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A plate of feijoada, a Brazilian beef and bean dish, rests on a bikini – wearing woman’s burnished legs. Flakes of farofa, or toasted manioc-corn flour, settle over the dish and dust her thighs, like snow, as forks jut out of the food. The photograph, from the Ramos series, is by Julio Bittencourt, one of the rising stars of contemporary Brazilian photography and just one of the many Brazilian talents on the internationaL art scene today.
With the infectious energy of an impromptu samba, Brazilian artists are stealing the scene in collections, galleries, and public works all over the world Street art by Os Gemeos, or “The Twins” in English, has appeared both legally and illegally on the streets of Chelsea in Manhattan and outside the Tate Modern in London. Even the rotunda of Paris’s Pantheon received a temporary Brazilian makeover in the form of Ernesto Neto’s “biomorphic” instaIlatlon, Leviathon Thot, hanging from the ceiling like an alien egg-sack. Demand for the new, original, and diverse has seen unprecedented support for these and other Brazilian works in sculpture, painting, graffiti, and photography.
The contemporary art scenes in Sao Paulo and Rio are experiencing exponential growth at the same time as the country’s commodities market is helping to transform Brazil into one of the worLd’s largest economies. Of course, not all emerging markets are hotbeds for art collection, but Brazil has some of the major components necessary: maturity, infrastructure, and momentum. The history of art in the country is well-established, with both public and private sectors supporting the arts. After corporate tax breaks were introduced in the 1990s Brazilian companies have been reimbursed up to 100% for their cultural investments. Companies like Banco do Brasil, Santander, and Caixa Economica Federal have set up art centers throughout Brazil, funding new work.
Increased social awareness and government-sponsored initiatives to aid the poor have also opened doors for art. Bittencourt’s socially-charged work has helped him to become one of the country’s most important and acclaimed photographers. He has exhibited in over a dozen countnes in the past five years alone. His best-regarded work to date is a collection of composite photos from a three-year prolect that focused on the stories of squatter-residents in a run down Sao Paulo building, published in his first book, ln a window of Prestes Maia 911 Building. The work consists of a series of individual images that are themselves made up of composites layered in a technique known as HDR, or “high dynamic range”. The resulting photographs reveal a startling tonal range and an almost surreal, extraterrestriaL glow, highlighting the contrast between the people’s bright, colorful lives and their drab, squalid surroundings. These contrasts, integral to the story of urban Brazil, are keys to understanding Bittencourt’s work. His success also has to do with his understanding of the thriving scene in art-motivated Brazil. He notes that “creativity, flexrbility, and so much diversity have always played an important role in the life ol Brazilian society and can explain much of where it all comes from, but the economy over the past decade has definitely pushed it to a different level.”
Alex Bueno de Moraes and Andrew Klug, cofounders of 1500 Gallery, a newish venue in NY’s West Chelsea neighborhood, are Looking to bring Bittencourt and other Brazilian photographers to the attention of collectors in American and international markets. Specializing in Brazilian photography, the gallery represents several of the best-known names in Brazil, both emerging and established. The owners, responding to a hot, hip market, have observed that investors in Sio Paulo and Rio are leaning heavily on native artists, and thus are spending significant sums of money on names that most in the New York market have never heard of Klug recalls “I recently contacted the departments of photography at the major auction houses here in New York, looking for consignments by Mario Crevo Neto and Miguel Rio Branco. Only one of the people spoke to had heard of one of these two names, while pieces by Miguel Rio Branco are currently selling in Brazil for over $50,000.”
Ramos is a series of color photographs taken at an artificial salt-water lake located amidst favelas, or shantytowns, in Rio de Janeiro. The area around Piscino de Ramos is noisy and polluted. Bittencourt’s photographs show people in an ethereal light, exposing dark-tinted, richly-polished bodies and limbs. A woman slathered in foam sunscreen sits in a chair, Christ the Redeemer on a towel at her feet. A man sits on a bench, a blue rope of a shirt trailing down his back to thong cleavage. The surfaces are pearly, the subjects bizarre in their contrasting tones: sexy, comical, grotesque, and serene. The photography captures the human as it is, Brazilian or otherwise: real, unabashed, and ripe with burgeoning energy.