C&: How would you describe the artistic landscape in Brazil?
Fabiana Lopes: Brazil is a continental country, quite rich in diversity. Curiously, the contemporary artistic production which we usually access through exhibitions in institutions, commercial galleries, at biennials and art fairs, doesn’t reflect this diversity. On the contrary, what we usually see is quite a narrow sample. Although Brazil certainly has a booming artistic scene, its production goes through a power filter. Considering that this country has the largest Black population outside of Africa, the fact that one can hardly see works by Black Brazilian artists in the mainstream is not a coincidence. What happens in the art world mirrors our society in general, where the Black subject has a defined place: of service (preferably domestic service) and invisibility. Another characteristic of Brazilian society is that race is a taboo. It is the elephant in the room. And so, openly discussing issues of race is not welcome.
That probably explains why Oscar Murillo’s project caused so much commotion in September 2014, while he was on a 10-day residency program in Rio de Janeiro. Unsettled by the environment he encountered—one of Black citizens in disenfranchised situations—the artist adopted a strategy to both survive and challenge it. He put on a white overall and joined the service staff in the residency program. He performed housekeeping activities such as cleaning, gardening and cooking, and, during the cocktail reception hosted in his honor, gave a 15-minute talk sharing his perspective on issues of class, labor and race in Brazil. There was nothing offensive in this project but by openly addressing issues of race, Murillo unknowingly crossed a line and entered the realm of the forbidden. I admire Murillo’s project because it reveals a hidden reality and offers an updated (and more accurate) view of Brazilian society. Moreover, it challenges the local artistic landscape and connects to a roster of contemporary Black Brazilian artists whose works, despite the imposed invisibility, have also been strongly political.