SP-Arte Dealers Leave Politics at the Door during Turbulent Week in Brazil
Photo by Leo Eloy. Courtesy of SP-Arte, 2018.
The turmoil that has been a constant feature of Brazilian politics in the last four years has prompted robust reactions from the country’s artists—much of it on display at galleries around São Paulo, the country’s commercial capital. But political work was scarce inside the gates of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Bienal Pavilion, where the 14th edition of SP-Arte ran from April 12th to the 15th.
The commercial context seemed to have a dampening effect on the political discourse so prevalent in the art shown at gallery and nonprofit spaces over the past week, which was São Paulo’s Art Week; even verbal conversation about the recent arrest and sentencing of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was muted (although Julia Brito, daughter of veteran Brazilian gallerist Luciana Brito, noted Brazilian financial markets had risen in response to Lula’s arrest). Instead, dealers brought works by international stars such as Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, Dan Flavin, and Olafur Eliasson from abroad, lured by Brazil’s deep-pocketed, intellectually curious collectors. Overall, the fair featured a considerable amount of painting and sculpture from many recognizable names, with a particular emphasis on Brazilian Constructivism, abstraction, and concrete art.
The fair was mostly populated by domestic galleries; 97 out its 132 were from Brazil. But this year also saw the appearance of David Zwirner, White Cube, Neugerriemschneider, and the return of New York dealer Marian Goodman. A few new galleries joined, among them Buenos Aires’s Barro, Madrid’s Cayón, and Santiago’s Isabel Aninat. Two recently added sectors, Repertorio (which focuses on works from the 1980s) and Design, both returned after successful launches last year. Design was expanded from 25 to 33 booths this year and included independent contemporary designers from Brazil, such as Alva Design, Humberto da Mata, Estúdio Rain, and Ana Neute por Itens, among others.
White Cube said sales to local collectors began on day one, with artists such as Hirst, Doris Salcedo, Antony Gormley, and Georg Baselitz in its booth. Meanwhile, David Zwirner reported making sales for several of its artists represented at the fair, including Kusama, Richard Serra, Wolfgang Tillmans, Carol Bove, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Marcel Dzama.
“We enjoy participating in SP-Arte not only to see our clients—who we also tend to see often in New York and all over the world—but also to connect with other galleries, curators, and institutions in the country,” director Greg Lulay said. “The art community here is inspiring and exciting, and we always look forward to visiting.”
Among the newcomers to the fair was the Santiago-based Galeria Isabel Aninat. “Brazil is a interesting market [for us] because big institutions and collectors are opening their eyes to Latin America. Collectors here are used to paying well for artworks and demand quality art pieces,” said the gallery’s Javiera García-Huidobro.
The Guggenheim Museum’s Pablo León de la Barra selected historical works by Chilean artist Lotty Rosenfeld, which will now go through the Guggenheim’s selection process to be approved, and Mexico City’s Jumex Museum purchased two works by Rosenfeld that focus on the history of neoliberalism in Chile. Her works are still affordable, García-Huidobro said, ranging between $5,000 and $40,000.
Brazilian artists, too, were in demand, such as modernist pioneer Tarsila do Amaral (who currently has a show at the Museum of Modern Art), the early 20th-century modernist painter Alfredo Volpi, and the urban art duo OSGEMEOS. Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel reported selling at least four of the latter’s paintings in the early days of the fair, but would not disclose prices.
One of the most respected galleries in Brazil, Casa Triângulo, which was established in 1988, sold works by Brazilian female artists, including the painter Mariana Palma (ranging from $30–$50,000), the multi-disciplinary artist Sandra Cinto ($60–$80,000), and the painter Vânia Mignone ($30–$40,000). A work by Lucas Simões also sold for $12,000.
“The fair has been steady even in a cloudy political moment in Brazil,” said Rodrigo Editore, one of the gallery’s directors. He said that, although he saw a growing number of international collectors attending the fair, “the business is mainly done with Brazilian collectors.”
Galeria Nara Roesler, which was the first Brazilian gallery to open a space in New York, also had strong sales, selling 80 percent of what it brought to the fair. A three-dimensional geometric wall work by Brazilian artist Antonio Dias, All colors of Men (1993), sold for $480,000. The gallery also sold a Murano glass work by Vik Muniz, and a sculpture and sound installation by Eduardo Navarro.
Brazil’s eight-year-old gallery Mendes Wood DM, which has expanded to Brussels and New York in the last two years, had a prime location near the central staircase, which helped boost sales, especially during the VIP opening. Sales representative Magê Abàtayguara said works from Paulo Nazareth’s 2017 series “Produtos do Genocídio (Products of the Genocide)” had sold on the first day. The series of sculptures shows commercial food products, like flour and soda bottles, that use names of indigenous cultures or racist imagery in their branding inside semi-translucent purple resin boxes, preserving them for posterity, like fossils inside amber.
Historical and recent works by Japanese artist Kishio Suga, a member of the Mono-ha art movement active in Japan in the 1960s and ’70s, and a newer artist in their program, had also seen a lot of interest at Mendes Wood DM. By 6:00 p.m. on VIP day, the gallery was already planning to rehang the booth. Local curators, such as Fernanda Brenner, the artistic director of the nonprofit space and artist residency Pivô, and Instituto Tomie Ohtake’s curator Paulo Miyada, also both made stops at the booth.
Repertorio, one of the fair’s more interesting sections, featured a Marian Goodman stand with works from Christian Boltanski’s “Monument” series, an important reference for contemporary art when it comes to combining conceptual photography with themes of death and loss. The gallery did not want to disclose sales or prices, however.
The Repertorio sector also provided opportunities for the discovery of underrepresented historical Brazilian artists. The São Paulo gallerist Jaqueline Martins presented works by Brazilian artist Victor Gerhard, a pioneer of collage and neon, to much critical interest, Martins said. His works often combined materials from newspapers and magazines, which dealt with themes ranging from human suffering to sexuality.
Installation view of Ícaro Lira, Frente de Trabalho, 2018. Photo by Gui Gomes. Courtesy Galeria Jaqueline Martins.
Martins also opened a show this week by the young Brazilian artist Ícaro Lira, who addresses events in Brazilian political history with conceptual installations based on archival materials, from publications to a video documenting the Cambridge Hotel Occupation in the center of São Paulo. Titled after a government unemployment program, Frente de Trabalho (or “work group”), the show also includes Lira’s conceptual art pieces from found ephemera spanning from 2014 to 2018. Martins said the show at the gallery sold very well, with prices ranging between $2,000 and $15,000.
Political work was abundant in other gallery spaces around the city, too. An exhibition of works by Brazilian artist Carla Chaim at Galeria Raquel Arnaud’s São Paulo space, titled “The Little Death,” included a manifesto-style text by Brazilian curator and critic Marta Mestre. Citing the unexplained street killing of feminist and activist congresswomen Marielle Franco, which took place just a month earlier in Rio de Janeiro, Mestre calls this moment possibly “the worst in Brazil’s recent contemporary history” in her manifesto.
Pivô’s Fernanda Brenner agreed. “The amount of fucked up things that are happening is unprecedented,” she said in the midst of a tour of the nonprofit’s current exhibition, a multi-generational collaboration between three female Brazilian artists: Ana Linnemann, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Laura Lima. “The situation is so absurd that nobody can be neutral.”
Brazilian artists and curators have clearly been politicized by the situation. Over the course of the Art Week, the artists and curators from a younger generation (mostly in their twenties and thirties) described the recent political shakeup as “the coup” and openly declared themselves part of the #FreeLula movement. An exhibition by Lucia Koch at Sesc Pompéia, a government-funded cultural center, is representative of the new strategies artists are implementing, Brenner said. Artists are starting to shift from pamphleteering and “fuck you” posters to more nuanced and poetic reflections, but it has taken several years. For her exhibition, Koch placed a violet filter over the space’s glass ceiling, and filled the spaces with hundreds of wooden rods painted red (the color of the Worker’s Party). She also invited visitors to wear red when they come to see the work.
The omnipresent turmoil taking place in Brazil today also motivated the exhibition at Video Brasil, which organizes an internationally renowned biennial of video art. Curated by Júlia Rebouças, this year’s edition is titled “MitoMotim,” a neologism that combines the words “myth” and “insurrection.” The show features practices that exemplify tactics of resistance from its formidable collection, such as the collective Frente 3 de Fevereiro, who had a pirate TV channel providing their own reinterpretation of the news and hacked major TV stations between 1987 and 1990. The show also included newly commissioned works that emphasize the political vision and desires of the new generation of artists, who seek to explore the interests of marginalized sectors of the Brazilian population.
The discrepancy between the politically oriented art on view around the city and that for sale at the fair gave SP-Arte an escapist quality; it served as a refuge from the instability and uncertainty. Fortunately, the art spaces of São Paolo provided a place for more overt engagement with the urgent political situation that touches all Brazilians. One thing is certain, the arrest of Lula is not yet the end of the political saga, but only a new chapter, and artists are still working through how best to respond to the massively complex situation.