‘A problem of the middle class (a belated letter from São Paulo)’, un Projects, March 2019.

Installation view with Days of being free (2018), Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Credit: Sivanesan.
This took forever, it’s a relief to get it out. 

SP33 occurred during a time of intense political upheaval in Brazil. The impeachment of popularly elected president Dilma Roussef of the Workers Party in 2016 set the scene for the then-minor conservative politician Jair Bolsonaro to rise as a populist right-wing presidential candidate. Often dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ for his nationalist stance and divisive rhetoric, Bolsonaro is better understood as a product of Brazil’s military, representing the interests of its former dictatorship (1964 – 1985). Many fear that his recent ascent to the Presidency marks the return of that regime.

The build-up to the October election saw significant protests in Brazil’s major cities. The #EleNão (Not Him) campaign brought millions into the streets protesting Bolsonaro’s stance on Black people, Indigenous people, women and gender non-conforming people, propelled by anguish and anger over the assassination of queer Black councilor Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro in March of 2018. Earlier this year, investigators disclosed that employees close to Bolsonaro’s family have been linked to her killing (Ramalho, 2019).

Further fueling the mood of disaffection, a fire in Rio de Janeiro’s Museo Nacional on 2 September 2018 destroyed much of its collection, just days before the Bienal opened. It remains an enormous tragedy that many argue could have been prevented if the museum were properly funded and managed. Events that followed were tainted with a sense of this loss; what Brazilians might call saudade.

Over several attempts to review this Bienal, I found myself swinging between poles of schadenfreude and saudade. It irked me to discuss the staging, production and consumption of contemporary art as I came to grips with ingrained divisions of race and class and intense social inequalities in Brazil, all the while as an authoritarian government was ushered in.

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