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One Degree South

The land and air are hot. The humidity is stifling. Belém do Pará is a unique city, with unusual features. The exuberance of its surroundings is undeniable, as a forest gateway and river/sea port. However, you have to live here to understand the place, or else throw yourself into it, like a tacacá simmering in the three p.m. sun – few can resist this dish, made with açaí and dried shrimp or jerky, or perhaps the local duck in tucupi sauce for that matter, served with rice, beans and manioc. Pará has so many ingredients, exotic to many, that it’s hard to quantify them, but they can be savored calmly, poetically, by all who go with their flow, even tourists, whether by chance or just passing through, figuring they’re in Cairo.

Yet anyone who thinks we’re wrapped in the brume of mystery and that inspiration falls from above like ripe mangoes is very much mistaken. Life is a challenge here. Vast distances, insalubrity, communication so slow it seems almost steam-driven, precariousness of all sorts. But everything happens, everything gets known, gets done, gets sung in prose, verse, sound and image.

Originally the Captaincy of Gram Pará, we experienced the luxuries of the rubber boom, the opera in the forest, the belle époque as an American Paris, tethered to the rest of the world and to history. Mário de Andrade was shocked to see a porcupine on a lead...but he knew Belém was made for him.1 How is anyone to understand this place in a short time and few words? These were the themes proposed ay the 31st Bienal Open Meeting, held in Belém on the night of December 19, at the Instituto de Arte do Pará, and chaired by the Curators Pablo Lafuente, Galit Eilat and Benjamin Seroussi, Associate Curator. The encounter, which lasted over two hours, gathered some fifty individuals, among artists, researchers, art students, curators, critics and the merely curious.

Isolation seems to be a concept up for discussion, and the attempt to rhyme it with distance is immediately parried –roads and rivers are entryways, and you don’t have to go too far back in time to see that we have a body of art that speaks for itself. So we skip through modernity and the cycles that followed to get to the diversity of contemporaneity.

And diversity is the 'in' word today. From the north down, a lot is built upon this concept, which, rather than serve as adjective to a socially perceptible situation, is the beginning of a certain (re)cognition. Take the historical co-existence between so many cultures, a privileged geographical position, the natural contradiction, and there goes the melting pot onto the fire of an impassioned complexity to cook up a self-styled art detached from market appeal,2 pulsating, plugged into the rest of the world, in a dialogue that broadens one’s view of oneself and the surroundings.

Location is a point of connection and openness to a plural world, of unbridged perception, with everything circulating here and now – before, it was only the time of departure and arrival that made any difference. Place is both theme and background, though without lapsing into corny regionalization, despite having such a unique folk tradition rich in characters pregnant with symbols commonly employed in refined re-significations. The discussion turns to the local and the universal in Pará’s production in general and that of Belém in particular, and conflict naturally takes hold among so many voices, which, nevertheless, carry more than mere nouns retracing beaten paths and defining the sundry identities that inhabit the same time and space. Identity is another focus, demanding immersion in multiform culture, autochthonous and foreign, which deposits raw material still to be known, polished, explored.

The city is a huge laboratory, and after the afternoon rains anything is possible. Known as it is for its hospitality, the doors are always open, receptive to influences from the four corners—raw material to blend with the local experience, which carries its own particular scent, conjured by Amazonian photosynthesis.

From here, anything can depart for anywhere, regardless of custom or language – art imposes itself as its own language, the spiritual essence of things3, and beats new routes with each foray; despite the country’s ignorance of itself our art breaches casuistic boundaries and projects itself into space while reaffirming aggregated concepts, in an ongoing invitation to exchange and self-knowledge, to a spiraling reconciliation, where there is always room for one more.

And speaking of essences, yes there is a certain Amazonicity latent to the work proposed and executed here, even though imbued with a universal character that authorizes its circulation. After all, 'the Amazonian artist is the recipient of a cultural legacy and inheritance of values'4, in the words of Paulo Herkenhoff, and the region, as already said, is the perfect stage for the development of more contemporary themes, even if this means the artist must do a turn as actor, receptor and/or proponent – or, perhaps more fittingly, Belém is that stage, its decadent architecture lending retro airs to performances that take the streets and turn them into open-air museums.

There’s a certain complicity in the air above Belém, descending upon it like a fog and indicating corners and addresses that invite visitation and enjoyment, which transfigure into pages written and sung, portrayed in layers of paint and chemicals, on canvases and in free space. So many inspiring details jut from routine to devise a whole new script. In a letter to Manuel Bandeira the traveler Mário de Andrade speaks of how Belém won him over, 'to the extent that it ached in desire',5 and there’s no shortage of wanderers who have settled in these parts and assumed new identities and customs. Ours is a curious city, ultimately violent toward its sons, feeding the nation with its least promising statistics, but which nonetheless insists on what it does best – which is being itself!

text: Maria Christina



1 ANDRADE, Mario. O turista aprendiz, São Paulo, Duas Cidades, 1976.

2 MANESCHY, Orlando. Selvagem e Contemporânea in Amazônia a arte, Rio de Janeiro, Imago, 2010.

3 BENJAMIN, Walter. "On Language as Such and the Language of Man", São Paulo: Duas Cidades; Editora 34, 2011.

4 Interview with Paulo Herkenhoff, Amazônia a arte, Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 2010.

5 Letter written by Mário de Andrade to Manuel Bandeira during his historic Amazonian journey in 1927. Link.

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