Kirsti Jõesalu & Ene Kõresaar: UT SPECTRESS Fellows in São Paulo

We, two ethnologists from the University of Tartu, Estonia, together with a historian Aigi Rahi-Tamm and a folklorist Elo-Hanna Seljamaa, spent 3 weeks in August 2017 in São Paulo in the frame of the SPeCTRess project. Our stay in São Paulo had a twofold aim: firstly we conducted fieldwork in São Paulo museums, and secondly, the last week of our stay was dedicated to the SPeCTRess conference “Rethinking Cultural Trauma from Transnational Perspectives”.
For Kirsti it was also the first visit over the Atlantic, and therefore a unique experience in many aspects. Coming from a small country like Estonia (1,3 Mil) it was an overwhelming experience to live in a megalopolis. We were lucky to find an apartment in Vila Madalena/Pinheiros, which was a nice and cozy neighborhood with good connection to USP. After an inspiring introduction by Mariana Bolfarine into the neighborhood and a warm welcome by Laura Izarra at USP we went on to conduct our fieldwork on difficult memories and diverse identities in museums.

We were really amazed by the mural art in São Paulo; it was just wonderful and made the city much more colorful. We visited also Baco Da Batman, but one could find just astonishing murals all over Vila Madalena and Pinheiros. Maybe the biggest surprise was the weather as we couldn’t enjoy the sun as much as we hoped to, and experienced a whole week full of rain. With rain came also humidity, and significant drop of temperature inside of our apartment. Again, a mural painted in our back yard saved the day reminding us about sunny days to come.

Image1: Murals from back yard (photo: Ene Kõresaar)

As we didn’t speak (Brazilian) Portuguese, for us the easiest way was to get around by metro, which we also used a lot to discover São Paulo and its museums. During our trips to different museums in various parts of the city we also discovered the diversity of São Paulo from both its good and difficult sides. It was in some sense an overwhelming experience to be at rush hour in Luz, and just to follow how this mass of people is moving and going along with that.

Our fieldwork aimed at documenting how difficult and contradictory past was displayed and negotiated in museums. Departing from the theoretical concept of cultural trauma we focused on both how the difficult past was named and what kind of ‘social becoming’ was presented in museum exhibitions as a result of negotiating the difficult past experiences.

We tried to visit as many different museums as possible. In the course of our fieldwork we became to see the importance of the topic of ‘Brazilian-ness’ and integrating diversity and contradictions in the society.

Our first visit was to the Immigration Museum of State of São Paulo, which had a fascinating exhibit about immigration stories (Museu da imigracao do estado de Sao Paulo, in Mooca-Bras). The display was newly opened in May 2014, and used many innovative interactive displays and interactive resources. The main aim of the museum was to display experiences, memories and identities of the people who have arrived into Brazil during different times. In the museum, im/migration was presented as an universal process since the beginning of humankind. In the center of the exhibition, however, was the migration of the 19th-20th centuries as a part of ‘Brazilian story’. The different communities of São Paulo were presented against the background of its immigration history.

Image2: Kirsti at documenting the Immigration Museum (photo: Ene Kõresaar)

The next museum we visited was the Football museum in Pacaembu (Museu do Futebol). Despite not being a football fans at all, we could sense and understand how football matters in Brazil and what a great integrating power it is expected to have. It was the second museum, which we visited, but we could recognize things familiar from our first museum visit met familiar things – later we discovered that this museum was also designed by the same company and architects (Felipe Tassara and Daniela Thomas).

Image 3: Experiencing national trauma in the football museum: Brazil vs Uruguai 1950 (photo: Ene Kõresaar)

Every museum we visited – Pinacoteca, MuseuAfroBrasil, Museu Histórico da Imigração Japonesa no Brasil, the Jewish Archive (as the only community archive we visited) – offered us the possibility to study how the different stories of Brazil are represented, how they relate to the Brazilian society, what could be considered as cultural trauma in Brazilian history and how the process of social becoming is (still) going on.

Image 4: Kirsti researching Afro Brazilian heritage (photo: Ene Kõresaar)

A wonderful experience to remember was the visit into school, where Tais Leite de Moura, a former SPeCTRess fellow in Tartu, was working as an English teacher. We enjoyed discussing Estonian culture, politics and everyday life to different classes in this small private school of São Paulo, to share music and even some dance moves with them. This was a great opportunity to meet local kids and their teachers. Once again, we experienced how small and connected a world can be when hearing about one kid’s acquaintance playing in a football club in Tallinn and meeting another kid’s Estonian grandmother.

The last week was dedicated to the SPeCTRess final conference which brought together so many other colleagues from the SPeCTRess project, and to hear and discuss their topics. The conference demonstrated various possibilities of using the cultural trauma concept, and how it could be fruitful transdisciplinary. Another focus of the conference was on Irish studies, and it definitely broadened our understanding of Irish past and Irishness.

Besides São Paulo we had a luck to visit two other cities at the Atlantic: Guarujá and Santos. The first trip we organized ourselves to experience a beautiful coastline. The trip to Santos was organized by USP as a part of conference. During the visit we heard stories about Santos’s past and present, had a possibility to visit a coffee museum and Pelé‘s museum. The latter was an “enlightenment” for us as no fans of football: it actually took until the trip to Santos to (finally) understand the origin of a small football club FC Santos on Tartu. The day had a beautiful end at archeological site (former sugar plant), where in the dark a light show was delivered.

Image 5: Finishing our SPECTRESS secondment with a trip to Santos. Estonian team (Kirsti Jõesalu, Aigi Rahi-Tamm, Elo-Hanna Seljamaa, Ene Kõresaar) with Tais Leite de Moura (photo: USP team)

Our visit to São Paulo was incredible and added much content to our research on difficult memories and diverse identities. An overview of the ‘museological life’ of São Paulo is waiting to be published and plans are made for another one comparing museological representations of the past in São Paulo and Tartu.


About Jennifer Edmond

Dr Jennifer Edmond, is the Director of Strategic Projects in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. Trained as a scholar of German literature, Jennifer is mostly engaged professionally with the investigation of knowledge exchange and collaboration in Humanities research and in particular the impact of technology on these processes.
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