João Fernandes speaks at the V International Seminar ARTE!Brasileiros, entitled "Art beyond art". Photo: Marina Malheiros

Destruction of the Amazon, war against the arts. Despite the catastrophe climate, curator João Fernandes arrives optimistic. “Brazil, in the midst of all the tragic dimensions of its history, has always managed to create ways to overcome these traumas”, he observes from his new room, on Avenida Paulista, just across from the Instituto Moreira Salles headquarters.

Respected on the international circuit, Fernandes headed the Serralves Foundation, in Porto, between 1996 and 2012, today one of the most renowned in contemporary art, and spent six years as artistic director of Reina Sofia, in Madrid, an essential institution for the creation of new narratives in the history of art.

An in-depth knowledge of Brazilian art, a regular visitor to the country since 1998, when he indicated the Portuguese representation in the biennial that dealt with Anthropophagy, Fernandes recounts his new plans in his new role:

ARTE!Brasileiros – What is it like to arrive at such a dramatic moment in Brazil, where even the night arrives in the middle of the afternoon?
Joao Fernandes – I was amazed, I didn't know what was going on, I imagined that in winter São Paulo gets dark at 15 pm (laughs), as it happens in Germany.

That's right, but arriving in the midst of all this doesn't carry a certain urgency, despite the fact that the IMS has had very relevant shows about the Brazilian history and moment as Melee, Conflicts or even Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami fight, in the last two years?
I came to Brazil because I thought it was important to be in Brazil. I admit that the invitation surprised me, it was far from my expectation to leave Reina Sofia so soon. But when João [Moreira Salles] and Flávio [Pinheiro] asked me to think about the possibility of taking over the artistic director of the institute, a year ago, I confess that I was very fascinated. That's because I knew part of the institute's collections and its programming and, at the same time, I think the institute has an ideal condition in its autonomy with its collections and its practices to be able to work in Brazil. I know it's not easy to build an institution in Brazil, but it's not in Portugal, my country, either. The museum I worked for in Portugal was the first contemporary art museum in the country and was only created at the end of the 20th century. Although museums started here earlier, I know that institutionality is not easy.

For all these reasons, I think that the institute is one of the most possible institutions to relate to memory and the present, because memory cannot be indistinguishable from the present, just as the present cannot be indistinguishable from memory. That's what led me to Reina Sofia, because I was very interested in how Manolo [Manuel Borja-Villel] builds a point of view about history from the history of art and the history of art from history, which makes O Guernica not only be a masterpiece of the history of art, but also an important document of a moment of conflict that reveals a history from the point of view of the losers and not the winners, which is what in general conditions the historical narratives in museums and in institutions. So, working with Moreira Salles' collections means being able to work with the best of a culture that has always fascinated me, and in the language I speak.

What also interested me in the invitation to my curatorial work was not being confined to a type of specialization, of an art that is constituted by certain stereotypes to call itself contemporary art, which is paradoxical with the history of art in the 20th century, which has always had hybrid forms. So being able to work with collections and a program that allows you to cross literature, photography, visual arts, cinema is a fascinating challenge for me.

IMS headquarters in São Paulo. Photo: Pedro Vannucchi/Disclosure

But what about getting to this difficult time?
Then I confess that I think Brazil will never let hope die. The country has already gone through very difficult situations, like all countries that lived through the colonial world. In the case of Brazil, this barbaric and atrocious experience, which lasts beyond the period of slavery itself, leaves open wounds due to marks, traumas and scars. But Brazil, in the midst of all the tragic dimensions of its history, has always managed to create ways to overcome these traumas.

Hélio Oiticica created the famous phrase…
From adversity we came! And in adversity to find joy in the midst of the deepest sadness. Brazil survived terrible dictatorships, there were times when the human condition was weakened in terms of political and economic conditions, the marks of colonialism. In the midst of all this, Brazil builds an unbelievable culture. And I am particularly interested in the way in which Brazilian culture subverts the distinction between high and popular culture. This happens in music, in the visual arts, in cinema. This has always fascinated me a lot.

When I started working with art this became very clear, because there were no Brazilian texts read in Portugal, either by Mário Pedrosa, Ferreira Gullar or even by Hélio Oiticica, none of them was known. When I found out that MoMA was thinking of publishing Mário Pedrosa's texts, I told them that when these texts were translated into English, the canons of Art History would change. And indeed, they translated and began to give importance to it. They still need to discover how Walter Zanini builds a concept of a museum, which is another chapter in the history of museums in the 20th century.

There is so much here that opens paths, that criticizes the dominant paths in the classic centers of the construction of modernity, the avant-gardes, the geopolitics of the world, which make my presence here a great challenge and a great possibility of work. For all that, I confess that nothing shakes my belief that Brazil will survive and I believe that culture plays a role in this.

And that's one of the reasons I work in art, which is this wonderful thing that no one thinks or feels a work of art the same way. We all have different impressions of a symphony, no one sees a painting in the same way and when he sees it the second time he sees it differently. And this characteristic of art, which allows for radicalization without at the same time weakening the feeling of community, is what I believe to be the role of museums, cultural institutions, concert and theater halls, or even the street. The experience of difference, of being together while being different, is very important. And art is the human activities that stimulate this, that teach how to build community and be together based on differences in feeling and thinking, even in a country as tense as Brazil is. After all, the structuring of this country took place with so much hatred, which manifested itself in forms of threat to the human condition — slavery plays a central role in this, it is one of the most heinous holocausts in the history of humanity. All this is still manifested, unfortunately, in the lack of respect for racial issues, ancestral cultures, nature. But for that very reason, art and culture have survived and created new forms, erudite or popular, that make Brazil a unique situation, I say this perhaps because it is my language, but all this has become an invitation I cannot refuse.

In fact, despite everything that is happening, there is a perception that cultural institutions have had a growing audience.
I arrived a week ago and saw wonderful happenings. The energy that exists at the moment in Brazil is very unique. O Panorama of Brazilian Art it is a remarkable exhibition, which escapes the stereotypes of contemporary art that one sees in art biennials, I am not talking here about any in particular, which are beginning to look like art fairs. already in Panorama, there is a Brazilianness that is not nationalistic, but connected with popular cultures, with the themes of the present, with cultures seen as marginal, and all this comes together in a very original way. I was also fortunate enough to see a show by Flávio de Carvalho where Teatro Oficina presented The Ballet of the Dead God, written in the 1930s, a text that directly links a post-colonial experience with a universal culture, with a neoclassical and European matrix – those masks are Greek, in a way, they manage to be Greek and Brazilian. I also attended the premiere of Bacurau, by Kleber Mendonça, which is a unique moment in the history of cinema: in addition to being the western most anti-fascist ever made, is also the possibility of a western popular and reinvents a genre, without falling into stereotypes. All this in a week in Brazil.

IMS Headquarters. Photo Pedro Vannucchi/Disclosure

And how do you intend to work at Instituto Moreira Salles?
I confess that, on the one hand, I will learn much more than I know so far, in relation to everything that has happened in Brazilian art and culture, and I want to deepen a whole series of possibilities that the institute's collections offer and even the intersection of these areas, which It's something I've always liked to do, bringing performing arts closer to visual arts, to literature. There are synchronicities in the time of works by Lygia Clark with Clarice Lispector, and many questions can arise from these synchronies, from these parallel universes. But I am also aware that Brazil is so far from other parts of the world and a lot has not passed through here and can be known. At the same time, I think it is important that these magnificent collections of the institute and their relationship with memory and the concept of document are taken to the world.

Is this a mission, did they ask you to work these collections abroad?
Not. But knowing these collections and how they are unknown in the world, there is no way not to think about this urgency. It is necessary to know the wonderful things that exist here, especially because Brazil has been seen in many stereotypes that have been created. If I can contribute to that, it's important. It's fantastic to understand how Claudia Andujar, who wasn't even born here, but she arrives here and realizes that one of Brazil's riches is found in this wonderful treasure that is indigenous cultures. And she goes there, lives with them and becomes like an ambassador. And she is still little known. Similar to her is Lothar Baumgarten, who from Germany and Humboldt also came to Brazil and one of her first works in Europe is Eldorado, I'd rather be there than in North Westphalia, which is a phrase by Voltaire, even he was already aware of this. Anyway, these two names show how there is a universality in Brazil that is very fascinating and can unfold in schedules, in moments.

So you intend to show Lothar? Can you talk about something you intend to bring to the lineup?
I'm still not in a position to present a program, I've just arrived, I'm talking to the teams. First I want to hear a lot. And I'm happy to arrive and have a great schedule set for the first year, it's a happiness to arrive and have a show opening by Harun Farocki, who I've never worked with, but I respect a lot. It is one of the works that most motivate thinking between cinema and society, political history and new forms of narration.

My first attitude, then, is to get to know how the institute works, how its teams, its programmers work and, little by little, build an identity with them in programming.

I think that an institution has to have an identity in its programming, the institute has unique possibilities for the interaction of its archives and for a very particular action in the integration with the concept of memory. Whoever has archives like the institute has an obligation, which is to propose to preserve a memory, but preserving memory is also building a point of view on that memory and a point of view that is put in discussion. Memory is always something collective, something to be discussed, because those who work with memory work with the present. So, going back to your initial question, if the institute did exhibitions like Melee e Conflicts, there is no way not to continue doing exhibitions like this.


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