Friday, October 26, 2007

Brazilian Immigrant Art in NYC and Boston: A Qualitative Study

By Cali Pfaff
Summer Research 2007
Sponsored by the Urban Studies Department of Brown University


The initial objective of this research project was to unearth Brazilian immigrant art in the cities of Boston, New York and Providence and to discern its place in American society. Upon beginning the project, I discovered that while the art was provocative and diverse, Brazilian immigrant communities were practically nonexistent. The artists were living transiently, commuting between borders to chase commissions, with no nurturing ethnic enclave to call their own. The research took a bit of a turn at this point and settled primarily on the population in New York where I began to look at the issue in a larger context. Why did Brazilians, a people known for their warmth, encounter such frigid and at times self-induced isolation in the States? Moreover, what did this do to their art? Can we consider these artists a subculture if they have never met but do adhere to the same themes? I realized that in order to speak candidly about Brazilian immigrant art, it was essential to analyze two central subtexts: Brazilian immigrant identity and immigrant art as a contemporary art movement. The question of collective identity became a central focus of this study, as Brazilian immigrant art means nothing if we do not first understand Brazilian immigrants and their place in society. In addition, there are certain motifs, conflicts and identity issues that are endemic to immigrant art as a whole. These deride the national boundaries that so often define art by establishing a broader framework that treats the immigrant experience as a thing in itself. Ultimately, by understanding these two sub-contexts, I approached Brazilian immigrant art through the lens of three artists that show the past, present and future of the genre and weave them into a coherent whole.

I. The life and livelihood of Brazilian Immigrants in the States

'Brazucas,' Portuguese slang for Brazilians living in the US, do not fit any stereotypical definitions of immigrants. As bluntly stated by Gino Agostinelli of the Center of Immigrant Studies, "they aren't desperate refugees; they're people with money." The majority of newly arrived Brazilians have graduated from high school and come from the upper echelons of society. In addition, the average Brazilian immigrant is substantially better off than his fellow countryman. According to Margaret L. Margolis, author of An Invisible Minority: Brazilians in New York City, 90% of Brazilians in New York belong to the top two social classes, compared with only 40% at home. Margolis discusses how the mental importation of class structures leads to Brazilian isolation in the States. In general, these recent immigrants come from privileged backgrounds but once stateside they are relegated to do low-skill labor. As up to 70% enter illegally, rendering their formal training null and void. This puts them in direct competition with all the other immigrants in the City, vying for jobs. This subjugated status is a reality they are hesitant to acknowledge as their new position in society contrasts starkly with the old. Class, while always a complicated issue, is fundamentally bi-fold in Brazil: there are those that work with their hands and those that do not. It is considered lowly to do manual labor and, as that is what most Brazilians do in the U.S., many lie to their families back home about their employment. Most Brazucas who work as maids in the U.S. ironically had a maid in Brazil.
Compared to other South American countries, the wave of Brazilian immigration to the States came at a remarkably late point in time. According to Katheryn Gallant's article, "The Brazilians Are Coming," there were only 300,000 thousand Brazilians living abroad in 1987 and that number has risen by 20% or more every year. Mass emigration from Brazil, a country that has considered itself a country of immigrants like the U.S. throughout much of its history, occurred during a fiscal crisis that plagued the economy from the early 1980's to mid- 1990's. Today, an estimated 2 million citizens live outside of the country and an astonishing 750,000 in the U.S. In reality, that number is likely to be close to double as over half are undocumented or illegal and have no interest in talking to the census bureau. They refer to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service as Tia (Aunt) Mimi as a way of personifying their fear . Estimations of how many Brazilians live in New York and the surrounding region range from 150,000 to 350,000 . Similar numbers are projected for Boston. Other Brazilian immigrant hotspots in the States are Los Angeles, Miami and parts of Connecticut.
While most Brazucas enter the states through family or business ties, others are merely ‘economic refugees,’ escaping the unstable conditions in Brazil in any way possible. The allure of the American dream still resonates strongly with Brazilians who are, by and large, not strongly anti-American. From my experience, over half the radio stations in Rio de Janeiro played exclusively American music, ranging from Rod Stewart to 50 Cent. America continues to have an enormous cultural impact on the country and dominates T.V. programming. A popular TV Globo novela, America, that followed a Brazuca family as they adjusted to immigrant life in the States “had more than 40 million people are watching nightly.” Those most desperate to partake in the fantasy that America readily supplies opt for the dangerous and expensive route through Mexico. In a 2005, "All told, more than 12,000 Brazilians have been apprehended trying to cross the United States-Mexican border this year, exceeding the number detained in all of 2004 and pushing Brazilians to the top of the category known as 'other than Mexicans. '" These numbers are astonishing, considering that those are only the immigrants apprehended and the great geographical distance between Brazil and Mexico.
In Boston, residents of Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais have inundated the city. In the suburb of Framingham, an inordinate amount of Brazilian immigrants hail from this small city of 250,000, located in the interior of Brazil. According to an article in the New York Times, “during the war, Governador Valadares provided planeloads of mica for American radios, and the Americans, in turn, helped it combat malaria and develop a water and sewage system. A relationship was born.” Ever since then, residents have been immigrating to the US in mass, decades before the rest of the country got the migratory itch. Practically every resident in Valadares has a family member living in the States, a rarity in other parts in the country. Due to this trade connection, there is a substantial and tight-knit vala-population in Boston. On the flip side, one third of the real estate market in Valadares is financed with valadolares, money flushed into the local economy from the States. Valadareiros are very different from the middle class, educated Brazucas of New York. They come from a more humble background; many worked as laborers while in Brazil and would not have the money to immigrate without close family connections. In the mid-90's, there was a surge of immigrants from Valadares working legally and illegally at resorts in the Catskills. Contrary to the incongruous Brazilian populations in other locations, these immigrants formed a thriving community in the mountain towns, organizing soccer leagues and having cookouts. Randy Paul, a resident of Queens, writes of their self-effacing natures, "I have watched many immigrants from Valadares attending church in the United States, their hands rough from the labor they stopped only long enough to go to church. " The Valadareiros act as a well-needed counter position to the highly disintegrated Brazuca communities in other parts of the country.
On a broader scale, Brazilian isolation in America finds its roots in attitudes towards immigration. Most Brazucas consider themselves mere sojourners and are target earners. They can make wages that are four to one of what they would earn at home. As a result, they come to U.S. with the express intention of earning enough money for a down payment on a house or a car and returning home. Few have any interest in naturalizing. Brazilians have very little infrastructure in New York, as few are eager to establish their permanence. Although they do have a monopoly over shoe shining in Manhattan and, up until the early 90's, 80% of go-go dancers in New York were Brazilian . At which point, the Russians took over the field. There is, however, a sad nod to Brazilian patrimony on West 46th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, in Manhattan. This area is known as Little Brasil, officially proclaimed so by Mayor Giuliani in 1995, though little of it remains now due to gentrification. "Brazilians have moved on,” declares Ernest Barteldes, in "Little Brazil is Dead, Long Live Astoria," “[they are] running away from the steep rental prices that have plagued many of Manhattan's ethnic neighborhoods." Astoria has now replaced Little Brazil as the unofficial Brazilian locus in New York, though it is hardly its own ethnic enclave. Italian, Brazilian and Greek immigrants also share the neighborhood.
A lack of warmth in American culture promotes feelings of isolation and penetrating nostalgia, which propagates Brazilian immigrants to construct impermanent lives while in the States. Margolis discusses the prevalence of "garbage décor" in Brazilian-American apartments. In order to save money, they find furniture in the streets and cram as many people as possible into tiny flats. They deny themselves vital necessities, such as winter coats and snow boots, due to cost. More often than not, this is not a financial issue so much as they are not willing to spend money on a life they view as temporary. Some become capital obsessed and view other immigrants, even Brazilians, with deep skepticism. In Margolis' book, Michael J. Piore posits that immigrants "are people divorced from a social setting… working totally and exclusively for money." Many believe that this newly fostered frigidity is the result of Americanization, as Brazilians are generally known for their tenderhearted and open natures. As is often found in cross-cultural encounters, Brazilians find many American concepts absurd, such as voluntarily living alone. Perhaps the most bizarre Americanism is the yard sale, famously ridiculed by Moacyr Scilar in his collection of short stories, Dicionário do viajante insólito (Dictionary of the Unusual Traveler). Portuguese also tends to isolate Brazucas from other Latin Americans with whom they culturally identify. In elementary schools in Astoria, there are bi-lingual programs but only in Spanish. The ethnic ambiguity of Brazil stymies how newly arrived immigrants identify themselves racially. They consider themselves Brazilian, not black, white or Latino. In addition, family dynamics and gender roles are turned upside-down upon arrival. In the greater Boston area, researcher Sylvia DeBiaggi found that divorce was common among couples that were married before emigrating from Brazil. Marriages that took place in the U.S. and conformed to American customs, such as shared chores and acceptance of women in the workplace, were more successful.
Ultimately, the tenuous nature of the Brazilian immigrant community reflects in the artists it produces. Critics, such as journalist Wilson Loria, are critical of what such an unstable demographic could offer New York's art world. He writes, "Culturally speaking, Brazil does not offer and has almost no influence on the arts in the City, as a whole." Yet, with the popularization of Brazilian music, including cross-cultural projects by Sergio Mendes and Seu Jorge, Brazil has entered the U.S. as a new and invocative voice. The modeling world too has seen a vast influx of Brazilian models, including the illustrious Giselle. The September 2007 issue of Vanity Fair hosts an elaborate feature on the beautiful, rich and talented of Brazil. All of this hype has propagated business for Brazilian storeowners, yet by and large a cohesive sense of community is still missing and this can be seen acutely in the art world. In the next section, we will look at the recent growth and recognition of immigrant art to help place Brazuca artists in a larger sphere.

II. Immigrant Art

From long lines at the MOMA to the bartering aisles of Christie’s, immigrant art has taken New York by storm. "The future of art in New York City will by driven by immigrants," says the director of Queens Museum of Art, Tom Finkelpearl, “if you're in contemporary art and aren't looking at immigrant art, you're missing the boat." The continuing popularity of Chicano art, especially in Southern California, has left the gate open for other Latin artists to make themselves known. The craze has gotten so out of hand that White Box Gallery in Chelsea staged a contest that pinned foreign-born artists against each other in cutthroat competition. To the winner the gallery provided “a free lawyer to try to obtain an O-1 ‘Special Talent Artist Visa.’” But why the sudden interest? Immigrant art proffers a dynamic sense of national identity that lends some insight on what America is becoming in a global context. By looking at art that chooses to be American in an era when the American dream looks increasingly bleak and foreign relations are at an all time low, we find a fragment of the patriotism we have lost.
From a political perspective, the new interest in immigrant art makes perfect sense. Due to the post-9/11 rash of anti-immigration legislation, Americans are left to ponder what will become of our national melting pot personae, if immigration, our key-diversifying factor, starts to wane. "Artists enrich our lives by explaining and interpreting the often hard life of the immigrant, a politically important counter-balance to racism and exclusion which feed on ignorance," writes economist Tony Addison. We can see a number of American political and social issues come to light in the field of immigration legislation. Title IV of the Patriot Act was a serious blow to immigrants, claiming that increasingly stringent immigration regulations would curb terrorism. Recently, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 has given millions of illegal immigrants the opportunity to naturalize, provided that they've lived in the country for five to ten years and are willing to pay back taxes and fines. While this act essentially shuts the door on other illegals, it is a landslide move in immigration policy and was called "historic bipartisan breakthrough in the Senate" by the National Immigration Forum. These debates have consequently brought the immigrant community together. Immigrants from various backgrounds are banning together to declare their rights. With immigration on the mind, interests in multiculturalism and dual identities are seeping into practically every facet of our culture.
As a capitalist country, we are constantly commodifying what was formally considered uncommodifable and this has greatly changed how we view the arts. The former droves of starving artists are now working in advertising, design, publishing and media, a subsection of the arts known as “downstream art.” Due to the increased amount of capital being pumped in, more and more artists are achieving fame in their lifetimes. Tony Addison’s article, “The International Mobility of Cultural Talent,” explains the origins of this phenomenon: “the term ‘creative industries’ is of relatively recent origins… until recently [the fine arts] were regarded purely or predominately in non-economic terms…” Art, long considered the blood brother of philosophy, has lost its vaulted status and is making bank. Consequently, art from all areas of the field are selling for vast amounts of money. The infamous street artists, Banksy, recently sold prints of auctioneers vying over a painting that reads, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” for $1,300 apiece, a gross undersell. It is not unknown for works by Banksy to sell for $50,000- $100,000 at auction, which is ironic as he fiercely condemns capitalism . As we can see, the impulse to own part of culture has never been so strong and many hedge fund managers believe that art is the safest and most profitable long-term investment. Therefore, up-and-coming movements, like immigrant art, are not only drawing a lot of hype but a lot of potential buyers as well. Unfortunately, a lot of the time these investments are merely financial and have little to with the merits of art. While this is a dubious reality, there is one clear advantage: the margins as well as the mainstream of contemporary art will be better preserved and in larger quantities than any period in the past.
Still hovering outside the arena of high art, immigrants find themselves at home in the niche art scene that parallels their place in society. The art elite indulge in the perceived marginality of immigrant art and this sense of obscurity lends to its hip status. Although we increasingly see immigrant art enter the mainstream, it does so as an exception, as a gamble on the part of museum curators. In general, it stays bunkered in the backdoor galleries that so often define what is cool in urban culture. Art critic, Richard Schechner, points out the “double agency” of being a marginal artist as you get to “work within and stand aside from a dominant culture.” Immigrant art joins other fledgling art movements, such as gay and erotic art, graffiti, and other forms of ethnic art, like African American and Native American art. All of these niche movements are slowly being imported into the contemporary vernacular. Immigrant art returns us to simpler terrain where “other people’s stories” take precedent over philosophical abstraction. By toying with language barriers, cultural doubles and old country folklore, the artists humanize the process of acculturation, which we so often look at from a political perspective. The largely narrative nature of this art forces us to interact with the work and we try to find our own stories tied in with theirs. We return to a more emotive relationship with art. As these artists are new to the “American privilege of criticizing American institutions”(Cowart 207,) their insight into our culture is often more objective than our own.
With anti-American sentiments proliferating throughout much of the world, the complexities of immigrant identity mirror our struggles with collective identity and what exactly it means to be an American in the 21st century. Art historian, Amei Wallach, equates the sense of spectatorship involved in immigrant art to that of a tennis match,
Presently, American identity is at a point of flux. With anti-Americanism sentiments proliferating throughout much of the world, it is only natural that we would see the complexities of immigrant identity as a parallel to our own. Art historian, Amei Wallach, equates the dynamic spectatorship of immigrant art to that of a tennis match:

[Through the artist's] awareness of now and then, here and there, on their heritage, their present, and increasingly, on a problematic future, the viewer becomes a spectator at a tennis match. Keep your eye on the ball and you are presented with an unparalleled opportunity to focus clearly on each side, glimpsed in context of the changing background of the entire field. The artist privileges us with their multivalent experience, probed through a visual language of connotation and metaphor. But a viewer fixated on one side of the game is going to miss the point of the game.

As Wallach points out, this art puts its viewer on uneven terrain. We find ourselves ping-ponging between definitions, to find a sense of patrimony in a painting that simultaneously coheres to two countries. We enter an amorphous state defined by the artists that hovers between national borders. Sometimes these fictional, transitory landscapes converge with other artists’ and we receive a more complete image of both places. Yet, the most impacting art gives the viewer the hollowing feeling of disequilibrium that comes from redefining staple concepts, like home and security. Immigrants often refer to their first years in a new culture as their ‘second infancy.’ Due to language barriers, the artist reenters his childhood where images were more vivid than the words with which he could describe them. Vision, again, becomes a survival tool and the immigration process offers up a world of new symbols for art to consume. In this way, they give the viewer an unparalleled opportunity to be uncomfortably out of context, a child with grown up eyes.
Immigrant art also provides varying degrees of insight into the growing multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial populations in the States. Immigrants have always been a key force in diversity in the United States and historically, immigrants and racial minorities have shared neighborhoods, as was the case with blacks and Puerto Ricans in Queens in the 1960’s. Racism, economic subjugation and unfair housing acts often forces cohabitation among diverse but predominately poor populations. Nonetheless, multiethnic neighborhoods generally gain from a sense of solidarity among residents, although this may also be mitigated by racial, ethnic and religious violence. Immigrants, like other minorities, often find themselves in conflict and culturally resentful of either their home country or their new one. On the opposite side, there is also a tendency to idealize one or the other. Some immigrants, artists and otherwise, consider themselves to only be Americans. Those who refuse to deny their heritage often find their artwork adhering to international standards so as not to be completely subsumed by American culture. Their work is usually conceptual, abstract or non-representational. Most hyphenate their nationalities and their art acts as a mediary between cultures.
Through the myriad of identity conflicts, immigrant art gives us powerful insight into what America, as a country and a concept, means in a contemporary context. In spectatorship, we find ourselves simultaneously ingesting our culture as well as one that stands in opposition. “The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually inconsistent frames of reference,” writes Chicano activist Gloria Anzaldua, “causes un choque, a cultural collision.” Like oil and vinegar, we can see the artist’s critique clearly formed but always in the presence of another. Through the artist’s process of metabolizing contradictory definitions, the American landscape remerges before us in a new visual code. In trying to paint ourselves into her America, we begin to remember our own. And if only for a moment, we resuscitate our own patriotism.

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