Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles

August 23, 2012

Amid the repressive anos de chumbo ("leaden years") of the Brazilian dictatorship that held power from 1968 to 1975, visual artists developed innovative aesthetics and forms of artwork while creating new spaces for production and reception. Faced with arbitrarily enforced censorship and seclusion from international art trends, the artists of the "AI-5 generation" (named for Institutional Act 5, a 1968 government decree that significantly restricted political freedoms) responded with transgressive artworks. As Claudia Calirman argues, they were not martyrs and their actions were often more "mundane than heroic". Nevertheless, their art was a response to the repressive context of the dictatorship, and a "vivid testament to the resilient nature of the creative impulse, a defiant and provocative art created under the Brazilian dictatorship".

Calirman's examination of three artists - Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles - helps to challenge the myth that the Brazilian dictatorship fostered only "cultural emptiness". Via letters and manifestos, exhibition reviews and descriptions of artworks, and interviews with artists and critics, she reveals the ephemeral, performative and clandestine artwork produced during the period.

The artists she considers not only sought to confront the repressive dictatorship but also to challenge the orthodox Left and Brazil's traditional avenues for exhibition, including museums, galleries and the São Paulo Biennial. Manuel, for instance, entered his own naked body as artwork in an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro's Modern Art Museum in 1970, provoking debates about censorship and freedom in the art world as much as about the dictatorship's censorship policies.

Barrio's ephemeral artwork used degradable materials such as rubbish, human waste and meat, depositing these materials in bags in public spaces in a metaphoric representation of the practice of torture, to encourage viewers' interaction. Meireles' artwork was also often based on performance and public interaction. His exhibit for the 1970 exhibition Do Corpo à Terra (From the Body to the Earth) involved the burning of live hens attached to a stake, and a reference to the punishment of Tiradentes (a pre-independence era rebel executed in 1792) as well as to the torture of contemporary political prisoners.

While Calirman strongly opposes the idea that the military dictatorship provided opportunities for the production of innovative Brazilian art, her book allows for a questioning of the role that repressive regimes can play in stimulating original art production. It brings to mind the choice of narrative structures, aesthetics and style by contemporary Iranian film-makers that allows them to evade censorship of their political and social critiques, or performances by Cuban artists outside the official spaces of the Havana Biennial that provoke public responses critical of the government. Calirman also broadens traditional perceptions of resistance in Latin America, which has often been aligned with the Left in the form of armed resistance. Like James Green in We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (2010), Calirman breaks down myths about the absence of opposition to the Brazilian military regime and urges us to continue to examine the many forms of resistance in Cold War-era Latin America.

Although Calirman briefly covers the debates initiated by art critics seeking to classify these artists' styles within particular movements, she goes beyond those debates by historically contextualising these artists' work as a product of the dictatorship's most repressive years. Yet, as she admits, the subject matter can be difficult to investigate, since much of the artwork was ephemeral, performative and entrenched in its local context. That being said, her descriptions of the era's artistic productions allow her to develop a strong narrative that is interrupted only briefly by introducing social theory, such as Michel Foucault's, to analyse the significance of these art projects.

Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles

By Claudia Calirman. Duke University Press. 232pp, £70.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780822351399 and 51535. Published 25 July 2012

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