São Paulo: Searching the edges

Holly Willats is the Director of Art Licks: a not-for-profit organisation based in London that provides support for grassroots activity and artists through its magazine, commissioning programme, and annual festival. Willats has recently spent time in Sao Paulo curating. 

This year I was offered an amazing opportunity to spend a month in São Paulo, Brazil to curate the exhibition, At Home | Em Casa. This project was the result of a proposal I had submitted to an open call from Cultural Inglesa: an exhibition of work made in conversation between Flavia Mielnik (São Paulo) and Lucy Joyce (London) around the idea of home, and what it means for each artist respectively.

And so I found myself in São Paulo in May, and whilst working towards the exhibition was an intense whirlwind of activity, I was determined to spend any free time exploring the city’s galleries and to get to grips with the nature of its art scene. Due to my work with Art Licks, I was particularly interested to find out what artists are doing and the projects and spaces they are self-organising. However, I was soon to realise that due to Brazil’s strong art market and the lack of public funding (to be clear, there is none), the commercial arts scene dominates São Paulo.

Ignoring any jet lag, on my second day I was looking forward to visiting the Open Studio event taking place at Pivô. Pivô is a not-for-profit arts organisation based in downtown São Paulo that has a public programme of exhibitions and events alongside an artist residency programme. It is part of the international Triangle Network and funded by a mix of corporate sponsors and patrons, whilst various cultural bodies from the artists’ respective countries fund its residencies. The organisation, galleries and studios are all housed in the Edifício Copan, an iconic 1960’s building designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

The event was a brilliant introduction to the city; it was packed and buzzing with a real sense of peer support and positive energy for one another. The artists in residence were a mix of artists based in Brazil and others from further afield. It seemed to me that the artists had received genuine support and mentorship, and developed significant projects in response. Following the open studios I soon returned for some individual studio visits, including one with Juliana Cerqueira Leite, who is from Brazil and lives in New York.

Meeting with Juliana, I was surprised when she told me about how in Brazil, several successful senior artists have set-up studios or residency spaces for younger artists (my surprise being a rather sad reflection on the UK system more than anything else). An example of this is Projeto Fidalga: once the studio of artists Sandra Cinto and Albano Afonso, it was converted by them into a space to support the work of young artists and includes studios, exhibition space and a residency programme; another similar example is Carla Chaim’s HERMES space. This recognition to reinvest in the community that has supported you, or to provide a platform for the next generation is highly generous and was a welcome revelation. At the time, these appeared like institutions to me, but in reflection such spaces probably sit closer to the artist-led activity I was looking for.

Soon after, I also met with Leandro Muniz (who manages the Pivô residencies) in his shared studio space. Leandro’s work deals with subjects of the everyday, which felt pertinent as to me, time in São Paulo appeared to focus on the now: to not look behind or forward but to accept events as they appear.

It was great to speak with Leandro about his thoughts of the city, with insight both as an artist himself and through working at Pivô. A point he made that really struck me was that to start a career as an artist in Brazil, you have to be based in São Paulo. Despite Brazil being such a huge country, there are no other cities or towns where you can manage to establish yourself; it has to be the Paulista way.

Alongside this, Leandro and I discussed the issues around engagement that the galleries and public institutions face. There seems to be a real problem with a lack of diversity and understanding, or investment in understanding, in how to make the arts more accessible and engage with a public. It was regularly pointed out to me that the art world in Brazil is very white, middle class, and led by those with privilege: there are not many open doors to find a new way into the system.

Over the next few weeks, I met with several curators and artists who listed galleries and museums I should visit in the Jardins and Pinheiros neighbourhoods. I was particularly interested in the exhibitions at Mendes Wood and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel. These huge gallery spaces reminded me of those back in London: architect designed, with grey concrete floors and huge heavy glass doors… It was quickly apparent how the art market in Brazil is strong, which did make me wonder how this affects the work being made in the city that appears to be very object-based.

A space that had been recommended as perhaps being more in-line with my interests, was Casa do Povo (meaning The People’s House). This organisation describes itself as a cultural centre that revisits and reinvents notions of culture, community and memory.

The organisation has a rich history. It was originally founded in 1946 by a politically engaged portion of the Jewish community, who wanted to create a space to honour those who had died in the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, and to foster a space for Jewish culture. Its modern building was built in 1953 by Ernest Carvalho Mange, and during the Brazilian civilian-military dictatorship, Casa do Povo established itself as a place of cultural and political resistance. In more recent years the centre has been renovated and hopes to pay homage to its founders’ ideals. It now offers amazing studio space to various creative groups, and has a fantastic public programme of interdisciplinary events and performances that focus on creative process. Casa do Povo has a strong local identity that is very clear when you visit but despite being delighted to find this organisation, it felt to me like another more established contributor to the city’s cultural scene, rather than a smaller-scale, grassroots visual arts space that I was searching for.

A few days later, I had organised a studio visit with Ilê Sartuzi, who it turned out also works for Auroras. Auroras is a non-commercial space set-up by the collector Ricardo Kugelmas who wanted to create a situation for artist’s projects outside of the gallery or institutional context. The space is open to the public and located in Ricardo’s home, which had been his grandparents’ home. Ilê kindly organised for me to be able to visit, although there wasn’t officially an exhibition on. I was quite taken aback to find that Auroras is set in a beautiful Modernist building designed by the architect Gian Carlo Gasperini in 1957. The exhibition space consists of the entrance hallway, two large ground floor rooms, and an empty swimming pool for site-specific projects in the garden. The library is also open for research, packed floor-to-ceiling with artist books, an absolute dream of a hideaway that I could happily spend hours in.

This space is quite remarkable due to its setting and the generous nature of Ricardo to open his home to the public; he even made me an espresso. Ricardo told me how it is very unusual for anyone to use domestic space for exhibition making in São Paulo, as the art scene is very conservative and people do not take the initiative to self-organise projects out of the art market.

I was coming to the end of my time in São Paulo and feeling rather defeated that I hadn’t found an artist-led space. But I had one last place to visit that had been mentioned to me many times: Ateliê397, where I had arranged to meet the co-Director, Thais Rivitti. Ateliê397 is run by a collective and is in a warehouse that they rent half of (the other half is used by a furniture seller to store his goods). The project has a large gallery, office, and studios; and it’s exactly what I had been looking for.

Ateliê397 is geared towards supporting artists, providing space, support and training that encourages experimentation and process-led practices. When I sat down to speak more with Thais she explained to me how hard it is to keep the project going when there is no public funding to apply for. They rent out the studios and further space in the building as storage to raise regular income, and also run paid courses and workshops for further funds. It’s a risky business; but it demonstrated how important the initiative is to those involved that they have managed to persevere and find solutions to continue for eight years

In a self-published book, Ateliê397 2010 – 2015, Thais’ co-Director Marcelo Amorim puts forward the idea: “I would like to propose an exercise […] to imagine that everything that has been done at Ateliê397 in these last years could have been a work of art (or, maybe, a game).” Marcelo discusses how Ateliê397 aims to think, to provoke, to discuss, to pose questions, and to create a community. Ateliê397 is trying to unravel what a gallery and an exhibition traditionally is, and instead provide a space in which the public are involved, and where artists can test and take risk.

Ateliê397 is a collective who are actively trying to make changes in São Paulo, and I sincerely hope that it inspires further artists and curators to set up independent spaces and begin to challenge the traditional hierarchy and behaviour of the city’s art scene. I had finished my trip with a gem.

I left feeling frustrated that there was more to see and projects I wanted to get to know better but my month in the city had given me a brief insight into a very vibrant community. Although São Paulo’s art scene did appear to me to be driven by its market and therefore fairly conservative in nature, there are pockets in which non-commercial and artist-led, or artist-focused activity is taking place. I hope that further artists find ways in which to make these gaps larger, and to push the parameters of what the everyday can be.

Since my time in São Paulo, Ilê Sartuzi got in touch to tell me he has set up a new project with a friend, called arte_passagem. It’s a space in the city centre for art projects aimed at engaging with diverse public audiences. This sounds like a positive move towards independent activity, which also hopes to address the need for better dialogue with audiences outside of the art circles.

–  Holly Willats, August 2018

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