Correspondence #10

08 Sep 2020
“Brasil de JK” [JK's Brazil], Revista Manchete, nº 409, 20 jan. 1960, p.28. Photo: Jáder Neves / Ivo Barretti / Revista Manchete

Throughout the process of constructing the 34th Bienal de São Paulo, its curatorial team, participating artists and guest authors will send out letters with open dialogues that directly and indirectly reflect the development of the exhibition. The text below was written by Carla Zaccagnini.

In a 1959 text about Brasilia¹, Mario Pedrosa wrote, "Our past is not fatal, for we remake it every day". The past only exists rewritten from each present. Each time we go back to an old newspaper to read an historic article we find new traces: in the side advertisements; in the typographical or printing errors; in the stains left by the usages and readings that have marked the life of the newspaper, from the moment it left the press until it arrived in our hands. What we want and can access from the past changes, and so new layers are added, giving it shape and taste. To the content of the text we add the dyslexic employee, the slogan selling cars or cigars, the sweat from our hands, a mark left by a cup.

But that's not all. Each time that, like now, we need to understand where we are, we search fragments of the past for causes and signs that we link in narratives with the present outcome. And when the present changes, the past changes with it. If rainfall refreshes the drought, then the dark clouds we saw in yesterday's sky were proof of the storm and relief. If the rain doesn't come, the same clouds were a bad omen that heralded the starving cows.

When talking about the futuristic city as it was still under construction, Pedrosa suspended the solidity of the past. A year later, however, at Brasilia's inauguration, the past weighed heavy. Someone in charge of the ceremony had an iron bell transported from the mountainous city of Ouro Preto to the Praça dos Três Poderes². When founding what promised to be a new era, it was deemed necessary to ring out the sound of this Catholic, colonial symbol. So, on 21st April 1960, the bell from Capela do Padre Faria – the common name given to the chapel Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Homens Brancos [Our Lady of the Rosary of the White Men], originally dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Parto [Our Lady of Childbirth] – tolled for the birth of Brasilia.

What past was being evoked with this presence? This same sound was also heard out of place – not at a location, but at a time when it should not have sounded – on another 21st April, in 1792.³ The ringing of all bells in the colony had been prohibited for the day and night that Tiradentes, traitor to the crown, was to be executed. But it is said that when the night was dark and silent, the insomniac residents of Vila Rica could identify the familiar sound of the bell.

The desire to make peace with one’s own ghost is understandable. The traitor, in turn betrayed, condemned to the "eternal death penalty" (by hanging and without a grave), murdered by the state before the birth of the nation, only to later be rescued from his unending death and condemned to the eternal life of a national martyr. It makes sense for this to happen in Brasilia, to start from scratch in the plano piloto [pilot plan].4 And understandable, too, is the subtlety of connecting the two historic moments by the abstract presence of a sound.

But a slip up, or serious error, was made in remembering the uprising through the moment of its repression. The sound being heard again was not the clamour of revolt, or even the whisper of insurrection, but the prohibited sound of lament for the execution of a rebel. And the future soon followed. In the following decades, hundreds of new assassinations were ordered by the state, from the same central square in the capital envisaged for better times. And not one bell tolled.

The past is remade when we can look again and see what was out of focus: the advertisement of a car called Brasilia; a coffee-coloured circle; the image of Nossa Senhora in relief on a bell from 1750, its iron cracked. All the chimes, rings and tolls it has sounded since then, to call to mass or to a novena, to count the hours, to signal a fire, a baptism, a wedding, a funeral. The different rings that came before each burial – a woman, a man, a priest, a Pope, a monarch. Not one for traitors to the crown, whether there is a crown, or not.

Something about the way bells are rung in Minas Gerais produces sounds that no European church has ever heard. In these rings one can hear the presence of the African cultures that came here in the fresh memories of enslaved men and women, and that have stayed, in the indirect memories of their children and grandchildren.

We can remake the past, see the succession of arms moving, fast, to reach sounds a bell was not made to produce. Muscles making the bells toll, making dents in the iron. We can see how gradually, through repetition, the African rhythms were carving invisible changes into the German bell of the White Men's chapel – the transitory sound impregnating the metal. We can look again at the inaugural moment of this, our city of the future, central, white, vast, clean, drawn with a ruler. We can see the wooden structure, the ropes, the suspended bell. Hear the speech, the mass, the applause. But if we listen again, today, we can hear the presence of our African heritage inhabiting the sound of this cracked bell, accustomed to percussion.

¹ Mário Pedrosa. “Brasília, a cidade nova”. In: Arquitetura: Ensaios críticos: Mário Pedrosa. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2015, p. 93.

² Plaza in Brasilia where the country's three areas of government are located. Translates as Three Powers Plaza. (Translator's note.)

³ In his speech at the ceremony to establish the Executive Branch in Brasilia, President Juscelino Kubitschek made clear his desire to relate these two dates: "Today's date has become doubly historic for Brazil because the glorious evocation of the past now joins the epic construction of this new capital, which we have just inaugurated. Thus, we salute the past and future of our homeland at once, through two events that are connected by the common ideal that inspired them: of making Brazil affirm itself as an independent nation."

4 Term associated with the preliminary city plan of Brasilia, today often applying to the city's centre. (Translator's note.)

Every effort was made to locate the rights holders of the reproduced works, but this was not always possible. We will promptly correct any omissions if they are reported to us.

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