Brazil grapples with representations of its imperial conquerors

São Paulo Letter: Statues controversy predates George Floyd protests

At the entrance to Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Monument to the Flags is a work of art representing the frontiersmen and various ethnic groups. Photograph: Getty

At the entrance to Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Monument to the Flags is a work of art representing the frontiersmen and various ethnic groups. Photograph: Getty

 

Driving along Santo Amaro Avenue in the southern reaches of São Paulo, it is impossible to miss Borba Gato. The statue of the 17th-century adventurer measures 13m in height, weighs more than 20 tonnes and, as critics have lamented since it was inaugurated in 1963, is aggressively devoid of any aesthetic value.

But it was not this perceived lack of artistic merit that led activists to set fire to it recently. Paulo Galo, the motorbike delivery man who assumed responsibility for the act, said the goal was “to open a debate” about how Brazil’s biggest city remembers historical figures such as Borba Gato.

He was one of the bandeirantes – literally flag carriers – whose epic expeditions into the still-unexplored interior ended up allowing poor, sparsely populated Portugal lay claim to half of South America. In doing so they ensured Brazil would eventually become the region’s behemoth.

Many of these bandeirantes set out from São Paulo, which especially reveres their memory. The state’s governor dispatches from the Bandeirantes Palace, and state highways, universities and media companies are also named after them.

But the bandeirantes did not set out in a spirit of discovery. They were vicious slavers who preyed on the indigenous peoples of the lands they traversed. As such, their continued commemoration is increasingly contested in a society more willing to grapple with the darker aspects of its past now it is letting go of long-held myths about constituting a racial democracy.

Right to disagree

“What do you think must be done with monuments paying homage to men whose past is marked by exploitation and genocide?” city council member Erika Hilton asked her followers on social media after the attack on Borba Gato. Unsurprisingly many on the right sound like this is a debate they would rather not have. “Terrible the fad for knocking down and setting fire to statues has arrived here,” wrote state deputy Janaina Paschoal. “It seems our capacity is limited to imitating the worst from abroad.”

But controversy in Brazil and elsewhere in South America about who is commemorated in public monuments preceded the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the US, which led to the toppling of statuary in a number of countries last year.

In 2013 São Paulo’s Monumento às Bandeiras, its best known piece of public sculpture, at the entrance to the city’s main park, was daubed in red paint and had the slogan “Bandeirantes murderers” painted on it. The recent attack on Borba Gato was not the first he suffered.

In much of the region, 1992 was the turning point. Celebrations for the quincentenary of the “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus ended up being overshadowed by counter-protests to mark the destruction of indigenous cultures caused by the arrival of Europeans.

End of the conquest

Since then the official commemoration of murderers and slavers has become steadily more contested. Conquistador Francisco Pizarro has been removed from the central plaza in Lima, which he founded after seizing the Incan empire for Spain, and Columbus himself has been removed from his column near Argentina’s presidential palace.

Whether São Paulo’s bandeirantes will also eventually be hauled off remains to be seen. Right now the debate is focusing more on better explaining their hugely ambivalent legacy rather than actual removal.

Already it is becoming better understood that far from being São Paulo’s founding fathers, the bandeirantes are something of an invented myth, rescued from historical obscurity at the turn of the 20th century by a state elite looking for a heroic backstory just as the coffee economy was raising it to political and economic pre-eminence on the national stage.

There is also an official effort under way to redefine what parts of its history the city commemorates. After the attack on Borba Gato the mayor’s office announced five new statues will be erected to celebrate leading black figures who were born or made their name here.

But it is hard to imagine these initiatives, welcomed as they have been, will put an end to demands for São Paulo to stop officially commemorating marauding slavers.

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