The Continuing Legacy of Disney Diplomacy in Brazil
Behind Clara Ianni’s latest exhibition is a thorny and intertwined network of powerful actors at the heart of the history of 20th-century art in the Americas: New York’s Museum of Modern Art, her former President (and former US Vice President) Nelson Rockefeller, The Walt Disney Company, the United States Government, and the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Titled “Education by Night” and presented at Brooklyn’s Lover Foundation until September 4, the show revisits 1940s cultural programs intended to encourage American investment and deter Nazi influence in Latin America. The São Paulo-based artist continues the dark afterglow of these initiatives, transforming propaganda into new visions haunted by extractive economies and colonial entanglements.
DISNEY IS VERY FAMILIAR to my generation. We have been consuming these films for a long time. Greetings amigos (1942), along with a few other 1940s animations, were commissioned through US government-backed loans to introduce Latin America to American audiences and to create an image of modernization alongside an image of popular culture , of a landscape with infinite natural resources. “resources” and, by extension, political relations between nations that could arise from this representation.
Written and animated for children, these films served as educational tools, shaping the conditions of perception of what can and cannot be perceived. Along with the use of military force, culture and pedagogy have been key to establishing power relations on the continent. It is interesting to consider the reception today in Brazil of the cultural production of the United States, its relevance, how it interferes with our own understanding of ourselves as Brazilians as well as our understanding of “America”. Disney’s recent acquisition of Marvel is politically significant not just for young people, but increasingly for adults, who have become overinvested in superhero movies that reduce politics to a simple binary of good and evil. What is happening in Brazil today – the rise of the right – is also based on a narrative of good versus evil. In more politicized spheres, you might hear criticism of these films in terms of globalizing influence. But in general, Brazilians see the United States as a model of freedom. This imagination is exported well.
Nelson Rockefeller, in addition to being the head of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs – developing industrial and cultural relations between the United States and Latin America – was a great collector of modern art, as well as an administrator longtime and the first president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, helped found. He donated and loaned a number of works for the 1949 opening exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo, cropped images of which appear in my 2017 video From Figurativism to Abstractionism. It shares its title with this exhibition, which considered abstract art as a universal cultural production.
In Brazil, we are always in contact with an economic system exported from the hegemonic centers, to dynamics coming from outside, to “misplaced” ideas. The work is in dialogue with this. What are the distortions and urgencies that arise through a dependent relationship? As a condition of this (to use an old term) periphery of capitalism, we often import language. We have to adapt and we have to interpret. We are bound to this linguistic regime. The exhibition talks about it.
Although there are archival documents in the exhibition (magazines, photographs, US and Brazilian government documents, Rockefeller correspondence) and appropriate in my work, they function as critical propositions, detours. They refer to historical processes, but I don’t consider the videos to be documentaries.
The animated title sequences you see in Overtures (Films made by the Office of Inter-American Affairs 1941-1949), 2022, were produced by motion picture studios with funding from the State Department and then screened in American classrooms. The educational films were made by reusing corporate images, then edited for educational purposes. My gesture was to take them apart and put them back together again, but in a different direction. Nocturnal geography, a video commissioned by Amant, interweaves a story of space junk from an American communications company that crashed in southern Brazil this year with excerpts from these class films. He reflects on the idea of geography, the way we relate to things in time and space. In night education, I use a projector and a set of wooden blocks intended as mathematical teaching tools to play with the relationship between “abstract” and “concrete”.
The exhibition deals with what is already present, how we can rearrange the existing to produce new conditions of perception, new questions and eventually new ways of feeling and understanding. The idea of starting something from nothing is an illusion. There is nothing. Things are made of other things, of bodies, of matter that we keep, that we throw away, that we transform. There is a modern idea – the tabula rasa ideology – which proposes: “There is nothing here, so let’s build a civilization.” But things are not quite like that. There are many things waiting for you.