This article was originally published in French, on the 29th December 2018.
At that time, Brazil had just elected its new president: the conservative Jair Bolsonaro.
Considering the political position of the 38th President of the country, at that time, I wanted to know more about how contemporary artists were feeling about their future towards this new political era.
For this purpose, I decided to interview the person who is now one of my favorite artists.
Thiago Martins de Melo, mainly represented by the influential paulista art gallery Mendes Wood, is an artist from São Luis do Maranhão (Northern Brazil).
I discovered his work a few years ago, at the Biennale of Contemporay Art in Lyon.
He is used to explore the colonial era through colourful paintings, often staging genocides against indigenous populations.
I have never been able to meet him personally but however I had the opportunity to interview him for the first time as part of my Masters’ degree research. Since I was working on the question of identity in contemporary art in Brazil, our first interview was focused on the possible foreign origins of the artist and their possible influences on his work.
Following the results of the presidential elections on the 28th October 2018, I wanted to know Thiago’s opinion about the event that has shaken the already very vague political and geopolitical situation of Brazil.
How would you explain the current situation in Brazil, since the dismissal of President Dilma Roussef to the presidential elections that Bolsonaro won? In your opinion, what are the reasons that led to such a result?
This issue must be considered from an international perspective, from an international geopolitical prism. The truth is : what happened in Brazil also happened throughout Latin America. The military coups are not violent coups anymore, in a brutal struggle against communism. Today, they are made by parliamentarians and institutional circles. They are what one might call judicial-parliamentary coup d’etat.
The United States did so in the decade of the 2000s in the Middle East. It was also during this period that South America flourished. There have been several progressive governments. Brazil, at that time, became a country that started to use a multilateral policy with Third World countries in Africa or Asia and with neighbouring countries in South America.
This whole period is now divided into another cycle more or less led by the United States, which after dividing the Middle East, destabilized Brazil and the rest of South America. All the coups were supported by the United States. For example, they tried to disrupt Chavez’s Venezuela in 2002, which then went from a state of social democracy to a country at war, in the end. The opposition was criminalized, but at the same time, it remained super strong. The paradigm of what is happening in Brazil can be modelled on the Venezuelan crisis because when Venezuela became important within OPEC, it began to raise the price of its oil and immediately, there was a setback from the United States.
The media also play an important role. They are like a separate party. In Latin America, they are a little different. For example, in Latin America, we are more aware of what is happening in Europe than in neighbouring countries.
Moreover, the sovereignty of Latin America is a great risk for the world powers. You can see that there is a whole logistics that is destined to hinder this market.
With Bolsonaro’s rise through electoral fraud, we have a growing attack on multilateralism. Relations with the neighbourhood, particularly with MERCOSUR, which is a real economic bloc, are crumbling as Bolsonaro does not seem to care. So we entered into a kind of economic war between the United States and China.
A conglomerate of large corporate leaders has invested in Brazil’s most important media. Whatsapp is one of the means of communication that has never been invested, unlike Facebook, which has been one of the media that has broadcast the most false information. That is why one of the first things the new government did was to privatize a lot of means of communication, in order to keep control of the information broadcasted.
There was a cultural revolution in Brazil, which would be like a form of “right-wing Maoism”. Everything that happened in China under this political era, namely the destruction of the heritage of the emperors etc. was destroyed to the benefit of the construction of a new order. Brazil, which is a young and living country, has always known attempts to erase its history. The arrival of this new government was particularly ruthless since is intention seemed to be to erase a lot of things, including previous public and social policies, making the country one of the most watched countries by the United States.
All what happens in Brazil is broadcasted to the rest of South America, because of its economic influence. Under President Lula’s tenure, Brazil was the sixth largest economy in the world. Now, with the coup, he fall down to seventh and ninth in the world rankings. This gives an idea of Brazil’s decline because of the privatization that has changed everything. In addition, now there is also something else: everything starts with a cultural war insinuating that artists are corrupt. It evolves into a sort of intellectual hierarchy that ignites hatred of intellectuals, hatred of artists, philosophers, anthropologists and a systematic attack on sociology. The attack is even more systematic when it comes to people interested in indigenous societies, Black or LGBT movements.
The vote in favor of Bolsonaro is the result of a campaign based on fear during which it was constantly repeated that the PT was going to launch a wave of communist coups in Brazil, punctuated by rumours that certain sexual practices would eventually be taught to children in sexual education sessions – which is totally absurd.
There has been a total criminalization of the Left parties, with the example of Lula being targeted. However, there is no evidence against Lula, there is only denunciation. And that’s where the media played a strong role because they spread these rumors.
In other words, Brazil has entered into an out-of-democracy model, and this for two years already following the removal of Dilma Roussef in an easy prey role in the Latin American economy since Russia supports the Venezuelan ideology and the United States is counting on Brazil to counter this, and possibly conflict with Venezuela.
Brazil has gone from an intellectual base (with musicians, philosophers etc.) to a country on its knees, whose situation is similar to countries at war.
Will this complex political context inspire you for your work? Have you ever thought of approaching this political dimension in your work?
My work will always revolve around the colonial struggle. Everything has always been a question of customs and cultural wars, of economy, of resistance. My work is not based on a dichotomy logic but rather on a more complex relationship with spirituality.
I have already painted a dictatorial Brazil. In 217, I made a film that deals with a civil war in Brazil that would start only now. Without knowing it, I staged as a far right government, when I never thought that Brazil would ever have a far right government. All our nightmares have come true in this crazy world. Pandora’s box has been opened and all our nightmares have come true. Unfortunately, once that box is open nowadays in our societies, it’s almost impossible to close it.
(To me:) You, as a European, you are well placed to know. Your family is French and Portuguese and you know very well that when hatred goes on the streets, it takes whole decades and huge social catharsis before entering again into an era of appeasement.
Brazil has not been prepared for this hatred, it does not have this experience of hatred, including all the conflicts it has had with neighboring countries like Paraguay etc. including social class conflicts. Now, however, we are in a situation of social verticalization where each class goes to war with another class. There has been a split of the society.
Many opportunist galerists speak of Bolsonaro with fear but the problem is that many of these opportunist galerists supported Bolsonaro given that they complain today about artists questioning political issues. Politics becomes a subject of work, and it’s not necessarily in the interest of the buyers. On the other hand, politics is also not responsible for this pattern. So it’s very funny how the system uses one speech to destroy another. Having been part of an international gallery, I know very well what that kind of speech is.
There is a great ambivalence in this discourse, from an external and internal point of view. That is to say that outside, we talk about Bolsonaro with horror, but inside the country, we support him because we are not ready to face the central issues that concerns Brazil. In other words, we carefully avoid issues that affect the country very directly, and that’s how we end up more or less supporting Bolsonaro despite ourselves, since he does not want to hear about these issues.
There is also a very economic issue. The economic elite of right-wing Brazil, which has allied itself to the far right, knows how to affect the galleries. The industrial bourgeoisie, the upper bourgeoisie – as we can see in Italy, especially in the context of fascism – migrate from liberalism to the far right because the question is not even ideological, but purely financial. The extreme right values the concentration of annuities and the benefits of the minority at the expense of many. There is in the fascist ideology – which is similar to that carried by the Bolsonaro government – something called “class appeasement” and which is in fact a will to end the trade unions, strikes etc. and which wants to keep on protecting bosses etc. So there is a whole relationship between the elite and the extreme right and this is very chaotic.
If you go to Europe and talk to gallery owners, you realize that their speech does not correspond to what is happening in the country. This leads me to say something that seems fundamental to me: The Brazilian art market is no longer organized into an art system. In the Brazilian cultural system of art, a good part of the artists lived in the past with salons, group exhibitions, competitions, grants for production etc. In other words, things that no longer exist since the Temer coup and that will certainly no longer exist now with Bolsonaro, who has already announced that he had destroyed the Ministry of Culture and that there would no longer be any.
I once talked with a gallery owner, and he told me that the training of artists will be extremely deteriorated in the coming years whereas before, he had never cared about the quality of their work. Indeed, the art market did not give any importance to the training of artists because since Brazil is a gigantic country, it obviously contains many artists, some of whom were trained in Europe. Brazil, however, has always had this trend towards “elite artists”. During the time of Lula, many different black and indigenous classes began to develop artistic poetics and finally we were able to have access to diversity in art schools, especially thanks to production grants. All this will now stop. Brazilian art will once again become what it was some time ago: an environment where the artist is the one who can be financially supported by Mom and Dad, who will pay for an art school and will therefore be an “elite” artist. Therefore, this economic elite, and in the specific case of our country, white people, descendants of Europeans coming from families called «400» – which refers to the former colonial families of Brazil who are therefore more than 400 years old – will keep a monoploy on the arts community. This is really crazy because the art market is irresponsible towards the new generations of artists.
As an artist, how do you see the future? Do you fear censorship?
Regarding the censorship, I do not care at all because censorship already exists! I have had a project with a museum before, and the exhibition was cancelled…. I have been insulted. I think we don’t have to continue to use this “persecuted artists” motive that galleries love to use. I have worked with a gallery that was used to present artists as persecuted and so on. It’s just blah, blah, blah. We are not at a time when the artist must go into exile, leave the country, etc. We are in a moment of lute, of resistance. Cultural resistance must be created within the country. It is not by travelling and fleeing and asking for a fucking exile that we will get there. There is no such thing. Those who are the most screwed, I will tell you who it is: it’s the natives, it’s the landless, it’s the social movements. Some of them have already been murdered.Last week, two leaders of the Landless Movement were shot in the state of Paraíba, while nine of them already died during the year during a massacre, a mass killing of indigenous people.
So the artist who shows up with his “oh, I’m going to Europe, I can’t live in a fascist country anymore”, this cowardice, this lack of commitment to his country, it doesn’t make sense. Whoever wants, goes but returns. I go to Mexico but I always return to Brazil. I will be able to stay in this country, which started with the dismantling of drug traffickers and moved to a responsible neo-liberal state. I received proposals to live in Mexico and that could have been one of my plans. We must create cultural resistance. It is time to bring down the cacique, it is time to stay in the country. Mainly when you have resources. I have resources so even if they censor me, fuck them all ! I want to continue to show.
First, because I will not be murdered. Belonging to the Brazilian middle class – I am not black, I am not indigenous – I have a privilege. And that is true. I have a PRI-VI-LEGE. I am not at risk. If they murder an artist like me, they know they can turn against the Brazilian middle class. If I had been black or native, I would have worried because then they could probably kill me without having any problem afterwards. I must take advantage of this privilege to defend our causes. If you belong to this privileged class, more than ever you must use this privilege to build – to rebuild – Brazilian culture. You can’t let this movement of censorship, of attempted theocratic government settle in the country – Brazil is like Iran at that level – you can’t allow that, especially these scoundrels who could take everything then. I do not worry and if they try to censor me, I won’t give a fuck because if it happens with me, I will not even pay attention, I continue to paint as I paint, I continue to write on social networks. Don’t worry about censorship. If we do not try to continue to build, we keep this kind of fear and this fear is opportunistic.
I have known many artists who are victimized, who are afraid of censorship, who are crying and who are going to live in Europe. They find a place to live in Europe, a gallery and they stay there. I will never do such a shit. Of course I can live in Europe. I can also live in the United States. But Brazil is precisely going through a situation where it needs us. It is a collective responsibility.
This is something the artist must have. The artist must be political. I find it unbelievable that the Liberals say that the artist should not mix with politics. It is a lie to say that. To be an artist is to be political. The most marginalized in this right-wing government are artists. They are attacked like perverts, fools, satanists. I’m barely exaggerating because I have already been called satanist. Do you see the degree of madness that the country is going through?!
Paulista: From São Paulo city
PT: Partido Trabalhista, Labour Party
This article is also available in French: