CREATIVE HUBS: RIO DE JANEIRO

8 -min. read

‘I think culture separates us. Nature puts us together again.’ It’s May 2012, and Rio de Janeiro (-born, -bred, and -based) artist Ernesto Neto is talking to Dallas publication D Magazine; his exhibition Cuddle on the Tightrope having just opened at the city’s Nasher Sculpture Center. It’s a statement to chew over for a moment, especially for someone who obsesses over the impact of culture, someone who places culture on a pedestal; as a beacon of hope in our collective post-9/11 wallow.

Ernesto Neto, Madness is Part of Life
Ernesto Neto, Madness is Part of Life, 2012
Installation view Espace Louis Vuitton, Tokyo, Japan, 2012-2013

But Neto is right. As he is too on his next target: religion. ‘I hate Christianity.’ Now that I can buy into. ‘I’m not in favour of religion at all.’ All hail Ernesto Saboia de Albuquerque Neto. The artist has a gripe with religion valorising death, and it all comes back to nature: ‘everything wants to be alive.’ he continues. You get the feeling that Ernesto Neto gets twitchy whenever he leaves Rio — he talks of angsty taxi passengers in Paris, twisty roads and hidden pubs in London, but comes alive when prompted about his hometown. Its mountains, beaches, and internationally renowned propensity to lie really far back.

It is this Rio de Janeiro, this Samba, this Cristo Redentor, this showgirl named Lola, and The Girl from Ipanema, that is so at odds with its nearby rival for Brazil’s cultural crown; and it is that rivalry with São Paulo that is at the crux of Neto’s statement — that culture separates, and nature reunites. One of the world’s most populous cities, its country’s business hub, São Paulo has long worn the crown as Brazil’s art and culture capital. Its hubbub and oppressive density versus rainforests and Carnival; Rio’s paradisiacal nature is sure to have served as a catalyst for creativity in the city just a few hundred miles west. And it is the freneticism of São Paulo that has so oft won out.

JR, Women are Heroes. Morro da Providência
JR, Women are Heroes.
Installation in Morro da Providência Favela.

All eyes are on Rio this year, though. The 2014 World Cup was Brazil’s, but the Games of the XXXI Olympiad are Rio de Janeiro’s alone — and the event that is defining the country as one of the globe’s leading forces in the art world is, too. Is the laid-back city of flip-flops and beach bums about to usurp its rival as Brazil’s cultural capital?

ArtRio
ArtRio

Last year saw ArtRio’s fifth edition confirm the fair as one of the most significant on the world art scene and, although this year’s affair doesn’t take over the city until just more than a month after the Games conclude, ArtRio is a cultural initiative that is continually active; promoting new artists and galleries, and supporting exhibitions and study opportunities throughout the year.

One of its founders, Brenda Valansi, is passionate about its significance outside of another international fair selling to the same deep-pocketed 1%: ‘our goal is to disseminate art and culture throughout Rio and Brazil not only during a week, but through the whole year,’ she explains to major online art resource Artsy. ‘Another important mission is to stimulate people who are not necessarily engaged with the art scene, taking out this intimidating atmosphere from these venues. Breaking this idea also helps the galleries to stimulate their experimental curatorial side.’ Essentially, as Ernesto Neto might say: putting us back together from the culture that has separated us.

rio-de-janeiro-sunset

You can’t talk about culture in Rio without talking about bikinis and footballers, rhythm and favelas — but unlike other cities, where their stereotypes are a weight around their neck, the Cidade Maravilhosa wears them like the national football team wear their famous colours. Let’s check in with our friend Ernesto again, this time talking to The Telegraph in 2010: ‘here in Rio we don’t like to put such a high value on work. If we could spend all day, every day at the beach, that would be lovely.’

Jorge Ben, Caetano Velsoso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes
Jorge Ben, Caetano Velsoso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes

You see, without wanting this to turn into a love letter to an acclaimed Brazilian sculptor, the hedonistic artist embodies all there is to embody about how and why Rio can define contemporary culture in Brazil and beyond. Neto is famed for hosting beach parties free from class divides, he is more inspired by sex and sand than he is Warhol or Picasso, he was born into an era when musicians like Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, and Os Mutantes, were defining the Tropicália movement; a brand of psychedelic bossa nova deeply-rooted in protest against their country’s right-wing oppression.

Ernesto Neto’s large-scale, sensual environments can be at once childlike and overtly sexual, fanciful organic forms that speak of freedom and expression in a world of violence and hardship. From samba to baile funk, Rio’s music has spoke in similar tones, indeed, Brazil’s ongoing political and social problems are rarely far from the surface. At least here, on Copacabana beach, you can wash away all that unrest and unjust. After all, the country’s most esteemed creatives have taken their inspiration from the city’s sensuality.

Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), Niterói
Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), Niterói
Casa das Canoas, Niemeyer’s home
Casa das Canoas, Niemeyer’s home

Born 1907, Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer was one of the world’s most iconic architects; the resonance of his practice likely to be felt for centuries to come: ‘I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man.’ He once famously remarked, ‘I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.’

Talking about creativity in Brazil without mentioning Niemeyer is like taking the New York out of Keith Haring, or stripping Banksy of his stencil — the architect’s sweeping curves define the aesthetic of Rio and Brazil-at-large. They are Gisele’s physique. Ronaldinho’s feet. Jorge Ben’s Mas Que Nada. Remember: where other cities are bound by the notions that pigeonhole them, Rio de Janeiro dances with them.

Photo © 2014 Olaf Heine. All rights reserved.
Photo © 2014 Olaf Heine. All rights reserved.

Fans of pigeonholing will know that Rio is a city of stark contrasts — its mountains that fall into the sea bring with them a dark metaphor of those who have and those who have not; the city’s favelas are as synonymous as Niemeyer curves. ‘The beauty of the country, the arts, soccer, and the women, is contrasted with a great melancholy and heaviness in the shape of poverty, disease, and crime.’ explains German photographer Olaf Heine to Lufthansa.

Joana Cesar
Joana Cesar

Heine released a teNeues-published book in 2014 that documents the country by way of melancholic black-and-white photography, a powerfully honest contrast to the green, blue, and yellow, and a reminder that Rio’s inclination to revel in the beautiful things is likely a coping mechanism for its many problems.

Here, more than in most countries, graffiti in Brazil is a tool of expression for suppressed communities; pichações (what we would call tags) are rife in underprivileged areas, and often mean little outside of that community. Unlike the Contemporary Art-inflected brand of ‘street art’ we’re so familiar with, graffiti in its purest form still retains a political, emotional connect to the streets; something that didn’t go unnoticed by one of the Rio graffiti community’s few females. Originally working in her own personal code — an articulation that embodies the spirit of the tag writers’s ultra-localised oeuvre, whilst elevating it to ‘art’ — Joana Cesar has moved her practice into the white walls environ, and is now hailed as one of the city’s most exciting young artists.

Marcio Suki
Marcio Suki

Interestingly, the prominence of pichadores (those who pichação) is such that Brazil’s government are surely one of the world’s only to actively encourage graffiti (or street art), Rio a leader in this movement with a project that began in 1999: ‘não pixe, grafite’. Don’t tag, graffiti.

What may sound like a subversive brand of oppression at least means that Rio’s street artists get a free rein to do what the people of Rio do best: strut in bombastic style. Artists like Marcio Suki are now transforming the crime-ridden favelas they grew up, symbolising the headway the downtrodden neighbourhoods have made through positivity and strength.

Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) by Santiago Calatrava
Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) by Santiago Calatrava
Photo, Byron Prujansky

Of course, the streets are not the only place to see art in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanying institutions like the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), Niterói, and MAM Rio (Museum of Modern Art Rio), Museu de Arte do Rio is a major new focal point; opened in 2013 as the city bid to stimulate its cultural offering in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. Its three original buildings, brought under one roof by Bernardes + Jacobsen Arquitetura, are part of a significant modernisation of Praça Mauá and the wider area of Porto Maravilha; Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) — designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava — is a gargantuan structure that somehow manages not to overwhelm its surroundings. ‘The idea is for the building to be as ethereal as possible, almost floating above the sea like a boat, bird or plant,’ the Valencia-born architect observes.

Café La Furgoneta
Café La Furgoneta

Thing is, we could talk all day about what Rio has to offer. Naturally, there are tons of smaller, more experimental galleries; there are hip neighbourhood spots like Metrópole Art’n Grill (part gallery, part craft beer bar, part gourmet fast food diner); fashionable pop-ups with sustainable, artisan coffee; and the age-old Brazilian tradition of really lovely furniture design. Ahh, furniture design, where Rio-based greats like Oscar Niemeyer and Joaquim Tenreiro injected Modernism into the country’s deep-rooted craft traditions; where Sergio Rodrigues set new standards, and defined what we’d associate today with contemporary Brazilian identity. The latter’s nephew, Fernando Mendes, and former student, Zanini de Zanine, carry the torch today, preserving a style that has Brazil ingrained in it.

Sergio Rodrigues, Mole Armchair, 1961
Sergio Rodrigues, Mole Armchair, 1961

And what defines the work of Rio’s esteemed designers? Raw materials, their relationship with wood, and craft, and the nature that binds all of that. ‘I think culture separates us. Nature puts us together again.’ Ernesto Neto is right. Somehow, whether it is art or craft beer, furniture design or graffiti — how ever disparate a creative’s practice may be, it is Rio de Janeiro itself that bonds them. Its beaches, its mountains, its forests, its people. Sometimes it would do us all good to remember just where culture and creativity come from.

Lead Image Credit: 
Ernesto Neto, A Gente se encontra aqui hoje, amanhã em outro lugar. Enquanto isso Deus é Deusa. Santa gravidade, 2003
Polyamide, Styrofoam, and rice, 650 x 630 x 1620 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection, Vienna. Installation view: Ernesto Neto and the Huni Kuin: Aru Kuxipa | Sacret Secret, TBA21-Augarten/Photo, Reto Guntli, Vienna

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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