At the root of Clara Ianni’s latest exhibition lies a thorny, overlapping network of powerful actors central to the history of twentieth-century art in the Americas: New York’s Museum of Modern Art, its former chair (and former US vice president) Nelson Rockefeller, The Walt Disney Company, the United States government, and the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Titled “Education by Night” and on view at Brooklyn’s Amant Foundation through September 4, the show revisits 1940s-era cultural programs intended to encourage US investment and deter Nazi influence in Latin America. The São Paulo–based artist pursues the murky afterglow of these initiatives, refashioning propaganda into new visions haunted by extractive economies and colonial entanglements.
DISNEY IS VERY FAMILIAR to my generation. We’ve been consuming those films for a long time. Saludos amigos (1942), along with a couple of other animations from the 1940s, were commissioned through US government-backed loans to introduce Latin America to US audiences and to create an image of modernization alongside an image of folk culture, of a landscape with endless natural “resources,” and, by extension, of the political relationships between nations that could be derived from this representation.
Written and animated for children, these films served as pedagogic instruments, shaping the conditions of perception what can and cannot be perceived. Alongside the use of military force, culture and pedagogy were key to the establishment of power relationships in the continent. It’s interesting to consider the reception today in Brazil of cultural production from the US, its relevance, how it interferes with our own understanding of ourselves as Brazilians as well as our understanding of “America.” Disney’s recent acquisition of Marvel is politically important not only for the young, but increasingly for adults, who have become overinvested in superhero movies that reduce politics to a simple binary of good and evil. What’s happening in Brazil today—the rise of the right wing—is also based on a narrative of good versus evil. In more politicized spheres, you might hear criticism of those movies in terms of their globalizing influence. But broadly speaking, Brazilians see the US as a model of freedom. That imaginary is well exported.
Nelson Rockefeller, in addition to being head of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs—developing the industrial and cultural relationship between the US and Latin America—was a major collector of modern art, as well as a longtime trustee and the first president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, helped found. He donated and lent a number of works for the 1949 opening exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, cropped images of which appear in my 2017 video From Figurativism to Abstractionism. It shares its title with that exhibition, which envisioned abstract art as a universal cultural production.
In Brazil, we are always relating to an economic system exported from hegemonic centers, to dynamics that come from outside, to “misplaced” ideas. The work is in dialogue with that. What are the distortions and emergencies that appeared through a relation of dependency? As a condition of this (to use an old term) periphery of capitalism, we’re often importing language. We have to adapt and we have to interpret. We relate to that language regime. The exhibition is commenting on that.
Though there are archival materials in the exhibition (magazines, photographs, documents from the US and Brazilian governments, Rockefeller’s correspondence) and appropriated in my work, they function as critical propositions, detours. They refer to historical processes, but I don’t think of the videos as documentaries.
The animated title sequences you see in Openings (Films Made by the Office for Inter-American Affairs 1941–1949), 2022, were produced by movie studios with State Department financing, then screened in US classrooms. The educational films were produced by reusing corporate footage, then reassembled for pedagogic purposes. My gesture was to dismantle and reassemble them again, but in a different direction. Night Geography, a video commissioned by Amant, interweaves a story of space junk from a US communication company that crashed in the south of Brazil this year with excerpts from these classroom films. It reflects on the idea of geography, the way we relate to things in time and space. In Education by Night, I use a projector and a set of wooden blocks intended as mathematical teaching aids to play with the relation between “abstract” and “concrete.”
The exhibition deals with what is already present, how we can reorganize the extant to produce new conditions of perception, new questions, and eventually new ways of feeling and understanding. The idea of starting something from nothing is an illusion. There is no nothing. Things are made of other things, of bodies, of material that is being preserved, discarded, transformed. There’s a modern idea—the tabula rasa ideology—that proposes, “There is nothing here, so let’s build a civilization.” But things are not quite like that. There is a lot that comes before you.
— As told to Lucas Matheson