New World voyage of rediscovery

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The Independent Online

Sao Paulo

Sao Paulo

From the air, the city of Sao Paulo looks like one of those Dadaist collages where the skyscapers have been cut and pasted to appear as if they stretch to infinity. In Sao Paulo's case, they very nearly do. Even from a helicopter, there's only the faintest glimmer of green hills on the distant horizon, which is guarded in every direction by endless tower blocks, in ranks like the soldiers of a particularly grim terracotta army.

With a population variously estimated at between 17 and 22 million (and more arriving from the country every day), this really is the city that never stops. Sao Paulo is currently hosting the Rediscovery Exhibition as part of Brazil's 500th anniversary celebrations commemorating the landing of the first Portuguese explorer, Pedro Alvares Cabral, on 22 April, 1500. It's the biggest art show ever held in Brazil (15,000 art works in 60,000 square metres), and occupies a huge site in Ibirapuera Park, using 1950s buildings designed by the country's foremost architect, Oscar Neimeyer. Intended to cover the whole range of visual art in Brazil, from pre-historic times to the present, the exhibition is divided into 13 separate modules, a number of which will be travelling to the UK later this year and in 2001, together with a broad programme of music, dance and theatre, beginningnext month.

Importantly, Rediscovery includes sections devoted to indigenous, folk and Afro-Brazilian art, areas which have been neglected in the country's so far rather partial assessment of its heritage. A striking aspect of the overall show is the strong emphasis on what the Brazilians call scenography.

Thus the setting for the Baroque module involves thousands of purple paper flowers, like a high-camp stage set; the archeology exhibits are ranged over a weird, chicken-wire landscape decorated with lines of feathers and grids of different coloured seeds; and the wonderful "A Distant View" module - which looks at how Brazil was viewed by early colonists - takes place in a near-dark hall where the trunks of enormous trees rise from floor.

It soon becomes apparent that the Rediscovery Exhibition is not just an art show but a form of propaganda. "We are showing a new side of Brazil, a new image," says the exhibition's president, Edemar Cid Ferreira, who is a banker by profession (and in Brazil, it's the banks who largely sponsor and control the arts). The Rediscovery Exhibition's chief curator, Nelson Aguilar - a marvellously gloomy man whose gigantic spectacles make him look like an iconic intellectual from a Tintin book - is more specific about the show's aims. "To change the image of Brazil we need to make people think about various questions," he says. "If they think Brazil is the paradise of soccer, mulattos, samba and carnival, then we are trying to problematise that. I think the idea of Brazil abroad is a projection, a psychological idea, not sociological knowledge. You need to go deeper."

One of the most striking sections of Rediscovery, and one which has yet to find a British home, is the module entitled "Images of the Unconscious". This is derived from a famous archive held by the Museum of Images of the Unconscious in Rio de Janeiro, founded in 1952 by Dr Nise da Silveira, who worked as a psychologist with mental patients. The work - which impressed Jung - is astonishingly strange and beautiful, and the artists Antonio Braganca, Aurora Cursino dos Santos and Arthur Bispo do Rosario are revealed as consummate masters, whether unconscious or not.

The star of the show is Rosario, an Afro-Brazilian sailor and boxer who was committed in 1938 after spending two days in delirium in a Rio street, claiming to be Saint Joseph. He died in 1989. Using found objects (including, oddly enough, Wellington boots) and the threads of unpicked cloth, he created obscure taxonomies of names, street-signs and even beauty contest participants which were meant to be offered up as gifts to God for the last judgement. The Joseph Beuys of unconscious art, Rosario was nothing if not prolific. His collected works would fill the Serpentine Gallery very nicely.

Brasil 500: a UK Celebration of Brazilian Culture, runs from 15 June, when singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso launches the festival at the Barbican (tel: 020-7638 8891 for bookings), to December at various venues