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There are only a few hours to go until his show opens to the public and the artist Pedro Reyes is on edge. Clutching a can of Coke Zero, he darts around an installation of what appear to be five oversized Swiss army knives, adjusting the position of a flute splayed out from one like a giant corkscrew.
“Each of them has a different little personality,” he says, pausing to stoop over what he fondly calls his “Mata Hari knife”. Laid down on its back, the structure, which is priced at between $20,000-$25,000, projects a pink feather, curling tongs and a fan illustrated with the Virgin Mary – objects he picked up from flea markets near his home in Mexico City.
The exhibition, however, is not in Mexico but over 4,000 miles away at the Luisa Strina gallery in São Paulo. Over the past decade, Brazil’s economic boom has helped turn the concrete megalopolis into the somewhat unlikely capital of Latin America’s art scene, luring artists and collectors from around the world. In a coming-of-age moment last December, London’s pre-eminent White Cube gallery opened in the city with an inaugural show by Tracey Emin.
“We have a few big collectors in Mexico but there is a much broader base here,” says Reyes. An architect by training, the 41-year-old is fixated on “interaction” – be it between different tools in a penknife or spaces within a building. São Paulo, he says, is like any other big city: an interaction between “heaven and hell”.
Tireless lobbying by institutions such as the São Paulo Biennial, the world’s second oldest, has also helped put the city on the map, dragging the international art circuit away from its comfort zones in the US and Europe.
About 75 per cent of Brazilian commercial art galleries now work with foreign artists, according to Latitude, a group set up by the country’s contemporary art association and export agency. Meanwhile, sales to foreign buyers have surged by 350 per cent since 2007 to $27.1m last year.
Some put São Paulo’s creative side down to state censorship under the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, which forced an entire generation to express themselves allegorically, in what amounted to a sort of visual Morse code.
Others point to the brutal aesthetic of the city itself – a modernist conglomeration of grey that is at times so inhumane it provokes creativity as a form of protest, as seen by the explosion in street art over the past two decades.
A further testament to Brazil’s new status, the London Frieze art fair will feature a total of 10 galleries from São Paulo when it opens next week – a personal best for the city. Five São Paulo galleries, including Luisa Strina, will show in the contemporary section of the fair, compared to only three from Paris and none from other emerging markets such as Russia. Five more from São Paulo will take part in Frieze Masters, which includes work from earlier centuries up to the late 20th century.
Draped in a scarlet shawl in an airy back room of the gallery, Luisa Strina herself is not surprised by such statistics. Considered the matriarch of Brazil’s commercial art scene, she has witnessed the internationalisation of the market first-hand since opening her gallery in 1974.
The location of the gallery itself also reveals its age. Until recently most galleries, like hers, were based in São Paulo’s elite Jardins (Gardens) neighbourhood – a rare leafy area where even the coffee shops have armed guards. Gallery-hopping was for the super-rich, preferably done by car, and almost always by prior appointment.
However, as the spending power of Brazil’s middle class has grown, galleries have ventured out to cheaper, more edgy terrain to cater to a new generation of collectors. These are not the ageing multimillionaires of the past but novices with day jobs such as university professors or lawyers, who often pay in multiple instalments. Some collect for the love of art; others are looking for a status symbol to hang on their wall.
Samuel Acerda, a 34-year-old project manager from the mining city of Belo Horizonte, considers himself one of the former. “It was around 2005 when I started going to galleries but I didn’t really understand what I was seeing,” he says. After eight years of collecting, he estimates he has bought about 120 works, mostly installations and videos. “I keep them all in my apartment,” he says. “My family doesn’t really get it, they think it’s crazy.”
As demand for budget art rises, younger artists selling pieces for as little as a few hundred dollars have been granted more wall space. Four blocks away from the Luisa Strina gallery, the Mendes Wood gallery is holding an opening party for the exhibition of one of its youngest artists, Roberto Winter. Born in 1983 in São Paulo, Winter graduated in physics from the country’s top university before taking on curator projects and holding his first solo show this year in Madrid.
But he is still a physicist at heart. Peering through his thick-rimmed glasses at an attentive crowd of thirtysomethings sipping from bottles of Heineken, Winter explains the meaning behind a long, headless screw pinned to the wall. “From the front it looks like lots of separate discs, but from behind you can see they’re all part of the same thing – a spiral. Can you see?”
His exhibition, Ice-cream sales cause shark attacks, is broadly a study of the idea of a “defining gap”, according to a 14-page essay and 3D diagram handed out to visitors. Ice-cream sales and shark attacks are linked because both increase during summer, he explains – a missing piece of information that links two disparate statements, just as the reverse image of the screw connects the apparently disparate discs.
The Mendes Wood gallery is itself new on the scene, founded in 2010 by two young Brazilians and an American. However, it has quickly won respect in the city for its edgy exhibitions and for signing Tunga, Brazil’s acclaimed conceptual sculptor. This year will already be its second at Frieze. The gallery plans to show installations by the Catalan artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, whose recent work uses stick insects to explore boundaries between organic and inorganic structures in nature.
The theme of nature is a popular one in the city. While greenery comes at a premium in neighbourhoods like Jardins, its absence is conversely relished by locals as a sign of progress, reminiscent of the conquest of man over nature that created the city, now the biggest in the southern hemisphere. São Paulo’s most beloved landmark is, revealingly, an eight-lane avenue to the north of Jardins, Avenida Paulista – a choice photo opp for Brazilian tourists and brides.
Perched at the end of the avenue under a cluster of giant television antennas that light up at night like Christmas trees is the Vermelho (Red) gallery. Here, a similar series by Lia Chaia explores the impact of humans on nature with a nod to the country’s strong geometric tradition, featuring photos of leaves cut into squares floating in what appears to be muddy water. “We’re very much a conceptual gallery – we don’t do pretty pictures of the beach,” jokes Akio Aoki, one of Vermelho’s directors. In fact, 25 per cent of the gallery’s sales come from videos, he says.
Works by one of its most high-profile artists, Dora Longo Bahia, are anything but pretty. In her grotesque “Rusty Scalp” series, she paints scenes of US-led invasions on top of thick layers of red acrylic paint, which she then peels off and lays over scrap metal. It is a political genre that unites many of the city’s artists in their late forties and fifties who, like Bahia, began their careers under the shadow of the military junta.
Since Vermelho was founded in 2002, it has rapidly expanded sideways by buying up neighbouring houses and now stands as a black-and-white maze overlooking the city. With its open areas and own restaurant, it prides itself on being mistaken for a public museum.
Other galleries such as Jaqueline Martins have headed west of Jardins into Pinheiros (Pine Trees) – believed to be reference to the region’s dense pine forest that has disappeared without trace. The gallery only opened in 2011 but is already showing its work at Frieze this month.
A few blocks away on the other side of a large cemetery is another popular location: Vila Madalena. With street names such as Harmony and Glitter, it was once one of São Paulo’s most bohemian neighbourhoods but has lost some of its edge as rising house prices have replaced hippies with bankers.
Some of the more alternative younger galleries have now ventured into the city’s centre in search of cheaper space and more street cred. Home to the municipal government and the city’s most impressive colonial buildings, the region is also renowned for its crack cocaine problem. “Cracolândia” (crack land), as the streets next to the city’s lavish concert hall are known, have long been considered a no-go area, although the military police made some effort to regain control of the region last year.
“Galleries here are really spread out now – it’s not like London where you have a cluster in the West End and the East End,” says Márcia Fortes, co-founder of the Fortes Vilaça gallery. “Here, you need two days and a car to see them all.”
In 2008 the blue-chip gallery, which has represented well-known artists such as Vik Muniz, took over a sweatshop in the industrial neighbourhood of Barra Funda. After working as a newspaper correspondent in New York, Fortes moved back to Brazil to help manage a gallery owned by her close friend, the artist Marcantônio Vilaça, after his death from a heart attack at 37. She then founded her own in his memory.
By the end of next year she is planning to go even further afield, opening a gallery in her home town of Rio de Janeiro – “the Hollywood of Brazil”, as she proudly calls it. “Rio has very few galleries for its size,” she says, singling out A Gentil Carioca as one of the only internationally recognised spaces in the city.
In São Paulo, which has long harboured a tongue-in-cheek rivalry with Brazil’s better-looking second city, it can be hard to get a straight assessment of Rio’s art scene. Some say Rio’s economic decline over the past few decades has fostered more original work; others argue that its clichéd beauty of sun, sea and bikini bottoms is not as conducive to creativity.
Asked how to describe the main divergences between São and Rio’s art markets Luisa Strina goes silent. Eventually, after a long pause, she smiles and whispers: “São Paulo is better”.
Samantha Pearson is the FT’s São Paulo correspondent. Frieze London runs from October 17-20; www.friezelondon.com.
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From São Paulo to London: the galleries going to Frieze
Galeria Fortes Vilaça; www.fortesvilaca.com.br
Galeria Luisa Strina; www.galerialuisastrina.com.br
Galeria Vermelho; www.galeriavermelho.com.br
Mendes Wood; www.mendeswood.com
Galeria Jaqueline Martins; www.galeriajaquelinemartins.com
Dan Galeria, São Paulo; www.dangaleria.com.br
Part of Frieze Masters, Spotlight gives galleries the chance to present work created by one artist in the 20th century. Adriano Pedrosa, a curator, editor and writer based in São Paulo, is this year’s adviser (solo artists in italics)
Galeria Berenice Arvani, São Paulo, Rubem Valentim; www.galeriaberenicearvani.com
Luciana Brito Galeria, São Paulo, Liliana Porter; www.lucianabritogaleria.com.br/artists
Galeria Millan, São Paulo, Anna Maria Maiolino; www.galeriamillan.com.br
Galeria Nara Roesler, São Paulo, Julio Le Parc; www.nararoesler.com.br