Life-Changing Music in Venezuela

For a long time I have been impressed with the  program, EL SISTEMA. This is a government sponsored program in Venezuela that has been in existence for some 30 years. It provides Venezuelan children (most of them in the program are poor or working class) with a music education. It gives them a chance to learn how to play a musical instrument, play in an ensemble or sing in chorus. There are even choruses for deaf children who make music with hand gestures. With dedication and gusto, these young musicians experience the beauty of music every day of their lives, and that is life changing.

In December of 2012 I attended a concert of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Gustavo Dudamel in Philadelphia. The ensemble played with such passion and commitment. I honestly had not experienced such an exciting performance of an instrumental group since I was a teenager and heard my first live concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. There were several encores for the Venezuela ensemble. I thought the audience was going to break out into a riot–there was so much energy in the hall, and genuine admiration and pride for this talented maestro and his orchestra expressed by standing ovations, applause and screaming.

There are two films available about this program. One is in Spanish and is called EL SISTEMA. The other is TOCAR Y LUCHAR and is multilingual.  I highly recommend the uplifting documentary, TOCAR Y LUCHAR, for those who want to see the children playing and hear commentary by such important musicians as Sir Simon Rattle and Plácido Domingo.



Eating Garbage in “Lixo Extraordinário” (Wasteland) — Documentary

             Cuban art critic, historian and curator, Gerardo Mosquera,  has made a career of defining Latin American Art. In articles and conferences he recognizes and explains Brazilian modernist, Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófogo” (Cannibalistic Manifesto), yet asserts that “Antropofogia” is no more and that it was a temporary movement that no longer fits contemporary Brazilian art.  According to Mosquera, Brazilian art has outgrown it and has become globalized, universal and abstract.  He also asserts that this cannibalism has negatives that have not been explored enough in more than 70 years, since its inception in 1922. Instead, antropofogia has been considered a positive way for Brazilian (and Latin American as a whole) artists to justify their use of imitation as a form of post-colonial resistance against the colonizer, the “center/metropolis” or the European/United States model. I translate that Mosquera cautions: Following the cannibalism metaphor, it is necessary to highlight the digestive battle that is implicit in this relationship: sometimes the consequences are addiction, constipation, or worse yet, diarrhea.” (Contra el arte latinoamericano:entrevista, 2009  latinoamericano.html)

Nevertheless, Vik Muniz’  “pictures of garbage” is a 21st century example, par excellence, of Andrade’s “antropofogia,” (cannibalism).  It takes discarded items that are the culmination of years of colonization, imperialism and environmental degradation, involves some of the most marginalized people in Rio de Janeiro, parodies beloved paragons of European art, and combines them all to make a new Brazilian aesthetic. The artists figuratively ingest the garbage, transform it, and excrete it in the form of high art that revitalizes the lives of several individuals living on the margins of Brazilian society, making their livings by picking through the toxic refuse of an entire city.

A few years ago, Muniz, who now lives in New York City, decided to do an art project that would involve the people in a certain space and transform them through the art itself. He did not know what the result would be but he desired to give back to his Brazilian people with this project. In the documentary he states that he was ready to do art that would affect other people directly. He no longer needed to buy things or concern himself with money. He had immigrated to the United States after being shot in Brazil (and subsequently receiving a monetary settlement), and had made a good artistic career in New York City. In 1996 his exhibition  “Sugar Children”, photographs of Caribbean children filled with sugar, got him noticed.

The documentary, “Lixo Extraordinário” or in English, “Wasteland”, is the story of this contemporary Brazilian artist and several landfill pickers in Rio de Janeiro.  One should note that the title in Portuguese is optimistic and inspirational, while the English is not—it is the opposite.  A direct translation would be “Extraordinary Garbage”, which in fact, it is. It is turned into beautiful art and results in a lot of money and personal transformation for the artists. The protagonist of the documentary, the landfill Jardim Gramacho, closed in June 2012, but for some 30 years had been one of the biggest and most toxic dumps in the world.  In his project, Muniz recycles garbage into stunning works that garner a high price in the contemporary art world. The pieces are auctioned off in London in 2010, earning thousands of dollars each. The pickers in the documentary are forever changed by their own work as artists, the dignity that they feel because Muniz values them and their work, and by the money that the artworks earned—it all goes back to the pickers, including money earned by the documentary. This is “Antropofogia” or artistic cannibalism at its finest.  Moreover, it clearly shows how one individual can make change in the world, and how art can transform people.

For this project Muniz chose Jardim Gramacho because he saw the potential in the garbage/recyclables and realized that the people who work there are some of the most desperate in the city. When he arrives he meets and selects subjects who later he poses in traditional ways. Some of these poses are direct “rip-offs” from famous European art. Antropogia at work: “eating the European and transforming it into something Brazilian.” (my interpretation of Oswald de Andrade). His subjects are Brazilians in a disgusting dump, and once he takes the photos, they are blown up to a gargantuan size. The pickers then fill in the photos with scraps and recyclables. Finally, another photo is taken of each and that is the finished piece. Muniz and the pickers transform refuse that others have thrown away into striking works of art that are auctioned off for high prices and also exhibited in Europe and in Brazil.

Equally significant is the exhibition of “Pictures of Garbage” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.  The pickers who collaborated in the works attend. Usually most pickers at a dump in the “Baixada” area of Rio de Janeiro would not have the time or the money to travel into the city to see exhibitions at this museum. The museum space itself is enlarged and classes/social statuses are leveled and equalized by this exposition—in terms of the work exhibited as well as the type of individual who views it.  Muniz is the catalyst that encourages these pickers/artists, to rediscover themselves and rethink who they are–they are more than their dirty job—they are people, humans, who have been undervalued—by themselves and society.

“tupi or not tupi, that is the question.” (Manifesto Antropófogo, Oswald de Andrade)

Just as Oswald de Andrade plays with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, subverting Shakespeare with indigenous culture and also word pun in English, the original meaning remains under the parody:  is a life of challenges and hardships worth it? “Pictures of Garbage” and Lixo Extraordinário demonstrate that it is. 

SOURCES: (Manifesto antropófogo e Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil, Oswald de Andrade) (Del Arte Latinoamericano al arte desde America Latina) (Adios a la antropofagia)