(This text was originally published in German on December 12, 2018 in ZEIT Online.)
I had imagined the city gloomier after the November 2018 elections. However, I find myself in the middle of the metropolis where, only a few weeks ago, people were parading through the streets against Jair Bolsonaro. I am in downtown São Paulo, and the audience is unexpectedly well-disposed. Children of all skin colors romp through ball baths while senior citizens flaunt their bikinis on the sundeck and adolescents with gold teeth play chess. Elderly people from the neighborhood linger in the library or the canteen or stroll through the exhibition halls. Among them are friendly security staff, greeting visitors left and right. Almost as if life in the rest of the country would not recently have become unhinged.
The architectural dream, which Lina Bo Bardi conjured up from this barrel factory in the São Paulo Pompéia community in the 1970s, seems frozen in time. The SESC Pompéia represents openness after years of military dictatorship. It stands for artistic independence and a lively neighborhood, for exhibitions and for concerts with critical tones, for sports activities and a space for the community. But the newly formed government is already threatening to radically cut the SESC structures, slashing above all the funds for stubborn cultural activists. Barely two months after Bolsonaro’s election victory, the SESC Pompéia, with its cheerful lunch break scenario, looks like one of the last unyielding villages.
The Bauhaus exhibition, bauhaus imaginista (organized by the Bauhaus Kooperation Berlin Dessau Weimar, Goethe-Institut and Haus der Kulturen der Welt), for which I am here, also promotes intercultural openness. It explores the connection between the European avant-garde to indigenous art from other continents and addresses issues such as openinness, cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. At a first glance, this looks like a well-conceived curatorial concept, but actually, it’s very much up-to-date, eerily so. The significant appreciation of indigenous art can be read as a statement in times of politically instrumentalized racism. And the fate of some Bauhaus artists seems to ominously resemble the situation of contemporary Brazilian artists. With Bolsonaro’s “cleansing threats” against political opponents in mind as well as his anti-communist educational programs, European and Brazilian history seam uncomfortably close.
A closer look reveals that the right-wing populist rhetoric of Bolsonaro’s Partido Social Liberal (PSL) has also arrived here at the SESC. When I stand in front of a showcase with pictures of Hannes Meyer, chatting with two students from the visitor program, they suddenly become tight-lipped. They explain to me that Meyer was an architect and one of the Bauhaus directors, but leave out how his communist viewpoint cost him his job. When I mention it,they shoot nervous glances around the room. Only once the coast seems clear, they confess that they would rather not approach the topic in the presence of other visitors. They tell me how Bolsonaro had already attacked anything from the left during his election campaign. That they are afraid to be recorded by visitors while saying something “wrong”. Just like teachers who are unsettled by the School Without Party program, which calls for “depoliticizing” the humanities. They mention that, leading up to the elections, pro-democracy events were banned from universities. Finally, the share what one of them did the other day upon witnessing three teenagers with swastika flags at the subway station: nothing. “When I went to report it, I realized I needed to register online,” the student tells me. The idea that his political position could be publicized in these times prevented him from reporting the incident.
His fears coincide with those within the art scene. The building opposite the Bauhaus project has recently opened a critical exhibition on Brazil’s media history. In the middle of the room, a large portrait of Lula is on display. “We were sure that it would be shredded within minutes,” says curator Anna Maria Maia. The portrait is still there. But the cloud of fear is spreading. Suddenly an employee at a German cultural institution is worried because her grandfather was the secretary of the Communist Party. Her colleague in turn, hopes his colorful choice of trousers won’t make him ‘look gay’. Artists turn off their phones when discussing politics, and sponsors withdraw funds when they see “traditional values” hurt. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s social media supporters are spreading conspiracy theories about the dangers of an international left. They pursue a strict client policy and appear to want to put an end to the tentative attempts at social redistribution of the Labor Party by any means possible.