Brazilian Academy of Letters marks 125 years at challenging time for culture
By Maria Angelica Troncoso
Rio de Janeiro, Jul 19 (EFE).- The Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL), the first institution of its kind in South America, says on the eve of its 125th anniversary that it is fighting back against attempts by the current government to denigrate culture.
Founded on July 20, 1897, inside a room of the then-Museu Pedagogium in Rio de Janeiro, the academy was born with a mission to maintain literary unity despite potential political differences.
That objective was expressed in the inaugural speech given by Machado de Assis (1839-1908), who is widely regarded as Brazil’s greatest writer and was the academy’s first president.
Merval Pereira, a journalist and the current head of the ABL, continues to endorse that same mission while also calling for “actions that lend visibility” to culture.
“Our statutes say we must protect and care for the national language and culture,” Pereira said in an interview with Efe, noting that the task is especially urgent considering they are now being “disparaged” by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Cultural institutions have come under attack by the rightist head of state, who since taking office in 2019 has accused them of being in the grips of “structural Marxism,” imposed budget cuts and even dissolved Brazil’s Culture Ministry.
Amid those challenges, the academy is commemorating its 125th anniversary with activities that use letters and literature as a pretext for bringing people into more direct contact with culture.
Talks and stage productions are among the cultural offerings, while giant books will soon invade Brazilian streets and invite passers-by to listen to extracts of Brazilian literature’s most emblematic works.
Visitors to the academy’s current headquarters in Rio – the “Petit Trianon,” a building that is a replica of the like-named Neoclassical-style chateau located on the grounds of France’s Palace of Versailles – are transported back to the 19th century by costumed actors who recount the history of the academy and its illustrious founding members.
The studio where Machado de Assis worked and the Salao Nobre, where solemn ceremonies are held, are both located on the first floor.
The library, the meeting room and the famed tea room where the academy members gather every Thursday prior to their weekly session are situated on the second floor.
Conferences, debates, exhibitions, concerts and plays are some of the events promoted by the academy, whose members, known as the “immortals,” include Oscar-nominated actress Fernanda Montenegro.
That 92-year-old iconic Brazilian film star is part of a new wave of academy members who are not literary figures but met the nomination requirement as authors of at least one publication.
Singer-songwriter and former Culture Minister Gilberto Gil and neurosurgeon Paulo Niemeyer Filho are two other recent additions that have renewed an institution previously viewed as the exclusive domain of literary intellectuals.
Nevertheless, a pending task is to expand the presence of women, who began to be admitted as members in 1977 but still make up only five of the 40 “immortals; Afro-Brazilians (two); and indigenous people, who have begun to be nominated but still do not hold any Academy seats. EFE