How is it possible to portray and engage people and communities in an ethical way? This is a key issue for artists with works that have a social content, especially in the last five years. After all, the contemporary art system, working in the symbolic field, must point to strategies that differ from segments such as advertising or journalism, which often address social issues without any kind of commitment to them.
Sebastião Salgado is an example of transition in this case. Photojournalist who moves in the art world with ease, his show Amazon, on display at Sesc Pompeii, depicts threatened indigenous peoples, including the Yanomami. Contrary to the custom in photojournalism, which is not to pay to make images, Salgado contributed financially to Hutukara, which is the association of the Yanomami Indigenous Land, chaired by Davi Kopenawa.
Financial consideration is not always one of the strategies when talking about contemporary art. In Posters for the Museum of Man of the Northeast, a work on display in the long-term exhibition at the Pinacoteca do Estado, Jonathas de Andrade delivered photographs to the men portrayed in the work. He picked his models off the street and, in exchange for participating in the project, gave them an accomplished portrait. The Museu do Homem do Nordeste behaves as a parallel and homonymous collection to the anthropological museum created in 1979 by Gilberto Freyre, which still exists in the city of Recife.
The question that this strategy brings is: to what extent these people portrayed by Jonathas are not being exploited as much as any worker who adds value to an object, but does not actually participate in its profit, in addition to not having control of their own image. It is important to emphasize that the work is almost 10 years old, so it was not inserted in the current context of debates.
In an already classic text from 1995, The artist as ethnographer, Hal Foster observed in artistic practices the emergence of a strategy of association with a new subject: “The cultural and/or ethnic other, in whose name the engaged artist fights”.
At the end of the 20th century, Foster had not yet realized that fighting on behalf of someone represented a position on a paternalistic side, since it is as if the artist could put himself in the place of the cause he defends, and, on the other, opportunistic. , after all, he legitimized himself with a leftist speech, even if in the end his works ended up yielding only to him in fact.
This type of strategy has already been criticized by artists such as the Argentine León Ferrari (1920-2013). When approaching the “engaged” artist, he stated that “the triumph of his works meant the failure of his intentions”, in the text the art of meaningsOf 1968.
Something similar defended critic Hrarg Vartanian recently on his Instagram account: “An art world that benefits from economic inequalities is not an art world worth fighting for. Chico Mendes said that 'environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening'. Maybe art without class struggle is just decoration.”
In this sense, a significant change in attitude can be the artist’s positioning: instead of fighting “in the name of someone”, let him fight “with someone”, as Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca did in the Brazilian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, in 2019, with the movie swing war.
Based on a peripheral cultural phenomenon, the swinggueira from Pernambuco, the work involved a partnership with three dance companies, Cia. Extremo, La Mafia and O Passinho dos Maloka. Partnership here is an essential word, it points to a joint work, so much so that during the presentation to the press, at the opening of the Bienal, in Venice, the protagonist of the film, the trans artist Eduarda Lemos, participated in the dissemination of the work together with Bárbara and Benjamin. There remains the question of how the division of the film's profits was treated.
Anyway, it is at least this type of partnership that needs to be increasingly proposed and implemented. Thus, it is no longer a question of talking about, in an ethnographic stance, a method now questioned by Anthropology itself, but of talking with.
This debate is also part of decolonial studies, an important reflection, which emerged especially in universities, but which increasingly occupies the art world. It is about questioning the colonialist character of political-economic poles such as Europe and the United States, in addition to questioning the patriarchal and heteronormative character of these cultures, as well as their forms of social exploitation. All this, in the end, points to the need for new constitutions of powers, which also involves the power of the artist, especially those dealing with social issues.
Not by chance, recently some voices have even begun to question the images of the Yanomami people, made by Claudia Andujar, since, being of European and white origin, she would be speaking on behalf of the indigenous people, in a position superior to them. Notice that in the show Amazon, Sebastião Salgado gives voice to indigenous leaders in videos as a way to escape this issue.
This is where the debate needs to avoid hasty cancellations. Claudia has a life dedicated to the Yanomami, having worked with them since the 1970s, without even producing for the art circuit. Images of her were taken as records for complaints in Brazil and abroad, both about the invasions and about the need for the demarcation of Yanomami land, which was an achievement in 1990 in which she was deeply engaged.
Claudia, by the way, used the museum as a space for denunciation, long before these institutions started their own processes of decolonialism. Yanomami Genocide: Death in Brazil, for example, was an installation she presented together with the CCPY (Commission for Yanomami Creation), at the São Paulo Museum of Art, in 1989, when miners invaded her lands, as is still happening today.
It was only at the beginning of the 21st century, in fact, that Claudia's work ended up being incorporated into the contemporary art circuit, and she established a very particular principle: she shares the result of sales equally with the gallery that represents her and the Yanomami. , through Hutukara, each one keeping a third of the value.
For all these reasons, a lot of attention is needed not to remain on the surface of the debate. The indigenous issue, by the way, has another notable example of inclusion, which is the work developed by anthropologist Vincent Carelli with Vídeo nas Aldeias (VNA), founded in 1986, which since then has provided equipment and training in workshops to indigenous peoples so that they create their representations without the cultural mediation of other people.
As a result, the VNA has already trained dozens of audiovisual specialists, which made it possible to create an important collection of images about indigenous peoples in Brazil, with a collection of more than 70 films, most of them awarded nationally and internationally - transforming if in a reference in this area. Having participated in the Bienal de São Paulo living uncertainty, in 2016, this is one of the great examples of encouragement for marginalized peoples to be authors of the images of their struggles.
Finally, it is important to remember yet another example of radical positioning made by the artist Monica Nador, in 2004, when she set up the Jamac (Jardim Miriam Arte Clube), an association on the outskirts of the southern part of the city, and has lived there since. It is practically a cultural center, where debates, meetings, film cycles about art and citizenship take place, but the particularity is how Mônica shares a knowledge with the community: how to use painting as a form of social activation. In the beginning, she taught the residents of the region to use techniques such as the stencil – paper masks that allow serial painting –, with simple themes as motifs, from kitchen objects to animals or plants. Today, several people in the community use these techniques, not only on walls, but also on fabrics.
With this, Nador combines the tradition of painting with a collaborative and conceptual exercise, which puts into practice the maxim preached by the German Joseph Beuys: “Everyone is an artist”. With this, a new ethics is in fact realized.