One hundred years ago, writers and artists organized an event intended to put Brazil on the map of international art. They later realized that they didn’t know where the country was.

The year 2022 recalls two defining events that set Brazil face to face with its history: the country’s official political independence, in 1822; and the Week of Modern Art, held in 1922. Curiously, the bicentennial of the “Cry of Ipiranga” – the occasion on which prince Dom Pedro I declared the country’s independence from his own family in Portugal – has been remembered less than the cultural event that took place in the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo, organized by Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, and their friends.

Many factors can help explain this disparity. One is the mistrust of a political independence reached within a domestic structure, amongst family members – literally, between father and son. Overcoming the colonial condition by way of the prince of the metropolis is not so independent, after all.

I suspect, however, that the most important determining factor is to be found elsewhere. Brazil used to believe that its identity was located not in the political realm – perhaps because this has always fallen short – but rather in the cultural imagination, which has always proven to be abundant. For better or worse, the country found an image of itself through culture, a kind of unity to the diversity of the Brazilian historical formation.

The part played by the image of Brazil in the Week of 1922, however, was not this exactly. At that time, the Modernists were less interested in investigating Brazil itself than in incorporating it into the international art context. Where is Brazil? For the Modernists of those early years, the answer was: in the world’s periphery. The aim was to move Brazil into – or to the center of – international art, making the national culture more aware of what was happening in the rest of the world, especially in the European avant-garde. In Mário de Andrade’s terms, it was about including Brazil in the “concert of cultured nations.”

The original aim of Modernism in Brazil was eminently aesthetic. The movement was composed of writers and artists who wanted to give their works the vibrant originality that they considered lacking in aesthetic production that was too well-behaved and academic. The best example of this was Parnassian poetry, the French style found in the verses of Olavo Bilac – known as “the prince of Brazilian poets.” Manuel Bandeira’s poem Os sapos (“The frogs”) – recited on one of the days of the Week of 22 – ironized the “watery parnassian,” accusing him of having reduced “form to molds,” that is, of having transformed the experimental challenge of art into ready-made formulas.

A frame of the film 26 Postals for Dica, by Frederico Benevides

In 1917, Anita Malfatti’s exhibition was violently criticized by writer Monteiro Lobato for its expressionist style. In answer to this criticism, the Week of 22 was the crystallization of cultural Modernism: like a living manifesto, it insisted on the need for more freedom in Brazilian art.

If the Week of 1922 is remembered in history as an event dedicated to thinking about Brazil, this is largely due to later developments than to what actually took place then. The Week’s aesthetic fervor was not yet what Modernism would later become. The absence of Tarsila do Amaral from the event is revealing in this regard; only later would she approach the avant-garde group. Also the poems in Clã do jaboti (Tortoise’s clan), the rhapsody Macunaíma, and the travels that would result in O turista aprendiz (The apprentice tourist), by Mário de Andrade, as well as the Manifesto of Pau-Brasil Poetry and the Anthropophagic Manifesto, by Oswald de Andrade, all date from after 1922.

In other words, the most significant Modernist works on Brazil appear after the Week of 1922. These works are an inflection of the question: where is Brazil? If, until the Week, this question concerned the place Brazil might occupy in the world, after the Week, it referred to where one might find a place that could be named Brazil. The critical self-awareness of the young Modernists then challenged the movement’s emphasis on São Paulo. Mário and Oswald themselves realized the problematic nature of taking the city as an icon of Brazilianness.

“Departure from São Paulo,” Mário de Andrade wrote on May 7, 1927, before beginning his series of trips as an “apprentice tourist.” What matters here is not only the city from which one leaves, São Paulo, but that it is not the place where one arrives. It was necessary to go beyond it. One must leave: “by the Amazon river until Peru, by the Madeira river until Bolivia, and by Marajó until you say enough,” as Mário observes, in a kind of humor typical of his personality, but also of Modernist aesthetics.

How was he received in the North of the country? How did Mário identify himself and how was he identified during this trip? Or, in other words, was the Mário from São Paulo genuinely recognized as a Brazilian in the North? A certain Friar Diogo, whom Mario met during the trip, told him categorically that he did not recognize him as such. For the priest, Mario was more closely associated with his European origins. From the northern perspective, being so much “from São Paulo” distanced Mário from Brazil and linked him rather to Italy.

– You are Paulistas… You are not Brazilians! To be Brazilian you have to come to Amazonas, Brazil is here! You (he pointed at me) have a proper Italian accent.

An entry in Mário’s travel journal is revealing in this regard. On July 11th, he spoke of Brazil in the plural: “We were a group of friends from São Paulo, curious to know other Brazils.” Driven by the question of where Brazil was, Mário traveled in search of that which he knew was not in a single place. The same effort is present in his fictional work. In his 1928 rhapsody, Macunaíma, “the country appears de-geographed,” in his words. The Modernism that unfolded from the Week of 1922 expanded, it no longer dealt only with art, but with culture.

This turn is clear in Mário’s case. It can be found in his research on folklore, in the letters exchanged with Joaquim Inojosa and Câmara Cascudo, in his travels, in the book Macunaíma, and in poems like Carnaval Carioca and Noturno de Belo Horizonte. Little by little, aesthetical Modernism gained anthropological features. In his correspondence with the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade in 1924, Mário made an observation that reflects his cultural concern for the formation of Brazil.

I even go further to say that as long as the Brazilian does not brazilianize himself, he is a savage. The Tupis in their tabas [villages] were more civilized than we are in our homes in Belo Horizonte and São Paulo. For a simple reason: there is no Civilization. There are civilizations. Each one is oriented according to the needs and ideals of a race, an environment, and a time. [….] We, imitating or repeating the French or German civilization, are primitive, because we are still in the phase of mimicry. Our ideals cannot be those of France, because our needs are entirely different, our people different, our land different, etc. We will only be civilized in relation to civilizations on the day we create the ideal, the Brazilian orientation. Then we will pass from the phase of mimicry to the phase of creation.

In the case of Oswald de Andrade, the inflection after the Week of 22 is also notable. This is clear in the Manifesto of Pau-Brasil Poetry. The title of this brief text is misleading; it gives the impression that it is basically about poems or verses, which is not the case. Immediately, the manifesto warns that “poetry exists in facts.” Oswald presents the ochre to saffron huts of the favelas, the Carnival, the local cuisine as examples of poetry. None of these are part of the typical European art system.

Oswald thought that art, as defined by the Western canon, was insufficient to account for the poetic creation of culture in a country such as Brazil, whose formation, despite colonial domination, had other sources. If the reference to Pau-Brasil was about producing an art whose originality might arouse interest in the world – and which could be exported, instead of just importing what came from abroad – then it was necessary to know Brazil itself.

A frame of the film 26 Postals for Dica, by Frederico Benevides

Modernism realized that it didn’t really know where Brazil was. It was necessary to study it, to know it, to think about it. It was as if Brazilian art was far from Brazil, and not only from Europe. Essayist Paulo Prado wrote in his preface to the Pau-Brasil poems: “Oswald de Andrade, on a trip to Paris, from the top of a studio on Place Clichy – the navel of the world – discovered, dazzled, his own land.” And he continues: “the return to the motherland confirmed […] the surprising revelation that Brazil existed.”

And where is Brazil, for Oswald? In the Manifesto of Pau-Brasil Poetry, he mentions a double foundation, and maybe that means a double place: the forest and the school. Two such places have generally been considered opposites: nature and culture. According to Eurocentric tradition, the opposition would still be between Indigenous peoples and Western civilization, ancestral knowledge and enlightened knowledge.

Oswald suggested thinking of Brazil outside of this exclusionary opposition, and instead through the affirmation of the dual foundation. “Wagner submerges facing Botafogo’s parades,” he wrote, anticipating the thesis of the Anthropophagic Manifesto, that he would compose only in 1928: European opera was devoured and incorporated by Carnival. An attempt was being made to formulate an idea of Brazil that paid attention, at one and the same time, to non-European (Indigenous and African, especially) and European elements.

Where is Brazil? Neither in Portugal, nor Africa, nor among the Indigenous peoples. These are not, each in themselves, Brazil, except from the moment in which they touch each other. Brazil was not discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral, nor did it exist before him. Brazil is an invention that arose from this relationship. Despite the inequality and violence that distinguish this colonial history, this is still a relationship.

The Modernists bet that this would be the country’s creative force. They gave shape, through art, to an ideal of Brazil, an ideal that would later unfold in the Tropicalismo of the 1960s. One of the tropicalist songs, Geléia geral (1968), explicitly quotes the Anthropophagic Manifesto: “a alegria é a prova dos nove” (“joy is the cast out of nines”). In popular songs, Brazil may have found its most precious place in the search for itself. No other place was so intense in its capacity to cross inequalities and stratification in society: economic, racial, and many others.

Gilberto Gil sang that Brazil would be the civilization of songs. When he became Minister of Culture, at the beginning of the 21st century, he brought with him a dream that, although flawed and contradictory, had its roots in Modernism: a Brazil of forest and school. Tropicalismo, in a way, was in power. Gil’s singing and dancing at the United Nations, as a minister, gave Brazil the hope of realizing something of this dream, translating it from cultural imagination to political and social reality.

If one day we thought that the Brazil dreamed of by culture might become a reality, that day seems more distant now.

Unfortunately, fate has led us elsewhere. With the election in 2018 of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil interrupted a series of governments – from Fernando Henrique Cardoso to Dilma Roussef, through Lula – that repudiated the military dictatorship in power between 1964 and 1985. It has also interrupted a general affiliation with the cultural history that, since the Week of 22, imagined an open country, of forest and school. Gil was a symbol of this affiliation.

The contradictions were always there: from the precarization of public universities under the social democratic government in the 1990s to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam under the Worker’s Party rule. Nothing, however, was comparable to the devastation produced by Bolsonaro’s far-right government.

If we take into account Oswald de Andrade’s formulation, we would find today a Brazil in ruins: the school is abandoned; the forest is burned down; even the National Museum, also mentioned in the Manifesto of Pau-Brasil Poetry, was turned into ashes. If one day we thought that the Brazil dreamed of by culture might become a reality, that day seems more distant now.

It has never been easy to know where Brazil is. Perhaps today it is even more difficult; and maybe, if we find this place, we’d prefer it not to be there. The voice of Caetano Veloso, maybe the greatest poet of the national songbook, says in his latest record (Meu Coco, 2021) the words that could serve as guidelines for resisting Brazil’s current moment:

Não vou deixar, não vou
Não vou deixar você esculachar
Com a nossa história
É muito amor, é muita luta, é muito gozo
É muita dor e muita glória

Não vou deixar, não vou deixar
Não vou deixar porque eu sei cantar
E sei de alguns que sabem mais
Muito mais

Não vou deixar, não vou deixar, não vou deixar
Não vou deixar que se desminta
A nossa gana, a nossa fama de bacana
O nosso drama, nossa pinta

Não vou deixar, não vou deixar
Não vou deixar porque eu sei cantar
E sei de alguns que sabem mais
Muito mais

[I won’t let you, I won’t
I won’t let you smash
With our history
It’s a lot of love, it’s a lot of struggle, it’s a lot of joy
It’s a lot of pain, and a lot of glory

I won’t let you, I won’t let you
I won’t let you, ’cause I can sing
And I know some who know more
Much more

I won’t let it, I won’t let it
I won’t let you make it a lie
Our determination, our fame of being cool,
Our drama, our swagger

I won’t let it, I won’t let it
I won’t let it, ’cause I know how to sing
And I know some who know more
Much more]