Making a scene | Monocle

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Until recently, Brazil’s arts scene seemed stuck in a creative and commercial rut. The country’s long recession had taken its toll, as had a period of political turmoil in which one president was impeached and another imprisoned, culminating in the election of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. His heavy-handed crackdowns and populist rule further destabilised the Brazilian art market.

The inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president in January 2023 signalled a turning point in both politics and the arts. Whereas the economic boom of more than a decade ago attracted blue-chip artists and galleries to São Paulo, alongside deep-pocketed collectors, the focus now seems to be less on cultural imports than on Brazil’s creative output. The city has the makings of a global art capital: the Bienal de São Paulo, founded in 1951, is a showcase for institutions such as masp and mam, and there are dozens of smaller commercial galleries bringing fresh ideas to the table. monocle meets some of the people who are reshaping the scene.

the fair founder
Fernanda Feitosa
Founder and executive director, SP-Arte


“It all began with a simple ‘Why not?’” says Fernanda Feitosa of art fair SP-Arte, which she founded in 2005. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we have a contemporary art fair in Brazil?’” At that time she was in her early thirties and had begun collecting artworks with her husband, Heitor Martins. “We were the new kids on the block,” says Feitosa. Regular recces to fairs in Europe and North America inspired her to bring some of their energy home. “I wanted to see all of that happening right here in São Paulo.”

SP-Arte is now South America’s largest art fair, having grown from a roster of 41 art galleries in its first edition to one of 168 in 2023. It now occupies the entirety of the vast São Paulo Bienal pavilion, which Oscar Niemeyer designed in 1957. Crucially, Feitosa diversified the fair in 2016 by including design. “I decided to have two fairs in one building,” she says. “People who buy art are nearly always interested in buying signed design pieces too.” Her ability to influence the market and give it what it wants made her a go-to in the country’s creative scene. “A good art fair is the pulse of the market,” she says.

Feitosa weathered the political and economic storms that battered Brazil in recent years, always quietly confident that the dark clouds would clear. After a boom during the 2000s, the economy stagnated at home while art markets in Asia and the Middle East soared. 

According to Feitosa, nurturing Brazilian artists through commercial galleries and courting the many collectors who drive the São Paulo scene are central to establishing the country in the art world. In 2022, SP-Arte launched an offshoot fair called Rotas Brasileiras (“Brazilian Routes”), which showcases about 70 galleries from across the nation. “Our mission now is to go back to the country itself,” she says. “The success or failure of the Brazilian market lies in the strengths and weaknesses of the local community.”

the experimental gallerist
Hena Lee
General director, Galeria Millan


“There has always been a top-down relationship between galleries and artists,” says Hena Lee, the general director of Galeria Millan in São Paulo’s Pinheiros neighbourhood. “Not just in Brazil but everywhere.” Having worked for the Delfina Foundation and studied at the Royal College of Art in London, Lee knows plenty about the international scene but her focus now is on Brazilian talent. “Indigenous artists are among the most prominent voices in contemporary art challenging dominant structures in Brazil,” she says, standing by a work by the late painter and activist Jaider Esbell.

Esbell’s relationship with Galeria Millan was unconventional. “He would say, ‘You don’t represent me – I represent myself,’” says Lee. With galleries, museums and collectors increasingly seeking different perspectives, Galeria Millan’s approach offers a new, fairer model. “Esbell negotiated that his work wouldn’t come alone,” says Lee. “If we wanted to work with him, we also had to work with other indigenous artists who he selected.” Also on Millan’s roster is black Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre, who was raised in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha favela. Alexandre’s images of black figures are painted on cheap, brown paper called papel pardo. Lee explains that the term pardo is implicated in colourism, used to refer to someone of mixed race. “With this material and these powerful figures, he is making a statement.”

Galeria Millan’s nurturing of artists is helping to create some of the country’s most exciting contemporary art. Though fostering Brazilian culture remains central, “the global positioning of our art and of our history” is also vital, says Lee. In 2023, Alexandre’s work was shown at The Shed in New York, while the Fondation Cartier at Milan’s Triennale showed works by Esbell and another Millan artist, Alex Cerveny. “You have to spread artists and their work among other collectors abroad,” says Lee. “They can’t just all stay here in the internal market.”

the ground-breaking painter
Paulo Nimer Pjota


On a quiet backstreet in São Paulo’s Ipiranga district is the studio of painter Paulo Nimer Pjota. Represented by galleries such as Maureen Paley in London and Mendes Wood DM in São Paulo, New York and beyond, Pjota is quickly becoming a byword for the success of Brazilian contemporary art. When monocle visits his expansive studio, the 36-year-old says that he is in a productive painting period; on the walls hang more than 30 canvases that have been created ahead of a solo exhibition in New York this year.

“Since the beginning I have been fascinated by both mythology and everyday life,” says Pjota. This juxtaposition is made vividly clear in his paintings, which show finely rendered flowers in full bloom, pumpkins and vases, cartoon characters and shadowy monsters awash with colour and light. Pjota finds inspiration in a broad range of sources, from books and magazine cuttings to found items. As he shows us around, he flicks through an illustrated volume of Grecian vases and then, chuckling, gestures towards a pinned-up photograph of discarded plastic bags.

Small characters, often butterflies, crop up in his compositions – Pjota’s nod to cartoons such as Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony. “When I’m painting, I’m not thinking about the light that I see,” he says. “It’s more like a collage.” Pointing out some of the details in his work, he identifies an ancient Mayan symbol and an image of opium poppies. “I like to imagine lsd in the ancient times.”

“Since the beginning I have been fascinated by both mythology and everyday life”

Despite such references in his mesmerising, at times psychedelic paintings, Pjota tells us that it is cities that inspire him most – in particular, São Paulo, where he has lived since he was 17 years old. “My mind just blew up,” he says of his arrival from what he calls the “conservative” countryside. “We like to mix things up here. My work is not about what I include or not. For me, it’s more about a feeling, how a painting feels.”

the collector
Gustavo Nóbrega
Co-founder and director, Galeria Superfície


Gustavo Nóbrega’s 1930s home in Jardins is bijou by the standards of the neighbourhood but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in cosiness. What’s more, 30 to 40 pieces of conceptual and political Brazilian art are on display inside the apartment at any one time. The collection, which focuses on works from the 1950s to the 1980s, is impressive both for the range of artists featured and rarity of the pieces: colourful prints by Hélio Oiticica jostle with provocative works by lesser-known but equally important figures such as Pedro Escosteguy.

The calibre of the collection makes sense if you know about Nóbrega’s day job. The 38-year-old Paulistano is the co-founder of Galeria Superfície on Rua Oscar Freire, which specialises in conceptual Brazilian art from the past 50 years. “Here’s my daily dilemma,” says Nóbrega. “The works that I deal with are hard to come by so when I find something really special, I have a tough choice to make.” Should he sell it and take a commission – or follow his heart and bring it home?

“I suppose I’m a bit of an archivist. My work circles around this archive”

When monocle visits the gallery, a 15-woman exhibition is showcasing the striking art that flourished during Brazil’s decades of military dictatorship. Colourful works by Regina Vater and Romanita Disconzi bridge the gap between US pop art and a more Brazilian style. “I found some of these works many years ago but the artist didn’t want to sell,” says Nóbrega. “So we waited until the time was right.” Right, in this case, means until the market was willing to pay a decent price.

“I suppose I’m a bit of an archivist,” says Nóbrega of his collection, which contains thousands of works. Also stored in vast cabinets is a trove of artists’ letters, poems, sketches, exhibition posters and books from the 1950s onwards, charting decades of transformation in modern Brazilian culture. “My work circles around this archive,” he says. “Its contents are what drives me.”

the canny curator
Lorraine Pinheiro Mendes
Curator, SESC Belenzinho


It took curator Lorraine Pinheiro Mendes the best part of four years to organise Dos Brasis – Black Art, Black Thinking at sesc Belenzinho, a large cultural centre in eastern São Paulo. The exhibition, which Mendes curated in partnership with Igor Simões and Marcelo Campos, features the work of about 240 African-Brazilian artists from across all 26 of the country’s states; it is the biggest show ever held in Brazil that is entirely dedicated to black artists. Despite the scale, Mendes says that it could have been bigger. “There is so much more that we didn’t use,” she tells monocle.

“Black people weren’t excluded from the art system but they were mostly just the subjects of painting and sculpture,” says Mendes. By way of example, she lists Brazilian artists such as Candido Portinari, whose neorealist paintings often featured black Brazilians. “Only now are we looking at the role that black people had in building the nation. This gives black voices more agency.”

The Bolsonaro years were difficult for Mendes and many others in the culture sector. Not only did the far-right president disband the culture ministry but his policies and statements also seemed intended to divide Brazil. For Mendes, Bolsonaro’s replacement shouldn’t mean a return to how things were before. “When he was in power it became OK to be publicly racist but things were far from good before him,” she says. Bolsonaro’s battle lines galvanised opinion on both sides. “It’s easier to start a battle if you know who your enemies are.” 

The Belenzinho exhibition shows the vital role of sesc, a non-profit organisation set up in 1946 but that proved especially important during the culture wars stoked by Bolsonaro. Though Mendes, who has lived in São Paulo for just five months, marvels at the city’s ability to attract the best of the country, she believes that an approach that reaches out to all of Brazil is what the art scene needs.

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