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Brazilian Artist J. Carlos and Higher Ed

Brazilian Artist J. Carlos and Higher Ed

The Centro Cultural Correiro in Rio de Janeiro is currently exhibiting the works of Jose Carlos de Brito Cunha, better known as J. Carlos. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1884, J. Carlos is famous for his caricatures and advertisements that provide a detailed perspective of life and culture in Rio de Janeiro during the turn of the twentieth century. His work was displayed on the covers of books and graced the pages of popular magazines of his time such as O Malho and Para Todos.

The exhibit is divided into three parts. “J. Carlos the Chronicler,” “J. Carlos the Designer,” and “J. Carlos the Advertiser.” The divisions highlight the different purposes of his caricatures. As “the chronicler,” J. Carlos drew scenes that focused on Brazilian culture in Rio, such as music, dancing, and beach trips. His designing skills were used for magazine covers as were his advertisements.

Walking through the J. Carlos exhibit, I was captured not only by the caricatures themselves, but also by the way that they anachronistically symbolize some of the issues that pervade education in the twenty-first century. One of the themes that ran throughout the exhibit was the accessibility of J. Carlos’s work. Because he worked with pictures more than words, he was able to reach a wider audience of literate and illiterate consumers. The magazine Para Todos (For Everyone) openly exemplifies this theme in its title. In the picture below, the front cover of O Malho also pushes the idea of opening access to reading while advertising for the magazine Para Todos; here we see people of all generations reading together.

Another part of the exhibit focuses on J. Carlos’s work with pictures that helped beginning adult readers to capture the meanings of words and learn new vocabulary.  Here is one example (picture and caption) from the museum exhibit.

“The popular magazines dealt with a wide range of people, from more literate classes to the functionally illiterate. How could he avoid scaring the ones who were less accustomed to reading, awakening their curiosity for the literary world without, however, alienating the more familiarized public? J. Carlos presents a rather democratic project by creating two ‘editorials.’ The first one is a text, and the second one a humorous drawing with a caption. Another example of this ‘democratization of words’ is the crossword section…[which] playfully increased the reader’s vocabulary.”

While these examples demonstrate the implicit and at times explicit project of magazine editors and advertisers like J. Carlos, they also exemplify a common problem. In opening access for “todos” or everyone, there are some who are implicitly left out. For outsiders and especially Americans who oftentimes express greater sensitivity to racialized images, the works of J. Carlos are not without their problems. Many of the pictures portray sambo-like figures and stereotypical images of black Brazilian people playing music, cooking, and dancing. African descendants are left out of other scenes of daily life in Rio, and appear on the front cover of magazines only in a servile form (such as the advertisement for Minha Baba below).

My point in highlighting this aspect of J. Carlos’s work is to underscore the fact that even while he worked to open access to literature, because of the time and place in which he lived, he also did not include Afro-Brazilians as his intended audience—or at least not explicitly. In his depictions of life and culture in Rio, there existed certain blind-spots that prevented J. Carlos from critiquing his society as race-conscious historians would analyze it today. In my opinion, this is a perfect metaphor for thinking about education and information exchange in the twenty-first century. While we all want to open access to education, we should ask ourselves about the blind-spots. Who are the people are left out of our plans for the future? If an artist like J. Carlos were to draw caricatures of our collective discourse, who would the sambo-like pictures represent?

I think one obvious answer to this question circulates around the language divide and efforts to internationalize U.S. higher education. While many have pointed to non-U.S. educational systems such as Finland as models to emulate, I would argue that comparative work should be at the forefront of discussions on higher education. We need to hear, read, and know more about educational systems around the world. What is working? What doesn’t work? These conversations are happening, but I think they deserve more attention. Over the next week, I aim to provide more insight about the educational system in Brazil and the ways that technology is helping to open education for the poor in Rio de Janeiro.

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