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The Almost-Brazilians

An Ode to the Voracity of Multiple Identities

Rosana Paulino, <em>Buffalo</em>, 2020. Graphite and watercolor on paper. Courtesy the artist.
Rosana Paulino, Buffalo, 2020. Graphite and watercolor on paper. Courtesy the artist.
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Brazil had already left its days as a colony behind, and was coming into its own as an empire when Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen sent his “Organic Memorial” (1850) to the Guanabara journal. In this piece, he offered advice for improving the development of the nation. His assertions, acerbic in nature, emphasized the provincial character of Brazil. Among the many judgments of deficiency were the overly extensive domains of the country and the excessively heterogenous figures of its peoples. In one country alone there were Brazilians who were “African slaves, some acculturated and some not,” “wild Indians,” and “very few European settlers,” the Viscount of Porto Seguro wrote. As far as the divvying up of the territory, there were “many anomalies (…) everyone [knew, for example] the curious and ridiculous fact of the village Pedras de fogo, in which houses on the same street belonged to the state of Pernambuco on one side and to Paraíba just across the way.”1

Rosana Paulino, <em>Tropical Paradise?</em>, 2017. Digital print on fabric, cutout, ink, and sewing. Courtesy the artist.
Rosana Paulino, Tropical Paradise?, 2017. Digital print on fabric, cutout, ink, and sewing. Courtesy the artist.

The identity “Brazilian” was forged out of a desire to unify the land and standardize the plurality of its inhabitants. With the coming of the republic, the concept had been fine tuned. Enveloped in the web of nationalist movements that spread throughout the 20th century, the “Brazilian” took on features and a lexicon. The diversity of yesteryear, then, was converted into “good” racial mixture, hybridity, and syncretism. The false harmony of these concepts hid the violence of imperative erasures involved in a selection of a common type and the instrumentalized value of dissident bodies. This nationalist turn transformed cosmogonies into Sunday folklore. This spectacularization was first grouped into three “categories”: Indians, Blacks, and whites. Stereotyped, together they erect the totemic form of the Monument to the Three Races (1968) in Goiás, simulating the union of the three peoples in building the country of Brazil. However, the phallic symbol raised there is, above all, the totem of barbarism: the large piece of concrete is, further, the sacrificial stone of being into an assortment or mutation.

Circumventing this mutilation, the almost-Brazilians lead their lives. They exist on the margins, in exception to the State, even when political circumstances do not correspond to those that install a “state of exception”2 in the juridical sense. Named as part of the Brazilian people, the almost-Brazilians transit their disharmony in the middle of masses and as part of them. Their differences are constantly operationalized, ignored, or silenced regardless of where they take refuge: in villages, in reserves, in quilombos, in favelas, in terreiros, in Amazonian deserts, and concrete slabs.3

Rosana Paulino, <em>Rainha</em>, 2006. Terracotta and glass. Courtesy the artist.
Rosana Paulino, Rainha, 2006. Terracotta and glass. Courtesy the artist.

In effect, this permanent condition of divergence also operates as a form of resistance, since the state of being-almost is not wedded to the incapacity of the subject to imitate, even if meagerly, the nationalist model of identity initiated by colonial ventures. By exercising nationalist mimicry,”4 the ill-achieved copy is a strategy to refuse the constant and integral national body by one who, in learning the art of imitation, turns a trifle into a mockery of the entire model.

Almost-Brazilian artists take part in this practice. They wade inside of an Art that, in spite of transnational publicity, seeks to pigeonhole them (as well as their poetics) into multiple categories that are heir to an essentialist identitarian perspective. To this end, they handle the performative power of the almost, namely, inconstancy. By means of it, they can be one, then another, and even a third: the jaguar crossing downtown São Paulo barefoot and alleging the end of the History of Art from a Eurocentric perspective5; a pale and blonde woman of Black phenotype walking down Oscar Freire Street6; the archetypes and simultaneously contemporary Black Buffalo women of the forest7; and the linguistic abundance that emerges from the language of the colonizer to that of capitalism, without forgetting the sacred vocabulary of ritual.

In this sense, the almost-Brazilian artists are cannibals. They do not seek the conciliation of bodies, they devour them. Far from the modern paradigm of the nation, they swallow alterity, capturing its powers as part of the construction of multiple artistic destinies. And then they recreate them with new and ancestral gestures and presences, in material, processual, and institutional forms, in which the Other consumed in the cannibalistic ritual of doing is fundamental for other forms of sociability. For this reason, the Tupinambá cosmopolitics operates in the elaboration of transnational art.

Rosana Paulino, from “Bastidores,” 1997. Image transfers and sewing on fabric, wooden frame. Courtesy the artist.
Rosana Paulino, from “Bastidores,” 1997. Image transfers and sewing on fabric, wooden frame. Courtesy the artist.

At the same time, the permanent anthropophagous exercise of these artists slows down their engulfment by Brazilian Art; by digesting the devoured enemies, the almost-Brazilians perform by infinite self-multiplication. Always variant, they are anomalies in contemporary Art that, like the village Pedras de fogo, insist on belonging both to the state of Pernambuco and the state of Paraíba, and to waddle between these and other streets when they feel like it.

  1. Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, “Memorial Organico oferrecido á nação – parte primeira”. Capítulo primeiro. O Guanabara (Revista Mensal Artistica, Scientifica e Litteraria), Ano 1850, Edição 00001(4), p. 357. Hemeroteca Digital da Biblioteca Digital Nacional Brasil, Biblioteca Nacional - RJ. Código TRB00241.0170, Label: 700630. Spelling of the text was brought up to date by the author.
  2. AGAMBEN, Giorgio. Estado de exceção. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004.
  3. Quilombos are hinterland settlements of Black Brazilians that date back to slavery; favelas are shantytowns, built on the hillsides of Brazil’s cities by the poor; terreiros are the houses of worship of Afro-Brazilian religions; lajes are concrete slabs used to build homes in Brazil.
  4. This term is a variant of concept of “colonial mimicry” by Homi Bhabha, elaborated in the text “Da mímica e do homem: a ambivalência do discurso colonial”, In: BHABHA, Homi. O local da cultura. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 1998.
  5. Denilson Baniwa, Performance Pajé-Onça caçando na Avenida Paulista (Shaman-Jaguar Performance hunting on Avenida Paulista, 2018).
  6. Video performance by Renata Felinto, White Face and Blond Hair (2012).
  7. The series Búfala (Buffalo-Woman, 2020), by Rosana Paulino.


Vivian Braga dos Santos

Vivian Braga dos Santos has a PhD in Art History from the University of São Paulo (USP, Brazil) and researcher at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA, Paris). Her work examines the relationship between contemporary art, political conflict, history, and memory. Currently, she is focusing on a project about the tensions between contemporary art and conflicts over racial issues in Brazil.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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