If you are looking for paradise on Earth, I could give you directions, for I found it in Brazil. It goes by the unassuming name of the Instituto Cultural Inhotim (Inhotim Cultural Institute — Inhotim is pronounced In-yo-tcheem)*, Brazil’s gardens of art. In the unlikely setting of a tropical rainforest, lush hills, sculpted lawns and human-made ponds and lakes, there are strewn art galleries in the shapes of blocks and bubbles, immense sculptures in the open air and interactive installations. I believe it needs to be declared one of the wonders of the world, but for the moment, it appears to be the best kept secret of the Brazilian people and those in the know in the art world.
Between the two usual suspects of Brazilian tourism, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, there sat a location on our agenda — Belo Horizonte. I did a bit of research on it, and found that it was the bar capital of the country. Why would the Embassy of Brazil in Islamabad want to send a group of Pakistanis there, I wondered. Well…
But when we — my travel companions, Noshi Qadir, Kamiar Rokni, Arsalan Khan and I — mentioned the destination to the two owners of the Fortes Vilaça Gallery, they exchanged glances, and spoke almost reverently: Ah, Inhotim, it’s a special place. Special. It is a word also used by Ana Carmen Foschini to describe Inhotim. Our curiosity was piqued.
The flight from São Paulo to Belo Horizonte was short at 40 minutes, making it possible to drive to the third-largest city in the country. We were received at the airport by the lovely, soft-spoken Manuela, our guide for this particular leg of the journey. As almost through the entire trip, we were struggling with jet lag, and retired right away despite the somewhat surreal discovery that our hotel was host to the contestants of a local beauty pageant, and the restaurant was packed with young Brazilian beauties complete with sashes around their torsos.
Belo Horizonte Palacio dos Tiradentes | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir
Belo Horizonte Palacio dos Tridentes | Photo credit: Trekearth.com
We set out by ten in the morning, looking and feeling a little worse for the wear, even though breakfast consisted of some of the most delectable fruit I have eaten in my life. For four days, Kami and I argued over what appeared to be papaya, but tasted nothing like the fruit as we know it, and was more like manna from the heavens. In the end, Arsalan won, and I vowed never to argue with him over his knowledge of fruit and vegetables.
The drive out of Belo Horizonte takes you through car workshops, wholesale outlets and an industrial area. The winding route then traverses hillsides with Mediterranean-style cottages but distinctly Brazilian as the multicolored theme continues. The vegetation grows thicker, greener as you carry on with bananas and coconut lining the road.
But nothing prepares you for the foliage you find when you cross the armed guards who protect the boundaries of Inhotim Cultural Center. Or the art in the midst of the gardens. Or the story behind it all.
Inhotim is the creation of 59-year old Brazilian mining tycoon, Bernardo Paz, who after years of plundering his lands for iron, decided to give back to the earth and the environment. His gift is this otherworldly property of 3000 acres of park and art space, which he opened to the public in 2006 as a nonprofit organisation. (Imagine anyone from our agricultural or industrial elite doing something like that.) It houses 17 art galleries, over 500 artworks and botanical gardens initially designed in collaboration with renowned Brazilian landscape artist, Roberto Burle Marx. The tropical park has one of the largest botanical collections in the world, with rare tropical species and a forest reserve which is part of the Atlantic Forest biome, and one of the world’s largest palm collections at 1300 specimens. Think ‘The Island’ from Lost…but more.
On the beautiful bright day of our visit, under blue skies and white cotton clouds, our first guide was the intuitive Maria Eugenia Salcedo Repolês, whose impressive knowledge extends across art and nature, and she is the Art and Education Supervisor at the Institute. She told us that when Bernardo — everyone at Inhotim refers to the founder by his first name — took over the lands we saw, miners had uprooted the native vegetation, and left nothing but Eucalyptus. It was Bernardo who set about replanting the fields, and as the foliage grew, so did the population of visiting birds and butterflies of which we saw many varieties.
That was the tropical park aspect. Then there is the art. Although, the environment is always present with the two coexisting in perfect harmony. What we saw was this:
Cildo Meireles, Inmensa | Photo credit: Inhotim official site
Cildo Meireles, Inmensa | Photo credit: Inhotim official site
At first, we could not grasp the immensity of it, to be literal. Kami, Noshi, Arsalan and I looked at it, gaped at each other, thought — at least I did — this is insane. We made an inside joke: You’re not in Canvas* anymore, Dorothy… I guess that when you give an artist complete freedom and an enormous amount of space, this is what happens.
From the official site:
Featured in the collection are contemporary artworks by celebrated names such as Adriana Varejão, Arthur Barrios, Chris Burden, Cildo Meireles, Doug Aitken, Hélio Oiticica, Larry Clark, Matthew Barney, Michel Majerus, Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija & Navin Rawanchaikul, Rivane Neuenschwander, Tunga, Vik Muniz, among others.
A major part of the works in the collection was installed after an intense process of commissioning, making the work at Inhotim substantially different from what takes place in other museums. Spaces for housing the works are designed by means of a close dialogue with artists, curators, architects, and landscapers, respecting the specificity of each work and the interests of the author, always preserving the connection with the surroundings.”
Matthew Barney's De Lama Lamina | Photo credit: Pedro Motta for Inhotim
Some of these works were created for the institute such as Matthew Barney’s incredible piece, “De Lama Lamina” that was started in 2004, and was only completed in 2009. I can only imagine that in this unique — can you think of any other like this? — museum, the space frequently determines the work. Another example of this is the “Sonic Pavilion” created by Doug Aitken in 2009.
Through dense woods, we were taken to a clearing that showed a trail leading up to a glass pavilion atop a mountain. As we entered, we walked up a wooden ramp that became a bench encircling the space. A few people lay on the bench, wide enough to allow for a person of average height to recline diagonally. An older man was lying on his belly over a hole in the floor. All around the vista was the rainforest, and resounding in the “Pavilion” was a low hum. I was pulled to the hole in the floor where there was not much to see but the earth through a plate of glass. A loud boom. We all jumped. It gave to the a sound that expanded and contracted like the vocals of chants emerging from a Buddhist monastery. It was the sound of the Earth. Doug Aitken told Bernardo that he wished to drill a hole into the earth, place microphones along the length of the column, and bring the innermost rants, whispers and silences — at times there is a pregnant pause — to the surface. Bernardo Paz gave Aitken a mountain.
We spent hours walking about, and were treated by the museum to one of the most sumptuous meals of our trip, sitting on a terrace overlooking a lake and the hills.
Photo credit: Inhotim official site | Hover your mouse over the picture
Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the picture for details
Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the pic with your mouse for details
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An important part of Inhotim Cultural Institute is its educational programs. Even when we were on our tour, we saw children from several schools being taken around the gardens and the art installations. From stomping on glass crunching under their feet in the installation by Cieldo Meireles
Cieldo Meireles, Atraves | Photo credit: Inhotim
to floating, bouncing through the dips and highs of the Cosmococas,
Pavilhão Cosmococas by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida | Photo credit: Pedro Motta for Inhotim. For details, hover with your mouse.
those kids were having the time of their lives.
As were we.
Me through Olafur Eliasson's kaleidoscope | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir
Inhotim is as alive as its surrounding and its art, for it is ever-expanding, and plans are already afoot to add on a resort hotel, a convention center, and of course, always more art. As the space evolves, so too does the visitor, who cannot leave unmoved by the transformative experience that is Inhotim. I know that our small group from Pakistan felt changed in some way, and also, found this to be that definitively bonding moment of our trip when we had together laughed, cried, gasped, been awestruck, and above all else, had felt not just faith but even (dare I go so far as to say) pride in humanity.
*According to GoBrazil.com, ‘the institute’s name comes from the original landowner, a foreign miner known as Senhor Tim (or Nhô Tim, in rural expression).’
*Canvas is the name of one of the best known art galleries in Karachi, and is made inside a renovated house in the neighborhood of Clifton.
If you are visiting Brazil, I highly recommend a day at Inhotim. I would go so far as to say, you cannot go to the country, and not see this spectacle. Here are some tips:
Rua B, 20, Inhotim, Brumadinho, MG, Brasil 35460-000 +55 31 3227 0001 email@example.com
Time: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9:30 to 16:30. On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9:30 to 17:30.
Entrance fee: R$ 20,00. Half fee for seniors over 60 and for students (with valid student card). Subscribers to the newspaper Estado de Minas and Hoje em dia receive a 50% discount upon buying two tickets. No charge for children under six.
Hiring transportation is recommended, and arrangements can be made through Inhotim. Guided tours of the art installations, galleries, and botanical gardens are available.