“Um Oceano Inteiro para Nadar”

THIS YEAR MARKS the quincentenary of the European discovery of Brazil. The official commemorations engendered violent polemics focusing on topics central to discussions of postcolonialism. Descendants of the indigenous peoples whose communities were destroyed have condemned the ethnocentrism of the very idea of such a “discovery.” Oilier groups denounced the Portuguese colonial heritage of violence, slavery, and discrimination, which even today can be linked to the brutal inequalities of Brazilian society. Perhaps for this reason, the curators of “Um Oceano Inteiro para Nadar” (Spanning an entire ocean)—Ruth Rosengarten in Portugal and Paulo Reis in Brazil—have made no attempt to illustrate or reveal purported affinities between the two countries. They opted to follow the traditional model of a panoramic exhibition by presenting works by thirty-seven artists from the two countries, maintaining the theme merely as backdrop.

Among the Brazilian artists, Lygia Pape stood out. Her Caixa Brasil (Brazil box), 1968, is a small wooden box lined in red velvet that holds three types of hair, of different colors and textures, and bears the inscription BRASIL. This was a synthesizing, lapidary statement of Brazil's multicultural reality, revealed in the simplest and most tangible of physical means. In a more recent work, Pape grouped together wire nets covered with loaves of bread, alluding to the cultural and social reality of poverty, and five wooden boxes containing intensely aromatic organic materials such as curry and oregano. The installation, significantly titled Narizes e linguas (Noses and tongues), 1996, called for a total sensorial engagement: The visitor had to open the boxes and experience the smells. The feeling of physical involvement and of textural sensitivity attained its greatest expression, among the younger Brazilian artists, in the works of Ernesto Neto: true physical bodies that absorb the visitor by means of a smooth yet intense sensual seduction.

From the Portuguese contingent, three artists' works were particularly apropos to the theme of the exhibition: those of Fernanda Fragateiro, Ana Vidigal, and Julião Sarmento. Fragateiro installed two hammocks—conjuring an idyllic atmosphere of leisure and pleasure—linked by a system of pulleys that made it impossible to use either one unless the other was occupied at the same time. Titled Só é possivel se formos 2 (It is possible only if there are 2 of us), 2000, the work gave a beautiful image of the idea of “relation”—its possibilities. difficulties, and impossibilities—at the core of this exhibition. In Penelope, 2000, Vidigal displayed a bed covered with a plastic blanket through which one saw letters and envelopes from the correspondence between her parents during the time her father was fighting in Portugal's colonial wars in Africa. Sarmento's Amazônia, 1992, was a precarious hut made of wood, whose interior, which can be glimpsed only through the cracks between the boards, was colored the green of the foliage and the brown of the earth that the artist discovered in the Amazon region, where the work was created.

To conclude with an image of Portuguese colonialism, I choose a work by Eduardo Batarda, O Vitória de Marracuene (Victory of Marracuene), 1973, executed when Portugal still suffered under a fascist government. A parodic representation of a historic battle that occurred during the colonial struggles in Africa, the work shows with pitiless humor the pure and simple, brutal and sordid violence of colonialism, and the ridiculous farce that was—and is—the Portuguese illusion of imperial grandeur.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers.