Feb. 28, 2023

by Daniel Persia

On January 1, 2023, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated as the 39th President of Brazil, marking the end of a right-wing regime responsible for unparalleled environmental devastation, reduction of essential funding in education and healthcare, and discrimination against LGBTQ+, indigenous, black and other minoritized populations.

Lula visit to lily's exhibit

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, next to First Lady Rosângela Lula da Silva, and historian Lilia Schwarcz, co-curator of the exhibition Brasil futuro: As formas da democracia. National Museum of the Republic. Brasília—Federal District. Artwork by Jaider Esbell. Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert/PR.

January 1st was a “day of hope, a new beginning and a new pact for democracy,” affirmed Lilia Schwarcz, Visiting Professor at Princeton and affiliate of the Brazil LAB. In little more than two weeks’ time, Schwarcz—together with Rogério Carvalho, Márcio Tavares and Paulo Vieira—transformed a segment of Brasília’s National Museum of the Republic into a vital space for contemporary dialogue and exchange. Their co-curated exhibit, Brasil futuro: As formas da democracia (Future Brazil: Forms of Democracy), gathers more than 200 works from over a hundred Brazilian artists. The goal? To posit democracy as an open project, one in perpetual (re)construction, requiring the vision and imagination of the entirety of the nation—of all of Brazil’s most diverse constituents.

Brasil futuro opened its doors to the public on January 1st, the day of both the presidential inauguration and the reinstatement of the Ministry of Culture—dissolved by the Bolsonaro administration in 2019—under the new leadership of Margareth Menezes. The exhibition remains open until February 26th.

The tripartite structure of Brasil futuro reveals its intentions and aspirations. The first of three thematic sections, “Retomar os símbolos” (Take Back the Symbols), is an exploration and reclamation of Brazil’s most iconic national symbols, including, most prominently, the flag. Artists such as Bruno Baptistelli, Mario Ishikawa, Emmanuel Nassar, Adriana Varejão and Edgar Kanaykó Xakriabá reconceive the flag—its symbolism, its colors and materiality—in an effort to recast it away from the heteronormative, patriarchal narratives of Brazil’s past. In the second section, “Descolonizar” (Decolonize), the urgency to reclaim, to retell, gains momentum, this time wresting Brazil from the white, masculinist, European discourses in which the histories of its art and politics have long been entrenched. Works by black, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ artists imagine alternative Brazils, or alternative formations of Brazilian nationality. Viewers encounter, among other works, a series of vibrant paintings by indigenous artist Jaider Esbell, who recently passed away, in 2021.

The third and final section of the exhibition, “Somos nós” (It Is Us), serves as one final crescendo, an embrace of plurality, bringing social markers such as race, gender, geography and even generation to the forefront of the conversation on Brazilian democracy. Here viewers find two of the exhibition’s most-talked-about works: Daiara Tukano’s A queda do céu e a mãe de todas as lutas (The Falling Sky and The Mother of All Fights) and Djanira da Motta e Silva’s  Orixás, which was removed from the Palácio do Planalto at the request of then-First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro for its depiction of Afro-based religions.

On February 8th, President Lula da Silva and First Lady Janja visited the Brasil futuro exhibition at the National Museum of the Republic. Their visit came one month after extreme right-wing golpistas invaded government buildings in Brasília. “President Lula’s symbolic gesture was one of immense significance, reaffirming the relevance of democracy and the president’s commitment to it,” said Schwarcz, when asked of the visit’s impact. “This was an extremely important act: a president visiting an art exhibition—and even funding such an exhibition, dedicated to honoring artists (especially women, indigenous, black and LGBTQ+ artists) who were so intensely persecuted by the previous administration.” ”

President Lula, who was planning on staying at the museum for only twenty minutes, stayed for two hours, sharing his curiosity and appreciation for Brazilian artistic production.

“It’s a gesture that shows a tremendous commitment to diversity,” said Schwarcz, “and an openness to the privileged place of the imaginary” in Brazil’s continued quest for democracy.