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The Untold Story of 21st-Century Artists in Brasília

December 13, 2017

Portrait of Sophia Beal

Portrait of Sophia Beal
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

How do artists, actors, dancers, musicians, and poets positively influence the ways that people use and think about public space? Sophia Beal has spent the past few years studying how the arts and public spaces interact in the capital city of Brazil: Brasília. As a Talle Research Award recipient, she has been able to share what she has discovered about the transformation and utilization of public space over time in her book-in-progress The Art of Brasília: 2000-2017

The associate professor of Portuguese began studying the language as a freshman at Columbia University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and society. Beal was first interested in pursuing a career in Brazilian studies when she noted the lack of Portuguese courses available to her. Intrigued by her limited options to explore the language on campus, she studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and went to Maputo, Mozambique on a Fulbright student research grant directly after college to immerse herself in the Portuguese-speaking world and ultimately investigate what was missing from her lack of Portuguese classes in college.

Through her investigations, she became particularly interested in Brasília and how there wasn’t much appreciation for the abundant art being produced there. In her book, she combats certain stereotypes and misconceptions of this city in order to spread the word about how artists and cultural movements are positively reframing Brasília’s public space.

A Right to the City

Founded in 1960, Brasília is a city that was designed from the top down and has since been perceived as an emotionally cold place, with very little street vibrancy and artistic expression. Like most capital cities, Brasília is associated more closely with politics than art, and the only aspect that has been considered important to the planned city was how it was created, while information on subsequent art within it has been ignored. In addition, Brasília is among the most racially segregated of Brazil’s cities, resulting in a distinct physical distance between residents of different social classes, which has excluded historically-marginalized groups from the use of public space in the capital city. 

But Beal sees a more captivating city than what these stereotypes would have her believe. She wants to bring attention to ways that art and public engagement are enriching the city. By defying stereotypes about Brasília and focusing on cultural groups’ influence over public space, Beal captures previously unrecognized vibrancy and public emotion about how citizens are transforming the city streets.

Beal is convinced that artists can transform how public space is used and perceived. For instance, in Brasília, street theater, street dance, public concerts, and freestyle rap battles reframe city streets as performance spaces, providing a platform for artists and citizens who have been victims of different types of spatial segregation. Brasília’s political landscape frequently inspires artists and artist collectives to refer to specific city laws about the right to hold cultural events in public space. Artists practice their right to occupy public space to bring attention to spaces that have largely been ignored by the public eye.

This practice of occupying public space for cultural purposes relates to the “right to the city,” a phrase coined by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In other words, each resident of Brasília has a right to live in a just and inclusive space—regardless of how these citizens identify themselves or are identified by others. Beal is particularly interested in how art can assert people’s right to the city and she has observed how historically marginalized groups have used public space in order to “take their city back” and determine who is a part of the whole community. 

“When we think about ‘how can we make [our] city better,’ . . . we tend to think about public policy, but I want to make the argument that artists can be involved in answering that question too,” says Beal.

From Nobody to Everybody

So how have 21st-century artists positively exercised their right to the city? And how do you recognize when a shift in the use of a given public space can be attributed to artistic influence? To answer these questions, Beal has immersed herself in Brasília’s culture, attending performances, watching recordings of events, speaking with local journalists who are interested in these movements, interviewing artists, and reading the city’s local magazines and other publications. 

She has watched groups from across the artistic spectrum make their marks on the city’s public spaces. From slam poetry and musical groups to freestyle rap battles and block parties, citizens of Brasília are constantly redefining the city’s identity, transforming it by voicing their opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

For example, slam poetry groups for LGBTQ women of color give participants the opportunity to express their feelings and share their poetry in places where their voices haven’t previously been recognized, whether it be city parks, bus stations, low-income peripheries, or the sidewalks of city streets. 

Another notable group, called Vai Tomar no Cover, performs spontaneous flash mobs and concerts in city parks with the goal of getting Brasilienses, citizens of Brasilía, to listen to less mainstream music and more original local music. Furthermore, there are 15 weekly freestyle rap battles across the city that take place usually near a metro station or other areas that are associated with criminality or illegality. Beal explains, “They’re creating music in this really creative and highly organized way where there’s an emcee and a winner and a voting system and it’s their way of taking back their own parts of the city and making them musical and making them occupied.” 

Other cultural transformations include bringing back 1980’s pastimes like Atari and other board games to a public square in the low-income area of Guará II for recreational use, in an event that also included making community infrastructure more welcoming by repainting over benches and other equipment that had been tagged by gangs in the same city squares. This is a clear act of “taking back the city” and giving a positive connotation to areas that were once negatively viewed. In an effort to make the city more hospitable and inviting, there are also public-safety events, in which pedestrians take over the streets to paint pedestrian street lines in an effort to make the streets safer for Brasília’s citizens, countering the tradition of having cars rule the streets. 

Beal is incredibly grateful to the Talle family for their support and assistance with bringing this untold story to life. She is thrilled to share how Brasília’s public space has shifted from belonging to nobody to ultimately including everybody.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.