Meet the 10 Artists, Curators, and Market Agents at the Helm of Rio’s Thriving Art Scene

Silas Martí
Sep 2, 2015 7:08PM

In the collective unconscious, Rio has remained a sultry paradise where the sand sizzles, the wind blows, and beautiful guys and gals parade on the beach. But in the run up to the Olympics next year and in the spasmodic heaves and throes of a daunting economic crisis, a more unsettling reality has emerged, with entire neighborhoods being uprooted amidst extensive urban remodeling. In the wake of bulldozers, Rio’s creative scene has morphed to reflect these changes, gathering strength in rather untraditional haunts—away from the rich enclaves of Leblon and Ipanema and closer to the city’s origins, such as the old port, where new museums begin to break ground. Just days before ArtRio (the fair that brought to life the otherwise dormant market in Brazil’s famed seaside metropolis) kicks off, 10 individuals who have been instrumental in fostering the city’s art scene—artists, curators, and market agents—survey the current state of play.

Portrait of Adriana Varejão by Vicente de Mello.

One of Brazil’s biggest art stars, Varejão has anchored her artistic pursuits in grounds much deeper than Rio’s seductive surface of lush jungles. Proof that the city is home to many voices, Varejão’s work is a profound investigation of how race relations established in Brazil’s brutal colonial past still creep to the surface in petty conflicts of 21st-century life. Her paintings of flesh in bloody heaps oozing through cracks in traditional white and blue Portuguese tiles are a deliberate blow against the constructivist school that dominated this city’s artistic life for decades. “The interesting thing about Rio is that many artists live here and know each other,” she says. “We’re all friends.” Varejão, who became a collector herself after the inception of ArtRio, also recognizes newfound artistic strength in Rio’s outskirts. “Things are moving away from the traditional south side,” says the artist. “It’s one of the advantages of Rio, a city that manages to have a rich cultural scene and is at the same time far enough removed from the international circuit, a condition that gives it an edge. We’re not so immersed in a global situation.”

Portrait of Ernesto Neto by Camilla Coutinho.


A staple of the Rio art scene and even more famous for his epic New Year’s Eve bashes on Ipanema Beach, Neto sees newfound strength in Rio’s street life, on and off the oceanfront. “Everything in Rio is now happening in the streets as art here has begun to free itself from all the tangles of the market,” says Neto. “There’s a new and cool anthropological take on the city. I see young artists drawing inspiration from what’s happening in the street—and this is a big street, a road that is also a forest. It’s less about oneself and more about all of us, less about the south side and more about the grittier parts of Rio. The richness of this city lies in all its mixtures and contrasts.” But Neto also sees museums in Rio struggle to keep up with such an exuberant landscape of artistic production, something he calls a “delirious social condition” where some names become too big and cast a shadow on new, emerging talent. 

Raphael Fonseca


Portrait courtesy Raphael Fonseca.

Up-and-coming curator Fonseca got his first big break in Rio’s new scene in 2014, having staged “Deslize,” a show centered on the aesthetics of surfing and skating at the two-year-old Museu de Arte do Rio downtown, an institution whose acronym aptly spells out the Portuguese word for “sea.” At his MAR exhibition, Fonseca threw a spotlight on a generation of artists free from what he considers the trauma caused by Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape, the heroes of the Neo-Concrete movement, the first avant-garde wave to put Rio on the world map. “Rio’s always been on this kind of see-saw, oscillating between the stereotypes of what carioca art would be and other distinct voices,” says Fonseca. “I try to deconstruct these clichés, and, while there is still a hegemonic paradigm here, it’s interesting to see new kinds of research emerge, more black-and-white and less tropical, less hedonistic and more ruinous, more precarious.” 

Portrait of Beatriz Milhazes by Vicente de Paulo.

Milhazes needs no introduction. Brazil’s most expensive living artist known for her explosions of color in lysergic abstract paintings and collages, Milhazes elicits varied responses from critics. While those more aligned with the country’s rather austere school of geometric abstraction still sneer at her works’ opulence, another current of thinkers has interpreted Milhazes’s complex and sugary patterns as a bold and conscious reworking of Brazilian art’s obsession with basic shapes and primary colors. Bent on blending the frills of Carnival and the exuberance of her city’s landscape—by way of works halfway between baroque convulsions and minimalist contention—Milhazes has become in many ways a visual translation of Rio. And she’s observed the art world gaining a foothold in the city. “One interesting phenomenon is the decision of many paulista galleries to settle in Rio,” says the artist, referring to Fortes Vilaça and Nara Roesler, two of São Paulo’s powerhouses soon to establish new venues in Rio. “São Paulo has always dominated and controlled the market, but now there begins to be an exchange. While I’m an urban person, I still need to be close to nature, and that’s why Rio is so unique.”

Lisette Lagnado


Portrait of Lisette by Pedro Agilson/Oca Lage.

Before moving to Rio to direct one of its most traditional art schools, the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, Lagnado had long been one of São Paulo’s most influential curators and critics. She was the  first professional at the forefront of an edition of the Bienal de São Paulo free from the imposition of official national representations nearly a decade ago. As such, Lagnado became a fixture in the Brazilian art world as an unwavering voice against all things trendy, known for her groundbreaking research on now-celebrated artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Leonilson. “One of the most interesting things in Rio is that its artists are impossible to classify,” she says. “While living in São Paulo, I thought the divide between paulistas and cariocas was such a dated matter, but in Rio I learned that the rigidity of São Paulo meant that its citizens sometimes misunderstood Rio artists as mediocre. I’m still perplexed by how artists here try to measure themselves up against their São Paulo counterparts.” 

Portrait of Daniel Lannes courtesy the artist.

“There’s something Babylonic about Rio, a city that secretes sweat, chaos, sex, dirt, and beauty all at the same time,” says the painter Lannes. Famed for his exuberant, figurative depictions of strange sex acts or unusually charged historical moments, this young artist has magnetized the market’s attention but has yet to make advances in the institutional scene. Nonetheless, Lannes is a staple of the fresh carioca atmosphere, bringing to the forefront the city’s contradictory mix of parts opulence, precarity. “A motto all of us still live by is that we thrive in adversity,” says Lannes, paraphrasing Oiticica. “People here believe in what they’re doing and, thinking of how the public will react, they just do it.”

Luiz Camillo Osorio

Chief Curator at MAM Rio, Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro

Portrait of Luiz Camillo Osorio courtesy MAM Rio.

Responsible for Brazil’s pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and Chief Curator at Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna, Osorio is still sizing up the massive changes in his city’s institutional landscape. One of Rio’s most traditional museums—but nonetheless still a powerhouse when it comes to shaking up the local scene—MAM is adjusting to a considerable wave of changes, with the recent closing of Casa Daros, the opening of MAR, and soon to come inaugurations of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Museu da Imagem e do Som on Copacabana Beach and Santiago Calatrava’s Museu do Amanhã downtown. “This is a moment of reconfigurations, a real game of musical chairs within the institutions,” says Osorio. “While it all feels rather euphoric, we must consider how all of this will play out for the city and its residents.” 

Brenda Valansi 

Founder and Director of ArtRio

Portrait of Brenda Valansi courtesy ArtRio.

Ever since she founded and helped direct ArtRio five years ago, Valansi has watched the number of galleries multiply in Rio. “The city’s always had a very creative scene, but now the market is starting to catch up to all of it,” says Valansi. “I think the fair was able to shed light on all the potential we have here. There has always been a market, but it was a little forgotten.” While it is true that the fair has helped boost the local scene, Brazil’s current economic crisis has chilled some of this activity, sent shock waves throughout the market, and caused a handful of big international galleries to put a pause on their attendance. “Since this is a difficult moment, I didn’t go after the foreign galleries,” explains Valansi. “We can’t pretend nothing’s going on, so I didn’t want to promise them [that] things here will be great.” 

Pablo León de la Barra

Director of Casa França Brasil and Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Latin America

Portrait courtesy Pablo León de la Barra.

Although he’s a newcomer to the Rio art scene, Mexican curator León de la Barra has had an eye on Brazil since 2001, most recently as he researched for “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today,” a survey of new and up-and-coming talent from the region installed at New York’s Guggenheim last year (where he is UBS MAP Curator, Latin America). With closer and closer ties to the most tropical of all cities, León de la Barra is now Director at Casa França-Brasil, one of Rio’s most active cultural centers. While considered one of the leading new voices in the carioca scene, he is still adjusting to the Rio way of life. “It’s a very interesting and diverse scene although also a bit isolated and sometimes narcissistic,” observes León de la Barra. With regard to finding certain tendencies or recurrent themes in the work of Rio-based artists, he says, “On one hand in some cases I see an old obsession with a modernist past now transformed into an obsolete style. On the other hand there’s a revitalizing new energy of rethinking the collective experience through art, as exemplified in artistic groups like Opavivará and other collectives, many of them functioning outside of the art system.” 

Portrait of Gustavo Speridião courtesy the artist.

The young artist Speridião, who lives atop the Conceição hill in downtown Rio to take advantage of its cheaper rent, has spearheaded a new scene in the area, prompting emerging talent to flock there from gentrified enclaves in the south side. A talented photographer with a keen interest in painting and street art, Speridião is a true representative of Rio’s more urban atmosphere along with other up-and-coming names such as Mayana Redin and Pedro Victor Brandão. “There’s a political nature to their works that really attracts me,” says Speridião. “They’re criticizing the art system and everything that happens in the city at the same time. Rio has always attracted artists, but now there’s a kind of craziness in the air.” And part of this heady environment has to do with the region’s escalating prices, about which Speridião is quick to comment. “Prices here have become so absurd that how much you pay for rent has become a determining factor in how you make a work of art.”

Silas Martí