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Desde quando surgiu a ideia de escrever o texto “I Make My Business With Bananas“, tento entender melhor o que significa ser brasileiro fora do país e o que o termo latino-americano engendra. Logo quando me mudei para os Estados Unidos, quando fui aplicar para tirar o CPF daqui, havia o campo para escolher de qual raça eu acreditava pertencer. Baseado na cor da minha pele, preenchi que era branco. A atendente, porém, lendo as outras informações do formulário, disse que eu teria que, necessariamente, preencher que era latino ao mesmo tempo. Brancos são apenas os que nasceram nos Estados Unidos.

Esta pequena anedota demonstra que há uma supremacia geopolítica cultural que, muitas vezes, foge do controle justamente das pessoas que estão envolvidas. Ao ver os trabalhos da exposição “Under The Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today“, que está aberta à visitação no Guggenheim aqui de Nova York, a questão que mais emergiu para mim é sobre o real significado do que é latino-americano hoje em dia. A concepção atual quase não tem mais a ver com a ideia de integração que se viu surgir em discussões sobre políticas internacionais, principalmente, nas décadas de 1960 e 1970. Hoje, na arte, ser latino-americano em um país como os Estados Unidos está mais ligado ao exótico e a exaustação de estereótipos do que, realmente, há uma unidade cultural.

Pensando nisso, fiz uma entrevista com o diretor do departamento curatorial e educacional do Bronx Museum, Sergio Bessa, para entender suas opiniões sobre o termo e sua relação com a produção artística da região. Sendo brasileiro e trabalhando em uma instituição cultural há mais de 13 anos, Bessa acredita que o termo foi cunhado por estadunidenses para englobar o processo colonizador no restante do continente. A entrevista foi publicada em um reportagem que fiz para o Opera Mundi, que você pode conferir aqui. Para ele, é impraticável misturar processos colonizadores tão diferentes – e produções artísticas, consequemente – em um mesmo termo. O espanhol e o português podem ser semelhantes, mas no fim não são a mesma língua. Pensando nisso, fica a pergunta: o que é ser latino-americano hoje em dia? O que o termo diz além de ser uma delimitação geopolítica? Isso não é só considerando a singularidade do Brasil, que tem uma colonização portuguesa e holandesa, mas as Guianas, o Suriname, o Equador, o México, os países do Caribe, e tantas outras diferenças histórico-culturais. Ainda faz sentido nos considerarmos latino-americanos, considerando a carga simbólica que o termo carrega hoje?

A teórica Doreen Massey, em um artigo, comenta sobre a “geometria do poder”, em que países industrializados exploram culturalmente outros de forma a preservar um ciclo que não os envolve. Para explicar o conceito, ela utiliza, inclusive, as favelas no Rio de Janeiro. Lá, a produção cultural emergente é explorada pelo mercado global (que não envolve países em desenvolvimento ou subdesenvolvidos) literalmente copiando o conteúdo e não trazendo nenhuma retribuição à comunidade que o criou. Em vez disso, a comunidade explorada tem que se sentir orgulhosa por ser matéria-prima para os “grandes” do mercado. Assim, o status quo nesta hierarquia cultural é preservada e com a ilusão de que todos ganham.

Será que o termo latino-americano não estaria inserido nesta geometria do poder? Será que enquanto achamos que exaltamos a cultura local e tentamos criar uma identidade única não estamos nos alienando de nossos próprios processos?

As discussões sobre a identidade brasileira já é algo que, por si só, gera diversas discussões. A concepção da mestiçagem pelas três raças é constante em diversas obras, sendo inclusive parte de políticas públicas a partir, essencialmente, da década de 1930 (vale ler o artigo “Complexo de Zé Carioca: Notas Sobre Uma Identidade Mestiça e Malandra”, de Lilia Schwarcz). Se somos mestiços e antropofágicos, somos, claro, latino-americanos. Mas não só. E é essa diferença, essa singularidade, que cada vez mais me faz pensar que este termo deve ser problematizado e, talvez, ressignificado.

O que é ser latino-americano hoje em dia?

{{Post originalmente publicado aqui}}

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{first step of developing a real banana aesthetics}

carmen

I’d love to play a scene with Clark Gable
With candle lights and wine upon the table
But my producer tells me I’m not able
‘Cause I make my money with bananas1

When the Brazilian artist Carmen Miranda became the most successful woman in North-American show business in the late 19402, the culture of a country was compressed on the stigma of a single fruit: a banana. Miranda’s turbans caring tropical fruits and ornaments caused furore in the entertainment industry. Her exotic costume and her irreverent dance made Carmen known as “The Brazilian Bombshell.” Miranda’s talent as a singer and performer, however, was often overshadowed by the exotic aspect of the presentations and the archetypical imaginary by a foreign culture used to a more temperate weather.

Toward the end of her life, the small grenade tried in vain to rebuild her identity and get rid of the frame her producers and the industry tried to impose to her. The fight inspired Miranda to compose the song “I Make My Money With Bananas”, which is an effort to demonstrate in an ironic perspective the problems of being stereotyped by the industry and, as a result, earn more money than Mickey Rooney. Her purposely strong English accent was considered as a demonstration of her ignorance, which was immortalized by the expression “Bananas is my business.” Rather than understand the criticism towards the producer who would not let her perform with stars like Clark Gable, the audience received the work as a statement of cultural inferiority and exotic aspect of her performances.

The stigma of the banana is not restricted to the Brazilian culture, although the first plantations of the fruit on the continent have begun during the Portuguese colonization between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; it spread over the entire Latin American region. The popularization of the fruit in the Caribbean and some South America countries happened because of the growing market of the product in the United States after the Civil War. In 1870, Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker imported the fruit from Jamaica to sell in Boston with a margin profit of about 1.000%, thanks to its low cost and nutritional aspects. Seeing the commercial potential of the fruit, Keith Henry, a railroad tycoon, decided to create plantations of banana surrounding his train lines as a way to feed the workers of his company. The project’s success was such that, in the middle of the 1870s, Keith founded the Tropical Trading and Transport Company, which later became the United Fruit Company and owner of Chiquita Brands International. With the growing consumer market for bananas, plantations increased in the Caribbean and Southerners countries, as well as the influence of North-American companies in the region, which later spawned the term “Banana Republics” and inspired Pablo Neruda to compose a poem (see appendix). Today, Ecuador alone represents 29% of the fruit export market, ahead of Colombia and Costa Rica, each responsible for 10%.

What I do is the bunch chic chic
I’m getting sick of the bunch chic chic
My throat is troubled ay ay ay
She can see ky-ky-kow —— boy!

This imaginary provoked by the banana and its stigmatization caused to Latino cultures instigated the creative process of many contemporary artists. The use of banana is believed to criticize the foreign view of cultures isolated from the Western and Northern axis and to question the identity and artistic production of a nation.

The Mexican artist based in São Paulo, Brazil, Hector Zamora, for example, used the plantains in his intervention “Delirio Atopico (Atopic Delirium)” (2009) in downtown area of Bogotá, Colombia, as a way to raise economic and political questions about the region. To develop the installations, the artist used two different buildings with large transparent windows, one next to another, and flooded the apartments with the fruit giving the impression of an overproduction. The passersby had the idea that was happening an overflow of plantains. Zamora used green bananas, in their early beginning of ripeness, so they could have their color changed over time; thus going from green to yellow, from yellow to brown and finally from brown to black. The Colombian culture is one of the few which cooks the fruit at different stages of ripeness, which made a clear relation between the work and the national culture. In addition, the bananas overflow provoked the impression that the fruit was replacing the people who could live in these apartments, as an overlapping of an imaginary with the veracity of Colombian reality. The fruit overshadows the human condition.

Zamora’s works have a strong relationship with the context in which they are installed. In 2010, by the request of Instituto Itaú Cultural, also headquartered in São Paulo, Zamora hung six trees seedlings over the river Tamanduateí to start a debate about the channeling of waterways and the increasing of traffic in the city. The work “Errante” (2010) was the artist’s way of demanding for solutions not only for symptoms, but for the real problems of an hyper chaotic city which lacks serious structural and long term urban policies. The suspended forest tried to demonstrated a city that cannot exist. A ghostly idealization of an urban project more focused on quality of life than in paving spaces for car traffic.

The bananas used in “Delirio Atopico (Atopic Delirium)” represent this connection between the local culture and socio-economic reality of a region. The symbolic weigh that the fruit carries in Latino cultures easily connects with the everyday life, instigating an identification that often are not necessarily positive. The perception of what is produced mainly in the countries of the South American region is restricted only to bananas, ignoring that there is life beyond the symbolism of the fruit.

This symbolic value can also be found in the works of the Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth. In “Banana Market / Art Market” (2011), for example, Nazareth parked a green Volkswagen wagon inside the Art Basel Miami art fair and loaded it with dozens of bunches of bananas. The work-performance consisted of signing and selling each unit for $ 10, easily relating 1) to contemporary artistic production of Latin American countries, 2) to the symbolic value of the fruit in current “art world,” and 3) to the art market itself. In addition, Nazareth carried a sign with the phrase “My image of exotic man for sale” and charged only $ 1 for a picture of him.

In reaffirming its exotic character and exploring the symbolism of the fruit, Nazareth can be easily compared to the imaginary created and reinforced by Carmen Miranda. Both built their careers (Miranda in the entertainment industry and Nazareth in the “contemporary art paradigm”) based on stereotypes and archetypes of a Latin American culture. Both leveraged and exploited what is considered exotic in their artistic practice, demonstrating that the reception of their works was summarized and condensed into just one fruit: a banana.

In the end, there is a vicious cycle between the reception of Latino culture (which explores the exotic) and the artist’s production forced to be exotic. This is explicit in the case of Nazareth, who understands very well the constructions and perceptions of Latino culture abroad. To be accepted into the “contemporary art paradigm,” Nazareth reinforces stereotypes in his production, which matches perfectly with the eagerness of the art market to exploit this imagery. The market demands the exotic, the artist produces it to be “accepted” and, ultimately, the market strengthens it. Even trying to create a criticism of this kind of reception, the artist production is stigmatized by the desire to see the other as something so unreal that automatically achieves the status of art, of performance, of a commodity to be exploited and enhanced.

This cycle becomes even clearer in the work of another Brazilian artist, Breno Pineschi. During the Olympic Games in London, the Secretary of Culture of Rio De Janeiro sent to the British city 29 cariocas artists to promote the “Rio Occupation London” project. Pineschi was in residence at The Victoria and Albert Museum during the month of July 2012 producing workshops and inviting the public of the institution to help him mount several colored paper bananas which the artist would spread through the city. The “Tropical Clusters” (2012) are interventions in urban poles and structures in which bunches of colored bananas were hanged. According to the artist himself, it is a way to attract the publics attention and invite them to “eat the carioca culture.” The banana’s symbolism, again, is the means of illustrating and promoting the culture of a Latin America region and, in this case, more specifically of Rio de Janeiro’s one, which is traditionally known as “Brazil for export.” It explores the imagery of the exotic as a way to promote local culture, but at the same increases the stereotype and this demand for the “tropical.”

Oh, but if I quit my job it’s not disturbing
I’d use very often a liter of bourbon
‘Cause I can sit and in one minute eat my turban
And still make my money with my bananas
It isn’t even funny that I make a little more money
than that little Mickey Rooney with bananas!

Since the days of Carmen Miranda there is a vain attempt to break these paradigms imposed on diverse cultures. The “Brazilian bombshell” thought that a song questioning her exploitation could, perhaps, generate more discussions and freed her from prejudices and stereotypes regarding her nationality and culture. It was in vain. And since that time– the first half of the last century– some of Latin American cultures find themselves enclosed in a single fruit. Because of this attachment almost inseparable, the banana has become a commodity of the “contemporary art paradigm” and represents a creative censorship. If an artist wants to be part of the art world, s/he needs to explore and admire the exotic tropical character. It is an endless struggle. It’s a battle between two sides by the same symbol as a means of ensuring that the cycle never breaks. The Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, in 1891, in his book “Quincas Borba”, described the rivalry between two tribes to ensure their food: a potatoes plantation. At the end of the battle, in which could only be left one, the narrator concludes: “To the conquered, hate or compassion; to the victor, the potatoes.”

No worries, I make my money with bananas.

APPENDIX

“La United Fruit Co.”
When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptized these countries
Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies
Carias flies, Martinez flies,
Ubico flies, flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.

With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.

Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
morning mists;
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number,
a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on the garbage heap.
[Pablo Neruda, from Canto General (1950)]

1Lyrics from the song “I Make My Money With Banana”, by Carmen Miranda.

2In 1945, she was the highest paid woman in the United States, according to the Wikipedia article about the artist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_Miranda (accessed May 19th, 2013)

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