Tiago Gualberto

Tiago Gualberto on art and extraction in Minas Gerais, Brazil

Tiago Gualberto, Lembrança de Nhô Tim (detail), 2015. mixed media installation, dimensions variable.

Long before Brazilian mining magnate Bernardo Paz put the state of Minas Gerais on the art map with the opening of the Inhotim Center for Contemporary Art in 2006, the area of Brumadinho was known as a center for mineral extraction—mainly iron-ore—and the poverty and environmental destruction such an industry produces. Its splendor, defined by 700 acres of exotic foliage and a massive art collection, has not dispelled Inhotim’s status among many as “a monument to the ubiquity of dirty money in the art market.” Meanwhile, Paz himself has faced extensive allegations of tax evasion and money laundering, though all charges were abruptly dropped earlier this year. Afro-Brazilian artist Tiago Gualberto grew up alongside the mines of Brumadinho, and is intimately familiar with the local history of Inhotim and what he describes below as the near “medieval” living conditions of the surrounding community. In 2015, Gualberto began working on Lembrança de Nhô Tim, a multimedia performance and installation examining the intertwined histories of mining, corruption, slavery, and poverty in Minas Gerais. Here he shares the story behind the work.

I WAS BORN a few kilometers away from Brumadinho, the city where the Inhotim Contemporary Art Center is located. When Inhotim opened in Minas Gerais, in 2006, it was unveiled as a contemporary marvel, a promise to transform a state notorious for a past inseparable from slavery. Mine was a mainly Black neighborhood, and very poor. Growing up, we didn’t have indoor plumbing, basic sanitation, or electricity. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the area seemed colonial, even medieval. When I started studying visual art at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, I came in contact with a completely different world than I had known before, not only because art was new to me and I had been to very few museums, but because I was the first person in my family to go to university. I didn’t have a political consciousness as a Black person in Brazil until I joined Affirmative Action, a political education group on campus led by Black intellectuals, predominantly women. This was really positive for me, and at the same time risky, because over time I also learned the dangers of this identity cloistering, the idea of a cultural essence, a Black essence.

From the moment I arrived, I faced the difficulties of a student educated only at precarious public schools. I now had access to this form of sublime human production—art—but the world I had entered was very elitist, very insulated and distant. The daughter of Bernardo Paz, a mining tycoon and Inhotim’s founder, was friends with my university classmates, who would go to her house to see the art collection. This was a huge irony for me because I spent so much time every day getting to the university—so many buses for so many hours—and these people were traveling to my home to see works by international artists.

I began making Lembrança de Nhô Tim in 2015 as part of my master’s studies. The project was supported by Funarte, the governmental branch responsible for arts patronage. Through an initiative to increase representation, Funarte developed a prize for Black artists. I understood that my work wasn’t going to be accepted if I was explicit about my political position. So I inverted my argument in my application, saying that I wanted to make a work in homage to Inhotim. To then find out I was the winner of this prize was a double surprise.

My practice of institutional critique began then, with artificial praise for the Inhotim Contemporary Art Center. That said, I didn’t change anything about the actual proposal, which described how I was going to produce objects made of mud in the shape of a popular ice cream, the kind that poor families sell from their doorways as a way to earn extra money. I branded it Lembrança de Nhô Tim, making this homonym; Nhô Tim as it is written means “Massa Tim.” The word lembrança, in Portuguese, is usually used to refer to a memory or remembrance which can be a souvenir, so the name of the show translates to Souvenir from Massa Tim. It’s a reference to the former owner of an extensive mining area where Inhotim is located today. He was named Sir Timothy, and Nhô Tim (Massa Tim) was supposedly his nickname. In addition to land, he owned many enslaved people. “Inhotim” also comes from this nickname—so Brazil’s dependence on slavery was part of the inspiration for the name of the largest center of contemporary art in Latin America.

My Lembranças de Nhô Tim, which were made of mud and packaged like the ice cream, were sold for five reais, which was about one US dollar at the time, by residents throughout the area around Inhotim who collaborated with me on the project. The work thus self-consciously involved the transformation of an art object into a commodity, a strategy used in money laundering, which comprised a large part of the accusations against Paz. Aside from critiquing the mining circuit and its corruption, Lembrança de Nhô Tim is a reflection on how value is attributed to an art object and on art consumption itself.

When I presented my show in 2016, it was very different than the previous Funarte winner, who received a lot of attention from the media and cultural institutions and from Funarte itself. They were silent about my work. The media too. It was as if my project didn’t even happen. Then, the Funarte prize for Black artists was cancelled. There hasn’t been another edition of the prize for Black artists or researchers since mine. 

My work has always been about the pollution of air, water, and land and the violence in Minas Gerais. When the Mariana and the Brumadinho dams collapsed in 2015 and 2019, respectively, killing hundreds of people, my work had already been completed. I never imagined that there would be such a brutally explicit illustration of the things I was thinking about. Many artists and professors thought I was running the risk of never having an opportunity to be a part of the Inhotim collection, but I had realized much earlier that as a Black artist from this region, I was never going to be a part of the collection anyway. So I made this work that sits on the margins of different worlds, with one foot in the Contemporary Art Center and one foot in this very precarious neighborhood, one foot within the university and one foot outside. This was the only place possible to create this work.