Brazilian Rioters Damaged Modernist Masterpieces as They Stormed Government Buildings in Nation’s Capital

Brazil has released a list of the artworks that were damaged as thousands of protesters stormed government buildings in the capital of Brasília to protest the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was sworn in on January 1.

The country’s former leader, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, has falsely claimed that Lula had stolen the election and questioned the legitimacy of Brazil’s election systems; he also has refused to concede the election. Despite there being a lack of proof to support his claims, Bolsonaro, who fled to Florida prior to Lula’s inauguration, goaded his followers into rioting on Sunday, in events that recall the January 6 insurrection in the U.S., led roughly two years earlier by pro-Trump demonstrators.

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On Sunday night, around seven hours after the events began, all of the protestors were cleared away. Meanwhile, government officials around the world, including U.S. President Joe Biden, condemned the protests. Lula himself vowed to punish the “neo-fascists” who led the protests.

As was the case with the January 6 riot in the U.S., a chaotic scene ensued in which protesters descended on the Palacío do Planalto (where Brazil’s President works), the National Congress, and the Supreme Court. Along the way, the protesters defaced artworks and may very well have hurt the buildings themselves, which were designed by Oscar Niemeyer, an iconic modernist architect.

The government is still assessing damage done to the artworks, although according to Folha de São Paulo, Brazilian officials expect to be able to restore all but one of the objects: a clock by Balthazar Martinot that had been given by France to King Dom Joao IV during the 17th century. Rogério Carvalho, a curator in charge of the art at the Palacío do Planalto, said it was going to be “very difficult” to bring the clock back to its original form.

Other artworks are believed to have weathered significant distress. Mulatas (1962), a painting of a group of women lounging on a seaside balcony by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, a leading Brazilian modernist, was punctured a couple times. The painting, which is held at the Palacío do Planalto, is worth at least $1.5 million, according to the Brazilian government.

Also at the Palacío do Planalto, Jorge Eduardo’s Bandeira do Brasil, a 1995 painting of the Brazilian flag hanging above the building, was “found floating on the water that flooded the entire floor, after vandals opened the fire hydrants installed there,” according to the Brazilian government’s announcement.

Meanwhile, sculptures by Bruno Giorgi and Frans Krajcberg were partly broken, a Marta Minujín sculpture was thrown, and the glass of a Sérgio Rodrigues table was damaged.

At the National Congress, a stained glass window by Marianne Peretti and paintings by Victor Brecheret and Guido Mondin were among the works listed as having been vandalized.

“The value of what was destroyed is incalculable because of the history it represents,” Cavalho said in a statement, adding, “From an artistic point of view, Planalto certainly has one of the most important collections in the country, especially Brazilian Modernism.”

On Twitter yesterday, Bolsonaro said that the “destruction and invasions of public buildings, like what occurred today,” was not acceptable, but he stopped short of decrying the protests altogether.

As to the buildings themselves, it’s known that protesters set fires within the National Congress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was opened in 1960, when Brazil’s national government moved to the newly created capital from Rio de Janeiro. Experts with the government are still assessing damage to the Niemeyer structures and to the artworks held within them.


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