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Decorum from Favela. Hélio Oiticica and Parangolé

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by Simone Martinotta

Hélio Oiticica. Biographical notes

European modernism, rooted in the historical avant-gardes, programmatically marginalised practices related to craftsmanship and decoration. Artistic currents of the old continent kept away from ornamental risk, and only at the end of the 20th century was there a rediscovery, albeit partial, of the resources of ornamentation applied to painting, sculpture and architecture.

But in the peripheries of western world, modernist taboos had less of an impact, not so much as to completely erase the memory of the indigenous traditions that had reigned there until recently. Although trained in european-style academic culture, the artists who acted in those contexts were thus able to play a pioneering role. With a certain anticipation due to being in a frontier position, they were able to rediscover, along with the fascination of cultures born from the encounter between indigenous peoples and european colonisers, that visual heritage that, in highly civilised Europe, appeared rather an archaic residue, a folkloric curiosity unsuited to a modern, organised and efficient communicative context 〈1〉.

Hélio Oiticica, Metaesquema no. 4066, 1958, gouache on paper, 53.3 x 58.1 cm, New York, MoMA (© 2024 Projeto Hélio Oiticica).

One example is one of the most important south american artists active in the second half of the 20th century, first in the abstractionist, then in the conceptual-performance field: the brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) 〈2〉. A descendant of a bourgeois family from Rio de Janeiro – hence a carioca, as the long-standing inhabitants of that city are called – the young Hélio was educated in a lively and cosmopolitan cultural environment. His father José Oiticica, a poet, playwright, philologist and anarchist, was among the protagonists of the brazilian cultural and political scene between the two world wars. Between 1947 and 1954, José lived with his family in the United States, where Hélio would return many years later thanks to a Guggenheim scholarship that allowed him to live and work in New York between 1971 and 1977.

Against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to study engineering, Hélio came into contact with the sources of international abstract art: from Malevič to Klee to Mondrian. It was the work of the latter, who died in New York in 1944 and was also well known in America, that exerted the clearest influence on the young artist’s beginnings, who soon perceived the limits of two-dimensional painting and began to experiment with mixed forms, articulated in space.

Hélio Oiticica, Relevo espacial, 1959, acrylic on plywood, 62.5 x 48 x 15.3 cm, Liverpool, Tate Gallery (Wikimedia).

The decisive turning point in Oiticica’s artistic career occurred in 1964, coinciding with a stay in the Mangueira neighbourhood, in the heart of the urban agglomeration of Rio, where he attended the local samba school, one of the most important in Brazil. It was during that experience that Hélio began to conceive works of a participatory, dynamic, joyfully political nature, initiating the Parangolé series (1964-79). His work was nourished by the customs of the favelas – the slums housing the poorest and most marginalised – and, in particular, by the social and organisational role that dance, costumes, carnival and floats played within the community.

The ability to latch onto these mestizo traditions, producing a creatively very free reinterpretation of them, linked Oiticica’s work to what was happening in those same years in the fields of music, theatre, poetry and film, with the Tropicalist movement. In the background, the military dictatorship that, from April 1964 until the 1970s, gradually returning to democracy in the 1980s, ruled the country, imposing silence and exile on its opponents 〈3〉.

In 1969, as an Artist-in-Residence at Sussex University in Brighton, Oiticica moved from Rio to London, where he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery. The following year, he was among the artists included in the major exhibition Information, held at the MoMA in New York to take stock of research in the conceptual field 〈4〉. His stay in New York promoted his international fame and, along with it, a new vision of brazilian popular culture. Not only the visual arts, but also journalism and photo-reportage owe much to the sociological and anthropological perspective he set out.

Returning to Brazil, the artist died there at the age of forty-two, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. Among the initiatives still linked to his spiritual legacy today are “Parangolé. A journal about the urbanized planet,” a design, architecture and urban planning review, so far stopped at the first issue, due out in 2021 〈5〉.

Hélio Oiticica photographed in 1969 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, wearing Parangolé P8-Capa 5 (Courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro).
The neo-avant-garde beginnings

In the art of the 1950s, concretism and neoplastic legacy gave rise to a rich pictorial flowering. It was also drawn upon by the brazilian avant-garde in Rio, composed of artists of European origin and culture, within which the young Oiticica was formed 〈6〉. In 1954-55 he joined the Grupo Frente leaded by Ivan Serpa, the cradle of Brazilian concretism. In this early phase of his painting, Oiticica produced works characterized by the use of regular geometric forms, with a chromatic range that was initially reduced, then gradually expanded to embrace less conventional hues. The artist’s interest in rhythmic structures, endowed with a certain degree of modularity and recursiveness, is striking from these early trials.

In 1959, Oiticica became part (with Amilcar De Castro, Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and others) of Neoconcretism, a new group arising in Rio, in tune with the stimuli coming from the postinformal, pop and neo-dada front. In this context, pictorial two-dimensionality appeared to be a limit no longer insurmountable, and three-dimensional-environmental operations came to life, in which detached contemplation gave way to direct physical involvement. Prominent among the works dating from this phase is the Invencoes series (1959), wooden panels of a square shape, thirty centimeters on a side, made with the ultimate aim of using color to reset the canons of painting to zero, but still remaining in close contact with it. They represent an important stage in the brazilian artist’s work: the first in the process of transition that was to lead him to an installation typology, having the viewer himself as a vital element.

Hélio Oiticica, Grande Núcleo, 1960, acrylic on wood, Rio de Janeiro, Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica (photo Billie Grace Ward/Wikimedia, taken in 2017 during the exhibition “Hélio Oiticica: To Organise Delirium”, New York, Whitney Museum).

In 1961 the Neo-Concretist group, undermined by internal disagreements and ongoing ideological clashes in the country, disbanded. Lygia Clark and Oiticica himself reacted by taking the path of what would later be called Conceptual Art. But Oiticica never embraced the tendency toward dematerialization and tautology, proper of Conceptual Art . The relationship between body and space was central to his interests, and it led him to develop a versatile, light, transient type of sculpture-object. An already clearly legible example of this is the series entitled Bólides (1963-79), consisting of stacked wooden supports, around which the viewer arranges himself with the aim of investigating the spatial dimension in 360 degrees.

The transition to installation on an environmental scale, physically traversable, is well illustrated, some time later, by Tropicalia (1967), an installation (penetrável, according to the Portuguese-Brazilian neologism coined by the artist) made with poor materials such as raw wood, plastic materials, and plant elements, aimed at recreating the sense of temporariness, of urban reality in perpetual becoming, typical of the slum.

Hélio Oiticica photographed in 1967 at MAM, Rio de Janeiro, on the occasion of the first exhibition of ‘Tropicalia’ (Courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro).

The Brazilian artist’s work on concretely humanized and lived space culminated in the development, beginning in 1964, of multiple series of wearable works called Parangolés. The term was so successful that many years later it was used to held in baptsim a well-known music group from Salvador de Bahia. Few remember that it was Oiticica himself, with his talent as a tightrope walker of words, who circulated it, in the identity meaning still in use today 〈7〉.

In the multiethnic reality of Mangueira, the artist came into direct contact with customs and traditions proper to the lowest rank of the Brazilian social pyramid. Attending the neighborhood samba school, he began to elaborate imaginative costumes resembling folding banners, made from very poor materials, but composed in an effective and harmonious way, to sublimate a common stage object into an emblem of the condition of invisibility concerning a significant segment of the population. Shaken by the movements of the dance, the costumes resolved themselves into mobile sculptures, indulging that playful, dionysian vein, projected in bodily action, that increasingly imposed itself in Oiticica’s production. Not infrequently they were accompanied by writings with a poetic and political flavor at the same time, placed in plain sight during the performance. Parangolé ‘s appearance at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, during the exhibition Opinião 65 (1965), caused a scandal. The collective performance involving its use had to take place outside the museum.

Nildo, a resident of Mangueira, wearing Parangolé P15-Capa 11, bearing the inscription “Eu encorporo a revolta”, photographed in 1967 (Courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro).

It was thanks to the communicative power of an anomalous object such as the Parangolé that themes of exclusion and marginality began to arouse interest that was not simply exotic or folkloric. With Oiticica (who, by the way, made no secret of his own homosexuality, foreshadowing a mode of communication destined to spread only much later) artistic practice became a vehicle for the dissemination of individual and collective instances of redemption, translated into visually pregnant, anti-intellectualist emblems, far from the subtle balancing acts of the neo-avant-gardes. His work contributed to a profound rethinking of the image of Brazil and its inhabitants, challenging the picturesque tourist clichés prevalent at the time.

Observed closely, the Parangolés are characterized by the use of low-quality fabrics, plastic fibers and recycled materials in general, characteristic of the favelas‘ economy. With a precise choice of field, the artist wanted to privilege the resources normally found in Rio’s slums, subjecting them to a treatment that gave them an unmistakable symbolic value, while not mystifying their reality of origin.

Ideals that are widespread today, such as those of reappropriation and identity, were beginning to emerge powerfully in Oiticica’s conception. He drew on discarded materials responding to a dramatic social cross-section of Brazil, to reuse them according to a utopian logic of sharing, responding to an idea of fair exchange (one would say today) rather than financial economy. Theoretical premise of the operation, it was that the population of the neighborhood could fully recognize itself in the final product of Oiticica’s work, precisely because it drew on its daily experience, highlighted its cultural dignity and coherently developed its indications of method.

Nininha Xoxoba, a resident of Mangueira, wearing Parangolé P8-Capa 05, photographed in 1965 (photo © Andreas Valentin).

A distinct synergy was established between the artist and the Mangueira neighborhood. The rich festive choreographies in whose realization the inhabitants of the neighborhood cooperated en masse injected a wealth of unusual shapes and colors, almost a new genetic code, into Oiticica’s production. Before long, Parangolé became part of the costumes also used by the performers of the samba, the dance that, thanks to the local associationism and schools that are still its most recognizable expression, best embodies the characters of Brazilian culture as it took shape in the encounter between Europeans, indigenous cultures and African traditions imported with the slave trade.

The success of Parangolé prompted the artist to create series of clothes, characterized by easily recognizable compositional and chromatic variations, as in a heraldic language extolling pride of roots and instances of redemption. Reconsidered today, the recovery of the contents of decorum (i.e., human and cultural dignity) associated with clothing that is not codified in western, bourgeois terms gives Oiticica’s work a great propulsive thrust. The centrality of the european way of conceiving the work of art and its social, intellectual, philosophical prestige is challenged.

From this perspective, the role of those who, although not artists outright, enter into symbiosis with the work should also be reconsidered: no longer a passive observer but a user and participant, collaborating in the making of the dress or wearing it to dance. Almost a prologue, in the very difficult Mangueira context, to the participatory art experiences that were taking shape both in Europe and the United States.

Hélio Oiticica, animating a spontaneous performance, offers a Parangolé to New York underground users, still from video, 1972 (Courtesy César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro).
Parangolé, yesterday and today

The titles given by the carioca artist to his works soon became recurring slogans in brazilian citizens’ protests against the ruling military junta. In their vitalism, in their deliberate appeal to a substantial decorum, as opposed to the exclusively formal one imposed from above, the operations conducted by Oiticica represented a glimmer of light in the oppressive darkness of the dictatorship. Terms like Tropicalia and Parangolé served as a guide for the inhabitants of the favelas, who used them as a banner, in opposition to the elites from which the artist himself had distanced himself. While 1988 was the year the country officially returned to democracy, the buzzwords formulated by Oiticica survived the end of the regime to become symbols of Brazilian culture around the world.

In an increasingly globalized situation, such as that of the new millennium, one can mention, among the many design proposals, the idea of Parangolé City elaborated by the venezuelan architecture firm Urban Think-Tank (Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner), appealing to the ideal of fusion between body, art and dance advocated by Oiticica. The symbiosis between man and the metropolitan city is the focal point of the proposal, tested on the reality of the metropolis of São Paulo, where disproportionate urban growth has challenged the transportation system and seen the extension of slums increase 〈8〉.

Musician Caetano Veloso wearing Parangolé P04-Cape 1 for a 1968 news report on Marginalia, another expression coined by Hélio Oiticica in relation to the cultural themes of Tropicalismo (photo © Geraldo Viola).

Of course, Oiticica’s legacy is especially noticeable in the area of music. Many have been the groups that have paid homage to Parangolé with their own compositions, extolling its community values. Born in 1997 within the bairro Federação in Salvador de Bahia, Parangolé group headed by Léo Santana has achieved worldwide fame, making a name for itself with songs such as Swing do Cavaco, Timanamanô and Colé Véio.

Experiences paying tribute to Oiticica and his Parangolé have found fertile ground in the visual and performing arts of this early 21st century. On the one hand, the major exhibitions that reconstruct the brazilian artist’s creative itinerary, philologically analyzing his materials, tools and procedures, perform an indispensable and meritorious work, but one that cannot fully restore the perennial vitality and movement to which Oiticica wanted to deliver his message. One thinks, to give the measure of the phenomenon, of the Parangolé proposed in 2019-20 at the MoMA in New York, where the artifact, exhibited in the static mode proper to a painting or a tapestry, figured as a mute witness, now inert, of an affair in which dynamism, movement in space and time, had been the indispensable prerequisites 〈9〉.

Poet, journalist and composer Torquato Neto wearing Parangolé P4-Cape 1 at the “Apocalipopótese Evento: Arte no Aterro”, Rio de Janeiro 1968 (photo by anonymous).

On the other hand, Oiticica’s popularity is such that it also allows for a repertorial, posthumous use of its inventions, somewhat like what happens with covers of rock music stars. A recent italian example occurred in the context of the Carnival that, for 20 years now, has been organized by the self-managed social center “Spartaco” in Rome’s Quadraro neighborhood. In that context, in 2016, the ATI collective gave substance to a performance that took up precisely the methodological directions offered many years earlier by the Brazilian artist 〈10〉.

The most important fact to reflect on is probably this: a line of continuity between the world of Oiticica and that of today is not only perceivable but, often, even evident. While the memory of the brazilian artist recedes over time, the cities that, in various ways, recall and commemorate him, increasingly resemble, in terms of ethnic composition and due to the processes of gentrification and social disarticulation, the Rio de Janeiro he passionately lived in and studied.

〈1〉 In this regard, the case of the New Zealand artist Gordon Walters is among the topics already covered on FD. See E.M. Davoli, Gordon Walters: the Koru Paintings, 3 February 2021,

〈2〉 About Oiticica's life and work, see: a) the catalogues of the most recent posthumous exhibitions: M.C. Ramirez (ed.), Hélio Oiticica, The Body of Colour, Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 10 December 2006-1 April 2007, London, Tate Modern, 6 June-23 September 2007; L. Zelevansky et al. (ed.), Hélio Oiticica: To Organise Delirium, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum, 1 October 2016-2 January 2017, New York, Whitney Museum, 14 July-1 October 2017; A. Pedrosa (ed.), Hèlio Oiticica. Dance in my Experience, Sao Paulo, MASP, October 13-November 22, 2020; C. Oiticica et al. (ed.), Hèlio Oiticica, New York, Lisson Gallery, 28 October 2020-23 January 2021; b) a monograph: I.V. Small, Hélio Oiticica. Folding the Frame, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago-London 2016; c) several editions of Oiticica's theoretical texts and interviews: H. Oiticica, Encontros, Azougue, Rio de Janeiro 2009; H. Oiticica, Museu é o mundo, Azougue, Rio de Janeiro 2012; H. Oiticica, The Great Labyrinth, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2014; H. Oiticica, Experimentar o experimental, Azougue, Rio de Janeiro 2023; d) Oiticica's poetic texts: H. Oiticica, Secret Poetics, Soberscove Press/Winter Editions, Chicago 2023; e) two dissertations available online: M. Asbury, Hélio Oiticica: Politics and Ambivalence in 20th Century Brazilian Art, PhD Thesis, London, University of the Arts, 2003; E. Matteucci, Il potere politico del colore. Arte e partecipazione nel lavoro di Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), Venice, Ca' Foscari University, 2021.

〈3〉 As with other distinctive terms in brazilian culture, Oiticica's contribution to the definition of 'Tropicalism' is decisive. It was from his installation Tropicália (1967) that musician Caetano Veloso was inspired for the title of the LP of the same name released in 1968, hence the definition 'tropicalista movement' to indicate the young libertarian brazilian culture, hostile to the military junta that ruled the country from April 1 1964 to March 15 1985.

〈4〉 See K. McShine (ed.), Information, exhibition catalogue, New York, MoMA, 2 July-20 September 1970.

〈5〉 The website:

〈6〉 About history of the artistic avant-garde in Central and South America in the 20th century: M.C. Ramirez, H. Olea, Inverted Utopias. Avant-Garde in Latin America, Yale University Press, New Haven 2004.

〈7〉 About Hélio Oiticica's Parangolé : D. Romero Keith, Hélio Oiticica. Parangolé, Mousse, Milan 2023. When Oiticica began to use it, "parangolé" was a slang expression used in Rio de Janeiro with the meaning of "sudden agitation", "excitement", "joy", "surprise".

〈8〉 About the work of the firm headed by Brillenbourg and Klumpner, see the website

〈9〉 The Parangolé (an original dated 1965, reconstructed in 1992, part of the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift) appeared in the exhibition Sur Moderno. Journeys of Abstraction-The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift, edited by I. Katzenstein, New York, MoMA, October 21, 2019-March 12, 2020. 

〈10〉 See the ATI collective's website at

Homepage; Hélio Oiticica wearing a Parangolé during a performance in the 1960s, frame from Ivan Cardoso's documentary "HO" (1979). 
Below; Hélio Oiticica, Relevo espacial, 1960, acrylic on plywood, 85 x 88 x 105 cm, Waltham/Boston, Massachusetts, Brandeis University, The Rose Collection.

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