Professor Nicola Cooney's POR 262 visits Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre’s exhibition “Pardo é papel” at the Shed in NYC

Nov. 21, 2022

On November 11, Prof. Nicola Cooney took her students in POR 262 Portuguese in the City: Urban Counternarratives, as well as several SPO graduate students on a trip to see the art exhibition “Pardo é Papel: The Glorious Victory and New Power” by Maxwell Alexandre, at The Shed in NYC. Alexandre, a former professional in-line skater born in Rio in 1990, graduated in design from PUC-Rio and is one of Brazil’s most notable young contemporary artists. We had the great fortune to be joined for the afternoon by Oga Mendonça, a designer, multimedia artist and podcaster from São Paulo and to have had a wonderful tour with curatorial assistant and artist, Deja Belardo.

Professor Cooney spoke with her students about their experience of the exhibition, the way it dialogued with class discussions and more generally about the opportunity to have guest-speakers (artists, activists, scholars) and field-trips in a course like this.

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Photos by Nicola Cooney

“Since the beginning of the course, we have talked about the periphery versus the center in Brazil and Lusophone cities across the world. We’ve discussed the way Afro-Brazilian identities are relegated to the margins of society through the denial of resources/infrastructure to poorer hillside communities, the criminalization of activities such as graffiti and pichação, and the erasure of black voices from mainstream artistic and cultural spaces. This exhibition not only laid bare this reality of social inequality through references to Alexandre’s own childhood in one of Rio’s favelas but is also revolutionary in its centering of an Afro-Brazilian voice in the sphere of contemporary art, one long dominated by white artists.

The work was breathtaking—I felt both overwhelmed and delighted by the explosion of colors, pattern work and character motifs that leapt out from every corner of the “pardo” (kraft) paper. One way that Alexandre’s work actively decried hegemonic narratives was through its focus on the child and the childish. Many black voices throughout history have been suppressed by means of infantilization, and Alexandre takes back the power stolen by this injustice by presenting his work as a sort of portal into his childhood imagination. By including renderings of action figures and cartoon characters like the Danone and Toddynho food product mascots, Alexandre affirms that his experience as an Afro-Brazilian youth matters and is worth sharing on the world stage. 

I really enjoyed the exhibition’s moments of humor or meta-ness; for example, the depiction of red velvet ropes signaling to viewers that a certain area was off limits, or the painted rendering of the hanging canvases themselves with images of shoes underneath and a gallery attendant leaning against a stool (i.e. a depiction of the gallery setting as part of the gallery). These moments were powerful in that they showed that social commentary does not always have to center darkness or violence (as is often the imperative imposed on artists of color), and that lightness and humor can be just as effective in provoking conversations about equity and representation.”

It has been invaluable to have guest speakers from the Portuguese-speaking world visit our class, and I feel the

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same way about this trip. These experiences have helped pierce the bubble of strictly academic language-learning, in which it can be easy to feel stunted and insecure in my speaking ability. I have been able to see how Portuguese operates in a real-world context (i.e. by familiarizing myself with common words and phrases used in casual as well as professional settings), which in turn has boosted my confidence in my increasing ability to communicate in another language.” - Isabel Kingston COM ‘23


“This exhibition perfectly complemented the topics we’ve been learning in the course. In class, we’ve seen a lot of art and music coming from Black artists and musicians in Brazil whose work get overlooked by the hegemonic society. This exhibition was amazing to see, in that I was able to see Black representation and empowerment through art that is being shown in a venue that attracts a wide audience and gives the exhibit a platform to shine.

I loved the many intersectional representation of Black people in his work, and I especially loved the pieces where Maxwell painted art gallery scenes to help the audience feel the experience both in person and while viewing the art. On the one hand, he showed Black people as being outsiders in the art world by painting them as guards who stand outside the gallery curtains. But he also had a huge piece with Black people viewing art inside the gallery - even painting a separate piece of red event ropes that are often used to exclude people - to show that Black art and people should and do belong in the art world both as artists and audience.

I enjoyed being able to discuss the art with my classmates. I felt that we were really engaged and helped each other see the art in ways we didn’t think of. - Clariza Macaspac (’24 SPO)
 

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“This exhibition allowed us to see many of the themes discussed in class, visualized. Questions of how Afro-Brazilians are treated and depicted in Brazilian popular culture,

as well as the manner in which questions of wealth and inequality are answered artistically, were explored in such a way that even the medium itself (papel pardo) became a form of commentary. I particularly was enthused by the commentary on branding and mass consumerism in Brazil, because it added a layer of understanding to our class discussions of how socio-economic status impacts how Brazilians and other Lusophone people interact with their material environments.

I was deeply interested by the mediums that Mr. Alexandre used to depict his subjects. In a sense, his work, by virtue of taking up the entire exhibition space, constituted a reconquest of a place not usually accessible to the marginalized. This reconquest of space- the art museum located in the major nexus of the world's foremost hegemonic power- was a direct counter to the usual assumption that stories such as his will be told by "well-meaning" observers from the global north. 

I most enjoyed the use of brand imagery in the artwork. Mr. Oga Mendoça very much helped put it into context when he explained how, by virtue of the economic transition that Brazil has undergone in recent decades, many of these products went from being precious luxuries to commonalities in the lives of working-class Brazilians. This aspect of the work got me to consider the impact of globalization on how Brazilian society actually looks, in contrast with how it's depicted by western media.

In my opinion, having such experiences is a necessary part of the course, if only because it allows us to gain a

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first-hand perspective of how the issues we discuss affect individuals. It is especially important to understand not just how they are reflected in artistic creation, but why as well. Understanding this "why" is best achieved through the act of listening to the artists themselves and seeing their art in person.” - Joaquín Peralta Bierman ‘25

“Maxwell Alexandre's exhibition cannot be viewed with hands folded behind one's back, calmly pacing and frowning, which is the common gesture, who knows why, people assume when viewing contemporary art and visiting art galleries and museums. This is a theme, in fact, that figures in Andrade’s large-format paintings: collectors, curators, museum guards and even the artist himself are portrayed in a stereotypical and, at times, parodic manner. His work forces us to reflect on our role as spectators and makes us oscillate between aesthetic contemplation and political questioning. The lightness of each of the enormous pieces, hanging from the ceiling and actually moving with the breeze, contrasts with the strength of the motifs they represent: racism and classism, poverty, much poverty, and violence, much violence, emerge as one enters this labyrinth of papers and colors. A labyrinth after which, once the exit is found, it is impossible to remain the same.” - Pablo Guarín Robledo (SPO G1)