Exile, arrest and torture: Why Brazil's pop artists risked everything
The banner is stark – a silkscreen of a corpse, and beneath it just four words. Seja marginal, seja herói, it reads in Portuguese: “Be an outlaw, be a hero.” Hélio Oiticica’s 1967 work of a bank robber who committed suicide before the police could apprehend him became, in the first years of Brazil’s dictatorship, a national symbol. You would see it evereyywhere, from art galleries to spontaneous street demonstrations, and at concerts by dissident Tropicália stars, where it fluttered over the stage. In Brazil in the 1960s, being an outlaw was not a delinquency but a mark of bravery.
This week Tate Modern opens The World Goes Pop, the second of two major exhibitions this year to look at pop art from a global perspective. (The first, International Pop, recently closed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and tours to the Dallas Museum of Art in October.) The Tate show demolishes the misconception that pop was an entirely American affair – it started in Britain, after all, and arose in Germany, Japan, Hungary, Argentina. Pop was an ethos more than a movement, and it morphed as it migrated across borders and oceans. But nowhere was it more engaged than in Brazil, where artists opposed both American hegemony and their own country’s military regime.
Brazil had passed through massive change in the late 1950s and early 1960s, under the landmark presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek – whose turbocharged rule, with the slogan “50 years’ progress in 5”, modernised the nation through industrial growth and the construction of BrasÌlia in the arid interior.
The newly confident art of that time (notably early Oiticica and Lygia Clark) influenced the country’s first pop artists. Antonio Dias, the leading figure in the first years of Brazilian pop, used rigorous geometric frames around his works, which featured cartoonish imagery sometimes drawn from Brazilian comics, like a cowboy from the country’s poor north-east.
Morrem Tantos Homes e Eu Tao Aqui So (Vietnam series) by Teresinha Soares.
On 31 March 1964 the army overthrew the leftwing president João Goulart, ushering in two decades of military rule. It was, in fairness, a less brutal dictatorship than in Chile and Argentina. But it was brutal all the same, killing and torturing opponents and cracking down on free expression. (Among its many victims was the current Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, a guerrilla fighter who was imprisoned and tortured for three years .) Pop became not just a style, but a means of resistance.
For the first four years after the coup d’Ètat, the regime took a relatively light touch with artists. Musicians, in particular, decried the dictatorship, but artists were not far behind. The painter Rubens Gerchman made stark portraits, based on media photographs, of Brazilians disappeared by the regime. Antônio Henrique Amaral painted a wild composition of a four-mouthed Brazilian general, vomiting the stars and stripes of the US flag.
“Unlike American pop art, in Brazil the incorporation of the popular was due to an interest in everything political and social,” recalls the artist Anna Maria Maiolino. That’s a bit unfair to American pop artists, who weren’t exactly apolitical: think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of electric chairs and race riots, or James Rosenquist’s tableaux of warplanes off to Vietnam. In Brazil, though, pop was much more violent – and only more so as the regime’s grip tightened.
Sometimes it was less pop than agitprop. Marcello Nitsche painted a thrusting index finger – a reference to Uncle Sam in American army recruitment posters – with a huge drop of blood spilling from it. But unlike European figures who took a similarly acid view of world affairs (French artists of the time were painting Technicolor pictures of Mao and Mickey Mouse), Brazilian artists really were living in an American-backed regime, and they risked everything by speaking out. In 1968, the dictatorship promulgated the notorious Institutional Act No 5 , which officialised censorship and suspended habeas corpus , paving the way to the torture chamber. The singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were swiftly imprisoned. Numerous artists, including Dias and Maiolino, went into exile.
Others took to the streets. Nelson Leirner and Flávio Motta made a series of silkscreen flags, emblazoned with pictures from the country’s poor north-east, and hung them on the churning intersection of Avenida Paulista and Avenida Europa in São Paulo. Local government officials weren’t having it; they forced the artists to remove the flags that had been hung without a permit and fined them.
But a few months later, in February 1968, the flag project arose again, this time in Rio de Janeiro, where Leirner and Motta were joined by a host of other artists holding high their own standards. One depicted Che Guevara, another had the insignia of a local football team. Oiticica’s “Be an outlaw, be a hero” flew over Ipanema, while a samba band played for the crowd. And the Brazilian flag, which more and more stood for military rule, was supplanted by the alternative banner of a joyous, engaged resistance: a version in red, white and blue, with a central blue disc now occupied by a ghoulish Uncle Sam.
Brazilian pop artists didn’t only look at the violence on their doorsteps. In Teresinha Soares ‘s series Vietnam , outlines of bodies entangle in contortions that could be sexual or warlike, framed by a distancing, deadening TV screen.
Brazilian pop endures because it translated the international practice for local circumstances, at a moment when the stakes could not have been greater. In his memoir, musician and activist Caetano Veloso writes, “Everything was heightened by the instinctive rejection of the military dictatorship, which seemed to unify the whole of the artistic class around a common objective: to oppose it.” That was no less true in the galleries as in the nightclubs. – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015