Points of culture : what Brazil can teach Britain about art
A series of debates at the Southbank Centre shows how Brazil understands things that supposedly ‘developed’ countries don’t – not least about the transformative social power of art
Twenty years ago, it seemed as if Brazil couldn’t stop dreaming about its future. Now the future has arrived; Brazil is an economic and political world leader with a seat at the globe’s most influential table. Yet the country still faces the fundamental renegotiations of power – between rich and poor, women and men, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, city and rural communities. Recognising that without a new and radical approach Brazil will never achieve its promise for a just society, engaged artists in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Salvador and in rural areas across the country are pioneering new approaches to giving communities a real voice. But their work doesn’t spring randomly from unconnected initiatives – it’s part of a strategic plan to create an entire network of socially committed cultural projects.
In 2003, the Brazilian government created an initiative called Points of Culture: thousands of community and arts projects of all sizes and types that would work to strengthen people’s involvement in the life of their neighbourhoods and the larger society. The idea came from the legendary musician Gilberto Gil who had agreed to become culture minister for a five-year period under President Lula. The very act of having artists in the centre of government sent a signal of serious intent. Throughout his ministry poets, playwrights and philosophers worked in the executive, bringing a new language of aspiration and inventiveness to that of government.
But what does it mean when politicians pledge to put “imagination at the service of the people”, as the Brazilian government has done? First, it’s a recognition that culture and positive cultural expression is the foundation of identity and pride for all of us. But culture isn’t simple, and one size doesn’t fit all – it’s very personal, particular to individuals, groups, tribes, neighbourhoods and regions. It has to spring from the circumstances of place, economics and tradition, and be captured in vivid and powerful ways. Second, politicians in Brazil believe that professional artists can play a key role in developing people’s confidence, happiness and sense of self. Third, it’s a declaration of their respect and love for the people of Brazil – regardless of their economic or educational privilege – and a desire to improve the lives and opportunities of all those millions of citizens who remain marginalized and unable to fulfil their potential. It was a bold, demanding mission to launch and to sustain, but one that has proved so successful it is now spreading to other parts of Latin America.
When I was creating Southbank Centre’s summer-long Festival Brazil, I wanted to reveal what Brazil was thinking about; how its artistic vitality is bound up in its democratic urge to transform and reinvent the world, and how much the artists of Brazil believe in the creative capacity of everyone. Tonight, in a debate entitled The Edge of the Future: Renegotiating Power, Jose Junior – who founded the powerful AfroReggae movement – discusses the choice of young people to turn away from drug and gun culture and towards music, dance and poetry as a way of finding status and “family”. Tomorrow, Luiz Eduardo Soares, formerly Brazil’s National Secretary of Public Security, a man who dealt with some of Rio’s most alarming clashes between police and gangs, will talk about how hip-hop artists and photographers helped him forge communication between lawmakers and young people.
For both these debates, there will be weighty contributions from some of the UK’s important cultural projects, too. We will hear from the Koestler Trust, who work with prisoners and young offenders, about why the arts serves as a unique tool of rehabilitation. And Camila Batmanghelidjh brings her experience and vision of Kids Company and the central role that the arts can play in supporting young people to manage their circumstances differently.
The UK currently has the finest arts ecology in the world, including many outstanding cultural initiatives that work at grassroots level. But it doesn’t have a comprehensive programme that offers communities – and particularly young people – the right to work with artists in ways that would substantially change their sense of what is possible. Britain is a society in flux, and we need bold ideas that strengthen our communities. Brazil’s belief in the importance of culture to the lives of its people is far-sighted, and can provide inspiration to us all.
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