Sunday, April 8, 2012

Abaporu: From culture cannibalism to culture “vulturing”

Abaporu is the name of the most expensive Brazilian painting to date. It was painted in 1928 by Tarsila do Amaral as a birthday gift for her then husband writer Oswaldo de Andrade. The painting sold for US$ 1,5 million in 1995.
Abaporu is a Tupi-Guarani word which means “the man who eats people”. Before and during the Portuguese conquest in the 16th century, Brazilian Indians routinely ate their vanquished enemies. Munching a brave enemy was believed to make the warrior stronger. Oswaldo de Andrade echoed this tribal tradition of cannibalism when he published his Manifesto Antrópofago, (Cannibal Manifesto) in 1928. His argument was that “cannibalism” was very much a Brazilian tradition in culture. Brazilian artists cannibalized foreign culture to strengthen their own. These so-called Modernist artists picked and chose to assert themselves against external cultural supremacy. Early 20th century iconic painters like Di Cavalcanti, Tarsila do Amaral, and Anita Malffati were the stalwarts of the Modernist movement.
The Modernist movement encompassed diverse types of cultural expression from landscape design to painting through literature and performing art. Its legacy is still very much present in today’s art scene. Abaporu has become a catch word for any type of appropriation. The “antropofagia” practice lives on and as recently as last year (Feb. 27, 2011), Bloomberg News titled its art column “Barbecued Buttocks? Cannibals inspire Contemporary Artists".  The involved artists were none other than world renowned Adriana Varejão and Vic Muniz (see his-self portraits below)!
More recently and according to its founder, singer and composer Caetano Veloso, the Tropicalia music movement owns much to artistic cannibalism.
Otherwise known for its soccer, samba and bikinis Brazil is now emerging as a powerful player in art. Art Newspaper, which through its attendance survey monitors annual trends and figures in the art world, disclosed amazing news, namely that in 2011 the number one ranking blockbuster art exhibit didn’t take place in New York City, Paris or London but in Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition of works by M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist had attracted a daily average of 9,700 visitors. The same year, some 7.5 million people visited Brazilian museums largely in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte. Not a bad number for a country of 195 million inhabitants with a US$ 1,000 average income. What is most extraordinary is that 770.000 “culture vultures” flocked to a place few have heard of in Brazil, let alone outside the country. The place is the contemporary Art Park of Inhotim in the State of Minas Gerais.
                                     Helio Oiticica’s Magic Squares # 5. Inhotim.
Careless agriculture and mining have scared the landscape around the city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. Arriving in Inhotim is like landing in the Garden of Eden so degraded is the surrounding countryside. The contrast is beyond belief. The Inhotim art park is the brainchild of a rich entrepreneur, Bernardo Paz who metamorphosed a 3000 acres ranch into a lush botanical garden with avant-garde art installations. The contrast doesn’t stop there; one has to imagine provocative art visited and enjoyed by a Disney-like crowd.
The popular success of art in Brazil has much to do with the policy of the government which encourages large companies through tax breaks to subsidize art in all its forms, and the eagerness of the Brazilian public who gulps down art without social class restraint. This social inclusiveness is quite unique to Brazil; art exhibitions are mostly free and are for everyone to see and enjoy.
Recently the New York Times marveled at the way culture was funded in Brazil; the newspaper ran an article on Servicio Social do Comercio or Social Service of Commerce (SESC). Since the entity is funded through a 1.5 % payroll tax it is flush with cash. Trade and commerce employees are all members who have access to SESC facilities for culture, sport, education, tourism and health. Most of the events are free or inexpensive for non-members.
The Escher’s exhibit took place in the cultural center of the Banco do Brasil; all the center’s exhibits are free. On the other hand, Inhotim Park charges an entry fee but all the same, people from all wakes of life flock there for a family outing.
The absence of social inhibition is particularly evident in the attendance of concerts of classical music. Rio’s two main orchestras are subsidized by natural resources corporations: Petrobras, the state-owned oil company and the giant mining company Vale. Not only season subscriptions are very affordable, but many concerts are free. These concerts are so popular that orchestras routinely play in Rio shanty towns, the favelas. On Xmas 2011, the recently pacified favela da Rocinha extended an enthusiastic welcome to the ballet The Nutcracker.
So, it is relatively cheap to become a culture vulture in Brazil. It is unfortunate that the iconic and most expensive painting Abaporu is not displayed in this country. It was purchased by an Argentinian and it is shown at the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires.
Dedicated to all my culture vulture friends.