ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews José Eduardo Ferreira Santos about the Acervo da Laje, a museum in the periphery of Salvador, Brazil.
José Eduardo Ferreira Santos is a pedagogue, curator and the founder of Acervo da Laje. He holds a Master’s degree in Psychology (UFBA), a PhD in Public Health (UFBA), and a post-doctorate in Contemporary Culture (PACC – UFRJ).
Luigi Galimberti is Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London, and a Board Member (Non-Executive Director) of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies.
Luigi: What is the Acervo da Laje?
José Eduardo: The Acervo da Laje is a space of aesthetic and artistic memory in the peripheries of Salvador, Bahia. It occupies two houses in the neighbourhood of São João do Cabrito, Plataforma, an area long seen as dangerous due to poverty and violence.
In order to understand what is the Acervo da Laje, one needs to understand that, in Brazil, the spaces of museums, memory, and art are always located in the centre of cities, while most of their populations live in the peripheries, where there are no such spaces, for the memory of these territories has been constantly erased from the history of the country, thus making hegemonic narratives prevail.
Many artists in the peripheries spend their lives producing without getting acknowledgement or visibility during their lifetime. These narratives are responsible for erasing the history of people living in the margins and denying them even the visibility of their artistic works.
In 2011, following the suggestion of sociology professor Gey Espinheira, and after a research conducted together with photographer Marco Illuminati, my wife Vilma Santos and I started to buy works of those artists and exhibit them in the laje (concrete slab) of our house so that people could get to know the art that is produced in the peripheries. After a short period, we were able to gather a considerable collection of artworks and historic artefacts from the pre-historical era of this territory, including those made by the indigenous people that were exterminated, our black ancestors that were enslaved and restarted their lives here in peripheral territories, quilombos, and candomblé fields, passing through collections of fragments of British porcelain, Portuguese tiles or torture instruments.
The Acervo da Laje is an experience that collects life, art, and resistance, which the periphery has always known how to put in practice through the most creative ways of existing within adverse situations. There is a crossroad of narratives that end up meeting in time and space, always provoking new discoveries and readings of the peripheral territory as a space of potentialities, histories, memories, and elements that compose the human history to which the peripheries also belong irreversibly, due to the power of art, memory, and culture.
Popular culture owes nothing to the academic or established culture.
Luigi: Whose history are you preserving and to whom are you speaking?
José Eduardo: Brazil suffers from a lack of memory, or from the pain of losing memory. This might be one of our most violent and dispersive roots. It is not by chance that we recently lost the fifth largest collection in the world after the fire that severely damaged the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Due to negligence, we lost ancestral narratives.
What we try to do at Acervo da Laje – which is a house, a museum and a school – is to surface these peripheral memories through their fragments, works and poetics, in addition to promoting an encounter with the public. This work builds on research, teaching and exhibition. We believe in the idea of a living museum, of the experience lived in environments whose existence was considered impossible.
The Acervo da Laje is born from exclusion, because, if each neighbourhood in the city had a space of memory, there would not be museums only in the centre of the cities. These museums do not establish a dialogue with the peripheries and most of these collections do not dialogue with most of the population.
There is also the underlying conception that people going to museums compose a specific audience, in which the peripheral population does not fit, due to institutional and selective racism that still prevails in Brazil, while surreptitiously dictating and selecting who is supposed to attend such spaces.
Luigi: What future would you like to see for the Acervo and its local communities?
José Eduardo: I deeply wish the Acervo da Laje to broaden its potentialities as a house, museum and school, and also that we have resources to keep on with the activities, showing that people- and community-oriented initiatives need to be respected, valued and funded for us to have a more plural, diverse, inclusive and ethical world, because the existence of a museum in the periphery is a political act, an act of resistance.
We also wish that children, adolescents, and young people in general, who are the main target of violence and drug dealing, become the continuators of this work, whether as guides, librarians, museum scholars, curators or archivists of Acervo da Laje, so that people from these communities are able to work with culture and be recognized and paid for doing so.
We also intend to establish conventions and partnerships with universities and private institutions, both national and international, which can support our endeavour of persevering in the task of preserving invisible narratives and memories that have finally reached the surface and will no longer be silenced.
Luigi: What are the limits of action of a museum, particularly as a driver for political and social change?
José Eduardo: Our work as a museum is of seminal nature; it is a pioneering experience, one of the few currently existing in Brazil. For this reason, faced with the constant flow of visitors and the activities developed, we are educating a population that is starting to leave a mentality of welfare dependency in order to become a protagonist of their own histories and narratives, because the museum is also a space of power, dialogue, education, and acknowledgement of self in history.
By working with memory, we strengthen ourselves to face the here and now, but it also projects us towards a more critical and proactive future. In this sense, we must recall that this work is made by Vilma Santos, the first black woman founder of a museum in the periphery, Leandro Souza, a cultural producer and inhabitant of the periphery, and myself. If we are able to mobilize thousands of people around the Acervo with the work of only three people, what would we be able to do if we were more consistently structured?
The stronger we get, the stronger the communities get as well, because they start to realize that it is possible to change history and become resistance.
Luigi: What were your thoughts when you saw the images of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro burning in flames?
José Eduardo: As a Brazilian, I firstly shed tears, but then I remembered that moving forward with the actions of Acervo da Laje is an act of resistance that also means rebuilding the symbolic mosaic of our memories. Following that event, an even greater flow of people started to visit the Acervo, because, as incredible as it might seem, many Brazilians ignored the existence of the National Museum.
The commotion that took over the social networks lasted less than a week, which confirms that memory is an element that needs to be stimulated in schools, universities, and in the daily life of Brazilians. The institutions in charge of our memories need to be more valued because the funds destined to museums are pitiful when compared with the grandiosity of what these collections preserve.
José Eduardo Ferreira Santos, Curator and Founder, Acervo da Laje