Xico Chaves’ career is genuine, because, first of all, he has put his life in motion through art and then, aware of the power of politics over the deepest social structures, he has decided to include it in his life as a permanent activity, focusing on politics in its connection with culture and art. He became an activist in political organizations and started to act against the military dictatorship. It is worth providing here a brief biography.
Xico Chaves’ imagination was greatly stimulated in his childhood, when his idea of happiness began, and during adolescence, his social awareness, philosophical and poetic readings, the pleasure of creation, the hopes for a world with equality for all, where everyone could realize their own dreams and be free to think on their own and have fundamental rights. In his imagination this utopia was real, and it was shared with friends and colleagues.
He started to work for the radio station PRE5-ZYV37 at age 13, reading poems; later he took part in social movements to aid the poor in the suburbs. He was moved by the misery he found in the huts and the work of those people. As a son and grandson of teachers, he was very concerned about their education. He started to teach literacy to children and adults. He wrote poems about that and even published some of them in a spiritualist newspaper.
At age 14, he came across POLOP (Política Operária [Worker’s Politics]) magazine, a very intellectualized leftist organization. He joined the organization and took part in student politics, being elected speaker of the student council and later secretary general of the Student Union. POLOP consisted mostly of intellectuals and students, but it tried to raise awareness among working people. He used poetry and drawings to formulate a less propagandist method. He soon realized that language was a more effective way to establish dialogue, and followed that path.
In 1967, at age 18, he joined the Central Institute of Arts (University of Brasília - UnB), being elected president of the student directory in an academic restructuring project. Two months before the AI-5 [Institutional Act Number Five], he was arrested in the Congress of Ibiúna and taken to the Tiradentes prison in São Paulo, where he was detained for one week. After his release, he returned to his activities at the university, using artistic expression for student and social demands and struggles. He was elected vice-president of the students’ federation of UnB and, with the prison of the president in 1968, he became president of the federation. A year later, he was forced to go into hiding, fleeing the Military Regime.
He was a good student who got good grades and attended several courses. His student rights were illegally suspended in 1969. He was persecuted and surrounded by the repression, becoming a fugitive in Niterói, painting panels on the roadside to make money and winning prizes in song festivals with song lyrics. Then he joined another organization, the People Moviment of Liberation (MPL). He returned to Brasília and joined another university, where he studied Communication Sciences, also taking part in counterculture movements of the early 1970s. He went into self-exile in Chile of Allende to participate, as an artist, in the construction of another utopia. In his own words: “One year there was like ten years in my life.” He performed unusual artistic interventions on the streets, which disturbed some of the more conventional exiles. It has always been like that. Precisely because his political goals included art as a wider project: art-life-politics simultaneously: awareness and expression of awareness.
The military dictatorship had created a system of censorship, freedom restrictions, persecution and torture, so artists felt encouraged to react producing works that were very critical content, but very few of them turned their own lives into a broader project of political activism with artistic purposes. Among them, we can mention Xico Chaves and Ferreira Gullar, each of them, of course, doing things differently.
It is very important here to establish a difference between: 1) the artist who eventually creates one or two artworks to criticise the regime, like the works Sermão da montanha: Fiat Lux [Sermon on the Mount: Fiat Lux], by Cildo Meireles (1979) and Seja Marginal Seja Herói [Be Marginal: Be Hero], by Hélio Oiticica (1968); 2) the artist who is effectively an activist with a political-artistic project. Xico Chaves belongs to the second category, since his body of work reflects all that. For this very reason, his work should be studied under this light. His real peers are artists like Ferreira Gullar and Brecht. The latter, in particular, was a companion in ideals much more than any brazilian artist. Nelson Werneck Sodré wrote about Brecht in the preface of his book Vida e morte da ditadura – 20 anos de autoritarismo no Brasil [Life and Death of the Dictatorship – 20 years of authoritarian regime in Brazil]: “From 1933, when Nazism started in Germany, Brecht did not cease to travel, always with the Nazis behind him: from Berlin to Vienna, from Vienna to Copenhagen, from Copenhagen to Helsinki, from Helsinki to the United States […]. For him, it was all about life and struggle: theater was his weapon.” Xico Chaves acts within these parameters, in cultural management, with ideals of change, social development, governance, and empowerment of the lower classes, that historically have been deprived of any social justice in Brazil. Art is his weapon. In the audiovisual poem 7 SETEMBRO 74 [SEPTEMBER 7TH, 1974], he used numbers that form a row where they become Nazi swastikas, defining his fight against a regime that was similar to the one which exterminated the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. The militant artist at that moment was facing the same monstrosity that had reaped thousands of innocent lives during the Second World War, including children and the elderly in many concentration camps. At that moment, there seemed to be no hope. The regime was at its cruellest moment, kidnapping, killing, sending people into exile, and silencing any element which could represent a minimum threat to the order established by the Armed Forces. An extremely important document in Brasil is the book Brasil nunca mais [Brazil Never More], published in 1985, after the Amnesty Law was passed, with stories of people who lost loved ones, and of those who were brutally tortured during the regime.
It is worth listing here the titles of the six chapters of that document, just because they already tell a lot about the dictatorship: 1. Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment; 2. The repressive system; 3. Repression against everything and everyone; 4. Subversion of law; 5. A regime marked by the marks of torture; and 6. The extreme limits of torture. This document states that “torture was indiscriminately used in Brazil, regardless of age, gender or moral, physical and psychological status of the people who were suspected of subversive activities. It was not just about producing, in the victim’s body, a pain which created a conflict between body and spirit in order to make them say things that, by favouring the repressive system, meant they would be sentenced. Justified by the urgency in getting information, torture sought to morally destroy the victim through the breakdown of the emotional limits that are supported by effective family relationships. Thus, children were sacrificed in front of their parents, pregnant women were forced to have abortions, wives had to incriminate their own husbands.” This was the state of the affairs on that day, 7 SETEMBRO 74 [SEPTEMBER 7TH, 1974], when the artist wrote a poem that directly linked the regime with Nazism. We can see then that the artistic production of Xico Chaves was in sync with his political life. Producing meant to produce within a fact; more than that, it meant going beyond the fact. He was not interested only in making art that criticised the system, he needed to effectively fight against it through the intricacies of activism, attempting, as he said, “to create a method of action through art that was not too pamphleteering.”
Another difference between the artist who creates one or two political artworks and the one who attempts to define their political action as art can be regarded through the result and duration of their artworks. In general these works tend to become outmoded and even have their content changed over the course of history, as Rancière explains. In our differentiation exposed above, both kinds of artists may come across that issue. Jacques Rancière suggests that “suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification. In fact, the ideal effect is always the object of a negotiation between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning.” This kind of negotiation mentioned by Rancière can also be considered a mystery, although we are able to recognize in a work of art the moment when art devours politics or when politics devours art. However, the most important thing is perhaps to strive for a middle ground, the kind of negotiation Rancière mentions. At any rate, the work of Xico Chaves – for its characteristics of looking at the past, participation in the present, and expectations for the future – gives us elements to evaluate the work of art from a wide and universal point of view, although universality is not something his work really seeks, because his purpose is above all to achieve something in life, dialoguing on several fronts and invigorating the senses. However, this way of acting seems to be increasingly present and universal nowadays, because we understand that all of us should be involved with decisions about our planet. The degree of action has been reestablished and now involves, though social networks, citizens from around the globe.
Another fact to be clarified is that Xico Chaves was not just acting within that political context; more than that, he sought solutions based on the antidemocratic events the country was witnessing, and which reached their peak with the AI-5, in 1968. His artistic project contemplated Brazilian history in retrospect, precisely because Xico came from a family of educators from Minas Gerais, learning very early from his parents that he should help giving literacy lessons to people of all ages. His Brazil was not a country of great urban centres, it was the wilderness, it was the inside of Brazil. And on the inside there were backwoodsmen and indians. For this reason, he always gave special attention to indigenous peoples, whom he considers the most degraded by the political system: humiliated, killed, treated like animals, devastated by prejudice and hatred. Xico Chaves realised there was a tacit social agreement that the indians should be eliminated, either because their lands were wanted, or because they were too different to share the same territory. It was with indigenous tribes, because of their mythology and spirituality, that the artist sought to develop a sort of cultural synthesis. His great interlocutor at that moment was the anthropologist and intellectual Nunes Pereira, and the motto of their dialogue was his book Moronguetá – um decameron indígena [Moronguetá – and Indigenous Decameron], which describes revolutionary legends and stories from the tribes of the Amazon region, Roraima, and Rondônia. Xico and Nunes Pereira were very close friends and both discussed extensively about the roots of Brazil and the great indigenous Amazonian cosmogony that reassessed the entire mythological prose described by specialists from the Brazilian southwest.
Thus, for Xico, Brazil was not only a fact experienced in loco. It was above all a political and cosmogonic development that made this territory his genesis, as a man and as an artist.
According to Nelson Werneck Sodré: “The historical period under way, which can be called Brazilian Revolution […], has a few episodes whose sequence, in regard to cause and effect, unveils the process that would culminate with the dictatorship established in April 1964 and intensified in December 1968, with the infamous AI-5. Throughout this process, it is easy to verify the progressive actions of forces intending to destroy democracy and stop the advance of popular power in Brazil: in October 1945, August 1954, November 1955, August 1961, such efforts were made, ending in victory in April 1964, after those attempts.” Xico Chaves saw himself as part of this whole great SEQUENCE, and not only within one part of it, like the dictatorial period. If, on the one hand, he saw politics as an unfolding of periods, on the other, he saw himself as a man from the inside of Brazil who was reaffirming its cultural aspects.
After the Amnesty Law was passed, Xico Chaves turned to several directions such as visual arts, poetry, music, television, etc., among which was cultural management, connected to the Ministry of Culture through Funarte (National Art Foundation), where he developed projects with the aims of activating cultural activities throughout the country. One of those projects, a very revolutionary one, is Rede Nacional de Artes Visuais [National Network of Visual Arts] in 2004/2005, which popularized a great number of artists and teachers with the goal of promoting large scale artistic and cultural activities, according to a text written by the artist: “The Network proposed an open and diversified system, leaving audience and agents free to discuss ideas and concepts. It is not a cultural management project. It proposes another kind of presence, integrated with cultural policies. It operates with symbols and signs which form our ‘national identity’ in the field of the visual arts, mutant and heterogeneous. Those signs are points which unite and identify us, establishing a dialectics between tradition and invention.” Thus, we can see that throughout his works, Xico Chaves envisions this SEQUENCE, that should be regarded as an endless sequence of life, art, and politics.
The work of Xico Chaves has been permanently built in his daily life, that is, his artworks and his life are complementary and indissociable. Moreover, there is another fundamental point: politics. Thus, the art-life-politics trinomial is at the core of his activities. A series of questions come up our minds: how to carry out this project? Would it be possible to combine those segments? Are not art and politics incongruous? And how could the artist make use of this intersection? These are just a few questions we could ask around Chaves’ project, placing ourselves, however, in a field that has been extensively discussed. Anyway, Xico Chaves is committed to art and politics, as if in fact it were not possible to exist without being involved with those actions. For him, life seems to gain momentum with these activities. Yet, he sees no difference between them.
According to Jacques Rancière: “The core of the problem is that there is no criterion for establishing an appropriate correlation between the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics. This has nothing to do with the claim made by some people that art and politics should not be mixed. They intermix in any case; politics has its aesthetics, and aesthetics has its politics. But there is no formula for an appropriate correlation.” In Brazil we have seen this inevitable mixture, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Brazilian dictatorship was in its most damaging phase. Anyway, we should observe that “commitment is not a category of art” as Rancière argues, and that, with very few exceptions, our artists were not committed; they have produced a few political artworks as a form of criticism of their context and rarely any of those works endured outside that sequence of events.
Alberta Saraiva, 2013 (Xico Chaves, F10 Publisher)