PRINT May 2014

Tamar Guimarães

Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, 16 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 24 seconds.

CANOAS WAS A FILM I shot for the São Paulo Bienal in 2010. I was thinking of biennials as a series of collective exercises in the projection of national identity, and I became interested in the ways in which the Casa das Canoas, the house that architect Oscar Niemeyer built for himself in Rio in the early 1950s, had achieved iconic status in Brazilian cultural lore. I had read that after it was built, particularly during Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency (1956–61), the house had not only provided a location for important cultural gatherings but, through its tropical sensuousness, had helped establish the myth of Brazil as an emerging modern paradise, serving as the postcard of a country yet to be.

I wanted to restage the glamorous gatherings that had taken place there, probing the ways in which the past lingers into the present. The 2010 biennial came at a point of almost euphoric optimism about Brazil’s future. The country had been largely unaffected by the global recession and was buoyed by anticipation of the infrastructural improvements that would result from hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. In many ways one was reminded of the exhilarating ambitions of Brazil’s early years of modernization, as when Kubitschek campaigned (and won) on the slogan “Fifty years of progress in five.”

Yet this optimism has also always tended to obscure darker currents within Brazilian society. Canoas was shot with a mix of actors and nonactors, and before filming I had proposed to each of them, as a prompt for dialogue, that modernist architecture in Brazil was in most cases a luxury item for the wealthy—dependent on underpaid labor—and that, more broadly, Brazil’s claims to being a democracy based on racial equality and social mobility are blatantly exaggerated.

And a couple of months ago, when a group of fascist middle-class young men used a bicycle lock to shackle a black teenager to a lamppost by his neck in the Flamengo neighborhood of Rio, it seemed that we were still living within a slavery-based regime. Indeed, clashes about race, class, governance, and the built environment have become only more acute in the four years since Canoas was made; in hindsight, the film appears to have become more current since 2010 rather than less so. But amid this volatility and violence, I also can’t help but look at the strange, extravagant forms of Niemeyer’s house and think that Brazil remains full of potential.

Tamar Guimarães is an artist based in Copenhagen.