¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 8: COVID-19 on Canvas in Brazil
"¡El Arte no Calla!,” a new monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato will invite a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.
Episode 8: COVID-19 on Canvas in Brazil with Gil Leros
In this episode of ¡El Arte no Calla!, Brazilian muralist Gil Leros reflects on the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, its consequences for artists, and on muralism as a form of democratic art accessible to all. As exemplified by a mural that became famous worldwide for representing healthcare workers fighting COVID-19, Leros reveals how the form can give visibility to ideas and artists who might not otherwise find representation in the mainstream media.
Alessandro Zagato: Can you tell us about you and your work as an artist?
Gil Leros: I was born in the state of Pará, close to Maranhão in the north east part of the country. Since I was a child, I have had a problem with writing. I suffer from dyslexia, and therefore I have always spent a lot of time drawing: in the classroom, during breaks - even after I was playing soccer with my friends on the street I ended up drawing and painting the floor. As I grew a bit older, I moved to São Luís, the capital of the state of Maranhão, and I started to connect with the local Hip Hop culture and scene. In my neighborhood there were people doing break dance and graffiti. I was just an adolescent, and because of my drawing background, I started enjoying writing my name and graphically intervening on the walls of my neighborhood. With time, I improved my knowledge and technique, occupying bigger spaces for my artworks and moving to different neighborhoods. Increasingly, I gained visibility. My work started to belong to my city’s public space, and I started to be contacted and contracted to do works by the local administration and enterprises – and the arts scene started developing a discourse on my production.
A.Z.: One of your recent works gained a lot of visibility, since you represented and honored healthcare workers. Why did you do so, and what is your opinion of the management of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Brazilian administration?
G.L. For some time now I have been managing a series of popular-culture-related projects, and the essence of my work today consists of intervening and representing contexts and spaces that are not given visibility by the mainstream culture. In the beginning of the pandemic, we witnessed an effort by the rightwing to discredit the work of students, researchers, scientists, and healthcare professionals. Therefore, together with other artists, journalists, and cultural workers, I felt the necessity to oppose this idea. I did so by giving visibility to professionals who are working in a closed space, and whose contribution is not clearly and fully perceived by society. There was a necessity to make them present in the day-to-day life of the city, so that even the people who are going to spend a day on the beach can recognize those professionals and their importance in the functioning of society as frontline defenders - even outside hospitals, and against the negativity evoked by governmental and rightwing ideology.
“We intend a mural not just as a decorative artistic element, but one that expresses a political instance, representing labor or the popular exercise of social functions.”
A.Z.: Many artists’ work has radically changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you live through this situation, and how was it experienced by artists in Brazil?
G.L.: Cultural professionals were hit very hard and directly from an economic point of view. The absence of cultural activities, concerts, popular celebrations, theater events, and so on has become an issue for them. This situation made visible how economically fragile art is as a profession. And in Brazil, artists are currently doing an enormous work of articulation to support each other as colleagues and friends.
A.Z.: What is the current situation of artistic freedom in Brazil? Can artists express themselves freely or are there restrictions in place?
G.L.: Recently, we suffered a direct attack: Felipe Neto, a well known critical artist and youtuber, suffered legal persecution for his opinions. And he was not the first case. There were already attacks against journalists and artists. It is an extreme right-wing tendency that reveals itself as a strategy, and that follows an authoritarian will to silence critical voices and opinions. Since the beginning of his mandate, the current president has used an authoritarian right-wing discourse. Recently he has moderated his discourse, but he has continued to develop his ideas in the practice of power. He has done so through his son and other close political figures. They are attacking journalists and critical thinkers through legal means. They are running a repressive machine that is imposing fear and silence. In the state of Maranhão, we have the political advantage of being ruled by a moderate and liberal administration, which opposes the current federal presidency, with the support of a big cultural diversity shaping this region, and benefitting areas like freedom of expression and the exercise of democracy.
“Workers are the engine of popular culture in Latin America - through their claims, demands, and critiques of the working people’s conditions. My approach consists in innovating and reproducing elements of this popular culture and giving them back to the day-to-day life of society.”
A.Z.: A last question has to do with muralism as a form of public art that is available to all. According to you, what is the function of a muralist in society?
G.L.: I think that our idea of muralism is strongly influenced by the Mexican tradition - the idea of a relatively spontaneous work shaped by an innovative language. Our perspective has to do with producing a type of art that is more democratic and whose message is not restricted to the closed space of a gallery or the economic power of a buyer who can own a specific artifact. And we intend a mural not just as a decorative artistic element, but one that expresses a political instance, representing labor or the popular exercise of social functions – and which is present in the day-to-day life of the city, where even a poor person can be stimulated by it. In my work, I have been gathering many elements shaping the popular culture of the state of Maranhão. This resulted from a research and analytical work that I have done on the forms and manifestations of local culture and knowledge – and there are many ludic and folkloric aspects of such culture that I have integrated into my aesthetic praxis. The figure of the worker, which I frequently represent in my pieces, plays an important role in this local culture. I would say that workers are somehow the engine of popular culture in Latin America - through their claims, demands, and critiques of the working people’s conditions. My approach consists in innovating and reproducing elements of this popular culture and giving them back to the day-to-day life of society.