In the second phase of the exhibition “Helio Oiticica: A dança na minha experiência” [Helio Oiticica: dance in my experience], on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro (MAM Rio) since December 12, the carnivalesco Leandro Vieira joined the a team of curators as a guest artist at the show and brought an important addition to the museum: the work “Bandeira Brasileira” [Brazilian Flag], part of the Mangueira school Carnival parade in 2019. The insertion of an object originally from the avenue in a traditional institution like MAM Rio sparks complex discussions about the insertion of art produced for carnival parades into conventional showcases of contemporary works.
The little — if any — presence of carnival art in large institutions and museums is not new and has not shown any major changes over time. Leonardo Antan, art historian, curator and graduate in Art History by the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), who researches the artistic language of samba school parades, considers that “Carnival production is often seen with many restrictions, even though it is an event that brings together so many languages like music, dance, theater and visuality. Carnival production is seen as something less or less interesting, when it has very important qualities such as its collectivity, its popular reach and its power of speech. ”
The floats, costumes and objects that parade down the avenues of Brazil are hardly ever seen as relevant pieces of art or are later inserted into the institutional environment. This obstacle is largely due to the origin of the party, which is a mostly black cultural product, the result of the resistance of people in cities in which they are excluded, and who historically struggle to insert themselves in the official history told by society’s elites, as is made explicit in the plot of the Mangueira school parade in 2019, “Stories to lull grown-ups”.
Antan defends the insertion of carnival works in institutional circuits as a way of telling the story of a different Brazil than the one shown in history books. “Carnival should not be isolated as an eccentric or displaced manifestation of time. It is a portrait of a group of people and the time in which it is inserted, as well as the artistic production such as any other medium. It is just as important to our national identity as contemporary works produced in areas seen as traditional.”
In this regard, there is no lack of examples of the contemporaneity of the subjects dealt with in the avenues. In 2020, the São Paulo school Rosas de Ouro paraded with the theme “the fourth industrial revolution” and in 2019, the Águia de Ouro chose corruption as the central subject of its parade. The works of art produced in the context of carnival don’t necessarily require dedicated exhibitions and exclusive curatorships. They can join contemporary exhibitions as another medium used to tell the story of the Brazilian people in their different moments.
Even within the same country, there are differences in how carnival is inserted in the art world. Historically, one can observe different treatments between carnivals in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The first city has a closer relationship with the parades due to the Salgueirense Revolution in the 1960s, which brought artists from the Municipal Theater and the School of Fine Arts to produce parades with the samba schools, as well as the iconic parade in honor of Xica da Silva, which won carnavalesco Arlindo Rodrigues the “Best Brazilian Costume Designer Award” at the 8th São Paulo Art Biennial, in 1965. “I think that in São Paulo, this movement did not happen as strongly, perhaps due to a scenario of institutions that are more elitist and less open to dialogue ”, concludes the researcher. The same happens with other cities that have world-famous carnivals, such as Olinda, Recife, Salvador and Ouro Preto.
We can hope that the exhibition at MAM Rio, which includes the banner of the 2019 parade, will kickstart a greater insertion of carnival in institutional circuits. Together with the flag, in the Hélio Oiticica exhibition — and artists known for his passion for samba and the Mangueira school, who takes carnival as inspiration in works —, are the famous “Parangolés”, a work of art created in the carnival context. The Parangolés are sheets, banners and flags made of colorful fabrics created to be used, transported or danced in by the participating spectators, who become part of this work which is only realized when in movement. Although created in the context of carnival, the Parangolés enjoy a crystallized status as a work of art of modernism, frequently being exposed outside their carnival context. The union of Oiticica with a current artwork from carnival reinforces in the eyes of visitors and critics the importance of contextualizing the parades in the Brazilian history, especially in the studies of contemporary art produced in the country.