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Belo Horizonte: The Cradle of Brazilian Design

From a 1,000-hectare art park to massive street murals, Brazil's industrial capital thinks outside the box.

Instituto Inhotim

Art plays in the big league at Instituto Inhotim, as seen in Hélio Oiticica’s 1977 work Invenção da cor, Penetrável Magic Square # 5, De Luxe.

It’s early on a Friday evening, but Chá Comigo, a funky teahouse on a quiet residential street in Belo Horizonte’s Santo Antônio neighbourhood, is already buzzing. I’m here to meet Paige Rezmorah, an actor and performance artist, but I walk right past him, drawn instead into this maze of rooms filled with tchotchkes and art. Housed in a former bakery, the place is packed, writers and artists clacking away at their laptops, genteel elderly ladies taking their tea and a boisterous wedding reception spilling out onto the terrace. It feels a bit like a casa de vó, your grandmother’s house – if granny were an ageless bohemian with an open-door policy.

Record player and Paige Rezmorah

Left to right: Turning the tables at Chá Comigo; actor and performance artist Paige Rezmorah.

When Rezmorah finds me in the crowd he says, “Chá Comigo is a good example of new Belo.” As we sit down next to the turntable, where patrons are encouraged to throw on their own vinyl selections, I admit that I’m surprised to find the city so… lively. I’ve travelled extensively in Brazil and even lived here for a spell, but never gave much thought to Belo Horizonte, best known as the commercial hub of the country’s mining industry. Home to 5 million people, Brazil’s third-largest city and the state capital of Minas Gerais has long lived in the shadows of its more glam cousins, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. But that’s changing.

Laura Damasceno, the owner of Chá Comigo; the patio at Damasceno’s tea house.

Left to right: The patio at Damasceno’s tea house; Laura Damasceno, the owner of Chá Comigo.

“People are creating things we didn’t have before,” Rezmorah says as he pours me a cup of tea and offers to share his slice of velvety, housemade chocolate cake. An abundance of new galleries, nightclubs and performance venues is sprouting up. Some spaces even combine all three, like the Mercado das Borboletas (Butterfly Market), a complex of artist studios, bars and party spots housed in a derelict former market building that, when I swing by, feels more like Berlin than Brazil. Former mansions and government buildings in central Belo have been converted into the Circuito Cultural Praça Liberdade, a top-rate museum district, full of innovative exhibits. And young chefs trained abroad are returning home to spice up the local food scene.

Between bussing tables, Chá Comigo’s owner, Laura Damasceno, stops by and grills Rezmorah on the experimental theatre piece he’s about to present in Rio. Damasceno spent seven years as an arts journalist for Brazilian television, including a stint with MTV, before opening the teahouse. “I wasn’t going to open a place just to serve food and tea. It had to be a cultural space where people could do their own thing,” she says. In the past, Belo’s brightest creative types would move to Rio or São Paulo, but increasingly they’re choosing to stay. “For me, it’s very exciting to watch and be part of the transformation of the city.”

cheese balls and Edifico Niameyer

Left to right: Digging in deep for the deep-fried cheese balls (bolinhos de queijo) at Bar Oco; Edifício Niemeyer still makes waves 56 years after its construction was completed.

I spend an afternoon strolling the lively shopping and nightclub district of Savassi. Set against a distant backdrop of avocado-coloured mountains, it has an urbane, European vibe. I pop into the upstart galleries Damasceno suggested. Quartoamado, the nerve centre of Belo’s burgeoning street-art movement, has a vision that goes far beyond the four walls of its walk-up space. Its interventions are visible across the city – massive, eye-popping murals taking over the neglected surfaces of viaducts and building facades, often in cooperation with city hall and local businesses. One of its most striking projects is the remodelling of a 90-room hotel, the Ramada Encore, each floor brightly executed according to a different musical theme. “The city could be better if we gave our walls something to say, and reflect what the people are thinking,” Bernardo Biagioni, the gallery’s founder, tells me. “A city without graffiti is like a city in silence.”

Oscar Niemeyer’s Igreja de São Francisco de Assis in Pampulha

Oscar Niemeyer’s Igreja de São Francisco de Assis in Pampulha.

In the lush suburb of Pampulha, the architecture does the talking. “This is where it all began – the modern Brazilian style,” says Renata Hanriot as we walk up a hill draped with gardens to the Museu de Arte da Pampulha. Framed by blossoming ipê trees, their magenta flowers strewn across the grounds, the two-storey concrete and glass structure manages the dual feat of appearing to be an organic part of the landscape while levitating gracefully above it.

Hanriot, an architecture guide, takes me inside; I stand speechless for several minutes. A sequence of alabaster ramps zigzags to the second floor; columns covered in stainless steel reflect the light from outside. Pink-tinted mirrors along an entire wall seem to enlarge the room, imbuing it with an otherworldly glow. Through the windows and across a lagoon, I see three equally iconic buildings – a chapel, a yacht club and a dance hall – all designed as part of the first solo commission given to a young Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1943. “Pampulha signalled the birth of a uniquely Brazilian form that would shape our country’s sense of modernity and style,” Hanriot tells me as we circle Niemeyer’s São Francisco de Assis chapel, its undulating roof riffing on the nearby mountaintops. For architecture buffs, the entire site feels canonical, like a place of pilgrimage.

Bernardo Biagioni; art at Museu de Arte da Pampulha

Left to right: Bernardo Biagioni, the founder of the street-art gallery Quartoamado; fresh-off-the-press art at Museu de Arte da Pampulha.

When dinner calls, I head over to the posh district of Lourdes. I sit down on the farmhouse-style veranda at Trindade, where chef Felipe Rameh’s interpretations of classic regional dishes offer another kind of history lesson. A Minas Gerais native, Rameh honed his craft at prestigious kitchens in São Paulo, London and Barcelona. But it was his stint at San Sebastián’s Michelin-starred Mugaritz that was the most formative. “I learned not to rely so much on technique, but to respect tradition and the integrity of ingredients. Here in Minas the availability and quality of fruits, meat, coffee, cheese, even cachaça, are probably the best in Brazil.” Trindade reinvents local comida mineira (hearty comfort food with such staples as beans and cured pork) as lighter, contemporary soul food. Take the humble coxinha. The croquette, filled with shredded chicken, has long been my go-to Brazilian street food, even if it goes down like a fried glob of glue. Rameh’s version is something different – perfectly balanced inside and out, savoury and intensely satisfying. “The thing about Belo now is, people are more confident to try new things and experiment, and not just with food,” he says. “It’s hard to describe what makes it so special, but it’s a younger city without the same rules or expectations as Rio or São Paulo.” He looks away for a moment, then asks, as a sort of clue, “Have you been to Inhotim yet?”

Doug Aitken’s sound installation Sound Pavilion (2009)

As seen at Inhotim: Doug Aitken’s sound installation Sound Pavilion (2009).

Picture a dark room, a maze. Shards of broken glass tinkle underfoot as I make my way through a patchwork of obstacles – crowd-control tape, barbed-wire fencing, a wooden gate. At the labyrinth’s centre is a giant ball of cellophane lit from above, all the layered, transparent sheets rendered opaque. Called Através (Through, in Portuguese), this haunting work by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles is just one of the installations scattered across the botanical gardens, tropical forests and sculpted landscapes of Instituto Inhotim.

Troca-Troca by Jarbas Lopes (2002)

Troca-Troca by Jarbas Lopes (2002)

This trippy, 1,000-hectare art park, about 50 kilometres from Belo, is likely the world’s most ambitious and beguiling cultural project. Map in hand, I style a route along the stone trails of this transfixing interplay of art, nature and architecture. The collection – it includes pieces by Olafur Eliasson, Chris Burden, Vik Muniz and Canada’s Janet Cardiff – reads like an anthology of highlights from the past half-century of contemporary art, much of it monumental in scale, interactive in style and thought through with a sense of place in mind. “Most museums want flashy architecture on the outside and blockbuster shows inside,” says Rodrigo Moura, director of art. “Here you have this different kind of fabric for the art-viewing experience. The way the works are distanced from one another, and in relation to nature, creates a unique sense of timing and rhythm. One work activates or illuminates the next – they’re in dialogue.”

Galeria Adriana Varejão (2008)

Galeria Adriana Varejão (2008)

Wandering around the sprawling grounds, you might catch a glimpse of the visionary behind it all, the mining magnate Bernardo Paz. If Brazil boasts a colourful history of dreamers building ambitious things in places they probably shouldn’t – say, an opera house in Amazonia, or a futuristic capital in the country’s remote interior – then Paz deserves a place in the pantheon. There is perhaps a whiff of Fitzcarraldo about him: Paz has been known to declare of his empire of art, “It’s going to last forever, for 1,000 years!”

At sundown, I return to one of my favourite works, a set piece of monolithic colour blocks by Hélio Oiticica, a founder of 1960s Brazilian conceptualism. In my head, I’m already making up excuses to return – a day is not enough to take it all in. Almost everyone I’ve met in Belo has visited multiple times, and the impact it’s had on the city’s current renaissance is unmistakable. It reminds me of something Damasceno told me: “Being at Inhotim makes me feel like nothing is impossible and that a logical sequence of facts and ideas is not always the best way to communicate or express things.” It’s a licence to dream big. For Belo, that means any crazy idea or project is worth trying.

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Comments… or add another

Theresa Larkai

Friday, January 15th 2016 17:37
Amazing article, Christopher!!!! Belo Horizonte is the place to be!!!

Originally from Ghana and with barely a year of living here in BH, i call this place my second home from home.

No doubt, Belo Horizonte is purely "Mineiro" and as a distinction, has its own Portuguese vocabulary, "Uai"!!!!
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