(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series, click here.)
By Sandi Halimuddin and Sarah Lipkis
A person dressed in a baggy, black hooded sweatshirt waves the Brazilian flag— mounted on a long, broken tree branch— in the air. The person is unidentifiable, with a white mask covering half his or her face. It’s nighttime, but the figure is outlined by the crackling light of fire, which burns a man-made barricade of twigs and branches. A crowd of spectators and photographers stand in the background, blurred out of focus.
Nelson Antoine, a local photographer, took the photo at a protest in São Paulo, Brazil, in the heat of the summer unrest. It’s a snapshot of a memory, embedded into the minds of Brazilian demonstrators. But in early September, Brazilians confronted this photo, along with other provocative images from the urban riots, in a public exhibition by Foto Protesto SP.
Foto Protesto SP, a group of professional photographers, lined the blank walls around the Araçá Cemetery with 55 feet of large portraits. Local police claimed these photo collages constituted an environmental crime, but a video documenting the group’s endeavor reveals positive public engagement and response.
“I think it’s another relation with space; we feel part of the protests too. It seems we appropriate this place,” said one onlooker outside of the Araçá Cemetery walls.
Like Antoine’s picture, all the photos in the public exhibition recount the summer of 2013, which has been referred to as the “Brazilian Spring” and “V for Vinegar Movement,” inspired by reporter Piero Locatelli, who was arrested during coverage of São Paulo protests. When taken by the police, he was carrying a bottle of vinegar to protect himself.
The protests began when demonstrators from cities across Brazil joined in solidarity with Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) to demonstrated against increased bus fares. Unlike other commodity prices fluctuating with inflation, bus fares are controlled by the government and have not changed since 2011. The sudden increase in bus fares disproportionately and unfairly targeted Brazil’s struggling middle and lower classes.
As the waves of protest snowballed into mass gatherings of thousands of demonstrators, it became clear that bus fare hikes were not the only issue, but rather the tipping point. The protests revealed longstanding issues of economic inequality and frustration with the Brazilian government– and have grown to incorporate grievances over education, transportation, health, and more recently, the FIFA World Cup.
And although protests have since dwindled and efforts are less unified, Foto Protesto SP is one of many prominent artist groups that does not want Brazil to give up or forget. While their first installation was defaced and taken down, Foto Protesto SP continues its public art in a series of installations around the city. They function both as a memorial to the June protests in Brazil, but also as a visual protest— encouraging people to continue their fight against neoliberal changes to Brazil’s social and political foundation.
“In the last twenty years, Brazil lived in a moment of political apathy. An entire generation was born and grew up without knowing the power of mobilization, was educated in political apathy, but now all this changed. These moments of social upheaval are always very interesting for art; after all, when society changes so does the art,” says Brazilian artists Danilo Restaino.
The intersection of social activism and art in Brazil is not new. Since the 1960s, street art, such as pichação (tagging) and graffiti, has been an integral part of Brazilian social activist history. Today, Brazilians continue to embrace art as a critical form of political dissent of the government.
Four years ago, Brazil was touted—albeit prematurely—as the next prominent developing country to watch, as signaled by The Economist article “Brazil takes off.” Brazil’s ensuing rapid growth was fueled by credit consumption and low unemployment. Benefiting from open trade and foreign investment, Brazil’s economic momentum qualified the nation for an “entrance on the world stage”—as the host of the 2014 World Cup and later the 2016 host of the Olympic summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
Yet, by 2012, Brazil’s outlook was not so optimistic. The economic boom was short-lived and a crisis of credit-fueled consumption growth ensued, leaving the middle and lower classes vulnerable. Coupled with a decline in international investment, Brazil’s growth outpaced the government’s ability to provide a social safety net.
While hosting both the World Cup and Olympic summer games in the near future will create jobs, increase tourism, and boost GDP, it comes at a formidable cost—approximately $30 billion, according to Bloomberg. Lavish state spending on sports events includes more than construction of sports stadiums; it involves projects building new roads, while bolstering urban transit, hotels, airports, and communications. While projects are often advertised as benefiting the local economy, often these multi-billion dollar contractors hire outside labor or, even worse, force the displacement of inhabitants living in favelas, urban shantytowns, near construction sites.
In this light, recent demonstrations over state-funded World Cup developments in Brazil have less to do with football and more to do with government negligence. Both the World Cup and the Olympic games provide an international platform for Brazilian civilians to protest grievances—with the whole world watching.
One local NGO, Rio de Paz, has taken advantage of Brazil’s position in the spotlight by using symbols associated with the World Cup in public art installations. In June, Rio de Paz arranged soccer balls on Copacabana Beach in the likeness of a cemetery, symbolizing both the high rate of homicide in the country and the lack of government services.
By using soccer balls, the NGO draws attention to the government’s priority and funding of the World Cup, while calling for the same high “FIFA standard” to be applied to public services as security, education, healthcare, and transportation.
While costly sports improvements are made, fundamental social services are severely underfunded. Although Brazilian citizens pay among the highest rate of taxes in the developing world—tax revenues make up 36 percent of Brazil’s GDP— they fail to see their money translate into adequate health and education services.
The numbers are disheartening. The Brazilian government spends a mere 8.8 percent of its GDP on health care, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And the picture only gets worse when examining the educational system. Brazil’s teachers are amongst the lowest paid teachers in the world, with an average teacher salary of $18,550 according to the Varkey Gem Foundation’s list.
While President Dilma Rousseff and the National Congress of Brazil have addressed some of the protesters’ demands, including a reduction in public transportation prices, issues persist—and so do protests. Last month, protesters in São Paulo rioted for free public transportation, smashing ATMs and ticket machines, and setting parked public buses ablaze in flames. The police responded with tear gas. Protesters also convened in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to demand pay increase for Brazilian teachers. What started out as a mostly peaceful protest turned violent when a small group of anti-government demonstrators clashed with police forces.
Although protests have since dwindled and efforts are less unified, political cartoonist Carlos Latuff uses his art as a reminder of the protests and the underlying issues plaguing Brazilian society. His recent art takes on a central issue, namely the lack of actual power citizens have within the Brazilian democracy.
Latuff’s cartoons are bold, colorful, and controversial. While he is well known for his work on the Arab Spring, as well as on anti-globalization and anti-capitalism themes, he has recently been vocal about the Brazil protests. In one image, a Brazilian police officer points a gun at a protester holding a sign that says “Sem Violência!,” which translates to nonviolence in English. Using a red marker, the cop scratches out the word “Sem” (non) and replaces it with “Com”, which translates to “with violence.”
[Cartoon courtesy of Carlos Latuff]
It’s a powerful image that calls attention to human rights in Brazil and also encapsulates the notoriety and criticism surrounding Latuff’s work. With work featured internationally on social media outlets and in publications from the Toronto Star to Le Monde Diplomatique, Latuff has an impressive following. Yet more recently the artist himself has become the subject of attention— and criticism. Latuff was arrested three times for drawings against police brutality in Brazil. He’s also received death threats from military police supporters on social networks.
Despite the threats, Latuff is most excited about seeing his work come to life in protest form. Through his political cartoons, Latuff writes he is “raising conscience, showing what mainstream media won’t, [and] making a historical registration for future generations.”. As demonstrators have used placards of Latuff’s populist cartoons during protests, the artist provides a voice for the common people of Brazil. Instead of merely reflecting the political and social upheavals, Latuff’s cartoons and the protestors’ appropriation of his work reinforcing each other, spreading awareness and challenging the status quo.
The 2013 summer protests of Brazil are arguably the largest unified public demonstrations since the military dictatorship ended in 1985. They reflect a collective realization of the pressing need for equality and transparency.
Ricardo de Càstro, another Brazilian artist is hopeful that the protests and art can make a difference.“The protests affect everything and everyone. We are resuming our strength as a nation, and the changes are already emerging. Surely, the art will be affected.” The purpose of art is to communicate a message, and in this case, the message is change.
Sandi Halimuddin and Sarah Lipkis are editorial assistants at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Tomaz Silva]