From Brazil to Portugal, a labyrinth of stories

Filipe dos Santos Barrocas; Tobi Maier (Galerias Municipais)

Frame Labirinto Filipe dos Santos Barrocas

Tobi Maier: Hello, Filipe. We met during our time as researchers at the University of São Paulo, where you’re now working on your doctoral thesis. We’re here in Lisbon today to hear a bit about your research and your film Labirinto [Labyrinth], 2022. I think it’s a very relevant film as Brazil celebrates its bicentenary of independence in 2022.

Filipe dos Santos Barrocas: The script preceding the film Labirinto, 2022 (which I showed you just now) is based on my ongoing doctoral research in visual poetry at the School of Communications and Arts at USP, with guidance from the artist Mario Ramiro. The film does not cover every aspect of my research, which covers a period of approximately 70 years; instead, it focuses on four works by four artists in different languages. In painting – history painting – Antônio Parreiras [1860–1937] is the only one of the four to flip the perspective and portray the invader. He depicts the Portuguese coloniser as a strange, unknown Other, adopting the perspective of the native population, of the land. These paintings were made into decorative panels and are currently on display at the Electoral Justice Cultural Centre in Rio de Janeiro. The series Os Desterrados [The Exiled] is made up of three paintings: A Chegada [The Arrival], A Partida [The Departure] and O Suplício de Tiradentes [The Torment of Tiradentes], which were commissioned by the Brazilian state in the late 19th century. At around the same time, perhaps as part of the painting competition held to commemorate the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of Brazil in 1900, Óscar Pereira da Silva [1867–1939] depicted Pedro Álvares Cabral [c. 1467/8–c. 1520] landing in Porto Seguro in 1500, with a looking glass in his hand. Vilém Flusser, a Czech philosopher who spent many years in Brazil, suggested reversing it to reveal the back of the looking glass in a text written in 1998[1]. Since Brazil became a republic, all that commemorating the “discovery” does is keep a Portuguese founding myth alive. This commemorative event is embodied by a variety of items: paintings, the silver coin cast for the occasion, the first mass, the monuments in São Vicente and Rio de Janeiro and the publication of a book by Antonio Candido[2] on the discoveries containing “documents”, including the Letter [to King Manuel I of Portugal] (1500) from Pero Vaz de Caminha [1450–1500] – these items anchor Portuguese coats of arms to Brazilian soil and help construct a fictional narrative around the discovery of Brazil.

Another two works are:

  • The 1937 film by Humberto Mauro [1897–1983], O Descobrimento do Brasil [The Discovery of Brazil], which was released at a time when paintings had found a vehicle for exhibition and education in school textbooks. Young people were growing up with images of the “civilisers” arriving and encountering the “savages”. Film is a mass medium, so O Descobrimento do Brasil by Humberto Mauro represents the extreme of the process whereby these images were historically constructed and disseminated. What does Mauro’s film do? It illustrates and, quite literally, visualises Caminha’s letter, which presents a very specific perspective on this historical episode. As a result, it was used as propaganda during the rule of Getúlio Vargas [1882–1964] and appropriated to legitimate his political agenda, which sought to merge nation and history into one. The film was initially funded by the Instituto do Cacau da Bahia, which aimed to demonstrate that the country was founded in a “peaceful”, “cordial” Once Vargas had seen it, however, he said “Hey, I’m going to use this film to show that there’s class struggle here and that we govern for the people”, using it to prove that the population was already “civilised” – that is what the film depicts. There is no conflict: “the indigenous people freely board the ship on their own initiative to meet the invaders”.
  • The other work is the 1865 book Iracema by José de Alencar [1829–1877], which combines Brazilian romanticism and indigenism. This “foundational fiction”[3] is based on the romance between an Indigenous woman, Iracema – a ‘virgin with lips of honey’[4] –, and Portuguese explorer Martim Soares Moreno. It features a circular narrative that begins and ends with a departure ‘in search of a native rock amid the solitude of the ocean’[5]. ‘The Christian knew from experience that travel soothes longing, because the soul sleeps while the body moves.’[6] Alencar’s book, marked by conflict over land and language, begins and ends with Christian warrior, Martim Soares Moreno. The woman after whom the book is named, however, gradually dissolves into the landscape over the course of the narrative before eventually disappearing completely. The landscape, which is idealised almost as much as the woman’s body, is presented as a vision of paradise. Moacir, the son of Iracema’s pain and the product of this romance, becomes the first Brazilian and the first step towards constructing a romantic ideal of miscegenation. This ideological agenda sought to build the Brazilian nation on the encounter between Portuguese and Indigenous people, overlooking the African presence that was already widespread at that time.

These are the works that I explore in my research and I would like to add that this film would never have been possible without the collaboration of other artists: Lucas Eskinazi and Yuji Kodato, who co-directed and edited the film with me, and the Som de Black Maria collective, Isadora Maria Torres and Léo Bortolin, who were the sound directors. Although the film was edited using material from my archive, the editing process was collective and this allowed me to interact with the images in different ways.

TM: But these works don’t appear in the film [Labirinto, 2022].

FSB: No.

TM: Does that matter to you?

FSB: Exactly. I mean, the film doesn’t illustrate my research. It’s in tension with it; it attempts to cover everything but it is unsuccessful. My feeling is that this is a first piece, an initial exercise, and that there will most likely be another film to come. I’ll give you an example.

Unlike Óscar Pereira da Silva, who painted the landing in Porto Seguro from Paris and idealised the landscape, Antônio Parreiras’s journal tells us that he produced a series of outdoor sketches at the site itself and he ended up painting the arrival and departure without depicting any encounter at all. That’s why my hypothesis is that the country was not founded on an encounter, as all the other works show, but rather on the absence of an encounter, as in this artist’s work. One good example of this is Parreiras’s account of a conversation with his two travelling companions on a trip into the “jungle” to paint. Dino, an elderly Indigenous man who cooked for him, and Palma, an African slave who cleared the way through the jungle, were his companions… Actually, he was most likely pro-slavery and we mustn’t overlook that fact. Parreiras recounts a conversation between Dino and Palma one night by the fire and their inability to understand one another and find common ground is symbolic of this alternative founding. This is an example of a scene I would like to depict. Labirinto is about a ‘discovery’, a journey, an arrival in a strange place (in your eyes) depicted as an idyllic setting, a place free from evil filled with lush vegetation. The film is divided into two parts, which are strikingly different in terms of the landscapes and figures they portray. On the one hand, a male mule, a hybrid, sterile being carrying a heavy load, stuck, a flock of sheep and a woman peeling potatoes on the porch of a village house; on the other, workers going about their everyday lives in a city square, police officers, evangelical preachers, street sweepers, prostitutes and the colonial agenda that they continue to serve to this day.

TM: Do you not think it would be more generous to your audience to show the images you are referring to? In a Warburgian sense too, perhaps. Not necessarily in the film itself but in an installation, for example. I think it’s all very clearly linked in your head, but it’s not so obvious to the audience. So, without these explanations, I think we’re missing quite an interesting, well-researched, labyrinthine story, aren’t we? I just wanted to share that thought with you.

FSB: I agree and I’m planning to present my research in several different ways. Of course, as an artist in academia, I research this material and it will end up being published – my thesis will be published, but that alone is not enough. Now, when we formalise our work so that it can be presented, we have to make choices and sometimes you can shoot yourself in the foot by including too much material. The first two scenes situate you in a specific time and space, as well as identifying the main character in the story: Martim Soares Moreno[7]. This brings Iracema and this narrative (with his name only) into the story, showing how Philip II “The Pious” [1598–1621], ruling over a unified Iberian Peninsula, ordered Martim to explore and push the colony’s borders northwards to the mouth of the Amazon to expel the Dutch and French Calvinists. In other words, Brazil was founded on a religious conflict between Jesuits and Calvinists. In the book Povo Brasileiro [The Brazilian People] (1995), Darcy Ribeiro [1922–1997] says: ‘They allowed themselves the luxury of proclaiming to hold more noble motives than merely commercial ones, describing themselves as spreading Catholic Christendom to present and future peoples overseas. Their aim was to embark on a mission to save and remake the world, fulfilling the ultimate task assigned by God to white men: to bring all men together in a single Christendom, unfortunately already divided in two – Catholic and Protestant.’[8] Alencar’s novel is based on the conflict between the Potiguara and Tabajara nations, which was conveniently seized upon by the Jesuits and Calvinists later on. So, the two scenes at the start of the film are images and they refer to this work. A novel has no physical image, it stays in your head. Other images from my research appear in the film in a rather subtle manner, including a clip of the Indigenous people idealised in Pereira da Silva’s painting, but I won’t say when. As I mentioned, the film doesn’t cover every aspect of my research and nor is it intended to. The film is part of a whole and I think it includes a series of other images that it is important to comment on and that are in the script, which is made up of images and texts and will end up taking the form of a publication. But I agree with you, an installation would be a good way of combining the two. That’s what I did with my master’s research. When the book O corpo neutro [The Neutral Body][9] was presented at the group exhibition for the 8th Contemporary Photography Diary Award in Belém do Pará, it took the form of an installation: a table with objects, one of which was the book itself. The table is described in the book. The installation featured a series of other items besides the portraits that were not mentioned in the book. This medium was a good way of reconciling research and practice.

TM: Have you come across any other iconoclastic Portuguese figures who came to Brazil during the colonial period in your research? Who were they?

FSB: Iconoclastic Portuguese figures… Not in the explicit sense of the “action” against the statue of Borba Gato carried out by the Revolução Periférica collective last year, no. Maybe this destruction of images is less explicit in Portuguese culture or maybe these images – and the Catholic religion is a good example of this – are so intertwined in our culture that it is impossible to tease them out. Some of the Portuguese artists who have really inspired me and express these kinds of ideas are Pedro Costa [1958], Miguel Gomes [1972], Gabriel Abrantes [1984], Lourdes Castro [1930], Grada Kilomba [1968], João Maria Gusmão [1979] and Pedro Paiva [1977], but there is no destruction of images in their work, not like there is in Vera Cruz [2000] by Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó [1962], for example. This is an important reference for my work as it updates Caminha’s letter without images, interrupting the endless cycle of interpretations of the encounter between civilised and savages.

TM: Have you been to the Casa do Bandeirante in São Paulo? Are you aware of the project we did with Hugo Canoilas there during the 30th [São Paulo] Biennial? What is your understanding of the Casa do Bandeirante and the way in which the Bandeirante explorers are used today to explain the history of Brazil? Have there been any changes or…?

FSB: I’m not familiar with that project of yours, I haven’t seen it.

TM: It was Hugo who traced the Bandeirantes’ routes inland on several journeys, filmed them, then recreated some of the objects that are in the Casa do Bandeirante so that they could be used. He reorganised the whole display there with artefacts from the City Museum collection, adding his own films and objects he had made.

FSB: The figure of the Bandeirante is an interesting topic: I did a postgraduate course last year with Tadeu Chiarelli [1956] on the national myth of the Bandeirante and I can’t help but associate this myth with what Marilena Chauí calls a ‘founding myth’[10]. The Bandeirantes emerged in São Paulo but they quickly spread across the whole of Brazil. With the aim of unifying the country, given the rural heritage present across the vast territory and the concentration of power in São Paulo, Getúlio Vargas and later Juscelino Kubitschek [1902–1976] adopted this myth and the “March to the West” led by the Bandeirantes from São Paulo (in the late 19th century, the state of São Paulo extended as far as Goiás, covering half of Brazil…) as part of their political agenda. The city of Brasília was built at this time. In this way, the figure of the Bandeirante shifted from the local to the national level and became a symbol of the decentralisation of power from São Paulo by Getúlio Vargas. This brings us to the action against the statue of Borba Gato [1649–1718] that was recently carried out by the Revolução Periférica collective. Tadeu had a hypothesis: people don’t knock down statues of the Bandeirantes for psychoanalytical reasons. Anhanguera [Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva], Borba Gato, among others.

TM: Which statue of a Bandeirante are you talking about?

FSB: It shows Borba Gato, do you know which one I mean? It looks like a tin soldier, all hard. It’s in the Santo Amaro district. Did you hear what happened to it?

TM: It was burned, wasn’t it?

FSB: That’s right, it was set on fire. There are some impressive images of it in flames, then it was quickly cleaned afterwards.

TM: Oh! It was cleaned and now it’s back there again, right?

FSB: Yes. It’d take more than fire to destroy a statue like that, it’s made of concrete. Tadeu’s theory is that the Bandeirante is considered the father of the nation, hence this relationship, this founding myth and the inability to kill the father. There have been several other interventions since then, including those directed at the Monument to Anhanguera in Parque Trianon in São Paulo and the Monument to Pedro Álvares Cabral in Rio de Janeiro, which was made for the Fourth Centenary [of the Discovery of Brazil]. It is interesting to see how this figure has been translated from language to language, from painting to sculpture; initially, it came from literature and was mythicised in this medium.

TM: So Tadeu showed you a timeline of how the Bandeirantes were depicted in art, in the history of art.

FSB: That’s right, and this all relates to the Monument to the Bandeiras by Brecheret [Victor Brecheret (1894–1955)]. Putting the history of the monuments into context to bring us to the city of São Paulo and the very interesting concept of Bovarysme, how the elite reproduced symbols of European culture and developed the city in their image and likeness. The Monument to the Bandeiras in Ibirapuera has also been the target of several interventions.

TM: That’s the site of Jimmie Durham’s intervention…

FSB: That’s right. The course focused on the monument and its importance in the history of Brazilian art and modernism. The Monument to the Founders of São Paulo, a neoclassical sculpture next to the Monument to the Bandeiras, features in the film Labirinto. The monument was commended by the President of the Portuguese Republic some years ago and continues to commemorate the ongoing relationship between Portugal and Brazil.

TM: There’s more information on the website for the Consulate-General of Portugal:

FSB: The Monument to the Bandeiras is a good example of the conflicting narratives on Brazilian history and of how artworks are appropriated for political ends. Although the country’s economic power remains concentrated in São Paulo today, the same was true of its symbolic power in the early 20th century.

TM: In a way, your research also consolidates the link between Portugal and São Paulo, doesn’t it?

FSB: Portugal/Brazil.

TM: But the monuments you’ve mentioned here are all located in São Paulo and the film we’ve just seen also transports us to São Paulo.

FSB: That’s true but that information isn’t explicitly stated in the film. Only someone like you, who’s lived in the city, would be able to recognise it. The film straddles documentary and fiction.

TM: Is this link with Portugal and Portuguese Bandeirantes stronger in São Paulo than in Brazil’s other cities? How do you see this based on your research?

FSB: The Portuguese community in São Paulo has always been influential and it was actually involved in the dispute over the design of the Monument to the Bandeiras. This shows the importance of the Bandeirantes to the community. Although I acknowledge the relationship between the figure of the Bandeirante and this founding myth, I ended up focusing more on earlier figures. Of all the works I have studied, only Martim, the character in Alencar’s novel, fits this definition. Even then, the novel is set in the early 17th century when this term may not yet have been in use. The monuments depicted in the film evoke a founding moment for the country. A five-metre-high Pedro Álvares Cabral with arms outstretched. On the base, an inscription reads: ‘WE OWE EVERYTHING TO PORTUGAL; / OUR BLOOD, / OUR HISTORY. / THE ORIGIN OF OUR FREE INSTITUTIONS, / THE VAST SPACE WE INHABIT’[11]. At the most recent São Paulo Biennial, Jaider Esbell [1979–2021] presented his snakes, ready to attack the statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral – they were poised to strike him. I actually choose these statues, these monuments, because of their figuration, which is characteristic of neoclassical sculpture, to give a face to these figures. If we go to São Vicente, near Santos, the first town, we can see the first of these monuments, which is the monument to the founding of São Vicente [Landmark Pillar – Fourth Centenary of the Founding of São Vicente]. It doesn’t depict a figure, it shows the coats of arms of Pedro Álvares Cabral and Martim Afonso de Souza, who was the first coloniser of Brazil. Early Brazilian historians and Caminha’s writing tell us that the encounter in 1500 occurred by chance, following the theory of causality: they were heading for India and discovered this land by accident. Despite this, a series of earlier accounts indicate that they already knew there was land there. This is why Martim Afonso de Souza and his armada are believed to have been the first colonisers. Before departing, Cabral’s armada left two convicts behind. The convicts had been sentenced to exile for breaking the law and failing to pay a tax… It is possible that João Ramalho [1493–1580], considered the father of São Paulo, was one of them. At the end of Pero Vaz de Caminha’s letter, he asks the king to bring back his brother-in-law from São Tomé, where he was living in exile. Why had he been banished? He hadn’t paid a tax. In other words, exile was a form of punishment; they didn’t lock people up, they banished them. So this figure held up as the father of São Paulo, João Ramalho, may have arrived on the coast of São Paulo in the early 16th century after coming down from the northeast, where he had been left, and been accepted by the Tupiniquins. This process of integration was described by Darcy Ribeiro as cunhadismo [literally “brother-in-lawism”], an Indigenous political procedure to establish an alliance with a stranger and absorb them into their culture.

TM: Who arrived in 1500? Who was left behind?

FSB: Cabral’s armada arrived in 1500 and left two convicts behind when they left. I believe that these historical figures were very important and I would like to focus my attention on them. Convicts, or outcasts as they might also be referred to[12] (see the series of paintings by Antônio Parreiras mentioned above or the painting Os Descobridores [The Explorers] (1899) by Belmiro de Almeida), were sentenced to exile and left behind to learn the native language. As a result of cunhadismo, as Darcy Ribeiro calls it, an Indigenous political practice incorporating difference into their culture and thereby strengthening it, they became integrated into the local culture. João Ramalho married Bartira (Bartira and João Ramalho are viewed as the mother and father of the state of São Paulo) and if he was actually one of the convicts left behind in 1500, he must have been living here for 31 years when Martim Afonso de Souza’s armada arrived, making him a very important character in this story. Martim Afonso de Souza founded the town of São Vicente in 1531. As he was integrated into local society, he went on to play an important role in manipulating the native people as to Portugal’s interests in potential territorial disputes with the French and Dutch. The novel Iracema effectively portrays the alliances established with native tribes by the invaders, which are explained by 30 years of coexistence and integration. So, he was a very important character in this story. Brazilian artist Mario Ramiro and I are working on an installation called Desterro [Exile] with the argument that these characters played an important role in history and that the nation was founded on a failure to meet. I don’t know if I wandered off-topic a bit there.

TM: No, no, thank you. Thanks, Filipe.

FSB: Thank you for your interest.

TM: In your view, what are the most interesting works in either Portugal or Brazil at the moment that focus on the bicentenary of independence or on the colonialist ties between Portugal and Brazil?

FSB: That’s a good question. Currently?

TM: Whatever comes to mind, whatever you think is most emblematic or most interesting at the moment.

FSB: I’m taking a more historical approach in my research: Óscar Pereira da Silva, Antônio Parreiras, Humberto Mauro and José de Alencar…

TM: More historical.

FSB: …more historical. That’s been my focus and that’s what I’m exploring in depth. José de Alencar’s ‘linguistic emancipation’ is interesting. One example of this is the motion submitted to the Chamber of Deputies in 1936 to change the name of the language from Brazilian Portuguese to Brazilian. We know that they are different languages: different cultures have different languages. Despite this, the motion wasn’t passed and they didn’t manage to remove “Brazilian Portuguese” from the language. Haroldo de Campos [1929–2003] acknowledges the importance of Alencar, as do a series of poets, including some from Portugal. He is said to “twist the [Portuguese] language”. Alencar, one of the first to do so, was “bending the language” of the coloniser and Pinheiro Chagas [1842–1895], a literary critic of the era, emphasised his mishandling of Portuguese grammar. In the case of this author, like the others I have researched, I have focused on the context of their work rather than on aesthetic considerations in my analysis. This is why I cannot overlook the possibility that Alencar was pro-slavery and excluded Africans from his foundational fiction. Through the work of Alencar, Óscar Pereira da Silva and Humberto Mauro, I aim to reveal the context of this historical construction and the role of these representations in the process, exploring how they reproduce a stereotyped vision of the Other, the Indigenous people and Brazil, building an idyllic vision of the landscape. Antônio Parreiras is the only one to flip the perspective but my intention is not to put him on a pedestal and take his work out of context or view it anachronistically. Ultimately, beyond my research, my aim is to enter into dialogue with other contemporary artists from Portugal and Brazil who are building bridges between the two countries. For example, Tiago Cadete [1983], a performance artist who you’ve probably heard of…

TM: Yes.

FSB: …when he produces work like Alla Prima [2015], which reinterprets the poses in historical paintings, I can really engage with his work. I identify with it. He is interpreting images, rather like I do. You could say that he is reflecting upon and engaging with history. Rita Natálio’s O Museu Encantador [The Enchanting Museum] [2014, 2021] focuses on the enchantment between the two cultures, drawing inspiration from Gabriel de Tarde [1843–1904], as part of her master’s project Papagaios ao Espelho[13] [2015], where she reveals the way in which the cultures mirror one another. I find her work very interesting. Ana Vaz [1986] is a Brazilian filmmaker who made the short film Ocidente [West] [2015]. Other artists who I have to mention because they are so close to my work are Flávia Vieira [1983], Tiago Mestre [1978] and Jordi Burch [1979]. In their own way, they are all weaving relationships between the two countries in the images they create – they are artists who teach me a lot. Besides Rosângela Rennó, who I’ve already mentioned, Brazilian artists Lygia Clark [1920–1988], Hélio Oiticica [1937–1980] and Cildo Meireles [1948] are good examples of practices with a vague scope that show how this colonial history is being processed and transformed.


[1] See FLUSSER, Vilém, ‘Do Espelho’, Ficções Filosóficas, São Paulo: University of São Paulo, 1998, pp. 67–71.

[2] Editor’s note: The book in question is CANDIDO, Antonio Zeferino, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Imprensa Nacional, 1900. The following words appear on the cover, above the title: ‘Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of Brazil by the Brazilian Historic, Geographic and Ethnographic Institute’.

[3] Editor’s note: Considering the concept used by Doris Sommer in Foundational Fictions. The National Romances of Latin America, University of California Press, 1993.

[4] See ALENCAR, José de, Iracema, Ministério da Cultura do Brasil, Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, p. 5 (our translation) [ (accessed on 01/10/2022)]

[5] Ibid., p. 4

[6] Ibid., p. 55

[7] Editor’s note: In the novel, he is referred to only as Martim, alluding to the historical figure of Martim Soares Moreno (1586–post 1648), a Portuguese coloniser and founder of the state of Ceará. In the ‘Historical Argument’ section of the novel, José de Alencar bridges the gap between fiction and history.

[8] in RIBEIRO, Darcy, O Povo Brasileiro. A Formação o Sentido do Brasil, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2nd ed., 1995, p. 39. (our translation)

[9] (accessed on 05/10/2022).

[10] See CHAUÍ, Marilena, Brasil. Mito fundador e sociedade autoritária, São Paulo: Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2000.

[11] Editor’s note: According to the website for the Council of the Luso-Brazilian Community of São Paulo State, which attributes the text to Tancredo Neves. See (accessed on 27/04/2022)

[12] Editor’s note: In this part, the Portuguese version mentions the relation between two specific terms: ‘degredado’ and ‘desterrado’.

[13] NATÁLIO, Rita, Papagaios ao espelho, 2015; Dissertation for the Postgraduate Psychology Programme: Clinical Psychology; (accessed on 02/05/2022)