Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 5, 2019
José Esparza Chong Cuy, ed. Jonathas de Andrade: One to One Exh. cat. Chicago and New York: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2019. 144 pp.; 100 ills. Paper $25.00 (9783791358390)
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, April 13–August 25, 2019

The latest iteration of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)’s Ascendant Artist series featured the Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade (born 1982). This series has the virtue of occasionally highlighting younger artists from the Global South, even as the museum itself trends more toward blockbuster shows that lionize designers and musicians rather than advanced art (to name a few, David Bowie Is, 2014–15; Takashi Murakami, 2017; and Virgil Abloh, 2019). Andrade’s North American reputation rests primarily on the film O Peixe (The fish; 2017), a haunting parody of the ethnographic gaze acquired by the MCA several years ago, and he has developed a multidisciplinary practice characterized by social engagement and polished production values. While this exhibition focused on a handful of recent works, the catalog serves a decidedly introductory function, with a few short, general texts and glossy reproductions of important pieces from Andrade’s career. As such, the show set the tone for the artist’s future reception in the United States.

Rich with the vocabulary of intervention, Andrade’s projects range specific concerns about Brazilian society across multiple platforms: video, installation, drawing, and parapolitical action. Excerpts from the series Infindável mapa da fome (Endless hunger map; 2019) exemplify the artist’s thoughtful approach to art and social justice. Paper maps of indigenous terrain covered the wall at the MCA, each overlaid with a different pattern, paired with dramatic photographs of the ink-stained hands of the Kayapó Menkragnoti women who decorated them. A prominent caption ran: essas são as mãos das mulheres que tocaram esta mapa (these are the hands of the women who touched this map). Andrade’s clear conviction that contemporary art and radical politics are compatible—evidenced by the familiar figure of an artist-organizer who nods to labor and land—was taken as a starting point by the show’s curators and catalog contributors, and so this review will critically assess just how his works’ political ambitions are framed and realized. (The conviction that advanced art and radical politics just are compatible is, of course, shared by modern and contemporary artists since at least the early twentieth century; O. K. Werckmeister’s important analysis of Paul Klee investigates the problem in granular detail.) Those ambitions are, as the map project makes especially obvious, constitutive of the works themselves.

Significantly, Andrade used army maps of Kayapó land in southern Pará for the series. Here, the Kayapó have legally recognized claims to territory that includes Amazon forest rich in lucrative hardwoods and precious metals. Brazilian governments militarized the Amazon at a rapid pace after the Cold War’s end, as the perceived threat of eastern aggression gave way to quasi-imperial national ambitions in the South American continent. (See Raúl Zibechi, The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy [AK Press, 2014], 99–104.) In the face of an expanding military presence and aggressive commercial enterprises, Bolivian indigenous activists and landless farmers in Paraguay have mounted inspiring challenges to the colonization of their land by Brazilian soldiers, settlers, and businesses (Zibechi, 7–13). Given this context, Andrade’s collaboration with indigenous artists reads as a timely response to current trends, even as it has left unclear precisely what the traditional patterns laid over military maps are supposed to signify in terms of ideological subversion or concrete political action.

Another of the show’s major works connects to particular Brazilian issues, even as it evokes more general themes of labor. Suar a camisa (Working up a sweat) filled most of the gallery space. First made in 2014, it comprises 120 shirts worn by Brazilian workers, each draped over a wooden support. As with many of Andrade’s pieces, it turns on the presumed equation of presence with resistance. “The shirts have something of the presence of the body in its absence,” the artist claimed in an interview. “Each of these shirts brings a story, the sweat of that worker.” As Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais detail, unskilled manual labor took on an outsize role in the Brazilian economy in the 1980s as governments promoted strategies of deindustrialization, relying on the export of unprocessed commodities and the exploitation of natural resources (e.g., beef, iron ore, oil, soy) while other large developing countries shifted their efforts to supplying manufactured goods (Brazil: Neoliberalism versus Democracy [Pluto Press, 2018], 114; 171.) Poorly paid jobs in the informal economy remain the norm even after mass consumption and standards of living rose under the government of the Workers’ Party (PT) from 2003 to 2016, and Andrade means to draw attention to these precarious workers in Suar a camisa (Saad-Filho and Morais, 102). At the MCA, he arranged their shirts in a block formation intended to recall a militant protest, a marked departure from their display as a snaking line in the artist’s previous shows. But when he frames them as “a battalion of workers ready to react,” Andrade’s vision decisively does not accord with the conditions of Brazilian labor, where mass protest has proved a remarkably inefficient strategy for effecting social change. The uprisings of 2013, quickly hijacked by the hard right, were marked by the absence of organized collective action, a legacy of the systematic dismantling of radical union activity under the PT who, as journalist Raúl Zibechi puts it, prioritized “fiestas over protests” (Zibechi, 41).

Nevertheless, the curators repeatedly summoned the specter of the PT as context for the show. In the catalog’s opening essay, José Esparza Chong Cuy explicitly cites Jair Bolsonaro’s rise, which, in his telling, “threatens to radically change the course of the progressive and socially aware Brazil that the Workers’ Party has been constructing since the rise to power of socialist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003” (12). Bolsonaro’s regime, for Cuy, provides a “surreal environment of contradictions” in which to “reassess” Andrade’s work. Cuy does not reference the PT’s strong commitment to developmental neoliberalism that, under both Lula and Dilma Rousseff, laid the groundwork for the subsequent right-wing governments of Michel Temer and Bolsonaro (Saad-Filho and Morais, 3, 92–105). The large agribusinesses currently pursuing ecologically disastrous campaigns in the Amazon thrived under a PT that declined to pursue land reform and encouraged the exploitation of indigenous resources. And so, although the catalog has some useful information about Andrade’s career, it is marred by moments of misplaced political nostalgia that do little to illuminate the artist’s practice and that seem to misconstrue his interventions. “Do all metaphors operate as revolutionary figures of speech, endowed with invention and criticism?” asks Lisette Lagnado in another essay, “The Strategy of Seducing and Confounding” (31). The answer (no) is less important than the question’s rationale, for Lagnado concludes by calling on “the artist’s critical potency” to set new, radical agendas. Like the superficial reading of Brazilian electoral politics that recurs with a pro-PT tone throughout the catalog, Lagnado’s romanticization of the revolutionary artist frames Andrade’s work in troublingly vague terms.

The past half decade or so has seen renewed scholarly and curatorial attention to the history of Brazilian modernism and to the distinctive contours of the Brazilian contemporary art scene. In Chicago alone, major retrospectives of Tarsila do Amaral and Hélio Oiticica have addressed the significant painterly and sculptural contributions made by Brazilian artists to practices of abstraction and expressionism (Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2017, and Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2017–18; an earlier precedent was Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture at the MCA in 2005–6). This interest goes hand in hand with the decline of US hegemony in South America, the erosion of the Washington Consensus, and the corresponding expansion of Brazilian power in the region. Andrade’s work contributes importantly to the discussion of how Brazilian artists are to resolve pressing questions facing contemporary cultural workers across the globe—what has art to do with political action? How should we assess the aesthetics of ambiguity and commitment? What are the artist’s social responsibilities?—on the specific terms of indigenous rights, land reform, and wealth inequality. While some of the works at the MCA described the world as it is (consider the show’s titular piece, Um pra um [One to one], an installation of clay bars held vertically in place by nails that mapped, to scale, the floor plans of small, crowded houses in Recife), others, like Suar a camisa, provocatively envision a militant near future that might be.

Luke A. Fidler
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, University of Chicago