On July 8, 1978—at the height of the suffering and violence perpetrated by the Brazilian civic-military dictatorship—a huge fire occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro (the MAM, an iconic work of local modernism designed by architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy), consuming half of the collection (more than 500 works destroyed) and the destruction of its library. Located in the artificial park of Aterro do Flamengo, devoid of its own collection, with no prospect or any possibility of resumption—it was in this ruinous outlook that Mario Pedrosa made an unusual proposal to solve the challenge of recreating a museum in that context: create a new Museum of Origins. His idea was to bring together five museums that, even though they were organized independently, would function in an organic and coordinated way. He suggested, however, not rebuilding the museum along its old lines, but outlined a new project that envisioned the reunion of five museological axes: Museum of the Indigenous Populations (based on the existing one); Museum of Virgin Art, which would be composed from the collection of the Museum of Images of the Unconscious created by Dr. Nise da Silveira; Museu of Negro, which would be formed from works from Africa together with pieces by Afro-Brazilians created here (with emphasis on their relationship with cosmologies and religious cults, where they assumed various sociocultural functions); Museum of Popular Arts, made up of pieces collected from different regions of Brazil; and the Museum of Modern Art, which should reconstitute a representative collection of current Brazilian art.
We can understand this entire process proposed by Pedrosa as an impulse to “demusealize” the museum (or in a premonitory way perhaps, and long before the currently widespread use of the term, decolonize it). Pedrosa would be guided by a belief in the freedom of art (always faithful to the ideas that André Breton and Leon Trotsky proposed in the historic manifesto of 1938, “For an Independent Revolutionary Art”). He dared—at that time as would be also today—to place in equal status what were called minor arts (popular, naive, Black, immigrant, Indigenous) with high art (erudite, European, traditional, aesthetic and supposedly universal).
The current exhibition, which is divided between Instituto Tomie Othake and Itaú Cultural, borrows and is inspired by Pedrosa’s radical proposal, carrying out a rehearsal of what could be, today, an undertaking of such nature. The exhibition—”Essays for the Origins Museum” brings together a network of cultural institutions, museums and memory spaces, focusing on their dense archives to provide an exhibition that mixes documents, artifacts and some works of art. It brings together more than a thousand items, including paintings, sculptures, documents, photographs and videos, configuring a very dense exhibition that requires time to delve in—and much of what is exposed, given its importance and specificity, would serve very well in a large compendium or publication, but still, it becomes challenging for the general public. The main impetus that seems to be generated is to draw a small cultural panorama, a task that is always challenging, given the richness, breadth and complexity that form the cultural landscapes of the extensive Brazilian territory.
If Pedrosa, in his time, proposed the Museu das Origens (Origins Museum) as a bold and even revolutionary act (breaking barriers, canons and demands), the current exhibition benefits from a more open political and cultural panorama that is quite receptive to such ideas. One of the great merits of the show seems to be that it highlights the profound differences in contexts and material conditions that each institution (and region) presents. A fact that is accentuated when we think about the challenges that institutions that house memories and cultural matrices across Brazil now face. The well-known accumulation of resources in the national territory is evident (the Southeast as a center of material wealth), and again it is worth reflecting on the intricate political mechanisms that endorse certain public policies as well as some institutional endeavors.
In a country where “everything seems like it was still construction and is already a ruin,” (from the song “Fora de Ordem,” by Caetano Veloso) and, in a culture that defines its antiquity as residing in the baroque buildings of the Jesuits from the colonial Brazil (a thesis of modern urbanist Lúcio Costa), Pedrosa—the museum maker who believed in the revolutionary power of art—would be today, perhaps, involved with a museum in the Maré community, with programs in the CEUs in the poor south zone of São Paulo, working with the fertility of our origins, in their own fields of flourishing and of emergence.
“Ensaios para o Museu das Origens” [Essays for the Origins Museum] is on view at Itaú Cultural, Avenida Paulista, 149, Paraíso, São Paulo and Instituto Tomie Ohtake, Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima, 201, Pinheiros, São Paulo through January 28, 2024.