Paulo Nazareth's "Melee" Examines Brazil's Past, Present, and Future

Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo.
Paulo Nazareth, Untitled, from “Mi Imagen de Hombre Exotico” series, 2011.
Brazil's topsy-turvy political climate has made headlines recently: a statewide graft probe that targeted politicians on the left and right; the impeachment of sitting president Dilma Rousseff; the incarceration of the previous president, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, barring him from running for office in the latest round of elections. The headlines, as well as the historical and ethnic underpinnings of the current state of affairs, are the subject of Paulo Nazareth's new show at the ICA Miami, "Melee."

In his first solo U.S. museum show, Nazareth presents sculpture, installation, photography, and video pieces. The wide range of works across mediums speaks to the local Brazilian diaspora and to the political, social, and economic injustices that pervade the country's history even up to this moment.

"Paulo Nazareth has been developing an impressive body of work over the last two decades," says ICA curator of programs Gean Moreno. "While he has been engaging the histories of Afro-descent in what we call Latin America since the beginning of his career, he is increasingly thinking of how these histories relate to the specific experiences of African-Americans in a U.S. context."

"Melee" not only means to expand on the existing state of affairs but provides some much-needed historical context for it all. In a newly commissioned piece, Nazareth presents 49 bronze medals that depict overlooked and underground Latin American leaders, from guerrilla fighters to indigenous trailblazers. The piece is meant to underscore the historical amnesia that pervades much of the understanding of Latin American history. The medals sit upon 50 pedestals, with one pedestal conspicuously left empty to signify the history not yet written.
click to enlarge Installation View: Paulo Nazareth, Old Hope, - Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, 2017. - COURTESY THE ARTIST AND MENDES WOOD DM, SÃO PAULO.
Installation View: Paulo Nazareth, Old Hope, Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo, 2017.
Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo.
Though Nazareth's work is steeped in Brazil's indigenous cultural history, it also speaks to the country's political situation today. In one of the show's more prescient pieces, Nazareth rendered 11 portraits of the jailed former president, Lula da Silva. The paintings serve not just as tributes to Brazil's left-wing leader, but also bring international attention to the country's right-wing turn in recent years.

"While Lula is currently in prison, he continues to be a symbol of resistance against the recent turn to right-wing politics in Brazil and Latin America more generally," Moreno explains. "One has to remember that Lula emerged from working class struggles and as president enacted policies that brought Afro-descendant and indigenous populations out of poverty. He left office with [an] 87 percent approval rating. He remains an important figure for popular classes and struggles, and serves as an important reminder of the traditions of activism that have been so central to Latin American history since the wars of independence."

It's impossible to disentangle Nazareth's body of work from Brazil's past, present, and future. Though his work has a strong political point of view, what resonates most is his love of the country that culled his creativity for so many years. In that light, "Melee" is not so much an indictment of all that is unjust as a celebration of the variegated histories Brazil embodies.

"Melee." Opens Thursday, May 16, and is on view through October 6 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; Admission is free.