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Belo Horizonte: Culture brews from below

A thriving alternative scene occupies buildings and streets in one of Brazil’s largest cities. Tom Gatehouse takes us on a tour

June 16, 2014
9 min read

Liberty SquareCelebration after a Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square) building is given to the mining community to commemorate their history (Governo de Minas Gerais)

Culturally and politically, Belo Horizonte has often been overshadowed by two neighbour cities in Brazil’s southeast: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, probably the most influential Brazilian poet of the 20th century, spent his youth in Belo Horizonte, and complained of its ‘backwardness’ compared to São Paulo and Rio. He called his hometown ‘Cidade do Tédio’ (‘City of Tedium’): provincial, conservative, hopelessly unfashionable. According to popular legend, the mineiros (people of the Minas Gerais state, of which Belo Horizonte is the capital) are conservative: family-oriented, financially prudent, suspicious of outsiders. Drummond de Andrade relocated to Rio in 1934 and never looked back.

The city has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the places from which the 1964 military coup was launched. Minas governor José de Magalhães Pinto met with army and police chiefs in Belo Horizonte on the eve of the coup. They published a statement advocating President João Goulart’s forcible removal from power, and the next morning, six thousand troops left the city for Rio, where they would march two days later unopposed. Goulart had fled to Porto Alegre in the south where there were troops still loyal to him, but he realised he was outnumbered. Preferring to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, he went into exile in Uruguay.

If Belo Horizonte was the birthplace of the coup, it was also an important centre of resistance to military power, especially among students. In 1968, students at the philosophy and human sciences department of the Federal University held a clandestine meeting in the basement of the faculty building. The police were tipped off and the students quickly found themselves surrounded.

Rather than give themselves up, however, they de-activated the building’s elevators, mounted barricades on the staircases, and began launching objects at the police from the 7th and 8th-floor windows. Eventually the siege was lifted, thanks to the intervention of the faculty director, and the students were allowed to leave. This incident, as well as similar confrontations at the law and medicine faculties, has become symbolic of the unity of Belo Horizonte’s academic community against the repressive apparatus of the dictatorship.

Subversive lyrics

 

Another pocket of resistance during the dictatorship period was the Cantina do Lucas, in the Edifício Maletta. Frequented by local musicians, writers, actors, filmmakers, students and political militants, the Cantina do Lucas was and remains an important centre for discussion of alternative ideas. One of its waiters, Seu Olímpio, was a card-carrying communist who assisted activists and militants who were being pursued by the military authorities, hiding them in the toilets or backrooms of the bar whenever police came knocking. He died in 2003, but the Cantina do Lucas remains open. The Cantina and the Edifício Maletta in general remain popular with the city’s creative types.

Santa Tereza, in the east of the city, is also worth a visit. Belo Horizonte’s peculiar brand of radicalism is very much entwined with its cultural production, particularly of music, and Santa Tereza has been at the centre of this. It is the birthplace of Clube da Esquina, a famous musical collective founded by Milton Nascimento and the Borges brothers in the 1960s. The group fused traditional Brazilian musical styles with global influences, combined with poetic lyrics that engaged with Brazilian social and political realities, often in veiled form – a subversive act during the days of the dictatorship.

The Clube da Esquina days may have passed, but the influence of the group on Santa Tereza is still apparent, particularly at Marilton’s Bar, a bar and music venue owned by Marilton Borges, brother of Lô and Márcio, two of the collective’s founders.

Meanwhile, in nearby Santa Efigênia, last October an artists’ collective occupied an old hospital building on the Rua Manaus, with the intention of founding a cultural centre. Despite some initial resistance, the government granted the use of the building for the next 20 years.

It is now the Espaço Cultural Luiz Estrela, named after a homeless poet and LGBT activist who was murdered in downtown Belo Horizonte last June. The building is in bad need of renovation, but still the collective has managed to organise concerts, plays, circus shows, workshops, language classes, seminars and debates. The collective has the support of the wider community and the building’s renovation is being paid for entirely by crowdfunding. The initiative has also drawn attention to the dangers faced by Belo Horizonte’s large homeless population.

An artists’ collective in the Santa Efigênia neighbourhood occupy a building to form the Espaço Cultural Luiz Estrela (Flickr: Ninja Midia)

A DIY ethic

Where Belo Horizonte’s radical streak can best be seen is in the streets. This is the place where the city’s striking mix of cultural ingenuity and political consciousness is most apparent. In 2010, for example, the city government passed a decree forbidding the use of the Praça da Estação – a large square in front of Belo Horizonte’s central station – for public events.

The response? ‘Praia da Estação’: a day at the beach, a good 400 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds took to the square dressed in bikinis and swimming shorts, complete with towels, deckchairs, beach brollies and cool boxes. When the authorities refused to switch on the square’s fountains, a water tanker was called to spray down the ‘bathers’.

Praia da Estação has been repeated every summer since, and is now local tradition. It was also politically successful: in 2011 the city government passed the ‘Lei da Praça Livre’ (‘Free Square Law’), permitting the organisation of small events in the city’s public spaces without the need for a license.

Day at the beach‘A day at the beach’ annual gathering in a public square (Flickr: overmundo)

Some other events which have also drawn large numbers to the streets are the emcee battles beneath the Santa Tereza viaduct, the ‘Virada Cultural’ (24 hours of music and events at stages across the city) and, most of all, Belo Horizonte’s growing carnival. Historically, Belo Horizonte is not a city with much of a carnival tradition. Until recently, in fact, nothing much used to happen. Shops and bars closed. Those who could afford to travelled elsewhere, while others watched the celebrations on television. But this has all changed. Belo Horizonte now has a vibrant and successful carnival which draws crowds of hundreds of thousands and is growing in popularity every year.

While none of these events have any explicit political agenda or party-political association, they can all be seen as part of a wider trend in Brazil based on a kind of democratic, DIY ethic towards cultural production and performance, a healthy disrespect for established authority and perhaps most of all, the attachment of a positive value to public space. This latter principle is especially important.

Brazil is a country in which urban public space was, and remains, disrespected by governments, exploited by private interests, and more often than not, simply neglected. As a result, it has taken on some very negative connotations in recent decades, tending to be seen as the refuge of criminals, addicts and the homeless. The recent street movements in Belo Horizonte are a part of an attempt to change these perceptions and to rehabilitate public space, in opposition to prevailing market logic. This, I think, is an inherently radical gesture. Perhaps the mineiros aren’t quite so conservative after all.

Places mentioned in this article

• Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG)

Avenida Presidente Antônio Carlos, 6627 – Pampulha.

• Cantina do Lucas and the Edifício Maletta

Avenida Augusto de Lima, 233 – Centro. The Cantina is Shop 18.

• Marilton’s Bar

Rua Quimberlita, 205 – Santa Tereza.

• Espaço Comum Luiz Estrela

Rua Manaus, 348 – Santa Efigênia.

• Praça da Estação

Avenida dos Andradas, 201 – Centro. The ‘Praia’ happens annually in January. The old station building is also home to a museum dedicated to the history of Brazilian art, crafts and labour.

Other points of interest

• Praça da Liberdade

Once the home of the state government, all the old buildings surrounding the square have been renovated and converted into museums. In particular, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil has been excellent recently, with large exhibitions on Brazilian social and political history.

• Mercado das Borboletas

Avenida Olegário Maciel, 742, 3rd floor – Centro. A cultural centre, nightclub and music venue, dedicated to stimulating and encouraging local artistic production. The project is also concerned with sustainable business ventures that preserve local history and culture.

• Bar do Orlando

Praça Ernesto Tassini – Santa Tereza. One of the oldest bars in town, it tends to attract a younger crowd than Marilton’s. Not a music venue but that doesn’t stop people playing music in the square outside.


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