Art and activism converge in ‘Social Fabric’ at UT Visual Arts Center

Ten contemporary artists from Brazil illuminate local and global conversations about social and political issues


One of the first works you see walking into “Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil” at the University of Texas Visual Arts Center is Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro’s enormous installation “Jupiter is Here. Celestial is Everything.”

It fills the center’s two-story Vaulted Gallery. Built entirely with materials sourced from Texas, “Jupiter is Here. Celestial is Everything” epitomizes the intention of “Social Fabric”: to bring contemporary Brazilian art to a U.S. audience, create a discourse across northern and southern hemispheres, and highlight similarities and differences in each nation’s art activism, social justice efforts, race relations, and political environments.

Vitorino Brasileiro created her site-specific installation during her residency at the Visual Arts Center earlier this year. During her stay, she spent time at UT Austin’s Non-vertebrate Paleontology Lab, learning about the sea that occupied the territory that is now Texas over 265 million years ago. From the paleontology collection she sourced a prehistoric fossil to stand as the central piece in her installation, an “ancestral marine animal” she calls it in her introductory text. Surrounding the fossil are water-filled glasses gathered from Austin thrift shops. Rounded walls encase the chapel-like space, made of rammed earth bricks provided by University of Texas Landscape Services and built in a manner that has existed for centuries.

Vitorino Brasileiro burnished stalagmite forms of wood that like columns, line the walkway that leads to her cylindrical, majestic terreiro. On one of the ragged-edged wood columns she writes “Angola”, a place with which she associates the future. While in Texas this word took on new meanings, as the artist learned that Angola was also the name for a slave plantation in Louisiana and later a state prison.

Inspired by her Austin research and a visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Vitorino Brasileiro considers interspecies and interstellar interactions by creating a temporary, otherworldly, yet familiar and natural area of contemplation. In so doing, she invites visitors to consider their own place within multiple time-spaces and constellations. As she states, “Jupiter is Here. Celestial is Everything” is a “perishable space of freedom.” In keeping with its transient nature, all the materials from the installation will be recycled upon the conclusion of the center’s exhibition.

As an Umbanda practitioner and with a background in psychology, Vitorino Brasileiro is fixated on the power and energy of water as a nourishing, healing substance. The water that once filled the state of Texas and the liquid being offered in the circle of glass vessels offers an experience of transmutation, or kalunga, a transient way of interacting with the world that is part of the cosmological learning undertaken in Bantu tradition.

This altar-like installation invites many readings and different ways to engage with its meditative space. As you move down the black walkway, you may not be sure what you are invited to worship when you reach the fossil at the end of the path. The site nevertheless ignites curiosity and serenity. Vitorino Brasileiro draws universal links through physical matter, mapping a geo-history of the Black body while inviting visitors to be a part of that experience.

Other artists in “Social Fabric” broach similar topics of coloniality, race, and also challenge our traditional notions of history and the archive. Brazil was the last country of the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, and much like the U.S. it is currently grappling with issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and severe political divides. This is made increasingly evident by Brazil’s recent presidential elections and the U.S.’s upcoming midterms. The artists in “Social Fabric” allude to a global activism and emphasize resilience through community. And these artists are not working alone, nor are they working towards separate goals.

Guerreiro do Divino Amor’s video and sculpture works fill an entire gallery and present the artist’s subversive, ironic take on Brazilian history and pop culture. Included are two videos from his series “Atlas Superficcional Mundial (Superfictional World Atlas)” in which Guerreiro do Divino Amor (which translates as “Warrior of Divine Love”) presents superfictions, or hyper-saturated mockumentaries that probe tough issues of political corruption and state violence, religion, mass media, and social inequality.

Social Fabric
Guerreiro do Divino Amor’s video series “Atlas Superficcional Mundial (Superfictional World Atlas)” presents an ironic take on Brazilian history and pop culture. Courtesy the artist and UT Visual Arts Center. Photo: Sandy Carson.

In “O Mundo Mineral (The Mineral World)” Sallisa Rosa — another artist in the exhibition — selects machetes for a project and shoots at a gun range. She is also the narrator of “Cristalização de Brasília (Crystallization of Brasília)” which presents a critique of Brazil’s capital city and its founding as a modernist utopia.

We encounter Rosa’s machetes again in another gallery on the ground floor. Spanning an entire wall is her work “Resistência (Resistance).” In defiance to images and instances of violence of Brazil, Rosa shows how this tool can also symbolize counteraction. In 1989, the Kayapó Indigenous people collectively resisted a hydro-dam project in the northern part of the country. In a public protest against the dam’s construction, Indigenous protestor named Tuíra Kayapó ran a machete across the face of the company’s president executing the build. Her action was to stop the environmental impact and population displacement that would result from such a project, and has come to symbolize Indigenous solidarity and their struggle against environmental racism.

Connections and community amongst the artists serve as an important throughline in the exhibition. The stone used in Vitorino Brasileiro’s rounded wall is the same heavy, packed dirt stone used to create the pedestals for Jaime Lauriano’s miniature, irreverent “Bandeirantes” — sculptures of colonial pioneers in search of gold and people to enslave standing atop the state of São Paulo from which many of them hailed – cast in brass and ammunition cartridges used by the Brazilian military police and armed forces. Aline Motta’s photographs of Black people seeking to recover erased histories by holding up a mirror that reflects the Atlantic Ocean, and through printed portraits of their ancestors wading through the water, line the walls of various galleries.

These stories culminate with an immersive installation on the second floor, with three videos that reveal intergenerational longing and healing in spite of the genocide resulting from the transatlantic slave trade. Repetition throughout the exhibition reveals the force with which problematic topics continue to be engrained in both Brazilian and American society: histories of slavery and racism as well as the ongoing battle for Indigenous rights. The intertwining of history and memory remind us that the information we consume as truth is always subjective, and thus must be constantly twisted and reimagined.

As a research assistant for the exhibition, my participation in “Social Fabric” involved developing a space for learning after the exhibition’s conclusion. In this room visitors are invited to consider questions posed at the very beginning of the exhibition: What is something you deeply feel needs to be changed in the world? What unites us? What divides us? How can art be a form of protest? Answers written and posted on a wall allow visitors to collaborate and take part in similar processes that the “Social Fabric” artists are thinking through to create their works.

To complement the complex histories that the artists grapple with, we developed a conceptual map that addresses the history of Brazil through the lens of the works in the exhibition. Referred to as a sociogram, its title alludes to the exhibition name to present a tapestry of ideas. As the artists reject hegemonic structures of history and time, we felt it was necessary to push back on the idea that time is linear, instead interconnecting concepts, places, moments, and people to demonstrate how all are inextricably linked.

To construct the sociogram, we drew on topics that the artists point to as influences or motivators for their works, as well as concepts that resonate throughout the exhibition. Although many of the events and geographies are specific to Brazil, we also present theories and thinkers that are not Brazilian, but whose writings or teachings have impacted the work of the artists in “Social Fabric”. For those who want to learn more, we provide related books and articles to invite visitors to draw their own conclusions of what it means to produce activist art.

“Social Fabric” displays the creative output of a youthful generation who understand the ways in which creative thinking and visual art can be used as a tool for activism. Intricate and imbued with meaning beyond the social and the political, the artworks on view invite us to recognize familiar sentiments and images of our own personal or national histories, while drawing distinct connections between Brazil and the U.S.

“Social Fabric: Art and Activism in Contemporary Brazil” continues through March 10, 2023 at the UT Visual Arts Center, 2301 San Jacinto Blvd. Admission is free.

Catalina Chernavvsky Sequeira
Catalina Chernavvsky Sequeira
Catalina Chernavvsky Sequeira is an art historian and writer currently pursuing her PhD in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art.

Related articles