Tropicália was a creative movement that originated in the late 1960s in Brazil.

Encompassing music, art and writing it celebrated Brazil’s culture and people. It was also a protest movement against the lack of freedom experienced under the oppressive regime of the military government.

Artist Hélio Oiticica played an important role in defining the movement.

Michael Wellen: Oiticica was someone who was always pushing against trends, pushing against being contained, whether it was by the market or by a museum or by a nation.

Caetano Veloso: Everything that Hélio was doing was like the most radical response to the lack of liberty and the lack of respect to liberty.

Jill Drower: 'Tropicália' was a creative explosion and it was a political movement wrapped into one.

Michael Wellen: The idea was for an art that could be participatory, that could be immersive and that would give the public the freedom to move and
to interact in a new world and in a new way.

Over time, that led to some of the most radical breakouts of what art could be.

Hélio Oiticica: Dear Guy, I have received your letter and I'm very enthusiastic about the news concerning the possibility of an exhibit.

I will be showing an environmental manifestation that I have already planned and I named it 'Tropicália'.

caetano Veloso: The very word 'Tropicália' came to me because of a song that I had written in 1967 and a friend of mine who was a filmmaker, he heard the song and he said 'This felt so much like something Isaw in Rio'.

It's an artwork by this artist, Hélio Oiticica, and it's so much like it that you should name this song 'Tropicália'.

Michael Wellen: 'Tropicália' is one of Oiticica's his best-known works. It's about the image of Brazil and trying to confront a stereotype of Brazil as a tropical paradise.

Caetano Veloso: It was unbelievable because it was this little tropical labyrinth and I thought it was really very much like what we were trying to do in in popular
music and it was like a visual expression of our feelings, at least my feelings.

Michael Wellen: In the 1950s, Oiticica started as a geometric painter, he was making very rigorous, very small paintings usually on cardboard.

In the early 1960s, Oiticica developed a new kind of sculpture, what he called 'Bólides', or fireballs, and these were boxes that were constructed with little drawers and interactive elements that the artist would put earth, or different kinds of found materials inside.

Some of the earth that Oiticica placed in the 'Bólides' were taken from places like Mangueira, one of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

He made friends with members of the Samba dance school in Mangueira.

Oiticica himself was a great dancer. He drew lots of inspiration from the architecture, from the colours of those places but mostly from the movement, the dance and the personality.

Hélio Oiticica: 'We are Blacks, Indians, Whites, everything at the same time. Our culture has nothing to do with the European, despite being, to this day, subjugated to it'

Michael Wellen: In 1968, things in Brazil got really intense because the government issued a law that suspended 'habeas corpus', people could be stopped on the street and arrested without any warrant, without any need, just on suspicion and that led to the arrests, mass arrests and torture of intellectuals, students, young people and that risk applied also to musicians who were probably at the forefront of a kind of protest and a kind of counterculture movement.

Musicians like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Jill Drower: A lot of creative people in Brazil suddenly had to leave Brazil.

Hélio wasn't in prison, so it was slightly different for him, but he was a refugee in a way, and he couldn't, I don't believe he could have stayed in Rio at that point.

When he arrived in London, he was looking for somewhere that was a rented room and so he came to live with my parents in Putney.

He was absolutely amazed at how much freedom there was here because he had come from a dictatorship where, if you stepped out of line, you would be taken out.

Hélio Oiticica: As you can see, I'm anxious to leave Rio. It is too much for my brains. All free wills seemed to be repressed or castrated by one of the most brainwashed societies of all time.

Michael Wellen: So the 'Parangolé' was another type of sculpture that Oiticica was developing in the mid-1960s. He created a series of capes that could be worn in almost any way. They were basically pieces of cloth stapled in odd places and the wearer got to choose how they wore it. Some of them contain messages, often poetic messages but also they could be read as forms of protest or solidarity.

Caetano Veloso: These things are a radical experience. You just wear a 'Parangolé'. Those clothes that were not clothes. Still,they say so much.

Jill Drower: He introduced into his art the Afro-Brazilian culture, and then it would involve favelas, the Samba and all other aspects that were very
identifiable as Brazilian and that led to 'Tropicália'.

Michael Wellen: In 1969, Oiticica had a major exhibition called 'The Whitechapel Experiment' and it was filled with all of these groundbreaking types of artwork.

Jill Drower: It was a totally bewitching exhibition because you go to an exhibition normally and you wouldn't be allowed to touch anything. This was the absolute opposite, and not only were you encouraged to touch things but you are obliged to participate because you had to take your shoes off to go into the sand.

And then you'd go into these 'Penetrables' where you would brush aside a piece of hessian and have to explore through this tropical delight really.

Michael Wellen: It was a place where people could come, could move freely and enter into spaces that were filled with surprises. They wouldn't
necessarily know what would happen inside these 'Penetrables', and it was exactly the opposite of what people would understand as 'high art'.

Jill Drower: It was about engaging people and local people started realizing there was a sandpit in their local art gallery and mums came in with their pushchairs and got their kids playing in the sand.

Michael Wellen: There were businessmen coming in on their lunch breaks and listening to the parrots that were squawking around in 'Tropicália' at
that time.

Jill Drower: Hélio just adored the participation of everybody.

Hélio Oiticica: 'Tropicália' is a kind of map, it's a map of Rio, and it's a map of my imagination. It's a map you go into.

Michael Wellen: 'Tropicália' is nothing but a problem. It was a problem for the artist in his own day and it's a problem for curators and conservators now.

It's like, what are we going do with 'Tropicália'? How are we going to show it in the right way? How do we get across the cultural importance that this work had, broadly, but what it meant for the artist and the challenges that he faced in creating it?

Hélio Oiticica: It's only by furiously bringing down that we can raise up anything that will be valid and palpable: our reality.

Caetano Veloso: Gilberto Gil told me, 'we are under a violent political situation. Our musichas to have some violence to respond'.

And Hélio had that in pure form, you know. He had it radically.

Michael Wellen: Oiticica was very interested in that sense of liberty, and something that emerged deliberately from living in a repressive regime in Brazil,
but just in general, he was always pushing the boundaries of what art could do and how it could free people.

Jill Drower: Well I think, as it developed, I think he was trying to take art off the walls in the galleries and put them out there in the street where the people could enjoy them, just like they enjoyed dancing Samba atcarnival. He wanted it to be of the people, that was very much his message.

The Origins of Tropicália

Tropicália was a creative explosion and it was a political movement wrapped into one.
Jill Drower, author and friend of Hélio Oiticica

Tropicália is perhaps best known as a movement in music.

It was the name of a song by celebrated Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso. It was also the title of an LP released in 1968 featuring experimental musicians such as Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and the psychedelic band Os Mutantes.

But although often discussed in relation to music, visual art was an important part of the movement.

The name ‘Tropicália’ was coined by artist Hélio Oiticica. He used it for the title an artwork he first exhibited in Rio de Janeiro in 1967. The word was intended to play on stereotypes of Brazil as a tropical paradise.

After Caetano Veloso borrowed the title for his song, it began to be used to define the counter-culture movement.

Helio Oiticica's Tropicália installed in Rio de Janeiro in 1967 © Projeto Hélio Oiticica

Helio Oiticica's Tropicália installed in Rio de Janeiro in 1967 © Projeto Hélio Oiticica

WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN 1960S BRAZIL?

In Brazil in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a sense of optimism and excitement.

A new president, Juscelino Kubitschek, had just been elected. He promised progress and stability for a country that had been unstable for decades. The arts flourished as musicians, writers and visual artists explored new ideas and approaches to creativity. Visual artists experimented with abstraction and interactive art, while musicians were busy inventing a whole new form of music by mixing Brazilian samba with jazz and rock-and-roll.

But in 1964 a military coup, backed by the USA, brought an oppressive right-wing government to power.

The new government was determined to halt what it saw as left-wing dissent and the rise of socialism. It began cracking down on political expression and student protests. But their efforts at stifling liberties had the opposite effect. Musicians, artists and writers were even more determined to fight for freedom of expression through creativity.

Evandro Teixeira, Police repression of a student march at Edson Luís, Candelária, Rio de Janeiro 1968 © Evandro Teixeira

Evandro Teixeira, Police repression of a student march at Edson Luís, Candelária, Rio de Janeiro 1968 © Evandro Teixeira

INTERACTIVE ART

In the mid 1960s, Hélio Oiticica began to move away from painting on flat surfaces. He started to make flexible objects and structures which he called Parangolés.

The Parangolés included capes and banners. They were artworks that people could interact with. Made from layers of painted fabric, plastic, mats and ropes, they were designed to be worn or held while dancing to the rhythm of Samba. Some of the capes included poetic or political messages that were revealed depending on how the wearer wore them or how they moved.

One of Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés © Projeto Hélio Oiticica

One of Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés © Projeto Hélio Oiticica

Tropicália, first exhibited in Rio de Janeiro in 1967 is the artist's best known participatory work.

On one level it is an ironic take on the idea of Brazil as a tropical paradise. Sand, palm plants, parrots and colourful makeshift structures suggest a tropical stereotype of Brazil.

Hélio Oiticica’s, Tropicália, Penetrables PN2 ‘Purity is a Myth’ and PN3 ‘Imagetical’ 1966–7 © Hélio Oiticica

Hélio Oiticica’s, Tropicália, Penetrables PN2 ‘Purity is a Myth’ and PN3 ‘Imagetical’ 1966–7 © Hélio Oiticica

But this fake, fun world also has a radical political undercurrent. The structures were inspired by the favelas – the slum dwellings of Rio da Janeiro. In reaction to the strict regime of Brazil's military dictatorship, Oiticica advocated the radical potential of simply hanging out.

Everything that Hélio was doing was like the most radical response to the lack of liberty and the lack of respect for liberty.
Caetano Veloso, musician

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969 © Guy Brett

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969 © Guy Brett

Tropicália was designed to activate the senses of visitors (or ‘participators’ as he preferred to call them), to stimulate feeling and expression.

Visitors are invited to walk barefoot in the sand, watch TV or relax. They can interact with the installation however they wish. Free expression and freethinking are encouraged!

What is the legacy of Hélio Oiticica and Tropicália?

He was pushing the boundaries of what art could do and how it could free people.
Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate

Hélio Oiticica made art that was participatory and inclusive.

The audience that came to his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1969 were not the usual gallery visitors. They included businessmen who wanted to relax on their lunch breaks and local children who played in the sand. Ensuring that everyone can get involved, while at the same time raising awareness of issues relating to freedom and society, defines the work of Oiticica.

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969 © Guy Brett

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969

Visitors to Hélio Oiticica's installation of Tropicália at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1969 © Guy Brett

Many artists working today in the twenty-first century are increasingly making art that is similarly participatory and socially aware. This is often referred to as socially engaged art or socially engaged practice.

Artists such as Theaster Gates, Tania Bruguera and Assemble collaborate with groups of people in order to give them a voice, help them improve their lives, or simply share ideas and create art with them. People are at the centre of the work. Socially engaged practice is also often associated with activism because it highlights and responds to social and political issues.

When he died in 1980 at the age of just 42, Hélio Oiticica left an extraordinary body of work that was innovative, intelligent and engaging. But perhaps his most important legacy was that he put people at the centre of art.

His [Oiticica’s] concepts of interactivity, coexistence and marginality are fundamental to what is happening now in art and in the world.

Ernesto Neto, 'Be an outlaw ... be a hero' Tate Etc. 2007

Photograph of artist Hélio Oiticica

Hélio Oiticica © Projeto Hélio Oiticica