Above: Artur Bispo do Rosário Paes. Photo: Hugo Denizart
“The mentally ill are like hummingbirds. They never land. They live two meters from the ground. ” This phrase was said by an Afro-descendant Brazilian named Bispo do Rosário - in English, “Bishop of the Rosary” - who spent several decades interned in psychiatric institutions. Bispo followed voices that told him to embroider, paste, create clothes and objects that one day, by chance, caught the attention of an art critic. Today, his work is part of the Brazilian artistic and cultural heritage, respected internationally and integrates the collection of a courageous and dynamic museum that is still little known even by Brazilians: the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea (mBrac, in the acronym in Portuguese) .
The museum is reached with some difficulty. Linked to the Health Department of the Rio de Janeiro Municipality - and not to the Department of Culture - mBrac is located a long way from the neighbourhoods that house the largest number of museums in Rio. According to Google Maps, it takes about 42 km to travel by car from the Museum of Tomorrow, in downtown. Depending on traffic, the journey can take well over an hour.
The journey is worth it, though. An afternoon on the museum grounds integrates lessons in architecture, urbanism, history, heritage and landscape. It also carries a very strong, hard, suffering emotional charge from the life of Bispo in the psychiatric institution where the museum stands, but at the same time an enormous poetic and creative force with which we connect when seeing the artist's work. A visit to mBrac, as Bispo do Rosário used to say, makes the visitor “float”.
The museum is located at the Juliano Moreira Municipal Health Care Institute, formerly Juliano Moreira Colony, a mental institution founded in the first half of the 20th century. It occupied the lands of the former Fazenda do Engenho Novo (“New Mill Farm”, in free translation), which was expropriated to implement a psychiatric treatment project then considered innovative: the recovery of “undesirables”, such as psychiatric patients and alcoholics, through work in agricultural colonies.
With the failure of the initiative, the Colony went into a process of decay, maintaining, however, the “irrecoverable madmen”, who reached around of 5,000 patients. Only with the Psychiatric Reform were procedures such as electroshock, lobotomy and long-term hospitalizations abolished.
Today, a comprehensive visit to the site (the Colony lands surpass the area of ??the microstate of San Marino, in Southern Europe: about 77 km2) includes a tour of the Historic Center, encompassing an 18th century aqueduct, portico and fountain, the former headquarters of the Farm, a church, and also the seven hospital pavilions of the 1920s built to house patients. The complex is marked by great architectural variety and is partly protected from the Brazilian historical and cultural heritage, in addition to being a reference for psychiatric medicine history in Brazil.
In order to understand the experience of visiting the museum, it is necessary to know a little who was Bispo do Rosário and what were the facilities of the agricultural colony during the time he lived there.
Artur Bispo do Rosário Paes, ex-boxer and sailor, was probably born in 1909 in the city of Japaratuba, in Sergipe, a state in the northeast of Brazil. He had his first outbreak in 1938 and was diagnosed as schizophrenic-paranoid: he claimed to have had a revelation that he was Jesus Christ and that he had a religious mission. Considered a “restless” patient, he was transferred to the Colony and housed in pavilion 10 of the Nucleus Ulisses Vianna, where, from 1964, he lived until his death. The Nucleus is described like that by the Museum: “originally surrounded by an extensive and high wall, it was formed by 11 pavilions destined to receive male, violent and agitated patients.” In addition to the wards, in each of the pavilions there was a wing without beds called a “cake”. “There, the patients were huddled on the floor and, around them, 10 strong cells - small cubicles with iron doors - kept the most agitated ones contained or isolated by punishment. They looked like real loners in the prison style: they were fed through the crack in the door and used a hole in the floor as a toilet. ” (source: mBrac website, https://museubispodorosario.com/)
Due to his strong personality, Bispo soon imposed himself, securing privileges such as refusing electroshocks and medications. He had lunch with employees of the institution and over time he took possession of other cells, transforming them into his own exhibition space, as he created incessantly. In his cell - one of the most emotionally difficult visits in the entire Colony Cultural Circuit - there are still traces of the artist's drawings.
Bispo's life as an artist began outside the Juliano Moreira Colony, in the early 1960s, in a small room in which he lived in the years he worked in a pediatric clinic. It was at the psychiatric institution, however, that he consolidated a work of about a thousand pieces developed with material from his daily life. For example, the blue thread present in his numerous embroideries came from the inmates' uniforms; and the works created by the juxtaposition of objects use cutlery, aluminum mugs, buttons, wooden fruit boxes, shoes and other materials obtained by himself or bought by friends.
According to the artist himself, his work was preparatory for the Day of Judgment, a kind of inventory of the world, when he would present himself to God with a special cloak - the Cloak of Presentation. This piece, which can be seen in the museum, has embroidered the names of people known to Bispo do Rosário, a special resource so that he would not forget to intercede for them when he was face to face with God.
Bispo do Rosário's work began to draw attention outside the Colony’s walls in the early 1980s, when a TV program about the conditions of Juliano Moreira Colony showed his work. The dissemination of his performatic pieces attracted the attention of the critic Frederico Morais, who included the artist's work in a collective at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, and subsequently set up the artist's first individual exhibition.
According to Morais, Bispo do Rosário's work is linked “to avant-garde art, to pop art, to new realism and especially to the work of Marcel Duchamp”. (source: Itaú Cultural, https://enciclopedia.itaucultural.org.br/pessoa10811/arthur-bispo-do-rosario)
From then on, work and artist were the subject of countless studies, books, films and plays. His work was listed in 1992 by the State Institute of Artistic and Cultural Heritage (Inepac); in 1995, Bispo represented Brazil at the Venice Biennale.
The Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea is responsible for the preservation, conservation and dissemination of Bispo's work and gathers a collection of more than 1500 objects, composed both of objects, clothing, banners and miniatures created by the artist, as well as works produced by patients in art therapy workshops at Juliano Moreira Colony, and the works of artists linked to Atelier Gaia (an art space within the Colony’s premises). The museum also keeps the memory of the Juliano Moreira Colony, which documentary collection can be consulted by researchers and historians.
In its four galleries, located at the Colony’s headquarters, and also at the Experimental Pole of Education and Culture (a space dedicated to educational activities), mBrac presents contemporary art exhibitions and offers online and offline educational programs for all ages. Access and activities are free.
Adopting the concept of “Expanded Museum”, the institution understands that its performance needs to dialogue intensively and permanently with the territory it occupies and that it should contribute to strengthen the bonds between users and professionals of the mental health service, the education network, the artists and the local community. MBrac sees itself as a space for inclusion, care practices and promoting coexistence.
Being a museum in Brazil is not an easy task. Permanently struggling against scarce financial resources and the little attention of local authorities, and at the same time fighting to reverse the statistics that insist that visiting museums is not a significant part of the leisure activities chosen by Brazilian population, this small museum manage to resignify and reposition itself, featuring internationally as a relevant institution linking memory and health, and offering its visitors a deep, comprehensive, aggregating, heavy - but at the same time incomparably ineffable and beautiful - “world experience”. Just as the one announced in Bispo's mystical mission.
The museum's tour itinerary covers the Historic Center and the Pavilion where Bispo do Rosário lived, as well as the Experimental Pole. Visits are mediated and carried out by appointment.
To schedule visits to the Pavilion and the Historical Center (Cologne Cultural Circuit): email@example.com
Museum’s Address: Edifício Sede da Colônia Juliano Moreira - Estrada Rodrigues Caldas, 3400 - Curicica, Rio de Janeiro – RJ. Phone: + 55 (21) 3432-2402
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Claudia Porto is a Brazilian museologist, museums activist and consultant. Teaches Social Media Strategy at the MBA Museums Management (University Candido Mendes/ABGC) and is a member of the Strategic Plan Standing Committee of ICOM – International Council of Museums.