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Society

Book clubs the not-so-new hope for struggling Brazilian publishing industry

As the Brazilian publishing market continues to grapple with the court-supervised reorganization of the country’s two main bookstore chains and an anemic economy, a not-so-new alternative that resurged in recent years became a renewed hope for the country’s publishing houses: subscription-based book clubs. 

The “box club” e-commerce model has picked up steam for the last few years in Brazil. According to the Brazilian E-Commerce Association (Abcomm), there were 800 companies specialized in this subscription model in 2018, generating revenue of BRL 780 million. In the publishing market, a study on Brazilians’ reading habits indicated that independent book clubs generated BRL 20.14 million with these products, more than traditional channels such as newspaper stands, but still streets away from the BRL 1.86 billion generated by bookstores.[restricted]

TAG Experiencias Literárias subscription-based book club rose as the movement’s leading example. In the past five years, the company sold over 700,000 literary kits to 50,000 readers, according to its website. At TAG, customers may choose between receiving books from special curators or works that have never been published in Brazil. 

The model is inspired by the Círculo do Livro, a joint-venture publishing house owned by Abril—Brazil’s largest publisher—and German group Bertelsmann. Círculo do Livro operated a popular book club in Brazil between the 1970s and 1990s, sending out catalogs to members who would choose which titles they would like to order.

According to Marcos da Veiga Pereira, the president of the Brazilian National Association of Book Publishers (SNEL), what makes this kind of business model remain attractive for readers in the digital era is the level of personalization customers may enjoy.

“We’ve seen the growth of this segment with lots of optimism in the past five years and I believe that the main differentiation factor is the content curation each company has adopted to define its collection. Beyond the service and the price, readers must trust the selection of titles they will receive each month,” he told The Brazilian Report, in an email.

Alternative revenues for book publishers

While companies such as TAG established book clubs as an e-commerce business model, for publishers it became an alternative —and profitable— source of income to tackle the troublesome process of selling books. Essentially, publishing houses must bear the costs of the entire process, before the books are “borrowed” by bookstores on consignment, who later pay publishers a fee on sales up to 90 days later.

Ubu, an independent publishing house from São Paulo, saw book clubs as a way to meet its audience’s demand for material to understand current issues, and for the company to escape the vicious financial cycle of consignment to bookstores. After developing a newsletter subscriber base of 17,000, they launched a pre-sale model that developed into a book club.

“During the elections, we felt our clients were feeling lost, trying to understand what was going on. Then we took part in the Panaceia book club and decided to make something with the publishing house’s signature, which is focused on the current [political] debate. So we offer non-fiction books ranging from historic references for current issues to books providing data about economics, gender identity, and many other topics. The idea is to explore a niche,” explained Ubu’s director and founder Florência Ferrari, speaking to The Brazilian Report.

Ubu is now able to sell up to 15 percent of a book’s edition while it’s still in the printing stage, freeing up resources for future projects. Launched in August 2019, the Circuito Ubu book club already has 400 subscribers, amounting to 5 to 8 percent of the company’s revenue.

For Ms. Ferrari, the model’s success is connected to the customer experience. “It’s like receiving a gift. The box comes and there’s a book someone chose for you, with exclusive content to enhance the reading experience,” she says. Ubu has also been increasing its experience features through a content hub for subscribers and organizing live debates broadcast on social media, in which viewers may take part by sending questions. “The club has become a way for people to feel closer, especially when they come from small towns that have no bookshops or places to debate ideas,” she said.

A saturated market?

Focusing on niche markets, book clubs were able to dodge the cruel reality of Brazil’s publishing industry. SNEL/Nielsen data shows that from January to November 2019, Brazilian book sales fell 8.31 percent in value to BRL 1.43 billion, and 9 percent in volume, in comparison with 2018 levels.

As the market shrinks, publishers and book clubs have to find ways to generate new audiences. Though Mr. Pereira believes in the growth potential of book clubs, he highlights that “the great challenge for new market entrants is to have a different model, one able to attract new readers.”

Ms. Ferrari believes that, as the market is currently very restricted, there may be some saturation, but communication can help to build much-needed new audiences.[/restricted]

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Society

Isle of Flowers: The greatest Brazilian short film of all time

Claiming anything as “the greatest” in its category is a tricky assertion to make. Even more so with the arts. However, when the Brazilian Association of Film Critics (Abraccine) selected “Isle of Flowers” (original title, “Ilha das Flores”) as Brazil’s greatest ever short film, not too many eyebrows were raised among the country’s film buffs.[restricted]

Directed in 1989 by Jorge Furtado, “Isle of Flowers” quickly became an unmissable reference in Brazilian cinema and TV after it wowed audiences at its premiere at the Gramado Film Festival. It walked away with a bunch of prizes on its debut, taking Best Short Film, Best Editing, Best Screenplay, and the Critics’ Award, setting the stage for what has been 30 years of unwavering critical acclaim.

Originally pitched as a documentary about the waste collection system in the southern state capital of Porto Alegre, “Isle of Flowers” turned into a damning indictment of Brazil’s inequality and the absence of the state, with the final minutes of the film remaining some of the most shocking sequences in Brazilian cinema.

The film begins narrating the life of a tomato grower, showing the workings of the economic cycle of producing and purchasing basic goods. It feels like an educational film, teaching the basic pillars of capitalism, with scenes of domestic Brazilian life intertwined with tongue-in-cheek Monty Python-style cut-out animations.

After tracking the trajectory of a “rejected” tomato, Furtado brings the story to Ilha das Flores, a notorious landfill in the city of Porto Alegre, which lends its name to the Portuguese title.

There, landowners select tomatoes and other waste products which are fit to feed to their pigs. Anything that is left over, impoverished families and children are allowed five minutes each to scavenge for whatever they can find.

The scenes of poor young children, raking around in food that is only fit for compost, eating whatever they can, is the image that stays in the minds of all who have seen “Isle of Flowers,” and the raw, sincere portrayal is what has made it the greatest short film in Brazilian history.

Furtado acknowledged how much the purpose of “Isle of Flowers” shifted during production, telling G1 that is “is not a documentary, it is a film of essays, of illustrated texts, part of it is journalistic.”

The most notable feat of the film is its pacing, rolling along with the rhythm of a song or poem, and when the tone shifts—from light-hearted to tragic—there is no time for the viewer to pause and assimilate what the film has become. It is as if the viewer is enjoying a swim in the sea, yet suddenly realizes he is drowning and there is nothing to be done. It is enveloping and it is unavoidable.

Furtado’s purpose of the film is to portray that this injustice follows a logic—which is skewed, yet a logic nonetheless. The beings in the film have a hierarchy, in accordance with their freedoms, their wealth, and their species. By the logic set out by Furtado, the impoverished families are on a rung below pigs. They have no money, and they have no owners, as the narration states. No-one is invested in their well-being, and they have no means to provide for themselves. It is a harsh reality which is as current as ever.  

Watch Isle of Flowers

Ilha das Flores (Island of Flowers) from Filipe Bessa on Vimeo.

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Society

Brazilian LGBTQ people fight prejudice through art

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in October 2018 and took office in January 2019. Since then, the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights has chosen to remove the legal protection status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) people. Some politicians are now pushing for a ban on discussing gender diversity and sexual orientation in schools.

Bathroom laws pertaining to which toilet facilities trans people are allowed to use, bills defining what constitutes a family, same-sex marriage, and laws enabling trans people to change their legal name are also seen to be under threat.

Brazil has been described as having the highest LGBTQ murder rate in the world—167 trans people were reported murdered between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018. During last year’s election campaign, a number of LGBT hate crimes were reported in the press.[restricted]

It is no wonder that many Brazilian LGBTQ people are worried they are becoming isolated from the rest of the world. Marielle Franco—a young left-wing politician who took a strong stance against police violence—was murdered in Rio de Janeiro in March 2018.

She was a bisexual black woman who grew up in the Maré favela and pushed for social justice for marginalized people in the city. She was assassinated by professional killers.

In Brazil, military police patrol the streets and are independent of the civil police, who carry out investigations. In March 2019, a year after her murder, it was reported that two ex-military police had been arrested for the killing.

Theusa Passareli—a 21-year-old art student who identified as genderqueer, or non-binary—was murdered in April 2018, on their way home from a party.

Their work was incomplete in the State University of Rio de Janeiro’s design studio when I visited in November 2018 and remain there to commemorate their memory, as the university and the trans community mourn the murder of another young person.

Resin on glass by Theusa Passareli
Resin on glass by Theusa Passareli. Catherine McNamara, Author provided

A safe place for LGBTQ to protest

I was in Rio for a short residency with the TransArte festival—a three-day art show that explores gender identity and sexuality. The festival brings together trans people and allies to exchange ideas, make and share work, and celebrate the strengths of the LGBT community in Brazil within a place of safety.

It’s not easy to protest when faced with violence, nor is it easy to enjoy culture—particularly for people living in poverty where basic needs are difficult to meet. Trans artists have said that being trans is a barrier to participating in the arts, but “safe spaces” such as the TransArte festival allow protest art to flourish and create opportunities for LGBTQ people to express themselves.

Trans and LGBTQ artists, activists and educators from Rio de Janeiro and London
Trans and LGB artists, activists and educators from Rio de Janeiro and London. TransArte Festival Team, Author provided

A theater company led by trans people created Come As You Are—a series of autobiographical stories with physical theatre and improvisation. The stories were about family, depicting supportive and loving families as a source of strength, and familial rejection as a result of being trans.

They explored life as trans men and women in a culture of toxic masculinity, normativity and police brutality. A photography exhibition of several artists included Bernardo de Castro Gomes, whose work also explored his identity as a black trans man facing intimidation, harassment and violence.

Queer drag artists such as Le Circo de la Drag spoke about their political performance, using their bodies to resist toxic masculinity and defy the threats of violence they often receive.

Le Circo de la drag pay tribute to Marielle Franco and Theusa Passareli
Le Circo de la drag pay tribute to Marielle Franco and Theusa Passareli. Marianna Cartaxo, Author provided

The show Monster, Whore, Bitch—Waldirene’s Dreams, directed by Dandara Vital, compiled the everyday experiences of Brazilian trans people interwoven with a re-telling of the story of Waldirene – the first trans woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Brazil in December 1971, at the height of the military dictatorship.

Resistance is clearly flourishing in Brazil against the odds and not only within festivals such as TransArte. A Portuguese translation of Jo Clifford’s play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven was due to open in Londrina, a city in southern Brazil, but the venue canceled at the very last moment.

The lead, a trans woman called Renata Carvalho, received death threats. The company moved to a semi-derelict space where they performed by torchlight instead, despite injunctions from both Pentecostal and Catholic groups to stop the production.

My own experiences working with the TransArte festival team in Rio have shown me the value of safe places free from judgment and hostility. The people we worked with told us that being there in solidarity with the trans communities of Rio felt like a powerful action in itself, resisting the culture of violence that thrives in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. 


the conversation brazil article

Originally published on
The Conversation

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Society

The bleak scenario of book publishing in Brazil

With an increasing number of college students and the lowest illiteracy rates ever, book sales should be on the rise in Brazil. In reality, they’re not. Instead, book publishers have lost revenue over the last four years, according to a paper published this week by Brazil’s Economic Research Foundation (Fipe).

Book sales peaked in 2013, with nearly 480 million copies sold both to individual readers and the government (the bulk of the latter being schoolbooks). In 2018, only 352 million books were sold, just 20 million copies more than in 2009 and a 25-percent drop from the peak.[restricted]


brazil book sales


Brazil’s book-buying curve is bimodal—in other words, it has two peaks. The first crest comes in the mid-1990s, when the creation of the Brazilian Real ended hyperinflation and made it easier for families to plan ahead and bring home items that were considered as luxury goods—including poultry, yogurt… and books. Publishing houses, both for literature and journalism, took hefty loans to buy new printing equipment.

Book sales were never as profitable as they were back in the 1990s. And since 2009, revenues are on a downward spiral—with 2018 being the worst year in the last three decades.


brazil book sales


New publishers rose to prominence during the bonanza years of the mid-1990s, including coffee-table publisher Cosac & Naify (1995), left-wing publisher Boitempo (1995), comics and activism-focused Conrad (1993), and Sextante (1998). The latter hit the jackpot by publishing American author Dan Brown in Brazil—whose body of work includes best-selling novels The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.

In 1997, a then-record 54,460 different titles were released or reprinted in Brazil. There was a small boom of pocketbooks, led by L&PM Editores and followed by other publishers.


book sales genre brazil


book sales genre brazil


When things went south

In 1998, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was reelected for his second term amid a crisis in developing countries, Brazil sold 410 million books. In January of 1999, days after he took office for his second four-year term, the government stopped pegging its currency to the U.S. Dollar, devaluing the Brazilian Real, and the music stopped.

Book sales in the following 12 months took a 30-percent plunge in absolute number of copies.

It was after 2009, when the world hit a new crisis and Brazil took countercyclical (and populist) economic policies to stimulate consumption, that book sales rose again. The peak came in 2013, a year marked by street protests against corruption and the sitting government. People from all sides of the spectrum looked for political knowledge on bookshelves.

Book sales driven by churches and schools

The driving force of book sales in Brazil are churches and educational institutions. The sale of religious books, especially in churches, grew from 50.7 million in 2010 to 87 million in 2018. Other kinds of books didn’t fare so well.


religious books


Since 2015, university-level schoolbook sales have fallen every year. Especially among those focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which had been growing steadily until 2014. Engineering jobs were erased by the tens of thousands as a result of the crisis that hit Petrobras and Brazil’s leading construction companies.


books sold in brazil


New publishers and genres—and some fads—captured the taste of Brazilians. The government began buying graphic novels for school libraries, and publishers such as DarkSide, Nemo, and Veneta became more profitable. Meanwhile, foreign groups, such as Planeta and Penguin, reinforced their presence in Brazil.

Giants going down

To icing on the cake came in 2018, when the two main bookstore chains in Brazil reached the brink of bankruptcy. Livraria Cultura, a traditional publishing house, has debts amounting to BRL 285 million. Saraiva, the largest bookstore chain and present in most capitals and shopping malls in Brazil, owes creditors BRL 675 million. Both are under court-supervised reorganization. As a result, bookstores fell to their lowest participation in book sales ever: only half the revenue on sales comes from bookstores.


bookstore debts


bookstore debts


With the credit bonanza at the beginning of this decade, and the hunger of consumers for electronics, Saraiva devoted vast spaces in its stores to sell smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The problem is that suppliers in this category demanded immediate payment. Book publishers gave them longer terms to pay. So, in practice, Saraiva sold books to pay for smartphones.

As a result, all book publishers have been facing huge debt from their main two customers, especially the big ones.[/restricted]

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Society

Why São Paulo’s most iconic museum is featuring female artists

For those who regularly cross São Paulo’s iconic Avenida Paulista, there’s nothing new about seeing a crowd of people outside the city’s Museum of Art, or MASP, as it is commonly known. Besides the normal influx of tourists, art lovers and students, MASP is also a meeting point for protesters, not to mention independent artists who try to make a living on the building’s free span. However, since April 5, queues have been bigger than normal, even for this landmark museum.  

This influx has a reason: after 11 years, O Abaporu, a painting that symbolizes Brazilian modernism, has been loaned to São Paulo from its permanent home in Buenos Aires. It is the centerpiece of an exhibition of more than 100 artworks by Tarsila do Amaral, one of Brazil’s most famous painters. The exhibition is part of MASP’s new cycle of projects dedicated to paying homage to female legacy in art.[restricted]

Today, Tarsila do Amaral is a household name in Brazil. But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, she was busy making one of what could be described as the worst deals ever: in exchange for a home in the São Paulo neighborhood of Perdizes, she traded an original Picasso. In financial dire straits after the 1929 crash, Amaral was, bit by bit, selling off her vast art collection—while her own paintings were worth little. Fast-forward to 2019, and you have the New York Museum of Modern Art purchasing “A Lua” (‘The Moon’) for USD 20 million.

Celebrating Brazilian female artists

Besides Amaral’s works, MASP is also exhibiting a collection of pieces from Lina Bo Bardi, the Italian-Brazilian architect responsible for building the museum itself, as well as leaving her modernist stamp all over São Paulo. Alongside them, Djanira da Motta e Silva, famous for her simple portrayals of Brazilian life, is also featured, in the very first exhibition of the artist’s works since her death in 1979.

These events will pave the way for two other exhibitions, “Women’s Histories: Artists Before 1900” and “Feminist Histories: artists after 2000,” a dialogue that wishes to shed new light on women’s participation in art history and their legacy.

The idea comes at a moment when gender issues are gaining momentum in Brazil, a country where femicides are on the rise despite tougher laws, and the gender-based pay gap and sexual harassment remain part of women’s everyday life. To understand how MASP is contributing to this debate, The Brazilian Report talked to Mariana Leme and Isabella Rjeille, who are part of MASP team of curators and helped put together this new cycle.

masp female artists

Why is MASP dedicating a year to talk about women?

Mariana: MASP usually works with cycles. In 2016 we had stories from childhood, in 2017 stories about sexuality, in 2018, there were ones on Afro-Atlantic [history]. Now we have feminist narratives. The idea is to talk about these topics through collective and individual exhibitions.

Isabella: The desire to talk about women rose even before the Stories of Sexuality exhibition. It’s been here since an exhibit by Carla Zaccagnini, talking about feminist stories. In 2017, we talked about gender issues, including artists from 1960s and 70s. The new exhibition complements what has come before it. MASP’s artistic management doesn’t want these stories to be over when their cycle comes to an end.

So, how are you building these narratives?

Mariana: The idea is to have many polyphonic narratives. I’m curating an exhibition alongside Lilia Schwarcz (MASP’s deputy narrative curator) in which we will include artists from up to 1900. I think this will be an interesting contrast with the museum’s second floor, in which the vast majority of works are made by men. In fact, the MASP collection up to 1900 only has three female artists.

Isabella: On the other hand, Feminist Histories [the exhibition she is curating] features only 21st-century artists. Approaching this century is not about saying that everything that came before it is over, on the contrary, it is an attempt to update the debate with issues that are rising nowadays. It’s about how feminism was changed by theoretical thinking and movements that arose. We are willing to leave behind the bias from the feminism of 1960s, 70s and 80s, because the past exhibitions that we’ve seen focused a lot on that.  In 2018 we had Pinacoteca’s exhibition, “Radical Women: Latin American Art,” that focused on this time frame. We thought it would be interesting to stretch the debate further by bringing up the 21st century.

Mariana: Looking at these artists from the past, while looking at the artists from the 21st century, makes us question the very value criteria of art history, which aims to be objective, like what is “good”, “beautiful,” “genune,” “genius,” and “good paintings.” It is nice to rethink not only the women artists shape the way we look at the images and attribute the quality of the work. You know, there is a narrative dispute. At the same time we have very critical reviews of A Negra, by Tarsila do Amaral, nowadays we still have critics that believe Tarsila owes her work to her husbands. So there’s a power struggle. I wonder if we found out that Velázquez, for instance, was a woman. Would we see his work differently?

And what challenges have you faced so far?

Mariana: It is hard to speak about feminism before 1900, although feminist initiatives already existed in the 19th century. It is also so hard to find the works. Many are not in catalogs, sometimes they are in storage. And you have other issues, such as a lack of black, indigenous or Latin American women in the 18th century. But redeeming these works is a feminist attitude.

Isabella: It is important when you hold an exhibition about female artists before the 1900s to show that there’s been a narrative that only men can make art. This narrative was built. It is important to show that female artists existed and they were put aside.

With such a large universe to cover and many obstacles to tackle, how did you choose the art exhibitions for 2019?

Isabella: The 20th century is not included in the collective exhibitions, so we decided to show it in the individual ones. Djanira, Tarsila and Lina were chosen to be featured at the same time because they worked with popular sources, but in very different ways. Tarsila’s exhibition brings different perspectives on her. We published a large catalog about her work, with many different views about the painting A Negra, very critical and innovative views about it. Djanira had not had an individual exhibition in a museum for the past 40 years. It is a moment to revisit the narratives written about her because they oppose the way she always spoke about herself. She never considered herself as primitive or naïve, but critics attributed these categories to her, almost isolating her from the art history narrative from the period and from her generation. So our exhibition tries to put her work under a new light, more connected to what she proposed.

Mariana: The theme of “the popular” shows itself in very different ways in the three exhibitions. Lina’s production is deeply marked by her Brazilian experience, by her research to find solutions for furniture and objects that are amazingly clever. She tried to “unlearn” the European tradition. This is very different than Tarsila, who was a rich farmer’s daughter and studied in Paris.

Isabella: And it is different than Djanira’s. She used to say that we eat barbecue and vatapá {a creamy shrimp paste traditional in Bahia], but insist on painting French still lifes. Her references are from the many trips she took around Brazil. Her influences are from the popular universe that she was looking for, not from an elite built up with European references.

masp female artists

MASP decided to talk about women in a moment of social tension and fierce debate among feminists in Brazil. Do you think that bringing this topic to the center of São Paulo is helping to make it a more plural debate?

Isabella: Tensions may be more poignant these days, but it has always been hard to talk about these issues. People even think it has no relevance, that feminism is the same as sexism. I see the museum as a space for debate, to argue about this narrative. To propose these exhibitions is to think about it in the cultural stage, which affects people in a more sensitive way.

When you break a narrative, there’s always a shock. There was a backlash about the sexuality cycle, as well as other exhibitions which talked about sex and gender in the country, such as Queermuseum.  Is this happening this year?

Mariana: I have not noticed a backlash this year, but there is a kind of disdain because some people think that this is not an important topic. But I honestly think that controversy is good because it calls attention and people come to visit the museum, because they’re curious. The debate may be very interesting.

In this context, you were able to bring O Abaporu, an icon of Brazilian art, back home. Do you think that this helps break the notion that Brazilians do not care for culture?

Isabella: The lines are massive, it’s as if the Rolling Stones are going to play here! (Laughing) It’s so rewarding to see people talking about it, to see that the museum is alive, creating a debate. It shows that people come to the museum, that they consider it a relevant space in the city. It has value.

How symbolic is it to have “Rolling Stone lines” for a women’s paintings?

Isabella: In a museum designed by a woman! (Laughs)

Mariana: It is curious because she wasn’t that famous when she painted it. It is awesome that the picture is here, but it is important to remember that the story is not that apotheotic. We have to remember that Brazil wasn’t interested in buying it when O Abaporu was sold. So, it shows us that if we do not value our institutions, our patrimony will be scattered.

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Podcast

Explaining Brazil #50: The business of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro


Brazil is rubbing its eyes and opening the curtains after the biggest party on earth. For the last five days, millions of locals and foreigners have taken part in the country’s Carnival celebrations, which fall every year before Lent. Typically a Catholic festival, Carnival is traditionally intended as a Shrovetide period of indulgence, before the dreaded 40-days of pre-Easter fasting.

Carnival is such a focal point of the Brazilian calendar that often locals say nothing gets done in the New Year until the party is over. But, in actual fact, a huge amount of work goes into producing Carnival, and that’s what we are going to take a look at.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:

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On this podcast

Euan Marshall is a journalist and translator who has lived in São Paulo, Brazil since 2011. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, his work has been published in The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Independent and Jacobin Magazine, among others. In 2014, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

Patricia Masche is the MICE (Meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibition) Executive at the Rio de Janeiro Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau- Rio CVB – is a private non-profit foundation organized to promote tourism in general and also congresses and events to the City of Rio de Janeiro.

Maria Martha Bruno edited this podcast. She is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has collaborated with Al Jazeera and CNN, among others, worked as a producer in Rio de Janeiro for NBC, and as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.

Do you have a suggestion for our next Explaining Brazil podcast? Drop us a line at podcast@brazilian.report

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Society

The Midnight Man cometh: the colorful extravaganza of carnival in Olinda

In the old town of Olinda, in north-eastern Brazil, at the stroke of midnight, a giant man emerges from a colonial house. The huge crowd waiting in excited anticipation begins to celebrate, though there is also a sense of unease, as hundreds of armed policemen stand on edge.

Fireworks explode, music starts up and a procession begins. Thousands squeeze through the claustrophobic streets of Olinda with the towering Homem da Meia Noite (Midnight Man) out in front, bowing to the roof-top revelers who shower him with confetti. Standing roughly four meters in height, he is dressed in a tuxedo, green cravat, and top hat. On his face are the trademark goatee and gold tooth. The giant figure is, in fact, a papier-mâché doll with a real man hidden beneath, and the arrival of the Midnight Man marks the official start of the city’s carnival celebrations.  [restricted]

While Rio de Janeiro’s samba processions and Salvador’s afoxé parades hold worldwide fame, less well known are the carnival block parties in Olinda. These parades have a rich history of celebrating local figures, often resulting from decades-long private jokes between friends, and they are sometimes spaces of political resistance. They range from small gatherings of a handful of adults and children; to massive parties of tens of thousands of people. Most importantly, they are free and open to everyone.

The music on offer is nearly always frevo, a fast-paced variant on the Eastern European polka from the early 19th century. The genre’s name comes from the Portuguese verb ‘ferver’ (to boil), and the music seems to become more and more frenetic as they go on. Mobile orchestras of up to 30 musicians play brass and percussion instruments for three or four hours (with no break) under the beating 35-degree sun and through the humid nights. Sometimes dancers escort these orchestras, dressed in matching colorful outfits, combining energetic frevo steps whilst swinging their small iconic, rainbow umbrellas.

In tow are the carnival revelers who accompany the bands up and down the slippery, cobbled streets, past vast churches and colorful colonial-era houses. The crowds are so tightly packed that at times you can feel as if you are floating. Everyone is drenched in sweat and songs aggrandizing the city of Olinda are drunkenly sung. One of the oldest continuing block parties is Elefante de Olinda, founded in 1950, which has arguably the most famous frevo anthem, featuring the lines: “Olinda, I want to sing you this song. Your coconut palms, your sun, your sea. It makes my heart throb.”

Olinda carnival

Olinda Carnival classic

The Midnight Man’s theme is another classic; its opening musical notes are instantly recognizable. The imposing papier-mâché man first entered the streets more than 80 years ago after a dispute between artisan workers and the Cariri carnival group—the oldest block party in the city—led to his creation: hijacking the role of carnival-opener. The appearance of the Homem da Meia Noite has added significance for followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. Whether a coincidence, or intentional, the first ever ‘Midnight Man’ parade was on February 2, the date of the Candomblé festival of Iemánja, the “mother of water” and one of 14 Yoruba deities.

Diego, from Recife, is a block party fanatic. He owns over 100 frevo vinyl records and even organizes his own block party. He tells me that the parades unite groups of people who are solely “interested in generating joy for others, using the culture of frevo.” Around town, the joy is plainly contagious, as Marcelo, a taxi driver from Olinda, tells me: “one year, my wife and I just planned to watch, but when the parade passed by, the frevo entered our body and took us off into the street.”

Eu Acho é Pouco does not have its own song, but is a hugely popular block party: their colors are the traditional leftist yellow and red. An institution of the city’s liberal, middle class, the block party was founded by a group of friends in 1977 during the military dictatorship, with a name steeped in irony, roughly meaning “it could be worse.” They are still a presence at political events in Recife, including last year’s protests against then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

There are specific block parties for local football teams, doctors, feminists and, of course, “Bloco do Case,” a parade specifically in celebration of the people who work at carnival. It takes place a day after the carnival ends, during which a polystyrene box (painted to look like flight case for equipment), is carried through the streets for the revelers to destroy at the end of the parade as a symbolic gesture of the end of carnival.  

However, fans of the Olinda carnival don’t have to wait long before the warm-up for next year’s festival comes around. Barely a few months after carnival has finished, these public practice sessions begin and though the crowds are smaller, the beer is still flowing, and the music is still boiling. Hence why in Olinda, it can sometimes feel like the carnival never stops.[/restricted]

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Business

How a museum fire helped shape Brazil’s endowment fund regulation

On September 3, 2018, Brazilians woke up to a loss for which may never be compensated. The country’s 200-year-old National Museum burst into flames, turning its vast collection to ashes and exposing decades of neglect toward the country’s cultural heritage. Unlike most cases, the museum fire actually inspired action to solve one of the sector’s main problems: its sheer lack of funding. The country decided to settle on a way to use endowment funds to support culture and education in Brazil.

Endowment funds are created using financial donations to support a cause or institution. The money is invested in financial markets and its profits are used to fund all kinds of projects: museum conservations, academic or medical research, college scholarships, humanitarian actions, and environmental protection initiatives. Since the main capital is preserved, endowment funds are seen as a perpetual source of money for tertiary entities, guaranteeing their financial sustainability in spite of paltry government resources.[restricted]

national museum fire
Rio’s National Museum in flames

The model is well-established around the world. In the United States, billion-dollar endowments support some of the country’s most prestigious universities. Harvard University, for instance, has a fund worth USD 39.2 billion, accounting for 35 percent of the university’s income.

In Brazil, this kind of investment has been discussed and tested for decades, already to some success. For example, the endowment fund for Fundação Getúlio Vargas’ law school, one of the most prestigious private colleges in Brazil, started receiving very small donations and now manages almost BRL 3 million in assets, providing scholarships for students that cannot afford tuition fees.

However, there wasn’t any specific legal framework for these funds, which created a lack of legal security for their implementation on a broader scale. After the museum fire, the government saw endowment funds as an opportunity to guarantee resources for these institutions and presented a decree to regulate them, passing over the heads of bills which were already being discussed in Congress. In a matter of a few months, the measure become law, but not without controversy.

“We had the fire and the subsequent feeling that society needed to come up with a quick answer to address what happened. I think the fact that endowment funds appeared as this answer shows how mature the debate already was in Brazil. Though it would have been better to have a bill [as opposed to a decree], I believe that we were able to achieve results anyway,” said Aline Viotto, Advocacy Coordinator at GIFE, an association that supports private investments in social affairs.

Only fools rush in

But, as we say in Brazil, haste is the enemy of perfection. Approved during the last days of Mr. Michel Temer’s tenure as president, the bill had to be signed by President Jair Bolsonaro before coming into effect. Elected under a strong fiscal adjustment platform, Mr. Bolsonaro vetoed what experts considered a core point in the law: tax incentives.

Most of the instruments created to support culture and education in Brazil have some sort of tax break as a counterpoint. One example is the Rouanet Law, which allows the government to surrender tax revenue if companies invest the money sponsoring cultural initiatives.

harvard university
Harvard University has an endowment fund worth USD 39.2 billion

“Fiscal counterparts are a major part in encouraging donations in Brazil. Including some sort of tax benefits would have made [the law] a home run. Though I do think the law has merits, such as ensuring legal security and fostering the media buzz around the topic, some challenges are still to be faced, such as the way the funds are taxed,” says Rafael Andrade, a director at FGV’s Law school endowment fund.

In Brazil, donations for the tertiary sector are taxed just like any others—inheritances, for example. Endowment fund donations are not only subject to that, but the funds are also taxed on the profit they generate in financial markets—the very same money that supports the initiatives. “That is something the law didn’t fix. I hope that, if we have a better fiscal scenario in the future, the government may be able to offer tax exemptions,” explains Mr. Andrade.

Compliance issues

One of the law’s major concerns is how to guarantee the money will be properly used. The separation between managing and implementing entities was adopted as a compliance tool. That means one entity receives the resources, and another actually uses them.

According to Beatriz Martinez, a specialist in estate and succession law at the Ulhôa Canto advocacy firm, “the law, if applied, seems fit to guarantee good compliance for endowment funds. There are solid compliance and transparency rules, such as managing resources in an independent manner, aiming to avoid political interference and corruption risks,” which were demands of the donors, as she pointed out.

But should the fear of corruption restrict the access to more funds?

Jair Bolsonaro vetoed the possibility for foundations to have endowment funds, considering that it could “compromise the segregation of roles” and “harm the policy’s credibility.”

For the foundations, this was a big blow. According to Fernando Peregrino, president of Confies, a council that represents foundations supporting research in 133 universities in Brazil, they are already working to remove the presidential vetoes in Congress, as they do not agree with the concerns raised.

“The veto mentions a conflict in interests. What conflict? We do not perform the research, we just manage the resources. (…)  Besides, it’s been 25 years since we were established by law, there’s credibility, we have control mechanisms. Our foundations at Confies manage more than BRL 5 billion each year. How come we cannot manage a fund?” questions Mr. Peregrino.  

Beyond the vetoes

Although the vetoes are seen as negative additions to the law, they are not the worst obstacle. The fact is that Brazil does not have a culture of donations and that translates into the low level of engagement from society in social issues or economic stimuli.

In fact, universities such as the University of São Paulo, the largest and most important in the country, rely almost 100 percent on government funding—and their budgets are almost completely hamstrung by payroll, leaving little room for research or other investments.

The government is the major sponsor for R&D in Brazil and the investment is minimal compared to other countries. According to the most recent data, Brazil invested 1.27 percent of its GDP on science and technology. Meanwhile, a study by Brazil’s national industry confederation estimates American and Chinese investments in the field at 2.7 percent and 2.3 percent of their GDP, respectively.

The consistency of funds is another issue. From 2015 to 2019, the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology Ministry was cut by almost BRL 3 billion, which may be explained by the financial crisis.

Obviously, endowment funds are not the only option for financing, but they may be one of the most reliable alternatives in difficult times, when there is a scarcity of resources. A GIFE study conducted among its members shows that between 2014 and 2016, those who had 30 percent of their budgets funded by endowment funds lost 2.19 percent of their volume of investments, while the entire study population lost 25.62 percent.

The sector’s hope is that the new law, coupled with more knowledge about endowment funds, may help them to become a more popular tool and perhaps change the Brazilian mindset.

“I don’t think that not having a donation culture means that Brazilians are not sensitive to it. It just means that it is not a habit. I believe that we need better projects. When you have that and legal security, it is easier to have donations,” says Mr. Andrade.[/restricted]

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Society

The revival of cordel literature

Browsing a flea market in the Northeast of Brazil, you may come across a couple of stands with what appear to be simple pamphlets, displayed across strings of twine and attached by wooden clothespegs. At first glance, they could be drawings or postcards, but a closer look will reveal one of the most traditional and longstanding forms of literature in Brazilian history: literatura de cordel.

Named after the strings (cordeis) they are arranged upon, cordel literature consists of short poems or folk novels, usually no more than ten verses and eight pages long, printed on simple paper. Usually, the cover of a cordel book contains an intricate woodcutting print to illustrate the story within.[restricted]

Once popular all around Brazil, cordel literature began disappearing in the late 20th century. Now, these pamphlets are reduced to idiosyncratic relics of a time past. Cordel booklets are no longer bought for entertainment or literate value, rather for ornaments or curious mementos.

However, a revival could be in store for this near-lost artform. The Brazilian Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan) has recently recognized cordel literature as Immaterial Brazilian Cultural Heritage, meaning it is now the duty of the state and civil society to work on strategies to protect the production of cordel literature around the country.

The origins of cordel literature

Cordel literature began in the Northeast of Brazil, in the mid 19th century. The rise of printing techniques meant that popular poems and stories could be put onto paper and distributed in a form that was simple and accessible to the local population. Before long, cordel pamphlets were found in markets all over the northeastern states, particularly in Paraíba and Pernambuco.

The stories were rarely novel creations, consisting of adaptations of Bible tales and fables popular in Portugal and Spain. Often rhyming, cordel pamphlets were seldom read, instead they were enjoyed as collective activities, sung or declared among families or work colleagues, often accompanied by music.

Until today, roving street poets can be found on the streets of Recife, Olinda or João Pessoa, strumming tunes and singing poems read from cordel pamphlets.

When internal migration came into full swing, with populations from the Northeast moving en masse to the North, Southeast, and Centre-West of the country, cordel literature went along with them, becoming popular all over Brazil.

There were no limits to the subject matter of cordel poems. Along the years, stories were printed about famous politicians, writers, and musicians. Around the 1920s and 1930s, the escapades of the infamous outlaw Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião, was a particularly popular theme.

One such story, entitled “Lampião’s Arrival in Hell,” depicted the famous bandit being barred from entering the land of the dead, before causing a fracas and destroying the Devil’s possessions. The story ends with the poet declaring that Lampião’s soul was laid to rest not in hell, nor in heaven, but in the vast backlands of northeastern Brazil.

Over time, the oral traditions of Brazil began to fade, and cordel literature became less and less popular, very nearly disappearing in large parts of the country. Its recognition as a symbol of cultural heritage aims to reverse this trend and increase awareness of the genre among younger populations.

Among the plans of the Brazilian Academy of Cordel Literature (ABLC), based in Rio de Janeiro, is to promote the archiving of cordel pamphlets around the country, facilitating research, study and exhibitions.

The importance of preserving cordel literature has been stressed by a number of academics, but no ode to the genre is more fitting than that of Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), often regarded as Brazil’s greatest ever poet.

“Cordel poetry is one of the purest manifestations of the inventive spirit, sense of humor and critical capacity of the Brazilian people, in its more modest layers from the countryside. Cordel poets happily express that which his companions and those of the same economic class really feel. The spontaneity and beauty of these creations make more sophisticated urban readers dedicate interest to them, also encouraging research and analysis from academia. It is, therefore, poetry of social brotherhood which reaches a vast area of sensibility.”

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Society

The uncertain future of Brazilian cinema

Since the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October, many sectors in Brazil face great uncertainty – including the cultural sector. The next president of Brazil – who is due to take power on January 1 – has not fully disclosed his government’s plans for arts and culture, something that is filling Brazil’s film industry with a good deal of apprehension.

Brazilian cinema, so vibrant since the mid-1990s, hit its nadir in 1990 after the country’s first democratic election in 30 years brought Fernando Collor de Mello to power, intent on a rationalization of state-supported industries. Mr. Collor abolished state control of the arts, including Embrafilme, the state film bureau. After a period marked by the hegemony of TV, Hollywood domination of the domestic market and an increase in pornographic content in national film productions, Brazilian cinema ground to a halt; no films were produced for two years.

Following Mr. Collor’s impeachment on corruption charges in 1992, Brazilian cinema began to pick up again – largely thanks to the Audiovisual Law which was passed in 1993 and which established tax incentives for film production. The results were dramatic – production rose from 14 films in 1994 to 160 films in 2017. The resurgence in Brazilian cinema – or retomada, as it is known – saw audiences flocking to see local films, especially comedies, and market share of Brazilian films at the domestic box office went up from 5.3% in 1997 to 13.9% in 2017.

What is clear from recent decades is the close relationship between democracy and Brazil’s film industry – in particular the industry’s dependence on state support. Not long after his election, Bolsonaro announced a review of the Rouanet Law, passed in 1991 to encourage private support for the arts by providing tax incentives for private investment. This could particularly affect distribution, as most of Brazil’s most prominent film festivals – including the Mostra São Paulo – depend on the Rouanet Law for funding through that private investment.

Screening truths

The re-emergence of Brazilian cinema was emphatically underlined by films such as Central Station and the blockbuster hit City of God, both of which garnered significant international attention. Often criticized for their glossy approach to poverty and violence, films from this period were considered a rupture with previous cinematic tradition – most notably Cinema Novo, the avant-garde filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s. The resurgent Brazilian cinema had a greater dialogue with world cinema and adopted internationally recognized genres – including, for instance, the road movie.

As in post-dictatorship Argentine cinema, the years of military dictatorship are a recurring theme in contemporary Brazilian films. Brazilian filmmakers took advantage of their newly found freedom to address and revisit the abuses of human rights that took place between 1964 and 1985. Four Days in September (1997) is based on the true story of the kidnapping of the American ambassador to Brazil during the military dictatorship. The film won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997. Also set during the military dictatorship, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is about a boy whose parents go into political exile. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear award at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival.

Brazil’s National Commission of Right to Memory and Truth was important in highlighting the need to discuss issues from Brazil’s repressive political past. The commission promoted projects focusing on people who were “disappeared” during the military dictatorship. Notable among these was a multimedia project: “Antonio Benetazzo, Survival of the Senses,” which involved an exhibition, book, and an essay film. The project focused on the life and work of Benetazzo, who disappeared during the military dictatorship.

A threat to democracy?

But this approach could change under Mr. Bolsonaro, who reportedly stated that Brazilians “still do not know what dictatorship is.” Many people are concerned that any curtailment of free speech under an authoritarian Bolsonaro regime could limit and shape the subject matter of films.

People are concerned, too, that Bolsonaro’s attitude to diversity – as evidenced by his numerous derogatory remarks about minorities – could affect that country’s commitment to the promotion of diversity, which has been a particularly important aspect of Brazil’s transition to democracy since the early 1990s. Relevant cultural initiatives include Vídeo Nas Aldeias, a collection of more than 70 indigenous films. The Brazilian Observatory of Cinema monitors diversity in the film industry, and their reports have a particular focus on the presence – or lack thereof – of female and Afro-Brazilian filmmakers in Brazilian cinema.

Brazil’s film industry is structured around the National Cinema Agency, a state-run agency that has been responsible for regulating and to supervising the national cinema market since 2001. The agency is protected in law, and private companies also scrutinize its fund management. In order to dismantle it, the government would have to take radical measures to interfere with its autonomy.

So, in the run-up to Mr. Bolsonaro taking power in January 2019, it’s not so much the future of movie production that is the main concern for filmmakers, but developments in other sectors that traditionally feed into the cultural sector: free speech and the promotion of diversity. Until the new government’s agenda materializes, Brazil’s film industry needs to overcome its fear that that culture will not a priority for the incoming administration. It will be a challenge.

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Society

Brazilian school chosen for prestigious architecture prize

The northern state of Tocantins is one of Brazil’s most overlooked. Completely landlocked, it is one of the least densely populated states of the country and is best known for the Jalapão state park, the gorgeous, isolated micro-region of sand dunes, plateaus and tropical savannah. What it’s not traditionally known for, however, is its architecture.

Brazilians would be shocked to know that the current winner of the prestigious Royal Institutes of British Architects (RIBA) Prize is, in fact, located in Tocantins. The Children Village, a boarding school close to the Ilha do Bananal river island, was bestowed with the biennial award for “exemplifying design excellence and architectural ambition” as well as creating a meaningful social impact.

The building itself is a large boarding school providing education for 840 disadvantaged local children and lodging for 540. Administered by the Bradesco Foundation, it is part of a network of similar schools around the country.

School in Tocantins chosen for prestigious architecture prize

Designed by Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes, from architecture firm Aleph Zero, as well as São Paulo designer Marcos Rosenbaum, the project was conceived after long discussions with the school’s students themselves, with a view to creating something that properly fit their needs.

One of the building’s greatest achievements is that it is able to remain cool, even in the extreme heat of Tocantins, where temperatures can often exceed 40 degrees Celsius. The secret to this ventilation is the expansive, thin roof, providing excellent shade, and the complex’s breathable walls. Air conditioning is never needed, vastly reducing its electricity costs.

School in Tocantins chosen for prestigious architecture prize

The structure is reminiscent of traditional indigenous villages, propped up by large, beautifully finished eucalyptus trunks. The different parts of the complex are connected by large courtyards which are designed with plenty of space for activities and relaxation, as well as colorful and attractive vegetation.

One of the other pillars of the construction process was the focus on using local techniques and materials. This was partly an ideological choice, but also a question of necessity. As the school is in such an isolated region, it would have been impossible to bring large, heavy materials.

“The challenge was to convince the students and teachers that the local materials of earth, bricks, and timber could represent progress,” Gustavo Utrabo told The Guardian newspaper. “We had to show them that being modern didn’t have to mean glass, steel, and air-conditioning.”

School in Tocantins chosen for prestigious architecture prize

Another of the designers’ primary concerns in constructing the Children Village was environmental sustainability. According to new figures from the government, deforestation in Brazil’s northern region has hit its highest level in a decade, with around 8,000 square kilometers of forest cut down over the last year, an area the size of Puerto Rico.

The state of Tocantins has been one of the few to decrease deforestation, and all the wood used in the Children Village is from reforested trees. Furthermore, all of the bricks were made on site.

The part of the school which attracted the most plaudits from the RIBA judges were the dormitories. Arranged in two separate buildings (one for boys, one for girls), the children sleep six to a room, a far cry from their previous sleeping arrangements, which were in Army-style barracks of up to 40 teenagers to a dorm. Each room has its own bathroom, shower and laundry facilities, and all of the furniture is made on site.

“The main aim of the design was to make a place that feels like a home from home for the kids,” said Utrabo.

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Society

Botched auction keeps Pollock painting in Rio’s museum

Earlier this year, Rio de Janeiro’s Modern Art Museum (MAM) shocked the art world when it decided to auction its most celebrated work,  No. 16 (1950), by Jackson Pollock — the only work of the artist on public view in Brazil—to fund its operations. The painting was a gift from American magnate Nelson Rockefeller, as part of a soft power strategy.

As a businessman, Mr. Rockefeller had dealings in several areas, such as steel, agriculture, and construction. As a member of the U.S. federal administration, he saw Brazil as an important ally in Latin America. During the Cold War, Mr. Rockefeller believed in the power of cultural influence and, as chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he encouraged the creation of similar museums across Latin America, having donated important artworks to these institutions. In 1952, he donated a canvas by Robert Motherwell and Pollock ’s No. 16 to MAM.[restricted]

jackson pollock rio museum
Jackson Pollock’s No.16

With debts of BRL 4 million, MAM has become unable to finance its operations. The museum’s chairman, Carlos Alberto Chateaubriand, met three times with Sérgio Sá Leitão, the Minister of Culture, only to hear the same thing: there was no money available because MAM is a private institution. Estimated at USD 25 million, the sale of No. 16 could help guarantee 30 years of operation for MAM. The Ministry of Culture had filed a lawsuit asking the auction to be suspended but offered no other solution to fund the museum.

Eventually, the ministry caved, and the canvas went on auction on November 15 at the Phillips auction house. The museum expected to raise at least USD 18 million – which would fund its operations for the next 30 years. However, as the value given by the auction house didn’t go past the USD 15.7-million mark, the sale was not concluded. Despite auctioneer Henry Highley’s best efforts, there was never an atmosphere of competition for No.16. Just two days prior, though, Pollock ‘s “Composition with Red Strokes” was auctioned for USD 55.4 million.

MAM now hopes for an unlikely private sale.

Brazil’s depleted museums

MAM is just one of the many Brazilian museums struggling to remain open. Over 100 museums (of Brazil’s 3,200) are closed due to a sheer lack of money and qualified labor. And there was, of course, the case of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, which was destroyed by a massive fire in September.

It was a dramatic turn of events for a museum which, for long, couldn’t sustain itself. The financial situation of the National Museum was so dire that its administration was forced to set up a crowdfunding campaign to be able to display its Maxakilisaurus skeleton to the public, the largest dinosaur skeleton ever to be found in Brazil.

national museum fire loss egyptian collection
Rio’s National Museum on flames

Another emblematic symbol of how little Brazilian authorities care for our museums is the Ipiranga Museum, erected at the site of Brazil’s independence proclamation on September 7, 1822. The building, designed by Italian architect Gaudencio Bezzi and inaugurated in 1890, is a UNESCO historic and cultural heritage site. Five years ago, it was shut down due to an imminent risk of collapse. It is only set to reopen in 2022, during the celebration of the 200 years of Brazilian independence.

Part of the blame, however, is on us, Brazilian citizens. According to Ipea, Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research, 70 percent of Brazilians have never been to a museum.

How good management can save museums

The São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) is an example of a struggling museum which managed a turnaround. In 2013, MASP was close to bankruptcy, immersed in debts and with revenues that barely covered its costs—some bills were months overdue. In 2006, the museum’s electricity was cut, and it needed rescuing by the city’s jet set.

Since then, MASP underwent a process similar to those implemented in failing companies. Between 2013 and 2016, its annual revenue quadrupled and reached close to BRL 40 million. As expenses are estimated in BRL 38 million per year, it means that the museum started to record a surplus. Its debt was slashed from BRL 75 million to BRL 40 million.

The turnover was piloted by a group of hot-shot executives, who started to focus more on the financial aspect of the museum’s administration, renting our spaces for events and dealing sponsorship deals with private corporations.[/restricted]

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Society

The MASP building, a São Paulo landmark, turns 50

The São Paulo Museum of Art is one of the city’s most special landmarks. Home of the most important collection of European art in the southern hemisphere, the museum’s building is an artwork in itself. Conceived by Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi, it floats over the country’s most emblematic avenue, Avenida Paulista, 8.5 meters above the ground, leaving a 47-square-meter plaza underneath is. MASP has become a symbol of São Paulo’s modernity and cosmopolitan spirit. Today, the building celebrates its 50th anniversary.

MASP is considered to be the most important museum of Western art south of the Equator, with an 8,000-artwork collection spanning paintings, sculptures, artifacts, photographs, and pieces of clothing from every continent. It houses work from masters such as Raphael, Mantegna, Modigliani e Botticelli, from the Italian school, and Delacroix, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and Chagall, from Paris.[restricted]

It is impossible to imagine São Paulo, Brazil’s economic center, without MASP. It would be like Paris without the Louvre. And yet, that was a real possibility just a few years ago. In 2013, MASP was close to bankruptcy, immersed in debts and with revenues that barely covered its costs—some bills were months overdue. In 2006, the museum’s electricity was cut, and it needed rescuing by the city’s jet set.

MASP museum são Paulo
MASP’s plaza

Failing to turn things around would mean closing its doors and having its collection taken over by the government. At the time, then-Superintendent of MASP Alberto Whitaker sought out Alfredo Setubal (one of the leading executives at Brazil’s biggest private bank Itaú) for a loan. Instead, Mr. Setubal decided to take part in a restructuration plan for the museum.

Since then, MASP underwent a process similar to those implemented in failing companies. Between 2013 and 2016, its annual revenue quadrupled and reached close to BRL 40 million. As expenses are estimated in BRL 38 million per year, it means that the museum started to record a surplus. Its debt was slashed from BRL 75 million to BRL 40 million.

Rescuing MASP

The turnover was piloted by a group of hot-shot executives, such as Heitor Martins (from the McKinsey consulting firm) and his wife, Fernanda Feitosa, founder of SP-Arte, an art show that brings around one hundred galleries to São Paulo every year. Mr. Martins presided over the São Paulo Biennale between 2009 and 2012 and is credited with its financial turnaround.

From its foundation in 1947 to the 1968 inauguration of the Avenida Paulista building (which Queen Elizabeth II attended) until very recently, MASP was managed by very personalistic administrations. For over 50 years, Pietro Maria Bardi, Lina Bo Bardi’s husband, called the shots – even if the museum’s directors changed from time to time.

Until 2013, managing the operations and the financial side of things proved to be too much of a challenge for an administration focused almost exclusively on the cultural heritage of the museum. There was no financial monitoring of the institution’s results, either from the revenue generated from tickets, the gift shop, or from leasing the museum’s auditorium.

When Mr. Martins and Mr. Setubal took over, they created a new statute for the museum, similar to that of the New York-based Museum of Modern Art and the Met. It created a board of trustees, who had to donate BRL 150,000 in order to join, and BRL 35,000 per year to remain on the board. Debts were renegotiated and converted into sponsorship deals. Ticket prices were raised and the museum started a better management of its gift shop, which tripled the amount spent per visitor.



MASP museum são Paulo


But since a well-administrated museum is not necessarily a good museum, artistically speaking, the new management also decided to revamp its team of curators, including Pablo Léon de la Barra (formerly of Guggenheim Museum), historian Lilia Schwarcz, and Rodrigo Moura (formerly of Inhotim).

The challenge now is to make MASP stand without relying on the help of its trustees. It is an uphill struggle, as museums cannot rely on government funding in Brazil – the September fire at the Rio de Janeiro National Museum proves that much.[/restricted]

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Society

Lesson from Brazil: Museums are not forever

We now know what history going up in flames looks like.

On September 2, the National Museum of Brazil lit up Rio de Janeiro’s night sky. Perhaps started by an errant paper hot air balloon landing on the roof or a short circuit in a laboratory, the fire gutted the historic 200-year-old building. Likely gone are a collection of resplendent indigenous ceremonial robes, the first dinosaur found in South America, Portuguese royal furniture, ancient Egyptian mummies, a vast library and so much more. In six hours, an estimated 18 million artifacts were turned to smoke and ash.[restricted]

The images of the hollowed-out museum are a living nightmare for a curator like me. I know that most museum collections are truly irreplaceable. But, for me, the fire is also a vital reminder that the greatest dangers to humanity’s collective heritage are not natural disasters but human ones.

There’s an important lesson for all of us in the fire’s embers.

museums risk
White walls and imposing columns signal that this place is pristine and eternal

The perils museums face

A museum presents itself as permanent and timeless. It’s why so many sport Greek columns, sterile white walls and clean objects under clear glass. The message is that the museum and its treasures should exist beyond the fleeting moment of our visit – connecting past, present and future. Whether displaying dinosaurs or dodos, art or archaeology, the museum is our bank vault for the world’s natural wonders and human achievements. The museum aspires to be a fortress against time.

The reality is that time is inexorable and relentless. Museums are locked in a constant struggle against decay and an almost absurdly wide-ranging array of natural and human threats. There’s even a formal list of the evil-sounding “agents of deterioration” that museums use to evaluate risks to their collections, ranging from bugs to temperature to water to fire.

museums risk
Sometimes looted pieces, such as the ‘Warka Mask,’ a 3100 B.C. Sumerian artifact taken from Iraq’s National Museum as Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, are recovered. Oftentimes they are not.

These risks are constantly evolving. War might turn a museum overnight into a looter’s paradise, as in the case of the National Museum of Iraq. Market forces or colonial revenge may spur thieves to steal artifacts, as recently seen with a pandemic of thefts of Chinese art. Some are even adding climate change to the menaces facing collections, such as the Bass Museum along Miami Beach, as it prepares for rising sea levels.

For museum curators, a terrifying range of hazards could devastate the treasures we are appointed to safeguard. Tragically, fire has long been at the top of the list. As early as 1865, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. – “America’s attic,” as it is famously known – caught aflame, resulting in what was then called a “national calamity.” In more recent years, infernos destroyed Madagascar’s royal palace museum, Delhi’s natural history museum and a history museum in Washington state, which housed rare artifacts from the late musician Kurt Cobain.

Despite the known risk of fire, reports suggest that Brazil’s National Museum was woefully unprepared. It apparently lacked a fire suppression system. Nearby fire hydrants went dry.

The spark that started the fire was perhaps an unforeseen event, but the conflagration that followed was not.

Collections don’t care for themselves

Holding off decay can rely on expensive technical resources
Holding off decay can rely on expensive technical resources

Most hazards that endanger museums can be mitigated. Conservation programs can hunt artifact-eating bugs, storage rooms can control temperature and humidity, security systems can prevent burglary and more. But implementing such protections requires serious resources.

By all accounts, this is where Brazil’s caretakers failed. As a national museum, Brazil’s elected officials were responsible for directing the appropriate funds to the museum. Instead, they underfunded the museum and allowed it to fall into disrepair. With the proper buildings and equipment, Brazil’s museum fire would likely not have been so disastrous.

Such indifference is not limited to Brazil. For example, a 2016 report found that Canada’s six national museums are underfunded by about US$60 million each year. In the United States, President Trump’s 2019 fiscal year budget sought to entirely eliminate three vital federal agencies – the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts and Institute of Museum and Library Services – that preserve much of the country’s cultural heritage in museums. Even before Trump, all of these programs have had relatively stagnant funding for years.


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Originally published on
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Explaining Brazil #27: The destruction of Rio’s National Museum

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The destruction of Rio’s National Museum

The Quinta da Boa Vista building is located in São Cristóvão, a lower-income neighborhood in northern Rio. A long time ago, it was the residence of the Brazilian Imperial Family.

Today the building houses the National Museum, the oldest in Brazil, created in 1818 by Portugal’s King Dom João the sixth – the only European monarch to set foot in the Americas in over 400 years.

Author Laurentino Gomes, in his book 1808 – which is about how the Portuguese Crown fled Europe to escape an invasion by Napoleon and set up residence in Rio de Janeiro – called the National Museum one of the oddest he had ever seen. It housed indigenous artifacts, Egyptian mummies, stuffed birds, a dinosaur skeleton, and a meteorite. Its collection also included Luzia – the oldest skull ever found in the Americas.

All of that might have been lost on Sunday, September 2nd, when a massive fire destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the museum’s collection and nearly caused the building to collapse. It took firefighters more than six hours to control the flames – as the museum’s fire detectors weren’t working, fire hydrants didn’t have enough water, and the museum couldn’t afford a fire brigade.

It’s a week of mourning for Brazilians – and the third fire to destroy a museum in five years.

On this podcast

gustavo ribeiro journalist brazil vejaGustavo Ribeiro has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets, including Veja, Época, Folha de São Paulo, Médiapart and Radio France Internationale. He is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Abril Prize for outstanding political journalism. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

rio national museum directorLuiz Fernando Dias Duarte is the Deputy Director of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum. Mr. Duarte holds a Ph.D. degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and a post-doctorate degree from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris.

 

diogo a rodriguez brjournalistThis episode was written by Diogo Rodriguez, a journalist and social scientist. He has contributed to publications such as Folha de S. Paulo, Estado de S. Paulo, Trip, Vida Simples, Galileu, Mundo Estranho, Exame, and Vice, among others. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.

maria martha bruno brazil journalist rio de janeiroMaria Martha Bruno edited this podcast. She is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has collaborated with Al Jazeera and CNN, among others, worked as a producer in Rio de Janeiro for NBC, and as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.

Do you have a suggestion for our next Explaining Brazil podcast? Drop us a line at podcast@brazilian.report

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Categories
Society

What was lost in the National Museum fire?

The blaze which engulfed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday evening, destroying most of its interior, has caused an incalculable loss to science and culture for both Brazil and the rest of the world. The museum’s archive of over 2 million pieces includes some of the most important anthropological and archaeological findings in Latin America. 

According to British insurance company JLT, no Brazilian museum has insurance against fire to protect permanent collections and buildings – only temporary exhibitions tend to be protected. To make matters worse, Rio’s National Museum’s smoke detectors weren’t working, nor did the institution have the funds to keep firefighters in the building.

While salvage operations are still underway, all signs point to the almost total destruction of the pieces which, on Sunday afternoon, were open to the public.[restricted]

Luzia’s skull

luzia national museum fire
Luzia was probably lost in the museum fire

The most emblematic artifact lost in the blaze is the oldest human fossil ever found in Latin America: the skull of a woman who lived approximately 11,500 years ago, who was affectionately named Luzia. The fossilized cranium was found in 1975, in a cave close to the city of Belo Horizonte, and was the star of the show of the National Museum’s fossil collection, which was regarded the largest in Latin America.

Besides being historically notable, Luzia’s skull was also crucially important for the development of anthropology in the Americas, as it was after analyzing the fossil that a new hypothesis was created regarding how Latin America was originally populated. Walter Neves, an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo, theorized that Luzia was part of the first wave of migrants to the continent, meaning there would be more than one movement of peoples to the region.  

Brazil’s largest dinosaur

dinosaur national museum fire

Also on display in the National Museum was the skeleton of the Maxakalisaurus, the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Brazil. The creature was the centerpiece of the museum’s Dinosaur Room, which has been one of the best representations of the institute’s financial woes over recent years.

In 2015, a termite infestation forced the Dinosaur Room to close, meaning the wide range of fossils and bones could not be seen by the public. Having not received sufficient resources from the government, the National Museum was forced to open a crowdfunding campaign in July of this year, in order to be able to reopen the Dinosaur Room. Two months later, however, the collection has been destroyed.

Records of the Brazilian Empire

Brazilian Empire Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II History Brazil
Museum fire destroyed palace where Dom Pedro II (center) was born

Though it has served as a museum for the last 200 years, the building which housed the National Museum was originally a palace, being the residency of the Royal Family and Imperial Family throughout the 19th century. As a result, the museum’s archive was full of documents from this era, as well as jewelry, furniture and other artifacts used by the leaders of the Brazilian Empire. It was one of the last comprehensive collections from this period.

Ancient Egyptian artifacts

national museum fire egyptian collection

The National Museum’s collection of Egyptian architecture is the largest and among the oldest in Latin America, with what became a 700-item archive having been started in 1826, when Emperor Pedro I purchased a number of ancient Egyptian antiques at auction. The collection grew over time, including sarcophagi and mummies of both people and animals, including the coffin of an Amun singer Sha-Amun-en-su, which is extremely rare as it has never been opened.

The lone survivor

national museum fire meteorite
Bendegó ‘survived’ the museum fire

As of yet, the only confirmed artifact which has made it through the blaze unscathed is the Bendegó meteorite, a five-ton piece of iron which has been on display in the museum since 1888. The largest meteorite ever found on Brazilian soil (when it was found in 1784 it was the second-largest in the world), being made of heavy metals and having survived a fall from space thousands of years ago, the museum blaze left the meteorite unharmed.[/restricted]

Categories
Society

Only 2 of Brazil’s presidential hopefuls have proposals for museums

As the flames consumed Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, figures from across the political spectrum took to social media to mourn the loss of thousands of items – including precious fossils and pieces of Brazilian history. According to the National Museum Institute, “it was a scenario of total loss.” The museum building has been shut down by the Civil Defense Authority, as it could collapse at any moment.

Virtually every politician running for office in October’s general elections went on their own Twitter rant about the years of neglect from authorities toward the country’s cultural heritage. The Minister of Culture himself admitted this disregard in an interview to Globonews – blaming past administrations. Libertarian candidates used the case to claim the government’s incompetence, defending a smaller state. Those on the left are doing the opposite, blaming the tragedy on the lack of a stronger state.

As often happens in Brazil after an event which has caused so much commotion, the National Museum tragedy should now come to the forefront of the political debate, at least until the beginning of the next news cycle.

Nearly all presidential hopefuls have commented on the case, pulling no punches and attacking the current administration. While President Michel Temer’s government does shoulder part of the blame, it is not solely responsible for the museum fire. Such a disaster can only happen after decades of mismanagement, and Mr. Temer has only been in power since 2016.

However, despite today’s grandstanding on social media, very few of the candidates’ programs include any reference to federally-run museums.

Of the 13 candidates running in October, only two presented proposals for the culture sector in the programs they submitted to the Electoral Justice system: Marina Silva and the Workers’ Party. Four candidates – former Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, right-wing former firefighter Cabo Daciolo, and Trotskyist Vera Lucia – make no mention of the subject. The remaining seven have only vague proposals loosely connected to culture.

Of the five leading candidacies, we have checked exactly what is being proposed with regard to culture:

Marina Silva

The former environment minister has included a national museum appreciation policy, promising to “improve operating conditions of museums, archives, and libraries.”

Workers’ Party

Lula’s party promises to “strengthen the national museum policy,” increasing investments into the National Library, the Palmares Cultural Foundation (which preserves Afro-Brazilian culture), and Casa de Rui Barbosa (a memorial collection of literary documents).

Ciro Gomes

One of the chapters in his program is dedicated to culture. However, there is no mention of national museums. He says only that his administration would “preserve and amplify our cultural and artistic heritage.”

Geraldo Alckmin

The Social Democracy Party candidate uses the same arguments regardless of the subject: recuperating the path to GDP growth will improve the cultural landscape. Mr. Alckmin believes that a thriving industry will invest in encouraging cultural expressions – but there’s nothing more specific than that.

Alvaro Dias

Mr. Dias makes a reference to “free culture with the Culture Card,” but provides no explanation as to what that would entail.

Categories
Society

Destruction of Rio’s National Museum exposes deeper crisis

“Greatness. With problems.” That’s how Alexander Kellner described Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, back in May, to journalist Marco Aurélio Canônico. In the year of its 200th anniversary, the museum scrambled to operate with the bare minimum – ten of its 30 rooms were closed, and the building battled an infestation of termites. The financial situation of the National Museum was so dire that its administration was forced to set up a crowdfunding campaign to be able to display its Maxakilisaurus skeleton to the public, the largest dinosaur skeleton ever to be found in Brazil.

On Sunday (September 3), the National Museum’s decay took a dramatic turn, with the building becoming consumed – and almost entirely destroyed – by flames. The fire department was called at 7:30 pm – two and a half hours after the museum closed for the day. The flames were only controlled by around 2:00 am, by which time authorities believe almost everything inside has been destroyed. “We lost 200 years of history. It’s not only the building and its objects that we are losing, but part of the effort to create the Brazilian civilization,” said Paulo Knauss, director of the National Historic Museum on television.

National Museum: budget problems

The fire is only the latest instalment in a story of neglect. Inaugurated on June 6, 1818, Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum was Brazil’s first art gallery. It is located in Quinta da Boa Vista, a building next to the Maracanã Stadium which served as the residence of the Portuguese royal family. It was there that the Brazilian Declaration of Independence was signed and where Emperor Pedro II was born.

Its archive holds over 20 million items – including Latin America’s largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Perhaps its most significant treasure was Luzia, the oldest human fossil ever found in the Americas – a 12,000-year-old woman who was one of Brazil’s first inhabitants.

The museum, however, reached its 200th anniversary with leaks, damages, stained historic furniture, and moldy walls. In 2015, contract workers went on strike after not getting paid for three months, which forced the museum to close for 11 days and the federal government to send an emergency BRL 8 million. Without any money for research, the museum offered an anachronistic experience – with no digital resources whatsoever. Its visitation was down to fewer than 10,000 people per month.

In June, the National Museum signed a BRL 21.7 million contract to restore the building. Part of that money would be used in anti-fire systems. At the time, Mr. Kellner said that the money was welcomed – but not nearly enough to solve all problems.

No care for our museums

According to the Ministry of Culture, Brazil has 3,200 museums – among public and private institutions. Just for comparison – that is three times more than France, one of the world’s cultural centers. However, the reality of the sector is borderline catastrophic. Over 100 museums are closed due to a sheer lack of money and qualified labor.

During the past decade, three museums (including Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum) have been destroyed by fire.

Less than three years ago, a similar episode happened in São Paulo’s Portuguese Language Museum. A defective light bulb caused a short-circuit that sparked the fire, which destroyed the museum and the roof of the Luz Station, a historic railway station built in 1901 that housed it, killing one firefighter. Since the fire, on December 21, 2015, the institution has been closed – and should be reopened only next year, if everything goes according to plan. In November 2013, the auditorium of São Paulo’s Latin American Memorial was destroyed by a fire and spent four years closed. The institution lost a historical tapestry ordered in the 1980s by architect Oscar Niemeyer to the late Tomie Ohtake – one of Brazil’s most renowned artists.

fire museum portuguese language brazil sao paulo
The Portuguese Language Museum

Other institutions have closed down in less dramatic fashion. In Uberlândia, the second-largest city in the state of Minas Gerais, museums close during weekends and holidays (to avoid paying workers overtime) – operating only between 8 am and 5 pm. Not necessarily the best way to attract visitors.

Another emblematic symbol of how little Brazilian authorities care for our museums is the Ipiranga Museum – erected at the site of Brazil’s independence proclamation on September 7, 1822. The building, designed by Italian architect Gaudencio Bezzi and inaugurated in 1890, is a UNESCO historic and cultural heritage site. Five years ago, it was shut down due to an imminent risk of collapse. It is only set to reopen in 2022, during the celebration of the 200 years of Brazilian independence.

Selling Pollock to stay afloat

Earlier this year, Rio de Janeiro’s Modern Art Museum (MAM) shocked the art world when it decided to auction its most celebrated work, Jackson Pollock’s No. 16 (1950) – the only work of the artist on public view in Brazil – to fund its operations. The painting was a gift from American magnate Nelson Rockefeller, as part of a soft power strategy.

As a businessman, Mr. Rockefeller had dealings in several areas, such as steel, agriculture, and construction. As a member of the U.S. federal administration, he saw Brazil as an important ally in Latin America. During the Cold War, Mr. Rockefeller believed in the power of cultural influence. As chairman of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he incentivized the creation of similar museums across Latin America, having donated important artwork to these institutions. In 1952, he donated a canvas by Robert Motherwell and Pollock’s No. 16 to MAM.

jackson pollock no 16 mam rio for sale
Jackson Pollock No.16

With debts of BRL 4 million, MAM became unable to finance its operations. The museum’s chairman, Carlos Alberto Chateaubriand, met three times with Sérgio Sá Leitão, the Minister of Culture, only to hear the same thing: there was no money available, as MAM is a private institution. Estimated at USD 25 million, the sale No. 16 could help guarantee 30 years of operation for MAM. The Ministry of Culture has filed a lawsuit asking the auction to be suspended – but has offered no other way to finance the museum.

The Ministry of Culture under Michel Temer

It is safe to say that President Michel Temer’s administration acts exclusively in the interests of big business. Among the several actions that helped his approval ratings reach a record-low in democratic times, we can cite a brutal attempted pension system reform, a pro-business labor reform, an attempt to narrow the definition of slave labor – and the brief extinction of the Ministry of Culture.

Mr. Temer backpedaled two weeks later, after daily protests by artists in 11 state capitals. However, the ministry was never effective during his administration. In June 2017, culture secretaries for 19 Brazilian states signed a manifesto against what they called “paralysis and abandon” by the Ministry.

In one year, nothing changed – and the result is exposed by the flames that destroyed Brazil’s oldest museum. President Michel Temer called the fire “a tragic day for Brazil’s museology.” It is – and his administration actively helped it happen.

But while the current administration does not have our cultural assets as a priority, it would be wrong to blame it entirely on President Temer and his team. Such failure is a joint effort between him and his predecessors.

Categories
Society

How Sergio Rodrigues revolutionized Brazilian design

sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture
Sergio Rodrigues, one of the beacons of Brazilian design

It was in 1957 that famous Brazilian fashion photographer Otto Stupakoff turned to his friend Sergio Rodrigues, then a 30-year-old architect, for a “mission.” He wanted a comfortable armchair on which he could relax after a long day’s work. That request ended up propelling Rodrigues to international fame, as it pushed him into creating one of the world’s most famous and unique pieces of furniture design: the Mole armchair (the word means “soft” in English).

Known outside of Brazil as the “Sheriff,” the piece was launched in August 1957 at Oca, Rodrigues’ store in Ipanema, one of the most affluent areas of Rio de Janeiro. At first, however, the Mole was not well appreciated. According to Rodrigues’ own accounts, the chair sparked the wrong kind of attention from clients, who thought the piece to be “very expensive for a dog chair.” His partners wanted to remove it from the shop’s window and place it in the back, hidden from casual bystanders.

sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture
Mole, a masterpiece of Brazilian design

But Rodrigues’ faith in his own work eventually paid off. Prominent jet-setters from Rio slowly started to appreciate the piece – including then-Governor Carlos Lacerda, who demanded the architect send the Mole armchair to a design competition in Italy. The Brazilian design piece ended up snatching the first prize in the 1961 International Furniture Competition, in Cantu, Italy.

Once considered an “expensive dog chair,” the piece was now praised in Europe for giving a relaxed atmosphere to a room, thanks to its loose cushions thrown on the structure, made out of jacarandá, or Brazilian rosewood. It was supposed to represent the way Brazilians sit, an informal, relaxed, and lazy body posture. Like Mole, most of Rodrigues’ creations were considered to be examples of “Brazilian-ness.” He clashed with the European standard that was so often copied by national furniture producers.

Sergio Rodrigues’ history

Rodrigues, one of the beacons of Brazilian design, was born in 1927, in Rio de Janeiro, into a family of intellectuals. One of his uncles was Nelson Rodrigues, among Brazil’s most iconic playwrights; the other was Mario Filho, a journalist after whom the Maracanã soccer stadium is officially named after.

He started his design career by joining the project of the Curitiba Civic Center – one of the landmarks of Brazilian modernist architecture. The building is among the most iconic in modern Brazilian architecture. Slowly, Rodrigues moved from designing buildings to creating pieces to decorate them; and started creating furniture. This change of focus would put his name in history.

A contemporary of other legends such as Oscar Niemeyer, Rodrigues was invited to take part in the construction of Brasilia. Until today, many public buildings, including Congress and the University of Brasilia, have pieces of furniture designed by Rodrigues spread around their offices.

sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture
Sergio Rodrigues in his office

Influences and legacy

Since his college years, Rodrigues had two main influences: Portuguese sculptor and designer Joaquim Tenreiro, and the industrialized furniture of José Zanine Caldas, an architect from the city of São José dos Campos.

He was also influenced by members of the so-called “Italian artistic mission” in Brazil – such as Lina Bo Bardi, Giancarlo Palanti, Dominici, and Carlo Hauner – with whom Rodrigues opened his first shop, Móveis Artesanal Paranaense.

But Rodrigues also left his mark on many Brazilian designers. According to journalist Adélia Borges, groups of designers inspired by the creator of the Mole armchair began popping up, such as Carlos Motta, in São Paulo, and the Marcenaria Baraúna team. These artists, like Rodrigues, valued the use of Brazilian wood to produce furniture.

Rodrigues believed that every architecture student should have experience in woodwork and use construction techniques to create. “Many times, the designer imagines many beautiful things that sometimes don’t work,” he said.

He died in 2014 from a liver failure, and was survived by his wife, Vera Beatriz; two daughters, Adriana and Angela; a son, Roberto; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 


The Itaú Cultural Institute, near São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, is currently holding an exhibition to honor Sergio Rodrigues’ body of work and life. “Ser Estar, Sergio Rodrigues” features 500 of the designer’s works spread over the building’s three floors. There are creations from his childhood and the pieces he designed before his death. The exhibition also has documents, photos, rough drafts, videos, and blueprints.