Brazil races to restore art damaged in capital riot

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BRASÍLIA — Maria Cristina Monteiro was hosting a birthday party last month when she saw the images.

Thousands of supporters of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro had stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace in what authorities say was a bid to topple President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

She watched in horror as the mob rampaged through the institutions at the heart of the country’s young democracy, smashing glass, slashing paintings, urinating on tapestries, decapitating statues and splintering furniture. She cried.

“We got emotional because it was our home being invaded,” said Monteiro, who was settling into her new job as coordinator of the Senate museum before the attack on Jan. 8. “We saw it smashed, broken — and it’s not just our house. It is the house of all the Brazilian population.”

The next day, she went to work — but it was clear her job had changed. Ordinarily, she and her colleagues focus on preserving the roughly 3,000 pieces of art in the Senate museum, some of which have decomposed over the body’s 200-year history. Now, their focus was restoring what was damaged.

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A month later, they’re making progress. Teams have restored dozens of damaged objects, including door handles in the shape of the coat of arms of the republic, bronze busts of key historical figures and the Alfredo Ceschiatti sculpture “A Justica” outside the Supreme Court.

But there are challenges. Some works were vandalized beyond repair. The entrance to the presidential office is still missing glass. The Supreme Court lost 31 pieces and a Brazilian flag. Restoring some items will require the construction of new contraptions to avoid wrecking them further.

Still, those who have been working long days to restore or rebuild the nation’s patrimony say they’re determined to restore as much as possible — no matter what it takes or costs.

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Asked if there’s anything that can’t be repaired, Gilcy Rodrigues de Azevedo, head of the preservation service for the Chamber of Deputies, smiled.

“Never ask a restorer if he or she won’t try,” she said.

The urgency of the effort mirrors that of Brazilian authorities investigating the attack, who have conducted several raids to round up those suspected of responsibility, including its financiers and the security and political officials whose alleged inaction abetted it.

In contrast to the deliberate pace at which U.S. authorities have probed the possible role of Donald Trump in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — an insurrection that rioters here sought to mimic — Brazilian officials quickly opened an investigation into Bolsonaro, who, like Trump, sought for years to stoke mistrust in the electoral system.

More than 1,400 people have been arrested, including Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and the former commander of military police in the federal district. They also include the man authorities allege damaged a 17th-century clock by the French master Balthazar Martinot, leaving it “broken from top to bottom, with cracks, deformations and losses,” Brazil’s National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute wrote.

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“Our maxim is like the fire department,” Azevedo said. “The faster you act, the less damage occurs.”

She was drinking coffee at her sister’s house when she learned of the attacks.

“I was really scared,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I was afraid about the collection that I would take care of, but also afraid about the country.”

When Azevedo and her colleagues showed up to work on Jan. 9, they set out to track down catalogue what had been damaged. Armed with flashlights, they waded through knee-deep water, looking for fragments of broken pieces.

The violence had no rhyme or reason. At the Planalto Palace, where the president works, rioters used a table to build a barricade, but gently placed the two vases that sat atop it on the floor. Elsewhere, vases were shattered, their pieces scattered across several buildings.

Azevedo’s team of 15 catalogued 64 pieces that were damaged at the Chamber of Deputies. They have repaired most and are now focused on the roughly 30 percent that were most severely damaged and will be most challenging to repair.

They include vases smashed to smithereens. One option is to put the vases back together using the pieces they have, leaving gaps for the pieces that are missing. Another is to fill the gaps with dental ceramics painted with the original pattern.

There are no plans, Azevedo said, to protect the items from potential future attacks.

“They belong to the people,” she said. “I cannot hide them for fear. That would be giving the rioters too much honor.”

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At the Supreme Court, workers have restored 28 of 114 items on their list. Officials have put some damaged art on display with the aim of ensuring that “this day will never be forgotten.”

Monteiro said she considered her team to be relatively fortunate: Only 19 pieces at the Senate Museum were damaged. Many have been repaired and put back on display.

“What happened was an attack against democracy,” Monteiro said, “so having the pieces back in their places represents for us and for the entire population the resumption of the democratic system.”

At a small laboratory near the Senate, workers dressed in white coats and wielding special paints, brushes and bright lights showed off a centuries-old chair from one of the chamber’s first buildings. It’s one of the pieces they’ve restored.

But others will require outside help. Emiliano Di Cavalcanti’s painting “As Mulatas” suffered seven slashes. A Burle Marx tapestry was torn from the wall and soiled with urine. It will be sent to a shop in São Paulo. A red floor-to-ceiling panel by the sculptor Athos Bulcão, damaged when rioters flung green marbles at it, can be repaired, but restorers need a special clearance to work at the required height.

The attorney general has requested that authorities block roughly $4 million in funds from people and companies suspected of planning and participating in the riots in part to pay for the damages.

The attacks followed four difficult years for artists under Bolsonaro. He telegraphed his scorn for their work soon after taking office in 2019 when, in one of his first moves as president, he disbanded the ministry of culture and folded it into another ministry.

He took frequent aim at a law that allows sponsors of cultural activities to receive tax deductions. He vetoed bills that would have granted pandemic aid to cultural programs, casting them as contrary to the public interest. Freedom of expression advocates documented censorship of artists.

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Lula, who took office Jan. 1, restored the ministry of culture and put Margareth Menezes, a popular singer from Bahia, in charge. She said Bolsonaro had reassigned civil servants who had been working in culture to other departments. His allies strolled the halls with guns, she said, traumatizing colleagues.

“The attacks [on Jan. 8] show the lack of love for the culture” among his supporters, Menezes told The Washington Post, “and the lack of awareness of the meaning of Brazil’s history and its artistic legacy.”

Ismail Carvalho, who heads a team of four at the Senate Museum restoration laboratory, noted an “internal contradiction” in Brazil.

The attacks have provided “evidence that the profession of art conservator and restorer is important,” he said. “But it is a profession that is not regulated by Brazilian labor law. This is a struggle of our profession for recognition.”

Menezes said she agrees and is looking to change it.

Urbano Villela was at home in Brasília on Jan. 8. He watched the attacks on television from a unique vantage point. The 81-year-old artist painted the portraits of Senate presidents hanging in the Senate building.

“I felt concern mixed with sadness seeing that scene,” he told The Post. “Regardless of being the artist, every Brazilian should be shocked by that barbarism.”

Four of his paintings were damaged and one was stained. Soon after the attacks, Villela’s son called Monteiro to ask about the damage. Monteiro had an idea: Might the artist be open to repainting his damaged pieces?

Villela expects to have them completed within a month.

“It never crossed my mind not to do it,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy and physically fit, I’m going to do it.”

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