In October 2018 fifty-five percent of Brazil’s voters chose to elect a far-right president. It is unsurprising that a country shaped by colonial thinking, marked by a horrific history of slavery, and mostly controlled by white oligarchies would adhere once again to such forces. But most Brazilians barely speak about these histories; we prefer to see ourselves as warm and welcoming—a cordial people. Yet, cordiality has not protected us from hate speech, on the contrary: the celebratory national narratives that have pictured the country as a “tropical paradise,” or a “racial democracy” have historically served as camouflage to Brazil’s darkest ideologies. With the rise of president Jair Bolsonaro—a retired army captain who has accumulated a long list of racist, homophobic, and misogynist remarks—fissures have resurfaced to remind us that the pleasant portraits of Brazil are full of dangerous contradictions. We now face what generations of Brazilians born in the late twentieth century never completely dealt with: the ghosts of past autocracies, the latest being a twenty-year military dictatorship (1964 – 85). These ghosts do not only haunt memories these generations never had, they are in command. Far-right groups are actively seeking ways to control education, culture, and to define “what art is.” Works that seem to challenge the precepts of “God, Nation, and Family” have already been censored. Facing these absurd circumstances, to be an artist is already to claim a space for freedom of thought, but the stakes are even higher for non-white, non-normative artists who take hold of their own representations and make art. As a response to this resurgence of far-right nationalism, I’ve become increasingly aware of how Brazilian artists use national symbols, such as flags, often in relationship to their bodies or those of others.
Flags, like poems and spells, have an ambivalent power: they make hyper-visible the invisible; they create bonds between bodies and ideas that can become either revolutionary or reactionary. During the dictatorship of the 1960s, for example, it was common for masses to wear the national colors of our flag—and our soccer team—to hail Brazil’s autocratic regime. Philosopher Marilena Chauí called verde-amarelismo (“green-yellow nationalism”) a form of celebratory discourse constructed through the historical desire of Brazilian elites to consent to colonial dependency.
On the other side of the spectrum, one of the most famous images of Brazilian art history is a flag-poem by artist Hélio Oiticica (1937 – 80). Oiticica’s Seja marginal, seja herói (Be an Outlaw, Be a Hero)(1967) shows an image of a prostrate body printed on a red textile. In bold black letters, the phrase “Be an Outlaw, Be a Hero” floats below the image of the vulnerable body, energizing it. The dead body of Manoel Moreira, or Cara de Cavalo (“Horse Face”)—as if crucified, but flipped upside down—becomes an idea to be followed. While Brazilian elites had marched in favor of “Family with God for Liberty”—a demonstration that anticipated the 1964 coup d’état—Oiticica, who was neither poor nor an outlaw, eternalized the figure of “the marginal” detested by conservatives. Years before he created Seja marginal, Oiticica made his famous “Parangolés,” a series of colorful capes inspired by samba and the culture of favelas. “Parangolés”look like flags merged with the body: they are wrapped-flesh in movement.
Oiticica was not the only artist to have used flags for protesting or as a sign of solidarity; many others were either making them or deploying the image in artworks. Okê Oxóssi, a 1970 painting by Abdias Nascimento (1914 – 2011)—one of the country’s most important Afro-Brazilian leaders—shows the geometries of the Brazilian national flag fused into an ideogram for Oxóssi, the orixá (god) of hunting and forests in different Afro-Brazilian religions. Although Nascimento sustained his active militancy against racism in Brazil and across the African diaspora, he had to self-exile in the U.S. for a decade due to persecution by the military regime.
In 1997, artist Cyriaco Lopes was invited to create a work for an exhibition at the Museum of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro. Commenting on the history of the proclamation of the Republic in 1889—itself a military coup—Lopes used a hundred large blue plastic balls, usually sold as children’s toys. He printed on them words in Portuguese such as “to order” or “to progress” that referred to the national flag’s “Order and Progress” motto. The balls were left unmonitored in gardens or floating on the Museum’s artificial lake; soon, children who visited the institution started to play around with them. Photographs of these interactions show adults and children laying on the grass or kicking the objects towards the lake.
When a federal government rises to power in Brazil, it often reshapes the governmental visual identity by creating a new logo. In these apparently inoffensive state-sponsored designs, our flag’s colors have been deployed to transmit a certain notion of unity to the people. The last government’s logo, president Michel Temer’s—launched the day he took office in 2016—made use exactly of the blue shape that Lopes incorporated as part of his work, in 1997. Temer’s version of the government’s logo was a shiny, blue, 3D-starry-globe spanned by the traditional flag’s band “Order and Progress,” while the green and yellow colors and shapes—that represent Brazil’s natural resources—went missing. As I watched the broadcasting of Temer’s first speech, I shivered when I saw the logo as a frame for his discourse: it became clear to me that government had as its goal an intensified capitalization of Brazil’s natural resources.
Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign also drew widely upon national symbols, the difference being that this visual culture is aligned with Donald Trump’s appeal for guns, wars, and walls. The internet is now full of made-in-Brazil-far-right-images; in one example Bolsonaro is seen firing a rifle to the skies during his presidential campaign—admittedly targeting the Workers’ Party—a viral gesture that has been mimicked even by small children. During week one of his government, Bolsonaro and part of his extremist evangelical team—all against same-sex marriage—erased the term “LBGTQ+ people” from updated guidelines for the Human Rights ministry.
Even before these alarming events took place, artists had been responding to this far-right fever. #coleraalegria, a Sao Paulo-based collective of artists and curators, has since 2016 organized public workshops for the making of signs and flags used in protests. A flag created as part of the workshops has a drawing of two pink hands with fingers united in the shape of a vagina, with a tiny Brazilian flag as clitoris, framed by the phrase “Xota Power” (Pussy Power), a feminist response to Bolsonaro’s misogynist comments.
Artist Randolpho Lamonier combined protesting with carefully composed embroidery works. Instead of referring only to present struggles, Lamonier prophesizes future victories for queer, landless, and indigenous peoples. Using pop culture aesthetics in his lettering and compositions, Lamonier queers urban guerrilla language by creating both fierce and delicate works. Queering the Brazilian flag was also artists Manoela Cezar’s and Eduardo Tallia’s goal: just after Bolsonaro won the election, their alteration of the Brazilian flag went viral on Instagram. In it, they replaced the original expression “Order and Progress” by “Protect Your Friends,” and changed the flag’s colors to pink and the LGBTQ+ rainbow.
Other artists have found ways of responding to authoritarianism in Brazil by re-articulating the relationship between flags and the body that Oiticica explored so well in “Parangolés” and in Seja Marginal. Mano Penalva produced a photo-performance, Porta Bandeira—Ensaio para Resistência (Flag Carrier—Rehearsal for Resistance) (2018), in which he photographed himself holding flag poles that support no flags: he appears in official poses that follow the protocol for the honoring of national flags. Made just before Bolsonaro’s victory, the absence of the flag points to the absurdity of nationalistic gestures that seek to discipline the body; it is as if representing national belonging had become unbearable.
The current version of the Brazilian national flag was designed in 1889, just after the Proclamation of the Republic. The meaning behind each of its colors and shapes has a long history linked to Portugal’s colonial domination, but Brazilians say that the green stands for Brazil’s forests, or natural resources, while yellow stands for the country’s mineral resources, or gold. Researching these histories, Bia Monteiro decided to dye textiles with pigments made from Brazilian raw materials that have been extracted since colonial times, such as brazilwood, coffee, and turmeric. After the dyeing process, she composed photo-performances in which women appear holding the textiles—as if they were flags—amidst natural landscapes. In an image of the “Desterrar” (“To Deport”) (2018) series, the textile’s transparency allows the silhouette of a body to merge with the flag. Stripped from national emblems, the banner shows the haunting shadow of a solitary woman.
The celebratory verdea-marelismos Brazilians enjoy subscribing to in order to imagine they live in a “racial democracy” are actually driven by centuries of class-based and racialized forms of oppression. Although Brazil is the country of samba and soccer—when these cultural manifestations shape national discourses—what is more convenient is extracted from Afro-Brazilian and indigenous cultures, while these groups’ rights remain constantly under attack. Since the end of slavery in the late nineteenth century, elites have fostered whitening practices that have also been constructed around mestiçagem (racial miscegenation). A work by Ivan Grilo refers to that history. Privileges (2017) is inspired by white flags that mark the worship houses (terreiros) of Afro-Brazilian religions. In this work Grilo uses a veil to partially conceal a historic photograph that documents the approval of the slavery’s abolition. If one looks carefully through the transparent veil, the image one sees does not depict a Black revolutionary moment, but a group of congressmen and senators—some were members from rural elites that consistently tried to prevent the approval.
Bolsonaro’s government is already aggravating attacks that have been part of the quotidian lives of minorities in Brazil; indigenous and Afro-Brazilian activists have always been at the frontlines of fighting authoritarianism. Artists such as Jaider Esbell, Denilson Baniwa, and Sallisa Rosa have recently created public performances disseminated on social media. Rosa has started photographing machetes that members of her family use as work tools in indigenous rural areas, bringing this iconography to posters placed across Rio’s streets. A symbol of farmworkers’ and Afro-Brazilian resistance, the machete also has a history in Brazilian indigenous activist visual culture: it now rises again to oppose a government that has no respect for indigenous lands or its peoples. Bolsonaro’s administration has repeatedly echoed past autocracies’ tactics, making indigenous peoples even more vulnerable to the action of poachers and agribusiness.
In the video-performance Despacho na Bandeira (Offering in Flag) (2017), Gilson Andrade enacts an Afro-Brazilian religious offering, using an outdated Brazilian Republican flag that lays underneath a similar black flag. During the offering, Andrade makes a bundle of the black flag, putting several objects inside and sewing its edges to seal it. By using the national flag that preceded our current one, Andrade may be commenting on the moment when whitening ideologies and national discourses interweaved. Bolsonaro has received intense support from extremist evangelical parties: politics have collided with intolerant beliefs. According to Folha newspaper, crimes due to religious intolerance reached a peak in 2018: most of the attacks have happened against Afro-Brazilian terreiros.
In Nilo Peçanha (2013), a video-performance by Dalton Paula, the artist appears facing a cityscape (Brasília) while viewers see only his naked back being pierced with the Brazilian Coat of Arms, a textile appliqué used in military uniforms. The work’s title refers to Brazil’s 7th president (1909 – 10) who is said to have hidden his Afro-Brazilian background; the conservative press often ridiculed Peçanha due to his skin color. Paula’s body does not shiver or move with each bite of the sewing needle; his marking becomes another iteration of the silencing of the Black body in Brazil.
If, in the 1960s, Oiticica gathered revolutionary energies in joyful flag-like “Parangolés,”inspired by the samba of black and brown bodies in favelas, Paula opens his own Black body so as to expose the oppressive force of nationalistic symbols that come disguised as nostalgic celebrations, or self-proclaimed “myths.” As Brazilians prepare to face a four-year-tempest—in the art world and outside of it—it is urgent to strengthen networks of solidarity, holding on to each other, até vencermos. Until we win again.