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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Malcolm K. McNee


Performances and Pedagogies of Landlessness in Theater and the Plastic Arts

Introduction: What and how does Landlessness mean?

The MST is giving shape to an affective, cultural identity - Landlessness - that mediates much of the cultural heterogeneity and symbolic production of diverse communities in Brazil. Performing and plastic arts are two fields of creative expression in the movement through which MST activists are defining and negotiating Landlessness as a cultural identity.   The plays, dances, paintings, and sculpture produced by MST activists and the process of cultural canon formation through the selection of these texts for circulation and consumption in the movement produce a set of markers of identity.  These markers help us to understand Landlessness as an identity beyond a simple material or structural condition defined literally as the lack of access to land as the means of production and social reproduction in the countryside.  How do cultural producers of the MST attempt to construct an affirmative Landless identity through class, ethnic, regional, aesthetic, spiritual, historical/temporal, gendered, and philosophical referents, among other possibilities?   One of the endeavors of post-colonial and cultural studies is the exposure of the tension between singularity and plurality and that dogs attempts, including both populism and nationalism, to (re)construct cultural identities as fulcrums of social transformation.   How does the MST, as revealed within, for example, its plays and paintings, navigate that tension?  That is, how does the movement’s artistic production portray Landlessness as a centralizing, purist discourse and Landlessness as a decentralized, pluralist category of mediation of multiple dimensions of marginalized difference?

Beginning to approach the symbolic production of Landless identity through an overview of performing and plastic arts, my analysis will draw from two theoretical concepts that explore the relationship between cultural identities, artistic production and counter-hegemonic political subjectivities.  First, the notion of ìrevolutionary romanticism,î as defined generally by Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre and further developed by Marcelo Ridenti more specifically to narrate the sort of apogee of nationalist-populist cultural politics and production of leftist artists, intellectuals, and movements of the 1960s in Brazil.   Löwy and Sayre reject the largely reductionist connotations of romanticism as naive, idealist, backward-looking and lacking any political realism - meanings sustained by both capitalist and anti-capitalist advocates of a stage-theory modernization exclusively defined by positivist, instrumental rationality.  Instead, they propose a more complex typology of romanticisms, spanning attitudes and political projects ranging from restitutionist/monarchist to fascist to utopian revolutionary.[1]   They offer further analysis and typology of revolutionary romanticisms[2], understanding them as different articulations of a critique of capitalist modernity through a remembrance and valorization of the past.   This past, differently recalled by the different articulations of revolutionary romanticism, is viewed as pointing toward a more just, egalitarian, and humanitarian future.   Revolutionary romanticisms propose alternative modernities based upon (the reinvention of) ìpastî or ìdisappearingî values and traditions.  These lost or threatened values are identified by the authors as including, for example, community, gratitude, charity, harmony with nature, work as art, and enchantment with life.  (Ridenti 2000, 60). 

In the context of Brazil, Ridenti argues that revolutionary romanticism is a key dimension to many artists and movements that mark the country’s twentieth century cultural history.  For example, Brazilian modernist writer Oswald de Andrade proposed in the late 1920s that the nation could overcome the legacies of colonialism through a cultural subjectivity he called the ìtechnologized barbarian.î   That is, through a conjugation of the radical, otherness of Brazil’s pre-Eurocentric cultures with the technological advancements of industrial modernization, Brazilians could break free of cultural and economic dependency and arrive at an emancipatory, utopian, and truly post-colonial future.  During the early 1960s, artistic currents closely associated with a Marxist analysis of social reality and thus self-identified as the inheritors of illuminist reason - for example, the Teatro de Arena, the Popular Centers of Culture, and Cinema Novo - actually shared a number of characteristics of romanticism.   According to Ridenti:

ìThey proposed in-dissociation between art and life; they were nationalists, as they valued the historical and cultural past of the people; the sought out popular roots that would serve to mold the future of a free nation, to be constructed - a genuinely Brazilian utopia, placing art at the service of causes challenging the present order.î  (57)

Therefore, my readings of the symbolic production of Landless identity will focus on tracing the re-articulation and transformation of the philosophical and aesthetic legacies of Brazilian ìrevolutionary romanticismî.  How does the fusion of a romantic search for popular roots and the illuminist ideal of progress find expression in performance and plastic arts in the MST?

Secondly, in an attempt to clarify more precisely the degrees of transformation through the MST of the Brazilian nationalist-populist articulation of such revolutionary romanticism that punctuated the intellectual/cultural fields of the 1960s, I will focus on the relationship between genre, canon formation, and the notion of cultural democratization.  Among the focus of (self-)critiques of the various manifestations of leftist political and cultural activity of the 1960s in Brazil was the nearly exclusive privileging of the People and the Nation as emancipatory subjectivities.   Due to the loading of discursive power into these two floating signifiers, the production of meaning of any subaltern (thus ìpopularî) group or individual was often recognized or recognizable only as national allegory.  Arguably, in the context of the rise of Third-Worldism and the de-colonization struggles that marked the 1960s, the People and the Nation might be defended as the moment’s necessary ìstrategic essentialisms,î to use Gayatri Spivak’s term.   However, it has since largely been recognized that their relatively monologic (in)definition through middle-class, intellectual vanguardism tended to muffle other dimensions, complexities and ambiguities of subaltern difference and potentially emancipatory subjectivities.  In the more extreme cases, it led to the patronizing, authoritarian dismissal of the dynamics and values of local, popular cultures and knowledges except as raw material to be re-made by an enlightened, tutelary, revolutionary vanguard.   This was a moment of pedagogical discourses of the popular and the national that largely overshadowed or erased the performance of those and a multiplicity of other identities.

Therefore, in order to understand the transformations of this populist-nationalist legacy in the cultural production of the MST, I will attempt to re-frame it within the tension between pedagogical and performative discourses of counter-hegemonic identity, first proposed by Franz Fanon and later re-visited by Homi Bhabha.  In considering the construction or narration of a collective, counter-hegemonic identity - Landlessness - that is taking place in the MST, in part through recourse to the identitarian monoliths of the Nation and the People, the dialectic between the pedagogical and the performative can help us to estimate the degrees of grassroots, participatory democratization of Brazilian revolutionary romanticism that the movement is achieving.  Bhabha defines the performative in the words of Fanon:   it is ìthe fluctuating movement that the people are just giving shape to.î  He continues:

ìThe present of the people’s history, then, is a practice that destroys the constant principles of the national culture that attempts to hark back to a ëtrueí national past, which is often represented in reified forms of realism and stereotype.   Such pedagogical knowledges and continuist national narratives miss the ëzone of occult instability where the people dwellí (Fanon’s phrase).î  (152)

That is, the collective identity of people in movement is constantly defined and re-defined through the de-centralized, performative dimensions of their being in movement, in the micro-histories of the present.  People are, but they are not only, what they are told they are.   Pedagogical discourses of identity attempt to provide stable, fixed images and narrations of who and how people should be (in order to be, say, Brazilian or male or Black or Christian, etc.).   The notion of the performance of identity allows for the recognition of the power of people to constantly re-create and redefine the meanings of those identity.  In terms of cultural production, the tension between the performative and the pedagogical is akin to the distinction that Teixeira Coelho draws between cultural action and cultural fabrication.   While cultural fabrication emphasizes and values a finished product, a stable text, cultural action privileges the process of cultural production, and the conditions of participation of individuals in that process.

In the case of the MST, the cultural construction of Landless identity involves both pedagogical and performative discourses.   Landlessness, in its cultural, affective dimensions and meanings, can be better understood by attention to the dialectic between the more centralizing, pedagogical, linear narrations of the History of the Brazilian peasantry and the movement itself and the more decentralizing, spontaneous, performative cultural manifestations of activists that give to and take from Landlessness meanings from and for their quotidian identity and their personal and family histories.  In what follows, I will argue that this dialectic between the pedagogical and performative representations/constructions of Landless identity operates differently within and between different genres and practices of cultural production in the MST, from the mística to theater, from mural painting to collage.

Performing Arts

Performance, the uses of the body in determined natural or human environments to consciously create meanings that transcend their immediate function and location in terms of time and space, is at the very essence of the construction of Landless identity.  The MST’s most well-known and practiced tactics of direct action - the cutting of fences, the occupation of unused farmlands, public buildings and plazas, the protest marches in two orderly columns, the raising of flags and crosses, and the gestures of strength and defiance incorporating the tools of peasant work - all have developed a sort of theatricality, sometimes solemnly religious or even militaristic[3], sometimes joyfully carnivalesque.  These genres of performance have become quite familiar to Brazilian society at large, although their mediation through the fragmenting gaze of television and newspapers largely has attempted to reduce the transcendent meanings to a select few:   violence, disorderliness, chaos, and lawlessness.  Apart from the common marginalizing socio-economic conditions that face the Landless across Brazil, these controversial tactics are perhaps the most centralizing dimension to their collective identity.

In addition to these types of collective and explicitly politicized mobilizations, the MST has been a significant site for the development of other performance genres, including the mística, dance, and theater.  These genres are obviously quite different in nature than the repertoire of direct action tactics cited above.  They are spaces and moments for reflection upon the conditions leading to and the meanings of those other dramatic actions, connecting them to the quotidian realities lived by activists both before and after their entrance in the movement.[4]

The Mística

A debate on federal agricultural policy in Brasília in April 2001 led by one of the MST’s most prominent, national-level organizers, João Pedro Stedile, was opened by a short mística that drew the connection between education, sustainable rural development, and food security for the country.  Before the panelists took their seats, young activists silently laid out two rows of multiple, alternating copies of two MST publications - a biography of Paulo Freire and a collection of drawings and essays by Landless children celebrating the movement’s 15th anniversary - forming a green and white path on the floor.  Then, as one activist read a poem by Pedro Tierra[5], others slowly walked the length of the path carrying handmade baskets filled with the ìproducts of agrarian reformî - other books, jars of preserves, cartons of milk, packages of organic seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables, bouquets of flowers - that they then set down to form a colorful altar.

The mística in this sense refers to a specific genre of symbolic production that has developed and spread along with the spatialization and territorialization of the movement.   Themística has its origins in the types of ritual developed by Base Ecclesiastical Communities, that through their practice of Liberation Theology opened a space for the symbols and narratives of the local communitiesí cultures and histories. The MST uses similar forms of ritual performance to open its collective events and meetings - whether on occupations or at national-level congresses.  The místicas are solemn moments for reflection on meanings and directions the Landless share or are constructing together.   The místicasmay include many or just a few performers.  They may involve the incorporation of any combination of props, such as the movement’s iconography - the flag, t-shirts, wide-brimmed straw hats or red baseball caps -, agricultural tools such as hoes and sickles, the reading of a poem or the performance of a song, choreographed gestures, the placing of flowers or symbols of the movement’s accomplishments - fruits, milk, vegetables, bread, seeds, books, etc. - in areas of the fixed or improvised performance space.  Sometimes the místicas are elaborate explorations of a particular theme such as education or organic agriculture, homages to certain moments or figures that ground the MST as historical continuity, or representations of local, state, or regional cultural identities and traditions.   Other times they are more simple, involving a careful placement of evocative objects as a sort of offering or momentary alter, accompanied by a reading of a poem, performance of the movement’s hymn or the national anthem, or, in Landless communities whose organization is more grounded in Liberation Theology or another strong religious identity, a prayer or passage from the Bible.

During the National Week of Brazilian Culture and Agrarian Reform, a more eleborate mística involving at least thirty participants opened a discussion on the composition of the mass media and entertainments industries in Brazil and their presence in and representation of rural communities.  The performance was divided into two parts.  During the first part, to a soundtrack of English language pop music, a number of activists costumed as urban youth in baggy hip-hop or revealingly tight funk carioca fashion, as sensationalist television hosts, as advertising industry executives, as Uncle Sam, etc., paraded and danced around the stage with oversized props representing the penetration of transnational, urban-based youth culture and consumerism into the Brazilian countryside:  MacDonald’s hamburgers, Nike sweatshirts, televisions broadcasting MTV, CNN, and Globo, Marlboro cigarettes, and handguns.  The spectacle was then interrupted by a line of young activists, wearing straw hats and red MST t-shirts and marching with their fists raised.   The soundtrack changed to a live, acoustic viola caipira (peasant guitar), and the marchers were followed by more performers representing different manifestations of ìtraditionalî or ìpopularî culture from Brazil:  the boi bumbá (or dancing bull), saci (a one-legged, pipe smoking, Black trickster of Brazilian folklore), mamulengo puppets, Lampião (a social bandit who led an outlaw campaign against landowner and government authoritarianism in the Brazilian Northeast interior during the 1930s), capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance form), musicians, as well as examples of paintings and handcrafts.  This entourage of bearers of Brazilian popular culture eventually drove off the stage the representatives of the culture industry and then led the public in singing the Brazilian national anthem, asserting a connection between the National and the Popular against the threat of continued cultural imperialism.

The mística as a genre of symbolic production in the MST reveals the tension between performative and pedagogical dimensions.  It is a cultural manifestation that stresses centralizing symbols of Landless identity and history - the MST and Brazilian flag, anthems and slogans, references to religious and military solemnity and discipline, relationships between individuals, nature, and property, etc.  However, it is a form that invites local participation and adaptation, allowing for the expression of cultural differences that exist within the movement through the incorporation of ethnically or regionally specific clothing, music, foods, and folklore and the exploration of the immediate themes or conditions faced by a particular grouping of Landless activists.   Certainly, more thorough, comparative documentation and analysis of the uses of the mística throughout Brazil, in different regions and contexts - occupations, settlements, congresses, etc. - would lead to a more precise hypotheses regarding its pedagogical and performative dimensions as a cultural practice in the MST.

It is important to note that Mística is also a term used in the MST in a much broader sense than this specific genre of meaning production.  The MST, in the formulation of a cultural politics for the movement led by the Culture Sector, adopts an inclusive rather than exclusive definition of culture, drawing upon the work of Alfredo Bosi and Raymond Williams, among others. Bosi, a literary critic and cultural historian, in his quite monumental contribution to Brazilian cultural historiography, The Dialectic of Colonization  (A dialética da colonização), traces the material dimensions of culture, through the word’s land-related etymology.

The word culture is derived from the Latin verb colo, meaning I live, I occupy the land.   It is also derived from the past tense form, cultus, that has two meanings:   that which was worked on the land, cultivated; and that which was worked below ground, occult, burial of the dead, ritual in honor of ancestors.  Cultus is a sign that the society that produces its food already has memory[6].

Ademar Bogo, for example, one of the founders and main theorists and poets of the MST’s culture sector, defines the movement’s cultural politics by reference a broad notion of popular culture.  Bogo’s definition of popular culture reveals similarities with the revolutionary romanticism described by Ridenti, as it ties the search for roots - the connection to the past - with the building of a new future:

ìPopular culture uses symbols, feelings and the spoken word tied to concrete action.  It is connected to signs in order to be materialized in historical knowledge.  Culture, in its anthropological definition is ëthe combination of ways of being, living, thinking, speaking of a given social formation.í [Bosi’s definition]   Thus, its expansion takes place less in written form than in oral, visual, sentimental forms, etc.; thus, we believe in this cultural resistance of the refuse of capital, as a determining factor for the re-taking of the struggle for the land, in the search for the re-tying of physical and sentimental roots.î (Bogo 21)

Further evidence of this broad notion of culture was displayed during the National Week of Brazilian Culture and Agrarian Reform, a series of cultural events and debates organized in March 2002 by the MST Culture Sector and Rio de Janeiro State University.  For example, in a plaza on the university campus, Landless activists built a brick oven and demonstrated the traditional method of making manioc flour and tapioca cakes.   The oven became a sort of hearth, around which people spontaneously gathered between other events to tell stories and jokes or recite poems.

The more general notion of the mística in the movement similarly encompasses a broad range of activities that might be generally understood as conscious symbolic production that gives meaning and direction to individual and group affiliation in the movement.   The mística, in addition to the specific form of cultural production described above, thus can refer to a significant dimension of the organically rooted organizational philosophy of the MST, apparently differentiating it from the traditional left movements, where class solidarity was exclusively prioritized and defined by rational interests, largely rejecting the spiritual, the affective, the transcendental dimensions to human behavior in and commitment to struggles for social transformation.[7]

Theaters of the Oppressed

It is likely that the first experiences with different forms of theater in MST communities derived from the more elaborate practices of the mística, in which representations of landmark events in the history of the movement or of peasant resistance in Brazil are choreographed.  There are also multiple, local experiences of popular festivals and religious celebrations - such as the previously mentioned boi-bumbá (dancing bull), casamento caipira (peasant wedding), carnival, and the Passion play - that involve staging, costume, narrative, dialogue, and choreography, generally constitutive elements of formal theater.

Through the initiative and interest of groups of Landless activists, a number of new experiences with theater have developed on particular land reform settlements, some with support in the form of training and resources from outside groups and individuals.  For example, in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, two settlement-based theater groups were formed and entered into partnerships with secretaries of culture, drama professors, and professional theater groups.   The Life in Art Theater Group (Grupo Teatral Vida em Arte) was formed in 1998 by 16 farmers, ages 12 to 32, from the Rondinha Land Reform Settlement in Jóia, Rio Grande do Sul.  After its independent formation, the group began a series of workshops with a professional actor supported by the Rio Grande do Sul State Secretary of Culture.  With the objective of developing the critical and creative capacity of the participants and arriving at a collectively authored text and performance, the eight month-long series of workshops involved body awareness exercises, improvisational games, set and prop design, and the research and adaptation of texts, gestures, and objects expressive of the daily reality of the settlement.  In April 2000, the Life in Art Theater Group performed its first authored play, Return to the Earth, a drama incorporating carnivalesque elements of popular theater, such as stilts, banners, and a musical narration It was performed for their own community, on the Rondinha settlement, with MST activists and farmers from nearby settlements also in attendance. Return to the Earth explores the lives of a number of individuals who, dispossessed from the land, find each other in an urban plaza.  There is a father desperate to find his runaway daughter who is considering turning to prostitution, a young man struggling to get by as a street vendor, and another that decides that dealing drugs is his best option for survival.  As they reflect upon their circumstances in a difficult and dehumanizing urban context, they begin to realize that by returning to the countryside they may be able to re-construct their dignity, hopes for a better life, and respectful relationships with others.

In Paraná, through a partnership with the International Festival of Londrina (FILO), 17 farmers aged 12 to 60 from the Dorcelina Folador Land Reform Settlement in Arapongas began a series of theater workshops with Bya Braga, theater professor from Belo Horizonte, and Adriano Moraes, of the FILO organizing committee.  A result of these workshops, which began in December 2001, was the performance for the May 2001 FILO Festival of Our Bakery, which they described as a theatrical exercise drawing on the lived experience of the MST farmers as well as German dramatist Bertolt Brecht's play The Bakery. The original text dramatizes the struggle for daily survival of urban unemployed gathered around a neighborhood bakery.   The MST group appropriated Brecht’s play as a starting point, or re-writeable text, to portray the difficult reality of the rural settlement and the relationship between newly settled Landless and the re-established rhythms of nature, of planting and harvesting.   The group also drew on familiar elements of rural, popular culture, such as the Festival of the Dancing Bull (boi-bumbá) and the more quotidian maté ritual (roda de chimarrão).   Through innovative staging involving a tractor and trailer, the group realized their desire to take theatrical practice outside of the fixed theater - an infrastructure rarely available to rural populations - and bring it to other land reform occupations and settlements, where the land itself becomes their stage. 

In 2001, the MST’s national-level Culture Sector began an ambitious partnership with the Rio de Janeiro-based Center for the Theater of the Oppressed (CTO-Rio). While the two theater projects above represent relatively isolated, local initiatives of Landless communities that have achieved a certain stability with the formalization and maturity of their land reform settlements, the MST-CTO partnership has begun to develop a theater project as a means of dialogue and cultural expression to be spatialized and territorialized throughout the movement along with its other organization and direct action strategies.  The project began with a series of workshops directed by dramatist/activists from the CTO-Rio, including its artistic director and founder, Augusto Boal.

The Theater of the Oppressed is a set of theatrical exercises, games and dramatic forms developed by Augusto Boal and individuals and groups with whom he has worked over the past three decades.  They are meant to promote awareness of one’s social situation, individual attitudes and how our beings and bodies are bound by different levels of oppressions.   Intended for use by both actors and non-actors, the Theater of the Oppressed most famously has been employed to empower marginalized communities and groups, including prisoners, slum-dwellers, domestic workers, developmentally and physically disabled, minorities, etc.  These groups are trained in the techniques of the Theater of the Oppressed to explore and resolve the sources of their oppressions.

The workshops focused on training nineteen activists from fourteen states in the methodology of the Theater of the Oppressed.  Over the course of the workshops, the activists formed the Patativa do Assaré National Brigade of the Theater of the Oppressed.[8]   The goal was for those activists to then return to their settlements and camps to form local theater groups.   The project has taken off quickly and, like the mística, has the potential to become one of the genres of symbolic production that significantly define and interrogate Landlessness as a cultural identity.   As the Patativa do Assaré National Brigade declares in a collectively authored manifesto:

ìAnd from this seed of resistance have sprouted 8 beautiful and strong groups spread across the four corners of the country, and many others in formation, denouncing oppression wherever it might be and showing that art is politics, that it educates, mobilizes and helps to transform.î (Patativa do Assaré National Theater Brigade of the MST 2002)

The methodology, know as Forum Theater, developed by Boal and the CTO-Rio and appropriated by the MST Culture Sector activists, is particularly important in evaluating the pedagogical and performative dimensions to this cultural project. While clearly grounded in a commitment to exploring political problems and individual and collective actions for confronting the micro- and macro-physics of oppression, Augusto Boal attempts to carefully distinguish his methodology from ìpropagandaî theater or plays that contain an explicit, pedagogical message, with actors telling an audience how they should act or behave.  In Boal's estimation, propaganda theater is authoritarian and, ultimately, by generally offering a packaged resolution to the problem presented and reinforcing the passive spectatorship of the audience, does not lead to any sort of real social change.  Forum theater, in contrast, resists what Boal sees as the enclosure of theater by presenting a problem, stopping, and then inviting audience members to take the stage, to take the place of the protagonist in any part of the play and act differently, attempting to resolve the problem by improvising changes to the script.  Thus, spectators become what Boal calls ìspect-actorsî, and theater becomes a rehearsal for action in real life.  Boal’s guiding vision is the decentralization of theater through the participatory democratization of access to the means of theatrical production, emphasizing the potentially emancipatory dimensions of the practice or process over the fixed message of a text or final product.  In a written introduction to the partnership with the MST, he further defines the aesthetic dimensions of Theater of the Oppressed.  Boal’s statement on the creativity imposed by poverty attempts to turn on their head pervasive critiques that the overt politicization of art inevitably leads to a poverty of aesthetics:

ìAnd our aesthetic?

We have to keep in mind that the Image is Language and, as such, can reinforce or contradict the language of the word.  In order to use it well, we have to insist upon a precise characterization of the Aesthetic Space, and upon the ideological presence of hot objects, with the use of basic, disposable or recyclable elements.

Our Aesthetic takes into account the fact that, due to the poverty of our means, we are condemned to creativity.î  (Boal 2002) [9]

The MST Brigade combines this vision with a specific intention of exploring and constructing new dimensions of Landlessness as an identity of cultural resistance.   It also has begun a reflection upon the distinction between theater within the context of a social movement and professional theater, as well as the aesthetic dimensions to a politicized art.   In two recent manifesto/artist statements, the activists write:

ìWhen we conquer the techniques and the magic of the theater, we put together and take apart the portrait of our own history, and thus, we create the resistance necessary to continue in a struggle that is more human, more conscious and more and more with our own face.   When our body expresses with levity and strength our ideals and values, we affirm even more our LANDLESS identity.   Every day creating more elements to reaffirm who we are, what we do and in what we believe.î (Patativa do Assaré National Theater Brigade of the MST 2002)

ìOur theater is different from professional and academic theaters.  Our objective is not an aesthetic of perfection, and we do not represent what we are not.  We incorporate into our scenes this quotidian experience of struggle against authoritarianism, discrimination and social marginalization, because this is the site of our speech, and we are aware that if we do not speak of this, nobody will do it for us.   Thus, this is our aesthetic:   incorporation of the precarious as a constitutive element in a dynamic universe of conflicts, denunciation of the extreme condition of misery to which Brazilian peasants are subjected.î   (Bôas 2002)

A level of pedagogical discourse runs through this project, as evidenced in this last declaration’s relative delimitation of the themes to be represented - misery, authoritarianism, discrimination, social marginalization - and the identification of the artistic subjectivity or voice as that of the peasantry.  There is also a question of the extent to which the scripts pedagogically guide the ìspect-actorsî to a particular resolution of a particular problem.  However, like the mística, the form of cultural production offered through the methodology of the Theater of the Oppressed, in particular that of Forum Theater, is open to limitless variations informed by local aesthetic traditions and social realities and different subjective voices that can speak to oppressions that arenít necessarily to be reduced to the question of class.   It is a form, in particular given the space it allows for improvisation and public participation in defining and attempting to resolve questions, that lends itself to a horizontal, grassroots, performance of Landless identity in addition to a vertical teaching of Landless identity.

For example, in Porto Alegre, during the second annual World Social Forum in February 2002, the MST/CTO partnership introduced to the public, in addition to the original Patativa do Assaré National Brigade, three locally formed Theater of the Oppressed groups:  the Mário Lago[10] Group from an occupation in the state of São Paulo, Ocuparte from a settlement in the state of Espírito Santo, and Velho Chico[11] from Ceará.  The four different groups presented quite different plays.  Patativa do Assaré explored the difficulties of a small-scale dairy farmer in negotiating a fair price for his milk in a market dominated by a multinational commodities firm, the Italy-based Parmalat.   Velho Chico addressed the relationship between popular culture, which it broadly defined in the form of cordel (a form of rhyming, oral poetry traditionally identified with the rural Northeast), and the issue of genetically modified crops.  Mário Lago and Ocuparte both represented questions of gender-based oppressions within poor families, one rural and one urban, including the patriarchal division of education and work opportunities, alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, sexual abuse and incest.  All of the groups drew upon different elements of humor, popular music and dance and defined the performance space with carefully designed props that evoked the aesthetics of precariousness referred to above.

Again, like the mística, the Theater of the Oppressed in the MST is a project to be further studied, as a form of cultural production that, as it travels and is reproduced, will reveal both a pedagogy and a performance of Landlessness as a cultural identity and artistic subjectivity.

Plastic Arts

Preliminary documentary research on the plastic arts in the MST, including painting, sculpture, and utilitarian and decorative crafts reveal this to be a rich form of cultural expression for the Landless communities.  It is a very diverse and decentralized field of artistic activity in the movement, drawing more on local or individual creative practices and, compared with theater and the mística, defying a more unifying characterization based upon a generic analysis.   However, individual works present a number of themes and symbols in common, many of which recall the worldview of revolutionary romanticism described by Ridenti:  a connection between traditional values and lifestyles and a collective project of ambitious social transformation, a conjugation of past and future utopian visions.   The paintings depict the peasantry as subject with clear objectives, defiantly approaching barbed wire fences, the landscape as a constant source of meaning, contrasting barrenness and exuberant fertility, a harmonious balance between female and male protagonists, and a dreamlike, magical vision of life and nature.

For example, an unsigned and untitled oil painting displayed in the MST’s Brasília offices, is a head and shoulders portrait of three peasants, their expressions serious, their eyes revealing a strong determination, the physicality and dignity of their work inscribed in the lines of their faces.  An additional element solidifies the meaning of this social realist portrait:  a string of barbed wire crosses the painting.  Within this painting there is a presentation of a social ill:   the enclosure of the peasantry, presented here almost as an incarceration, by the fences of private property.   There is also a proposal for action to resolve that ill: the figure in the middle is clenching the barbed wire with two strong fists, and the viewer is narratively left with the sense that the peasants are prepared to pull down the fence. 

An unsigned collage/painting from Espírito Santo displayed during the National Week of Brazilian Culture and Agrarian Reform is much more enigmatic but equally powerful.  Reminiscent of surrealist collage, this intensely personal work draws on an eclectic set of images celebrating both the natural environment and the human desire for its transcendence, through spiritual and technological invention and faith.  Images of animals, a martyred saint, and the fiery take-off of a space shuttle emerge from an intense, green wash of rainforest.  The work seems to express a wonder for nature and human endeavor.   However, it simultaneously implies a contrast between technology and nature, with a foreboding sense of a destructive alienation of humanity from both nature and spirituality.

The potential difference in these expressions of revolutionary romanticism from that of the predominantly middle-class, urban-based, intellectual and artistic movements of the 1960s and their pedagogical representations of an exploited and potentially revolutionary peasantry, is the degree of self-representation, more based upon the lived experiences and symbolic universe of poor, rural communities.  For example, this includes a stronger element of (predominantly Christian) religiosity than the 1960s intellectuals generally allowed for.   However, does this question of representativity inevitably transform into a very thorny one of authenticity?   That is, who has the right to represent Landlessness, and, even, who has the right to be Landless?   These are questions that opponents of the MST rhetorically employ in attempts to disqualify it, criticizing the leadership as disconnected from the actual goals and worldview of the individuals and families that make up its activist base and, more precisely, attempting to disqualify the urban poor from inclusion in agrarian reform projects (while in parts of Brazil, the MST has organized among poor, peripheral urban communities).

If the plastic arts so far documented have something to teach us, it is the fluidity of Landlessness as an identifying marker.   I thus resist the move toward biography as the best strategy for analyzing cultural production in the MST.   However, in order to read the multiplicities and complexities of meaning in individual works, much more information is needed on the individual artists, their experiences and creative practices both in and out of the movement, and the contextualization or positioning of their individual works within relevant local, regional, national traditions of cultural expression.  This research is yet to be done, and the individual works so far documented - exhibited in MST state offices, the Agrarian Reform Store in São Paulo, or during the recent Week of Brazilian Culture and Agrarian Reform in Rio de Janeiro - are shrouded in relative anonymity, most of them without a title or year, and many of them unsigned, or signed only with a first name.

Mural Painting

A field of the plastic arts that has developed a bit more cohesively and offers different opportunities for interpretation as a genre and as an emerging body of work in the MST is mural painting.   Murals in the movement have become a significant presence marking regional- and national-level congresses, and as such they have been more consistently documented and photographed.   Apart from their content, as catalogues of markers of Landless identity, their history as a genre and the conditions of their production and placement in the movement can tell us a great deal about the cultural politics and production of the MST.

Muralism, during and following its revival in the context of revolutionary Mexico, was regarded as an important, culturally democratizing form of public art.  Its accessibility to a wide audience - in terms of its location outside of the privatized or semi-privatized spaces of the museum, the gallery, and the individual collection and in terms of the decipherability of its overtly allegorical and Manichean content - is the basis for the genre’s commonly regarded revolutionary, anti-bourgeois nature.  As one of its greatest practitioners and advocates in Mexico, David Alfaro Siqueiros, declared in a 1923 manifesto:

ìWe repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property.  We proclaim at this time of social change from a decrepit order to a new one, the creators of beauty must use their best efforts to produce ideological works for the people; art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction (which) it is today, but should aim to become a fighting educative art for allî   (quoted in Rochfort 1993, 6).

Stressing their accessibility to and representation of the People as the vanguard expression of cultural democratization, mural projects spread across Latin America over the subsequent decades, including Brazil.[12]   Apart from the celebration of the people as the protagonists of a modern, nation-building project, muralism in many of its manifestations was also regarded as a spiritual endeavor, in this sense a romantic narration of the modernization drastically transforming society.   The Mexican painter and critic often noted as the ideological precursor and theoretical proponent of Mexican muralism, Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964, better known by his adopted Nahuatl name of Dr. Atl), admired the murals of the Italian renaissance not so much as a model for a social, pedagogical art.  Instead, in the frescoes of Michelangelo and Leonardo he found his conception of spiritualism and spontaneous energy in art, which he considered to be the basis for a Mexican modernism.  (Rochfort 18).  The murals of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1979-1990) also reflect the genre’s strong connection to the spiritual and radical humanist dimensions of revolutionary romanticism.  These works, many of which were systematically destroyed following the military and electoral defeat of the revolution, bring together Christian and social-realist iconography, and they represent the force of Liberation Theology in defining the aesthetics of a particular moment of radical social transformation.

These legacies help to define the historical and aesthetic context within which muralism has developed as a significant form of cultural production in the MST.  A review of these murals reveals a consistent set of markers of Landless identity that are closely tied to the radical humanism and spirituality of revolutionary romanticism:  a dichotomy of quickly identifiable elements of human emancipation and oppression - abundance versus hunger, sharing versus greed, education versus illiteracy, guns versus tools, etc.;  the People - men, women, peasants, workers, families, even children - as the protagonists of History; pastoral harmony between human and natural environments.   Liberation Theology is a clear source of inspiration and iconography for this work, and many of the murals are produced in co-operation with individuals from the Movimento dos Artistas da Caminhada (Movement of Artists of the March), a lay group of Christian artists/activists that acts in solidarity with social movements in Brazil.  These murals are a relatively more pedagogical and centralizing cultural production of Landless identity.  Given their monumental scale and their privileged location at congresses or settlement buildings, their very existence is a tribute to the territorialization of the movement.   Like murals in the other contexts briefly described above, they represent revolutionary romanticism as it achieves (or is absorbed by) a relatively high level of institutional power.[13]

This understanding of muralism as a more clearly pedagogical than performative production of Landless identity is a point upon which to draw a general conclusion on cultural politics and production in the MST.   What seems vital in understanding the dynamics of symbolic production of Landlessness is the recognition that both modes of representation, the pedagogical and the performative, are present.  Neither mode can fully displace the other in a social movement and collective project of the scale of the MST.  The tensions in the MST at an organizational level between the stability afforded by centralized institutionalization and the grassroots energies sustained by a vertical decentralization are partially revealed by the movement’s diverse modes of cultural production.  The plastic and performing arts, as growing fields of cultural production in the MST, reveal complex dynamics of symbolic production and identity construction.   They are cultural processes through which a diversity of people learn to be Landless and Landlessness learns to become a diversity of people with a fundamentally human desire for creative self-expression.

[1] The authors propose six types of romanticism:   restitutionist, advocating the restoration of a medieval past; conservative, seeking to legitimate and maintain the present social order, based upon a supposedly natural socio-historical evolution; fascist, combining a critique of capitalist rationality with a condemnation of liberal democracy and communism, glorifying force, submission of the individual to the community, and nostalgia for a mythic past of conquest and violence; resigned, lamenting modernity but recognizing it as an inalterable fact; reformist, proposing certain reforms to rescue disappearing values; and revolutionary or utopian, that seeks to achieve a new future, in which humanity is able to re-establish a selection of qualities and values lost to modernity, a goal which necessitates the radical critique of the capitalist economic system. (Ridenti 2000, 28-29)

[2] The further sub-division of revolutionary romanticisms includes:  jacobin-democratic; populist; utopian-humanist socialism; libertarian; and Marxist.   (Ridenti 2000, 29-30)

[3] For a brief, anthropological analysis of the rituals and symbols of the MST, see Bonin and Kersten, 1993. 

[4] In an article that contrasts the personal trajectories of two Landless activists, Marcelo Carvalho Rosa concludes that ìthe essence of the MST in actuality is made of this complementarity - perhaps contradictory - between common people and political activists, between the quotidian and the spectacle.î   (84)

[5] The penname of Hamilton Pereira (1948), author of a number of collections of poetry, including:  Poemas do povo da noite (Poems of the People of the Night) (1978), Água de rebelião (Rebellion Water) (1983), Passarinhar (Songbirding) (1993).

[6] Bosi, quoted in Caldart and Kolling 2000, 2.

[7] For more on this general understanding of mística,, see the collection of essays published by the MST, Mística:  Uma necessidade no trabalho popular e organizativo (Mística:  A Necessity for Popular Organization (1998), including Ranulfo Pelloso’s ìThe Force that Animates Activists,î Ademar Bogo’s ìHow to Improve our Mística,î and Leonardo Boff’s ìTo Nourish our Mística

[8] The theater group’s name pays homage to the poet and lyricist, Antônio Gonçalves da Silva, known as Patativa (a Brazilian songbird) do Assaré.  Born in 1909 to peasant parents in Assaré, Ceará, he has become one of the most widely known representatives of a form of oral and chapbook poetry common to the Brazilian northeast.   His work often treats the hardships, injustices, and symbolic universe of peasant life.

[9] Boal has written extensively on the development of Forum Theater and other methodologies of the Theater of the Oppressed in a number of different countries and contexts.  See, for example, The Theater of the Oppressed (1979), Games for Actors and Non-Actors (1992), and The Rainbow of Desire (1995).

[10] Named in honor of the poet, actor, lyricist and activist from the Rio de Janeiro, Mário Lago (1911-2002), whose work includes a number of sambas, marches, foxtrots, and tangos as well as eleven books of poetry and memoirs.

[11] Reference to the nickname of the São Francisco, a major waterway running through a number of Brazil’s northeastern states.

[12] Brazilian muralists who have achieved national and international recognition and commissions include: Cândido Portinari (Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, Brasília, etc.), Athos Bulcão (Brasília), and Francisco Brennand (Recife and Salvador).

[13] This institutional power is more often represented by the Church, the State, or the Political Party who provide resources and designate the public spaces for this type of public art.  For this reason, despite its popular, revolutionary content, a number of critics view it as largely a paternalistic, centralizing genre.   See, for example, Octavio Paz’s assessment of the Mexican muralists ([1978] 1993) and Nelly Richardsí critique of the Brigadas Muralistas led by Francisco Brugnoli and the Brigada Ramona Parra in Chile from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s (1986).   While both critics effectively point out the limitations of this conception of cultural democratization , I would argue that they fail somewhat to appreciate the genre’s contribution to the debate and amplification of the notion of cultural democratization.   While today, that notion is understood in terms of participatory access to the means of cultural production, as opposed to simply changing the representational modes of a privileged artistic class, muralism might be understood as an important step in that direction.


Barcellos, Jalusa. CPC da UNE: Uma história de paixão e consciência.  Rio de Janeiro: Nova Frontera, 1994.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London: Routledge, 1992.

_______. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.

_______. The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy. London: Routledge, 1995.

Bôas, Rafael Villas.  ìO Teatro do Oprimido no Acampamento Nacional Eldorado dos CarajásMetáxis: A Revista Internacional do Teatro do Oprimido no. 2 (forthcoming, 2002).

Bogo, Ademar.  O MST e a cultura:  Caderno de formação n° 34.  São Paulo: Associação Nacional de Cooperação Agrícola, 2000.

Bonin, Anamaria Aimoré and Márcia Scholz de Andrade Kersten. ìO significado dos ritos e símbolos para o movimento dos sem-terra: Abordagem preliminar.î In Agricultures et paysanneries en Amérique Latine: Mutations et recompositions, ed. Thierry Linck. Paris: Éditions de l'Orstom, 1993.

Bosi, Alfredo. Dialética da colonização. São Paulo:  Companhia das Letras, 1992.

Buarque de Hollanda, Heloisa. Impressões de viagem, CPC, vanguarda e desbunde: 1960/1970. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Brasiliense, 1980.

Caldart, Roseli Salete and Edgar Kolling. ìConstruir o Método para Impulsionar a Revolução Cultural no MST: Elementos de estudo e debate.î Unpublished paper presented during the Reunião da Coordenação Nacional - Região Sul, Chapecó, Santa Catarina, March 21-23, 2000.

Coelho, Teixeira. O que é ação cultural. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1988.

MST. Mística: Uma necessidade no trabalho popular e organizativo:  Caderno de formação n° 27. São Paulo: Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - MST, 1998.

Patativa do Assaré National Theater Brigade of the MST. ìOccupy, Resist, Produce.î Metáxis: International Magazine of the Theater of the Oppressed. Forthcoming, 2002.

Paz, Octavio. Essays on Mexican Art. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.

Richard, Nelly. Margins and Institutions: Art in Chile Since 1973. Melbourne: Art and Text, 1986.

Ridenti, Marcelo.  Em busca do povo brasileiro:  Artistas da revolução brasileira, do CPC à era da tv. Rio de Janeiro:  Editora Record, 2000.

Rochfort, Desmond. Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.

Rosa, Marcelo Carvalho.  ìEspetáculo e cotidiano:  Pequenas vozes na luta do MST.î Cultura Vozes 3 (May-June 2001).

Williams, Raymond. ìCulture is Ordinary.î In The Politics of Culture: Policy Perspectives for Individuals, Institutions and Communities, ed. Gigi Bradford, Michael Gary and Glenn Wallach. New York: The New Press, 2000.


November 2002

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