In January 2019, far-right candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro assumed the presidency of Brazil. In his inaugural speech, he stated: “This is our flag, which will never be red. It will only be red if our blood is shed to keep it green and yellow”. 1Available at: <https://g1.globo.com/jornal-nacional/noticia/2019/01/01/em-discurso-bolsonaro-diz-que-brasil-precisa-deixarde-lado-a-divisao-ideologica.ghtml>. Accessed on November 12, 2019. In two sentences, within the first minutes of his term, the president unreservedly declared his necropolitics, antagonizing the enemy embodied in the color red.
Under his administration, the only acceptable red is that of blood. What place do life and death occupy in this new configuration, in which the militia has risen to power and we are once again witnessing the militarization of democracy? Commenting on the case of Ágata, 2Available at: <https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de janeiro/noticia/2019/09/23/entenda-comofoi-a-morte-damenina-agatha-no–complexo-do-alemao-zona-norte–do-rio.ghtml>. Accessed on March 10, 2020. an eight-year-old child murdered by a stray bullet during a police raid in Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro, vice president Hamilton Mourão declared that “the state must have a monopoly on violence.” 3Available at: <https://www.metrojornal.com.br/foco/2019/09/23/agatha-moro-rio-infeliz.html > and <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZM-2kK2-WwQ&t=149s>. Accessed on March 10, 2020. Referring to the state’s legitimate use of violence to justify the death of an innocent person reveals the rhetorical and material absurdities committed by this government.
This state and its use of a lexicon of death have deep roots in the country’s political and economic relations, extending as they do because a large section of the population endorses and enables these actions. The nation embraces and naturalizes “politics as the work of death,” a concept conceived by Achille Mbembe, in which the state’s power of conciliation is replaced by the sovereignty of the “generalized instrumentalization of human existence”, by its decisions over life and death. 4MBEMBE, Achille. Necropolítica. São Paulo: N-1 edições, 2018.
The fact is that red as violence has marked Brazil since Cabral. The country was baptized in the colonizer’s imagination. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, “the colonial conquest revealed a potential for violence that was hitherto unknown.” The most widespread theory about Brazil’s etymological roots comes from the pau-brasil, or Brazilwood tree, so named because of its red hue, which resembles burning brasas, or embers.
The country got its name from the first commodity exploited by Portugal, one of the most profitable exports in the colonial system. 5SOUZA, Bernardino José de. O Pau-Brasil na história nacional. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliana, 1939. The act of naming has the power to bring into existence; it makes objects, subjects, and emotions relatable. But naming can also be an act of conquest, of control.
Red has always been present in the Brazilian reality thanks to the tree that gave rise to the colony’s first extractivist economic cycle, destined for dyeing European fabrics. Burning embers, dripping blood – these are our red, colonial roots.
The color red was first associated with progressive politics during the French Revolution. This was the first time that a color represented a political-ideological movement, going on to become synonymous with communist, socialist, extremist, radical, revolutionary, subversive, and dissident positions.
The Russian Revolution, which in 1917 established the Soviet socialist regime, represented by the red flag with its hammer and sickle, was responsible for the international dissemination of the political red via its ideological expansion and domination of the neighboring territories that became part of the USSR. The color thus came to symbolize antagonism to capitalism, especially during the Cold War period.
We know that the communist ideal of an egalitarian society was never achieved, that the Soviet and Chinese dictatorships are responsible for atrocities. But the meaning of this political red has nonetheless been filtered down, its revolutionary legacy still operating today as a specter for the capitalist system.
Political parties aligned with progressive agendas worldwide have adopted the color due to its embedded symbolism and the desire for a “social revolution.” In Brazil, this has been the case for the use of red in the symbolism employed by the Workers Party and the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), and the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), among others – representatives of social movements and popular manifestations fighting for the rights of minorities.
In his master class “Uprisings: Images and Sounds as a Form of Struggle”, 6DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. Levantes: Imagens e sons como forma de luta. Available at: <https://www.sescsp.org.br/online/artigo/11440_MANIFESTARSE+E+UM+GESTO>. Accessed on March 5, 2020. held at Sesc Pinheiros in 2017, the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman argued that, “when the population manifests [demonstrates], they seek to take the Bastille.” The etymological root of “to manifest” comes from the Latin “manifestus,” meaning “understandable, apparent, evident,” and is formed by “manus”—hand— and “festus”—grabbed, caught. 7Available at: <https://origemdapalavra.com.br/pergunta/etimologia-531/>. Accessed on March 5, 2020. For Didi-Huberman, the word “manifest” includes “first the hands, then the arms and the entire body”, transforming the oppressed into liberated bodies that occupy public spaces, and streets and squares into arteries that flow and pulsate with their desires.
One of the first known visual representations also begins with the hand, it is also an action in red. 8MACFARLANE, Robert. Underland: a Deep Time Journey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. An open palm on the wall: ocher powder blown atop a hand, creating a negative impression, a palm wet with pigment, stamped onto stone. These cave paintings can be found throughout the world: Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France. Hands that travel through time, the same action shared by our ancestors despite the immense distances between them; the gesture of printing oneself by way of the hands, a self-portrait. It is not known exactly why there is a predominance of reds inside the caves, but the mystery of that color initiates a guiding thread through our narratives of history and art.
Red is considered the first of the colors because it is the first pigment that humans knew, manufacturing and expanding its palette into different shades, first in painting and then in dyeing. It is the color par excellence of Antiquity and gave rise to the very term “color” (coloratus in classic Latin signifies both “red” and “colored”). 9PASTOUREU, Michel. Red – The History of a Color. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.
It is the color with the greatest symbolic scope; no other has the elasticity to represent offense, transgression, and the forbidden in addition to punishment, castigation, and justice. Life and death. God who descended upon the Apostles at the Pentecost in the form of red “tongues of fire”. The Devil and his accompanying mise-en-scène: the red fire of hell, which emits a light that is more disturbing than the darkness. Red is the color of the first robes sported by the popes in Rome, worn as well by the Whore of Babylon.
Above all, it is the color of movement. From the internal flow of bodies—the bloodstream, systole and diastole—to the very movement of the universe—redshift, which physically proves that it is constantly expanding. 10Available at: <http://lilith.fisica.ufmg.br/~dsoares/cosmolg/dzdt/dzdt.htm>. Accessed on March 5, 2020. When used in images, it becomes the center of gravity, capable of pivoting narratives. Jeff Wall commented on the composition of The Storyteller, noting the decision to place a red jacket on the character in the upper area of the frame in order to create an impact. 11WALL, Jeff. Ensayos y entrevistas. Salamanca: Centro de Arte de Salamanca, 2003. The effect is not only aesthetic, but structurally interferes by making a counterpoint to the narrator’s centrality.
When creating an image, every choice, that is, every act is inevitably recorded. Image and act are entwined; it is always an act that makes an image possible. The image, in turn, always carries its act, in one way or another, imprinted on its surface (in this sense, the sensitivity of an image goes far beyond the amount of light it can process). Images are potent when the nature of this act avoids the clichés of civilization, when it avoids falling into a game of submission and domination as a means to enforce power. 12Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uvGhCgupq0&t=37s>. Accessed on March 3, 2020
This fundamental difference between potent images and images of power comes into play in a body of work that the artistic duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have developed at their Chopped Liver Press over the last decade. Broomberg and Chanarin ritualistically make a poster every month by hand-printing a phrase in red—a quote by someone else, a thought—over a page of a newspaper. The way in which the phrases they choose—their influences, their ideas—connect with the newsprint headlines creates unexpected narratives and various forms of political resistance, which in turn disarm and transform clichéd and manipulative forms of imagery and storytelling.
Not only do images carry power; so do words. In Brazil, despite historical traumas and their current sequels, art presents itself as a possible tool for working with national consciousness and generating new interpretations. The first to provide a new angle on colonial memory in Brazil was Oswald de Andrade, who transformed the pau-brasil into a manifesto and into poetry. 13ANDRADE, Oswald de. Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Jornal Correio da Manhã, 18 de março de 1924. The beginning of a Brazilian way of speaking, embracing “the million-fold contribution of all errors”, marks a radical change of attitude, for the act of updating language (which is the manifestation of the ideological superstructure) is also the liberation of the imaginary. 14ANDRADE, Oswald de. Obras completas 7 – Poesias reunidas. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1971
Oswald de Andrade’s work was one of the starting points for the elaboration of the museu do louvre pau-brazyl, which now ends the exhibitions trilogy in a third act whose center of gravity was shifted by reds. The red art works that made up the exhibition signalized an alert, an emergency, a revenge. The sidewalk was painted red—specifically, rojo indio—, and a Mestre Vermelho spread across the block. Red words in quotation marks were engraved on a subterranean wall. An electronic red emitted non-stop from windows, a newspaper made of Brazilwood leaves and sap that is a DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA in red. Red is the beginning, a mystery, and the legacy of the movement ignited by the louvre within the Louvre.
This text was originally published in the book reds (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2020) and revised in June, 2021.
- 1Available at: <https://g1.globo.com/jornal-nacional/noticia/2019/01/01/em-discurso-bolsonaro-diz-que-brasil-precisa-deixarde-lado-a-divisao-ideologica.ghtml>. Accessed on November 12, 2019.
- 2Available at: <https://g1.globo.com/rj/rio-de janeiro/noticia/2019/09/23/entenda-comofoi-a-morte-damenina-agatha-no–complexo-do-alemao-zona-norte–do-rio.ghtml>. Accessed on March 10, 2020.
- 3Available at: <https://www.metrojornal.com.br/foco/2019/09/23/agatha-moro-rio-infeliz.html > and <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZM-2kK2-WwQ&t=149s>. Accessed on March 10, 2020.
- 4MBEMBE, Achille. Necropolítica. São Paulo: N-1 edições, 2018.
- 5SOUZA, Bernardino José de. O Pau-Brasil na história nacional. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliana, 1939.
- 6DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. Levantes: Imagens e sons como forma de luta. Available at: <https://www.sescsp.org.br/online/artigo/11440_MANIFESTARSE+E+UM+GESTO>. Accessed on March 5, 2020.
- 7Available at: <https://origemdapalavra.com.br/pergunta/etimologia-531/>. Accessed on March 5, 2020.
- 8MACFARLANE, Robert. Underland: a Deep Time Journey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
- 9PASTOUREU, Michel. Red – The History of a Color. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.
- 10Available at: <http://lilith.fisica.ufmg.br/~dsoares/cosmolg/dzdt/dzdt.htm>. Accessed on March 5, 2020.
- 11WALL, Jeff. Ensayos y entrevistas. Salamanca: Centro de Arte de Salamanca, 2003.
- 12Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uvGhCgupq0&t=37s>. Accessed on March 3, 2020
- 13ANDRADE, Oswald de. Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Jornal Correio da Manhã, 18 de março de 1924.
- 14ANDRADE, Oswald de. Obras completas 7 – Poesias reunidas. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1971