What does the attack on works of art in Brasilia mean?

During the storming of the Praça dos Três Poderes in Brasília by Bolsonaro supporters, several works of art were damaged. In this essay, Luciara Ribeiro reflects on how art objects are used as elements of ideological combat in relation to European colonial regimes around the world.

The book Guerras culturais em verde e amarelo, edited by Pedro Arantes, a professor in the Art History Department at the Federal University of São Paulo, in partnership with students and researchers from the same university, analyzes the current situation through its ideological ends, looking at productions that take up space in advertising, the cinema, and social media, such as memes, WhatsApp chain messages, and TikTok videos. For Arantes, we are living in a culture war, where images and art objects are used as elements of ideological, economic and political combat. Regarding the extremist right-wing regime, according to Arantes and doctoral student André Okuma, “this new right has organized a reaction, studied and acted incisively in the culture war, as part of a broader strategy for regaining conservative global hegemony (called neo-fascism by some, and Christian theocracy by others), not only in the cultural field, but economic and political as well”.

The symbolic clash with images is on the extreme right’s agenda, and it’s not by chance that this was the focus of their attack. What may frighten us at first, soon slots into the great ideological puzzle defended by terrorists like these. Defenders of Nazi-fascist principles, both the group and their political leader, former President Jair Bolsonaro, replay the methods of control found in extremist, totalitarian, dictatorial and colonial systems, such as the destruction or control of cultural objects. We can look to a few historical examples where dominance of critical and sensitive knowledge was won by looting, aggression, and the possession of cultural and artistic assets, such as the European colonial regimes in the Americas, Asia and Africa, the Nazi-fascist governments in Europe, and dictatorships in Latin America. África Fantasma, a book based on the travel diaries of Michel Leiris, a secretary and archivist for France’s linguistic and ethnographic expedition, “Mission Dakar-Djibouti”, contains terrible accounts of these practices. It describes scenes of extreme terror against African communities in the territories they passed through. Their violent attacks on visual and cultural goods involved damaging, breaking, stealing and even setting them on fire.

It’s worth remembering that attacks on images and culture, especially those of African and indigenous origins, were frequent in former President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, who, in the first months of his term, shuttered the Ministry of Culture and ignored protests by the artistic community. During this same period, with little justification, the former president removed the painting Órixás, by São Paulo artist Djanira da Motta e Silva, which depicts deities worshiped in Afro-Brazilian religiosities, such as Candomblé and Umbanda. Openly religious, with a conservative Christian, Protestant background, the removal of the piece highlighted the non-acceptance of harmonious cultural coexistence between religions and their symbols, in addition to reinforcing persecution of beliefs of African origins.

Another episode that was emblematic of Bolsonaro’s clash with images was the persecution and retaliation against cartoonist Renato Aroeira. After making a critical cartoon that linked a statement made by then-president Bolsonaro – who called on his supporters to invade hospitals during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic – with a Nazi swastika, the artist was summoned by the federal police who tried to frame him under the National Security Act.

This arbitrary use of authority and power is a pattern with Bolsonaro and his followers, who accumulate actions like the ones mentioned. If there is a constant attack from one side, however, the counterattack on the other side stands firm. The artistic community allied with democratic struggles for freedom did not falter, they kept up their struggle for public policies and projections for the future. The book The End of the Ministry of Culture – Reflections on Cultural Policies in the Post-MinC era, edited in mid-2021 by political scientist Rafael Moreira, presents the impacts of Bolsonaro’s persecution of culture and the actions of various agents in confronting them. The work shows that, historically, Brazilian cultural policy has been undervalued, but that the Bolsonaro government took it to extremely precarious levels, which was only made worse by the struggle and constant demands of the artistic class.

The long-dreamed return of the Ministry of Culture was carried out by current president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who, in addition to bringing back the institution, appointed singer, activist and manager, Margareth Menezes, as minister, resulting in one of the many memorable images of this year that has just started.

Menezes, when faced with the images of the destruction on the 8th, was not afraid, and affirmed her commitment to the creation of the Democracy Memorial, a space that will be dedicated to hosting stores and objects related to the struggle for democracy, which will serve to remind us both of the manifestations in favor of it, and those that attack it. Despite the importance of the future institution, there will be no guarantee that new extremist acts, like the ones on the 8th, won’t be repeated. Radical changes are needed that can change the logic under which we are living, still in the shadow of the powers of a petty, white-centered and neoliberal elite, governed by the yoke of coloniality, which favors inequality, structural racism, ethnocide, and many other ailments that have afflicted us for centuries. We must urgently expand and insert new protagonists in Brazilian history.

On the Sunday before the attacks, in a historic scene, Lula climbed the Planalto ramp along with seven representatives of civil society, promoting recognition of the parts of the Brazilian population that were not seen in the previous government, and who are still rarely seen on the pages of the country’s politics and history. There is still much to be done to reconfigure national images, public memories, notions and policies for artistic and cultural heritage, social well-being, dignity and the right of all Brazilians to recognize themselves as critical, social and political subjects. Nothing, however, justifies the trivialization and delegitimization of democratic processes, which violate memory and history, stoking chaos and generalized stupidity. Both in Brazil and around the world, artistic diversity is not only a symbol of democracy but also one of the prerequisites for maintaining it.

Luciara Ribeiro is an educator, researcher, and curator. She holds a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Salamanca (USAL, Spain, 2018) and the Postgraduate Program in Art History at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP, 2019). She is a content contributor for the Diaspora Galeria and a lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at Faculdade Santa Marcelina.

Translation: Zoë Perry