A Position in the Margins

Based on the curatorial practice of Frederico Morais and Walter Zanini, Ana Paula Lopes reflects on curation as an event in response to the times of dictatorship in the ’60s and ’70s in Latin America.

While I was studying art, curation was an uncharted field, a guiding force in my research. Every discovery, regardless of whether the curatorial project was carried out in Brazil or elsewhere, offered a new way of thinking about the world, the artistic object, and the politics of space. Since then, curation has become my position of judgment, both for political and object-oriented issues. And precisely because of this, my research is increasingly focused on developing the notion of curation and the curator in Latin America. Historicizing Latin American curatorial practices allows one to trace out their differences, make their complexities resonate, and extend new horizons. For this study of curatorial practices and the Latin American curator, it is necessary to position myself at the margins. To let history be told in books of “official cultures” so that their omissions leak out, showing us the expanses of a heterogeneous Latin America. My goal is to provoke discussion and stir up conflict because so many stories remain untold in these “official” books. What do we study today? For the most part, white art from European countries and North America.

The fundamental objective of any research is to unveil. In order to accomplish this we need to maintain a tangential view as the pillar of pluralities. To make discoveries, we must liberate ourselves of categories, as Mikhail Bakhtin explains in Rabelais and His World. In this book, Bakhtin discusses the field of culture and directly ties it to the sphere of art in the sense that “in order to discover humanist antiquity, it was necessary at first to be free from the thousand-year-old domination of medieval categories. It was necessary to gain new ground, to emerge from ideological routine.” [1]

That is precisely why we should do research from the margins; to gather up relational, but also oppositional elements that emerge from different traditions or modernities in art across the continent. As García Canclini stated: “today we conceive of Latin America as a more complex articulation of traditions and modernities (diverse and unequal), a heterogeneous continent consisting of countries in each of which coexist multiple logics of development.” [2]

In this way, I propose to explore the relevance and construction of curation in Latin America, with the idea of positioning Walter Zanini and Federico Morais as boundary posts in the experiment of Brazilian curation due to their ongoing influence today.

Curation as an Occurrence

I will begin by considering how curation and the curator are conceptualized, as I consider this important in developing my line of reasoning. However, it should not be taken as the only or most relevant idea, rather as one among many others.

Curator, as explained by Hans Ulruch Orbrist, is “a word originally from the Latin curare…that comes to our language as cure—in the sense of to take care of or to preserve.” [3] As such, it refers to one who takes care of and gives visibility to a collection. The curator, until the mid-1950s, was someone connected with museology, the study of museums. It is in the mid-60s and 70s that the curator becomes an independent figure who takes care of and gives visibility to artistic or cultural heritage and does research as well as bureaucratic and pedagogic work. They develop exhibitions in the widest range of spaces, working with traditional artistic signs while weaving them into the world. Curation is, then, a critical activity as it is where the occurrence happens and ideas are exchanged; it is always “proposing a new history.” [4] The exhibition is the “primary site of exchange in the political economy of art, where signification is constructed, maintained, and occasionally deconstructed,” [5] which reveals institutional and curatorial discourses. It is a place where signs are juxtaposed, new ones are established, and others deconstructed. It is an interconnection between times where each position alters in space, which is what makes curating an occurrence. The Brazilian geographer Milton Santos, who has been a major influence in my thinking, developed this term. Speaking about territoriality, Santos extended the horizons of his geographic research in which the occurrence—a notion that extends into the field of curation—is an innovation “characterized as the determined sense, in space and time, of an event that rekindles a way of doing, organizing, or understanding reality.” [6] This connects directly to the work of the art critic and curator Frederico Morais, who when asked about avant-garde movements said:

“The avant-garde is not a material innovation, it is not technological art or any such thing. It is a behavior, a mode of facing things, human beings, and the substance, it is an attitude defined before the world. It is permanent transformation. It is precarity as a norm, struggle as a life process. We are not interested in concluding, finishing, or providing examples. In writing the history of isms. The avant-garde can be the rearguard—it depends on its intended objectives.” [7]

Curation is characterized by an extremely singular attitude that establishes new modes of doing that echo into the present, making it possible to construct alternative histories. Based on Morais’s idea of the avant-garde as rearguard, many events can be understood as milestones of what in the future would be known as the curatorial field, not only bearing fruit during the turbulent moments of human history. However, the interwar period or the period of Latin American dictatorships (1960s-1980s) forced us to work in a state of alert due to authoritarianism, repression, and scarcity.

Despite these barriers, it was during the period of military dictatorships that Latin American art became an experimental “open field.” [8] Exhibition organization9 was the most critical field of action where the socio-political, the conceptual, and the ephemeral—specific characteristics of art at the time—were altered. This was the case for the exhibition Do corpo a Terra (From Body to Ground), organized by Frederico Morais in 1970 in the Belo Horizonte Municipal Park in Minas Gerais. During the exhibition, the intention, now recognized as curatorial, broke out of the closed gallery space and extended, as its title suggests, to the land through performances, happenings, interventions into public space, and the active participation of the audience.

Morais did not only recognized political issues. In addition to making direct reference to the military dictatorship—for example the work Tiradentes—Totem Monumento ao Preso Politico (Tiradentes —Totem Monument to the Political Prisoner) (1970), in which Cildo Meireles set fire to live roosters—also articulated the process-oriented characteristic of the era’s art and the fragility of artistic ephemerality with such work as Artur Barrio’s Trouxas Ensanguentadas (Bloody Bundles) (1970), in which bleeding bodies wrapped in cloth appeared in the Ribeirão Arruda.

This curatorial focus on political protest centering on the body can also be seen in Domingos da Criação (Creation Sundays), a program also organized by Frederico Morais and which took place over six Sundays between January and August 1971 at the MAM-Rio de Janeiro. This program—which brought together artists such as Carlos Vergara, Antonio Manuel, Cildo Meireles, Amir Haddad, Regina Casé, among others—was an extension of the courses that Morais taught at the MAM around educational practices and museography. These courses understood, on one hand, the possibility of art education from the idea that the workshop could be any type of space where teachers and students could meet and where the making of the work would respond to the materials available at the moment. Moving away from the traditional understanding of artistic techniques, this pedagogical reflection also opened up the idea of the museum beyond the institutional rigidity of its delimited space and its collection, and allowed it to become a laboratory of experiences that allow its integration into everyday life through its extension throughout the city. This is why Domingos da Criação took place in the open space in front of the museum during the summer, a time when Brazilians were looking for activities in open spaces.

Morais defined Domingos da Criação as “manifestations of free creativity with new materials”. [10] The actions used materials provided by industries based in Rio de Janeiro, such as yarn, paper or dirt which the invited artists adapted to the objectives drawn up by the Manifesto Do Corpo à Terra (1970) written by Morais. The manifesto explains that art, as a national project dispersed through museums, should be an exercise of freedom, vital for the social life of the human being. It emphasizes the importance of organizing art for the understanding of innate playful and creative freedom in human beings. Here lies the importance of departing from the rigidity represented by the museum institution. In his vision, art that extended beyond the object—to situations, events, or rituals, individual or collective—was part of life itself. Art had no limits and remained beyond the circumstances. Morais argued that the fetishization of the common object by Pop art was nostalgia for finding life in a commodified existence. At the same time, the “dematerialization” of art extended to human experience, consequently art could be found in the return to the body and the ground, elements in which the object is found and which allow a participatory relationship through the senses and natural elements.

Morais’s curatorial projects were a critical activity that linked art with everyone regardless of whether they were artists or not. In the case of Domingos da Criação, this happened because the works took place on the patio of the MAM-RJ—a public space open to passers-by—where curation becomes something communal. Morais engaged with important contemporary ideas like Arte Povera, happenings, body art, and, most interestingly, rather than conceptually he explained them organically.

In parallel with the activities organized by Morais, professor Walter Zanini was also transforming the space of the museum, pushing it to be more than a cultural agent [11] to become a dynamic hub offering diversified programming in music, dance, film, talks, and art history classes. Walter Zanini (1923-2013) was a professor, journalist, researcher, and curator. He led the MAC-USP until 1978 and also stood out for his activity in the academy, where he was a professor in the Department of History in the Faculty of Philosophy, Science, and Humanities and taught art history. He was also one of the founders of the ECA-USP (University of São Paulo School of Arts and Communication), and helped to found the Visual Arts Program at the Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP) along with Donato Ferrari, Regina Silveira, and Julio Plaza. His research was published in articles, newspapers, and books, including “the most important historiographic effort ever published in the field” of Brazilian art history, História Geral Da Arte No Brasil, Volumes I and II, edited by the Moreira Salles Institute in 1983. [12] The publication, which sold out years ago, was prepared by a team of 16 experts, among them the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, architect and artist Carlos Lemos, photographer Boris Kossoy, and the art and education researcher Ana Mae Barbosa.

Professor Zanini was in charge of the 1972 exhibition Jovem Arte Contemporânea (JAC-72) held at the University of São Paulo Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC-USP), an exhibition that is another curatorial example that critically addressed the body-work-space relationship. The sixth edition of this exhibition broke definitively with the criteria of previous editions of the JAC (held between 1963 and 1971), an exhibition that began as a salon for young artists. The open call of the sixth edition stated: “JAC-72 will be guided by the following general rules: Conditions of participation—national and international artists, residents and non-residents of Brazil, no age limits, working with any artistic technique or language.” [13] Its central concept was “the displacement of objects within the artistic production” in order to generate “awareness of the meanings of this process.” [14]

Walter Zanini, along with his team of Gabriela Wilder, Raphael Buongermino, Donato Ferrari, and Laonte Klawa, discussed the selection parameters with the idea that the exhibition would be open to anyone interested in participating. Ferrari proposed that participation be determined by a lottery on the first day of the show, which any artist could enter and which would be developed by a group of Visual Communication students at the Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation working under the tutelage of Laonte Klawa. Klawa split the 1,000 m2 temporary exhibition space of the MAC-USP into 84 differently shaped lots, effectively turning the museum into an enormous studio from October 14-28, 1972.

The emphasis of this exhibition was on artistic process. The exhibition rejected the centrality of the unique object [15], instead centering dialogue on the impermanence of the work and on achieving a form of curation that was attentive to process and the relationship between physical space and the body in order to challenge the closed space of the museum. [16] Why do I mention this? At the time, the MAC-USP managed the third floor of the São Paulo Biennial Foundation, located in an Oscar Niemeyer building with vaulted ceilings and framed by expansive windows. An imposing building, more exclusive than inclusive.

Like Morais, professor Zanini brought innovation and radicalism to all the spaces he worked in. Under his management, the Contemporary Art Museum of São Paulo University (MAC-USP) organized national and international shows including: the exhibitions of works by Vicente Rego Monteiro, Anita Malfatti, and Flávio de Carvalho, which were part of the permanent collection; hosted an international project in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and held photographer Cartier-Bresson’s first exhibition in Brazil in 1970, among other events. The space also sought to recover lost stories, showing, for example, the work of Jeff Golyscheff (1898-1970), a painter and musician who was involved in Dada in Berlin. Golyscheff lived anonymously in São Paulo until the day he entered the museum and told Zanini his story. Zanini recounts that it had previously been thought that he had died in Europe.

Moreover, when he was in charge of the 16th and 17th editions of the São Paulo Biennial, his curation was formative in that it marked the end of the practice of organizing the Biennial based on nationality. In the 16th edition, he put artists like Anna Bella Geiger, Cildo Meireles, and Richard Long together, and in the 17th edition he juxtaposed traditional techniques like feather art with work of the Fluxus group. In this same edition, which integrated video art and new artistic languages, it also became clear that Zanini was one of the most important propagators and legitimizers of these mediums. Organizing, for example, the first video art exhibition at the MAC-USP.

Both Walter Zanini and Frederico Morais approached a spirit of radicalism, connected not just to the concept of the occurrence as theorized by Milton Santos, but also the concept of anthropophagy. This philosophy, established in the 1928 Anthropophagic Manifesto written by Oswald de Andrade, calls for us to search for our origins, but also to look to the Other to acknowledge alterity. This rupture at the border leads to the emergence of the hybrid and the principles of appropriation discussed by David Evans in Appropriation (2009). Oswald proposes crossings between cultures and an immersion in our origins, concerns that later culminated in the Tropicália movement. These interceptions lead to the emergence of the Other, a force that permeates the heart of the democratizing thought of these great masters.

Thus, the curation of Do Corpo a Terra, Domingo da Criação, and the 1972 edition of Jovem Arte Contemporânea were, as Milton Santos said, “a new mode of doing, of organizing” or “understanding oneself” to question and critique the “reality” of the moment. [17]


1. Bakhtin, Mikhail. A cultura popular na Idade Média e no Renascimento. (Sao Paulo: Universidad de Brasilia, 1987), pg. 238, 239.

2. Néstor García Canclini. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. 9.

3. Hans Ulrich Obrist. A Brief History of Curating. (São Paulo: Bei, 2010).

4. Milton Santos. A Natureza do Espaço: Técnica e Tempo, Razão e Emoção (São Paulo: EDUSP, 2006), pg. 94.

5. Obrist. Hans Ulrich. Ibid., pg. 16.

6. Milton Santos. Natureza do Espaço, Técnica e Tempo, Razão e Emoção, 1996. pg. 94, 96.

7. Frederico Morais, “Frederico Morais, crítico e criador,” Sitio Arte Brasileira, December 8, 2012, https://artebrasileirautfpr.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/frederico-morais-critico-e-criador/

8. Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Em campo aberto. Catálogo 6ª Exposição Jovem Arte Contemporânea Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo. 1972.

9. At that time in Brazil, the term “curation” did not exist. Instead, the term “exhibition organization” was applied to the organization of shows that art critics or academics held in museums, cultural spaces and galleries.

10. M.A Ribeiro. Interview with Frederico Morais, A Arte Nao Pertenece a Ninguém. UFMG, Belo Horizonte, V. 20, n.1, p.336-351, Enero/Junio, 2013.

11. Dária Gorete Jaremtchuk, Jovem Arte Contemporânea en MACUSP (Master’s Thesis at the University of São Paulo, 1999), pg. 4.

12. Angélica Morais, “Morre Mestre Zanini,” Revista Select, January 29, 2013.

13. Catálogo 6ª Exposição Jovem Arte Contemporânea, Museu Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo, 1972.

14. Ibid.

15. Walter Zanini. Novas Potencialidade. Catálogo 6ª Exposição Jovem Arte Contemporânea, 1972.

16. Walter Zanini. Ibid.

17. I would like to point out parallel artistic production outside Brazil that the group Escena Avanzada began developing in 1973 during the Chilean military dictatorship. Their production, as critic and curator Nelly Richard has mentioned, belonged to the “unofficial field” of Chilean art, located beyond the historiographical categorizations of art. Escena Avanzada was founded by the artists Carlos Leppe, Eugenio Dittborn, Catalina Parra, Carlos Altamirano, the group Cada (made up of Diamela Eltít, Raúl Zurita, Lotty Rosenfeld, Juan Castillo, and Fernando Balcells), and Juan Dávila, among others. The group formulated new methods of artistic production, experimenting, in words of Richard: “[with] the displacement of techniques, the suppression of genres, and the translation of artistic expression to the living body (performance) and the city (interventions).” By taking to the extreme “questions about the conditions and limits of artistic practice,” they developed a framework for confronting a repressive regime.

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