It was a public holiday in Sao Paulo last Saturday – the 460th anniversary of the founding of Sao Paulo.
The holiday fell on a Saturday, so no time off work, but nevertheless, with a sunny weekend beckoning, there was a holiday mood. A good day for a walk. Avenida Paulista, where a street celebration was promised, or Ibiripuera Park, with weekend crowds and shaded walks?
I walk up to Ibiripuera Park, the largest in Sao Paulo, through steady traffic. Vendors man their pitch at the lights, selling cut-price flowers, gadgets, and in his usual spot, a man who sells brooms. Sitting beside the road, I thought he had an exotic Brazilian animal on his lap, but it was only his stock of feather dusters.
Sao Paulo is well supplied with public sculpture, perhaps aspiring to the European tradition of bronze soldiers and statesmen, but it’s generally on a more intimate scale, celebrating more modest Brazilians – journalists, tennis players, civic leaders.
On an approach to a side entrance of the park there’s a bust of celebrated writer Cora Coralina (1889 – 1985), not published in book form until her mid-seventies, though she had been writing since her teens. Living in Sao Paulo for much of her life, she was a modest and popular writer, born in the interior of Brazil in – and returning at the age of 67 to – the town of Goiás Velho which was the source of much of her subject matter. After her husband’s death she earned a living by making and selling sausages and cakes, selling books, and also writing stories, poems and children’s literature for the newspapers.
The park is bustling with the Saturday crowd – cyclists, joggers, skaters and skateboarders, families with pushchairs, friends out power-walking as they talk – and here too there are vendors, of agua de coco, ice-cream, refrigerantes or soft drinks, and bicycles for hire. On the grassed areas there are the practitioners of capoeira – a Brazilian dance and martial art form – people singing and playing the guitar, pairs of lovers, tight-rope walkers practicing, people in hammocks, religious groups praying in public … Most people don’t have gardens, so the park offers them welcome space, fresh air and natural surroundings. During the week the park’s population reflects the affluent suburbs close by – they come to exercise – but on Saturdays they stay away.
We walk along the shaded asphalt paths, a leisurely stroll, with all kinds of people walking in both directions, skaters weaving through the pedestrians, cyclists in their lanes, and every imaginable kind of casual dress and undress. Children play around the water fountain, a circle of youths and girls bat a volleyball from hand to hand, someone strings up a hammock. The sun is quite fierce, but an avenue of giant bamboo is quiet and fresh. A large plastic cup of cool agua de coco is welcome. The park is full, but not crowded. A park employee stands at a pathway junction with a whistle, warning skaters to stay in their lanes as they speed down the hill.
Statues appear scattered throughout the park, chosen for popular appeal. The bucolic game with a greased pig is clearly a favourite – its back and neck have been burnished by many hands. The sculptor Ricardo Cipicchia also has a piece on the esplanade in Santos, a fisherman casting his net into a boiling sea.
Here in Ibiripuera everything is peaceful. So much so that the park police have an easy Sunday. Who could imagine that down on Avenida Paulista the street party included a demonstration, which turned into a riot, complete with special police and property damage?
From that perspective, you understand that one of the functions of public art is to define a national character, a model for citizens to follow. The gentle, innocent country people and poets are acceptable, desirable, but urban rioting seems to be just under the surface this summer. Both are cultural expressions, posited as opposing tendencies, and the function of public sculpture in this is clear.
In the days of the military Junta the radical arts group 3Nos3 performed “baggings” of public sculptures – covering the heads of various dignitaries and mythological characters with plastic or cloth bags to demonstrate the ostrich-like blindness of the country’s political class to the state of the nation and the abuses of power. (Thanks to Simon Lewandowski.) And perhaps a reference to some more sinister practices too. More at