G.T.O., José Antonio da Silva, and Wellington Virgolino, the exclusion of popular art and its variations is evident. Two reasons, among many, help us understand this phenomenon.
The first reason is closely linked to how popular culture was translated by the managers of the civil-military dictatorship in the country (1964-1985): presented with a nationalist discourse, whose premises sought to exalt the authenticity of the popular as part of the patrimonialist discourse of Brazilian identity. Even in the face of opposing initiatives, part of popular culture was (re)folklorized by the authoritarian regime. The second reason is characterized by a reorganization of languages and poetics operated to defend the monopoly of "contemporary art" within the São Paulo Biennial. It was a time when curators had to face criticism regarding the historical nature of some sections, the persistent presence of national representations, and the specter of "encyclopedism" or "eclecticism" over the selections made by the curatorial teams.
These two reasons contributed to creating a hostile environment for so-called popular productions, even with the return of José Antonio da Silva's works in the exhibition "Singular Imaginaries" within the 19th São Paulo Biennial in 1987. Not even the "anthropophagic" Biennial of 1998 reintroduced popular production in the discussions about the primitivisms that permeated the modernist heritage and its participation in the keys to understanding contemporary art. Within the scope of the Biennial Foundation, popular art only resumed its leading role with a dedicated nucleus in the Show of Rediscovery: Brazil 500 Years, held in 2000.
It has been nearly twenty years since the curatorial team of the 27th International São Paulo Biennial, under the leadership of Lisette Lagnado, prompted us to think about territories of pain, suffering, migrations, graffiti, and different orientations through the metaphor of Acre.11 The theme of the exhibition, "How to Live Together," drew inspiration from notes from a seminar by Roland Barthes and evoked political positions and critical contributions inspired by crucial artists for a global art history, such as Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Marcel Broodthaers, Ana Mendieta, Gordon Matta-Clark, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and the artist from Acre, Hélio Melo – the latter likely being unknown to the majority of the public and particularly to contemporary art specialists. Between one Hélio [Oiticica] and another [Melo], the Biennial navigated the boundaries of art territory. By conferring contemporaneity to the "forest painter," even if timidly, the event reestablished a connection with popular art and all the adjectives, nouns, and substances used in the previous decades.
Melo was an exception. Thus, in the first two decades of our century, segmentation and exclusion remain in force with the consolidation of an emerging circuit dedicated to a model of exclusivity in many aspects. It should be noted that the presence of artists close to the language understood by critics as self-taught, primitive, folk, or naïve in other national representations, such as Uruguayan Pedro Figari, South African Sydney Kumalo, Bulgarian Violeta Grivichka, Lebanese Sophie Yéramian, Nicaraguan Adela Vargas, Paraguayan José Laterza, Haitian Jean Raynald Exumé, and Mexican Chucho Reyes (Jesús Reyes Ferreira), among many others.12 In the same vein, we must remember other artists selected for the Brazilian representation throughout the history of the Biennial who, in their different versions – international, national, pre, Latin American – occupied the liminal space between so-called popular-primitive production and modern-contemporary art: Djanira, Fernando Diniz, Mestre Didi, Farnese de Andrade, Miguel dos Santos, Bispo do Rosário, and Samico are just a few examples of artists whose classificatory positions and boundaries have always been marked by controversial and heated debates.
Only recently and somewhat timidly have curatorial projects attracted Brazilian artists linked to popular cultural and artistic production, such as samba, cordel literature, and popular religious images like ex-votos, in an increasingly common approach. It can be admitted that part of what was considered "popular art" has been internalized in contemporary poetic projects and processes, expanding the notions related to the "popular." These artists seem concerned with reconfiguring the boundaries of popular culture, decentralizing it, which results in new disputes, issues, and, why not say, new forms of beauty, both within and outside of the biennials.
Emerson Dionisio Oliveira
Reverses & Transverses: Artists beyond boundaries (and friends) at the biennials
By Ayrson Heráclito
The process of racialization in Brazil and the subsequent racism it has engendered have been significant issues in the country's recent history. In light of this context, the 35th São Paulo International Biennial's groundbreaking decision to appoint a predominantly Black curatorial team holds immense importance. Our curatorial proposal for this exhibition aims to engage with this transformative moment. By questioning the place of artists of the people in biennials, we seek to expose and denounce the historical practices of segregation that have influenced numerous Brazilian biennials. Simultaneously, we align ourselves with the audacity of the event in its fight against exclusionary policies.
The concept of the popular within the Brazilian art system has always been intricately linked to broader discussions surrounding notions of the people and national identity. These reflections are entwined with the notion of creating an image of an independent Brazil, purportedly liberated from its colonial past. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this matter was a subject of contention among diverse groups and regions, most notably between the "regionalist" group led by Gilberto Freyre and the "modernist" group in São Paulo.
Freyre regarded popular culture as a heritage of Northeastern identity, perceiving it as a profound and traditional Brazil – a product of the amalgamation of the three foundational races that constitute the Brazilian people. According to his interpretation, this heritage can be viewed as an early manifestation of modernity, leading him to create a protective shield, a "regionalist policy" to safeguard popular cultural assets.
Conversely, the "modern" artists associated with the Southeast project drew inspiration from popular culture to create their own works. For instance, Tarsila incorporated the color palette of the countryside in the colonial towns of Minas Gerais. Notably, this movement, with a strong presence in state institutions, established institutions and public policies to safeguard Brazilian popular culture. For example, the draft project for the creation of SPHAN, coordinated by Rodrigo Mello Franco, was written by Mário de Andrade.
In the 1950s, Lina Bo Bardi opened up new paths for this discourse. Informed by the concept of national popularism articulated by Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, she developed her entire political and aesthetic perspective. What sets her apart is her understanding of modernism itself as a social and popular experience. Consequently, she transcended the division between modern culture and popular culture, challenging the folkloric reductionism that often confined the notion of the popular. Embracing Lina's interpretation, we have chosen to refer to these artists as "artists of the people" rather than "popular artists.”
Decolonial and anti-racist thinking in the current historical moment in Brazil, heavily influenced by Black intellectuals who connect the popular to the Afro-descendant experience, such as Abdias Nascimento, are challenging the entrenched hierarchies within the art system. This push is leading to a profound reevaluation of artistic conceptions, encompassing diverse subjects, languages, and poetics. Consequently, the ethnic-racial and social markers that previously confined artists to labels like "primitive," "primitivist," "naïve," and "popular" are being dismantled, revealing their political subjugation and exposing the inherent relationship between art, structures of power, and social inequalities. This new context requires profound ideological transformations of cultural conceptions and a redefinition of the field of the symbolic, which would lead to a transformation of the idea of popular culture.
This inquiry specifically focuses on the "biennial phenomenon" as a critical indicator of artistic production, given its role in promoting and legitimizing art. Our objective is to examine the inclusion of folk art within biennials. To do so, we explore the relationships between art and the market, art and institutional legitimacy, "artists" and "folk artists," popular art and avant-garde art, art and domination, and the emergence of Afro-indigenous artistic subjects. To guide our investigation, we establish the following framework: 1) International biennials; 2) National biennials; 3) Latin American Biennial; 4) Mostra do Redescobrimento (Exhibition of Rediscovery), and "like-minded artists with similar poetic expressions.”
Our journey within this complex realm involves the processes of approximation, dialogue, and displacement, as we explore different poetic expressions of folk artists and so-called "erudite" artists within the Brazilian art system. Through this exploration, we aim to critically reassess the social and symbolic spaces assigned to different agents within major art events, such as biennials. For instance, by juxtaposing the works of Volpi and Lúcia Suanê in an exhibition, we seek to highlight the profound poetic similarity between these artists. Both possess works of undeniable value according to specialized critics. Thus, we question what factors legitimize the commercial value gap between Volpi's and Suanê's works in the art market.
The "Southeastern Modernist" project also exhibits contradictions when it comes to selecting folk artists and elevating them to the highest echelons of Brazilian art. This is exemplified by the inclusion of Volpi and Djanira, who stand side by side with the "artists" of modernism. In the realm of contemporary art, we encounter Marepe, a Bahian artist who draws from popular culture and engages in displacements and appropriations, thus Brazilianizing the concept of the ready-made. On the other hand, artists like Alcides Pereira and Antônio Poteiro did not have the same fortune of being included in prominent art circuits; they were confined to an exotic and traditional notion of popular art. Consequently, Alcides and Poteiro are not typically recognized as formative agents of modernity and contemporaneity within the art world.
Ideologically, modernity has co-opted images of popular culture to serve bourgeois domination. By associating popular culture with an authentic and pure knowledge divorced from societal transformations, an alienated image of popular culture is created. In the visual arts field, popular art is often linked to naive figuration executed by self-taught "artists," contrasting with so-called erudite "artists" who produce avant-garde works, such as those associated with abstract art. We invite you to experience the works of Ranchinho and Antonio Bandeira, respectively regarded as a "folk artist" and an "avant-garde artist." Ranchinho, a self-taught artist and the son of a field laborer with mental health issues, created sophisticated paintings comparable to those of the great masters of European Post-Impressionism. However, due to his social class, he was never afforded the status of an avant-garde artist. In contrast, Antonio Bandeira, a self-taught artist considered a master of Brazilian abstractionism, gained access to the international artistic avant-garde through scholarships for studying abroad. Despite the high degree of aesthetic elaboration in Ranchinho's work, he was unable to transcend the hierarchical boundaries imposed on art.
It is also important to highlight the complex nature of how classifications are subverted in the art world. This is the case with artists Gilvan Samico and Juraci Dórea, who were associated with the concepts of the Armorial Movement but have always been seen as contemporary artists, as evidenced by the inclusion of their works in major historical curations.
The research continues to reflect on contemporary art and popular art. Let's look at an example of pop art in Brazil. Pop art defines itself as the production of an "urban folklore," where artists seek to interpret popular culture and mass culture. In this context, artists like Aurelino dos Santos and Mirian Inêz present atypical representations, as they navigate between the boundaries of popular art and pop art. This is evident in Aurelino's assemblages, which utilize materials in a manner similar to Rauschenberg's combines, and in Mirian's visuality, which pays homage to icons of Brazilian pop culture.
Our investigation highlights a gradual decline in the participation of folk artists in the history of São Paulo's international biennials, beginning in the late 1960s with the consolidation of contemporary art aesthetics. However, the contemporary art scene is challenging this reality through the inclusion of new and diverse subjects, reshaping the profile of artists and the concept of art. The increased visibility of indigenous art and Black artists in recent editions of Brazilian biennials substantiates these transformative changes.
Ever since my involvement in the creation of the curatorial nucleus "Routes and Trances: Africas, Jamaica, and Bahia" as part of the Afro-Atlantic Histories project, I have been pondering the struggles between so-called peripheral and subversive forms of artistic production, many of which are labeled as popular art, and the hegemonic systems of Western art.
Driven by this focus on marginalized perspectives, I seek to comprehend how aesthetically subalternized and localized trajectories in Brazil expose forms of resistance by Afro-indigenous populations against colonial control and subjugation policies.
Within this perspective, we encounter strategically powerful countercultures in invisible and unacknowledged art spaces, such as hippie communities, indigenous communities, and quilombos. These communities are vibrant producers of visibility that manifests through vibrant artistic processes. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the works of J. Cunha and Louco as markers of the Brazilian Tropicalist avant-garde, liberating them from the folkloric confinement they have endured.
Dalton Paula and Xadalu Tupã Jekupé embody these emerging artists in our curatorial endeavor. Committed to anti-racism and decolonial practices, their artistic production emerges from reparative policies and affirmative actions, affirming their ethnic-racial identities. By bringing forth their cosmogonic conceptions, resisting erasure, and reconstructing Afro-indigenous memories, their actions demand recognition and amplification of their voices.
The occupation of institutional art spaces through deconstructing exclusionary paradigms and practices of domination is a growing movement within the art system. Democratizing the production, dissemination, and contemplation of the symbolic is essential. The invitation to engage in these debates should extend to cultural institutions, audiences, artists, curators, art critics, donors, collectors, gallery owners, and businesspeople. All stakeholders must assume responsibility in constructing a society that strives to overcome inequalities. Only then can we progress towards a diverse and inclusive art system.
“Reverses and Transverses: artists beyond boundaries (and friends) at the biennials” resizes the need for critical review of the representativeness of popular culture.
Curated by Ayrson Heráclito and organized by Galeria Estação, a historical showcase of the ancestral and intuitive wealth of artists from different regions of Brazil, the exhibition brings together works from 42 nationally and internationally renowned names.
A meticulous investigation into the critical insertion of so-called popular art in some of the most significant biennials held in the last seven decades, both in Brazil and abroad: that is what the group exhibition “Reverses and Transverses: artists beyond boundaries (and friends) at the biennials” presents to the public in São Paulo, with its opening on August 24th at Galeria Estação.
Bringing together an intriguing selection of works from 42 artists - a multifaceted panel with different techniques, traditions, and media - the exhibition will be open for visitation until October 28, 2023. The show is curated by Ayrson Heráclito, a celebrated professor, curator, and artist from Bahia known for his impactful reflections on the intersections between art and religion. He will also participate in the upcoming São Paulo Art Biennial in September. One month earlier, two other artists featured in the exhibition, Xadalu Tupã Jekupé and Chico da Silva (Francisco da Silva), are among those selected for the first edition of the Biennial of the Amazons, which will open on August 4th.
Within this impressive selection of works, which also highlights aesthetic and generational dialogues, Heráclito draws the public's attention to the growing need for unavoidable revisions on urgent themes that have unfolded into new perspectives of inclusive understanding regarding the sociopolitical representativeness of Brazilian popular art in the context of so-called erudite art.
"In the current historical moment, decolonial and anti-racist thought has been pressuring the traditional hierarchies of the art system, with its different subjects, languages, and poetics, consequently promoting a profound revision of art conceptions. As a result, the ethnic-racial and social markers that confined artists to labels such as 'primitive,' 'primitivists,' 'naïfs (naive),' 'popular' are being exploded in their meanings of political subjugation, denouncing the relationship of art with structures of domination and social inequalities," defends Heráclito.
In the development of his sensitive investigative proposal, carried out with the support of Emerson Dionísio, a historian whose current work addresses the presence of popular artists in biennials, Heráclito conducted research on four main fronts: international biennials, national biennials, Latin American biennials, the Mostra do Redescobrimento organized by the Biennial Foundation in 2000, and a free selection that the curator from Bahia classified as "friends with similar poetic productions."
In this context of redefinitions, laid bare by the propositions of the new exhibition organized by Galeria Estação, transformations in the conceptions of what is erudite and a reinterpretation of its symbolic field have also led to a critical review of the idea of popular culture. After all, art and politics have established new dialogues in the realm of representativeness, figuration, abstraction, and performance.
These discussions are evident, for example, in the political choices of the 35th São Paulo Biennial, which will open in the coming September with a collective curatorial project conceived by Manuel Borja-Villel and three celebrated Black curators, Diane Lima, Grada Kilomba, and Hélio Menezes. Under the theme "Choreographies of the Impossible," the 2023 edition of the Biennial also promises to be marked by an unprecedented representativeness of new subjects from Brazilian political life, with most Afro-indigenous artists being selected.
In “Reverses and Transverses," the poetics defended by Ayrson Heráclito also contributes to empowering this transformative moment by questioning the historical chronology of representativeness of folk artists in major biennials, denouncing decades of segregation perceived since the first São Paulo Biennial in 1951. Back then, breaking a barrier of invisibility, Heitor dos Prazeres received the silver medal in the "National Painting" category with the painting "Moenda"; Lúcia Suanê gained visibility with the paintings "Jesus Healing the Leper" and "Palm Sunday"; and José Antonio da Silva, a rural worker and self-taught artist, received the Acquisition Award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA).
Despite the historical efforts of major events like the São Paulo Biennial to promote a gradual struggle against exclusionary policies, we are now experiencing an unprecedented conjunction of valuing artistic expressions that had been subjugated for decades, says Vilma Eid, co-founder of Galeria Estação.
"The cultural moment could not be more opportune for this exhibition. We are finally living in times of inclusion, the fall of prejudices, and paradigms. I feel happy and gratified for believing in and working with the strength and talent of these self-taught artists for 37 years, now participating in the art market through gallery circuits and institutions. Throughout all these years, I have said that art is art by its excellence and is not confined to separate categories. The choice of Ayrson for curating the exhibition was based on his important trajectory in the world of arts. We are very happy with this partnership. The selection of guests made by him includes Volpi, Djanira, Antonio Bandeira, Marepe, J Cunha, Heitor dos Prazeres, José Adário, Lúcia Suanê, Marco Paulo Rolla, Juraci Dórea. It's a great, democratic, and inclusive dialogue," Vilma celebrates.
Check the full list of the 42 artists who are part of the exhibition “Reverses and Transverses: artists beyond boundaries (and friends) at the biennials”. A guided tour led by curator Ayrson Heráclito will take place on August 26th at 12 pm. It is open to all and without the need for prior registration.
Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos – Agostinho Batista de Freitas – Alcides Pereira dos Santos – Alfredo Volpi – Antonio Bandeira – Antonio Poteiro – Arthur Pereira – Aurelino dos Santos – Babalu – Chico da Silva – Chico Tabibuia – Conceição dos Bugres – Dalton Paula – Djanira – Elza de Oliveira Souza – G.T.O. – Heitor dos Prazeres – Izabel Mendes da Cunha – J Cunha – José Adário – José Antônio da Silva – José Bezerra – Júlio Martins da Silva – Juraci Dórea – Louco (Boaventura da Silva Filho) – Lucia Suanê – Madalena – Marco Paulo Rolla – Marepe – Maria Auxiliadora – Mestre Didi – Mestre Guarany – Miriam Inês da Silva Cerqueira – Neves Torres – Nilson Pimenta – Nino – Pedro Paulo Leal – Ranchinho – Samico – Véio – Xadalu – Zica Bérgami.
ABOUT GALERIA ESTAÇÃO
With a collection among the pioneers and most important in the country, Galeria Estação, inaugurated at the end of 2004 by Vilma Eid and Roberto Eid Philipp, has become renowned for revealing and promoting the production of non-erudite Brazilian art. Its actions have been decisive in including this language in the contemporary art circuit, publishing publications, and organizing solo and group exhibitions under the gaze of the country's leading curators and critics. The gallery's roster, which now occupies a space in specialized media, has also gained recognition on the international scene, participating in exhibitions such as "Histoire de Voir" at the Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain in France in 2012 and the "Entre dois Mares - São Paulo | Valencia" Biennial in Spain in 2007. An emblematic example of this international success was the solo exhibition of Veio - Cícero Alves dos Santos, held in Venice parallel to the Art Biennale in 2013. In Brazil, in addition to solo shows and participation in prestigious group exhibitions, the gallery's artists have their works in the collections of important Brazilian collectors and esteemed institutions, such as the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, the Museu Afro Brasil (SP), the Pavilhão das Culturas Brasileiras (SP), the Instituto Itaú Cultural (SP), SESC São Paulo, MAM - Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, and MAR, in the capital of Rio de Janeiro.
Exhibition: “Reverses and Transverses: artists beyond boundaries (and friends) at the biennials”
Dates: August 24 to October 28, 2023
Location: Galeria Estação
Address: Rua Ferreira Araújo, 625 - Pinheiros, São Paulo
Vernissage: August 24 (Thursday) 6-9pm
Guided tour with curator Ayrson Heráclito: August 26 (Saturday), at 12 pm
Gallery opening hours: Monday to Friday, from 11 am to 7 pm; Saturdays, from 11 am to 3 pm; closed on Sundays.
Telephone: +55 11 3813-7253