The art world has gone crazy for Brazil and one of the many people with cause to celebrate is Luisa Strina, whose eponymous Sao Paulo gallery marks its 40th birthday this year. ‘When I first took my artists’ portfolios to show to New York galleries, they asked if they had snakes in them,’ she laughs. ‘No one knew Brazil. Now, all foreign galleries have to have a Brazilian artist and there are so many young ones emerging. Brazilian art is very fresh, perhaps because there aren’t many art schools so there are no rules; lots of them are self-taught and there’s huge creativity.’
With seven leading Brazilian galleries taking stands at Frieze 2014, 13 Brazilian galleries with booths at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, seven more at AMBM’s satellite fairs, and 49 primary art market galleries participating in Latitude, Brazil’s platform for promoting its art sector abroad, Brazil is by far the most significant art nexus in Latin America. Brazilian artists are a must-have for western blue chips and top signings include Mira Schendel Estate (Hauser & Wirth), Beatriz Milhazes (Stephen Friedman), Adriana Vardjao (Victoria Miro), Tunga (Pilar Corrias), Vik Muniz (Pace), Jac Leirner (White Cube) and Adriano Costa (Sadie Coles).
‘They have all been absorbed into the global art narrative,’ says Fernanda Feitosa, who founded the Sao Paulo art fair, SP-Arte, in 2005, ‘and this makes them as covetable as their western counterparts. They are achieving top prices at auction. Once we were known for footballers, now it’s artists.’
This boom has been building over the past 15 years and is down to two things, says academic Kiki Mazzucchelli, author of chapters on Sao Paulo and the Brazilian art scene in recent coffee table tomes from Phaidon: ‘The increasing internationalism of the art world — fairs, networking, constant travel — and Brazil’s sustained period of economic stability.’
During the dictatorship, 1964-1985, ‘it was very difficult to establish an art circuit within Brazil,’ Mazzucchelli explains. ‘Luisa Strina kept going, and there is always an elite who will buy, but the big change came with the stable economy. You could invest, open galleries, bring on young collectors, develop a secondary market.’
Strina, who trained as an artist but began to sell the work of her peers because they had no one to represent them, says that art fairs have been key to the exposure of Brazilian art to the world. She first showed at Cologne in 1989 and went to Basel in 1990 where she didn’t sell for three years, due to the crash of 1989/90. ‘It was very hard, but fairs began to spring up in Latin America and that was great, an important step in creating a strong domestic market.’
The Nineties was a crucial decade for Brazil, both at home and abroad where minds were opened by the game-changing exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, 1989, held at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grands halles de la Villette. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the group show was a riposte to post-colonial, Eurocentric attitudes that pervaded art world opinion, embodied by MOMA’s Primitivism exhibition in 1984. Far from looking at ‘foreign’ works of art through an ethnographic or tribal prism, Martin exhibited an equal number of western and non-western artists alongside each other, with every artist named. Brazilian artists included Maestre Didi, Cildo Meireles and Ronaldo Pereira Rego. ‘Little by little, they began to be offered museum shows across the globe,’ says Strina, who has represented Meireles since 1981.
As the rising star of today’s international art market, Brazil seems unstoppable, with two fairs of its own (ArtRio launched in 2011) and a collector base that has enticed White Cube to open a permanent space in Sao Paulo in 2012, not to mention Inhotim, Bernardo Paz’s 5000-acre botanical garden that’s home to over 500 site-specific works by our greatest contemporary art practitioners from Anish Kapoor, Matthew Barney, Steve McQueen, Doug Aitken and Yayoi Kusama to Helio Oiticica, Muniz and Meireles, and draws 250,000 international visitors a year.
But all this is underpinned by Brazil’s long and sophisticated modern art history. ‘In reality, Brazil has been having a moment for at least 50 years and even that was informed by the art scene of the 1920s,’ says Mazzucchelli. ‘Especially Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Manifesto Atropofago (Cannibal Manifesto), the idea that Brazilian Modernism involves “eating the other,” absorbing other cultures and mixing them with one’s own ideas and perspectives.’
Brazil’s modern art legacy really began in the Fifties with the abstract paintings and sculpture of ‘Neo-concrete’ artists like Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica. Tate Modern’s 2013 survey show of Mira Schendel illustrated Schendel’s rewriting of the language of European modernism, alongside her contemporaries Clark and Oiticica. At Frieze Masters this year, Rio gallery A Gentil Carioca showed Oiticica’s 1960s cocaine-inflected record covers while presenting their contemporary stable across the park at Frieze.
‘Artists are using the legacy of abstract geometry, colonialism, exploitation of gold, slavery, European modernism, and investing it with a narrative that connects to the present,’ says Mazzucchelli. ‘Mendes Wood DM is showing Paulo Nazareth, one of the first black artists to emerge on the Brazilian scene, who walked from Brazil to Miami Basel last year, and documented his journey. We have artists like Marcelo Cidade from the skateboarding and graffiti scene, who showed with Vermelho at Frieze; people are really beginning to understand the influence of Brazilian art, design, architecture and poetry on the rest of the world.’