Mixing and remixing: Artist Beatriz Milhazes and computer entrepreneur Hélio Bruck Rotenberg discuss the dialectics of tradition and innovation in an emerging nation, the benefits of being accustomed to dealing with a crisis, and how to make use of diversity.
Hélio Bruck Rotenberg and Beatriz Milhazes met at her studio in Rio de Janeiro, in the vibrant neighborhood near the Jardim Botânico that many galleries and artists call home. In their own ways, both the computer entrepreneur and the painter have exercised a formative influence on Brazil, their native country, over the last decade. Rotenberg has proved that, with the right strategy, a home-grown IT company can achieve success; Milhazes’ colorful paintings have attained iconic status across the globe. Both have remained true to their roots while constantly embracing and experimenting with new ideas. As they sit down at the small kitchen table the conversation instantly starts to flow. They discuss the fruitful tension between tradition and innovation, understanding diversity, the challenge of leadership in an emerging nation, and the future of Brazil.
Hélio Bruck Rotenberg: Isn’t it interesting, Beatriz, that both of us are sufficiently well qualified to work anywhere in the world, but both of us decided to stay and develop our careers in Brazil?
Beatriz Milhazes: I think it is. We’re both from a generation in which the majority dreamed of emigration. Until the end of the 1990s Brazil had the reputation of a third-world country. All of my artist colleagues wanted to move abroad to study and work. It’s quite ironic that I was the one who became an international artist in the end, having never lived anywhere else for longer than I’ve lived in Rio de Janeiro. Why did you stay in your home town of Curitiba, Hélio?
Rotenberg: I guess because I’m proud to be Brazilian. Despite all its problems I love our country. I wanted to build something here and not abroad. But there’s also another, deeper reason. You might call it family loyalty, a sense of duty. My grandfather came from Poland and opened a textiles factory in Curitiba in the 1950s. His business grew and was successful across Brazil. But when my grandfather passed away in the late 70s, in the middle of one of the many economic crises we experienced, his company went bankrupt. I was 15 or 16 years old at the time and it was a terrible experience. So I sometimes think I became an entrepreneur because I wanted to save my grandfather’s legacy. How come you have never moved your studio, Beatriz? You could be living in New York, London, Paris, or Berlin – places that are famous for their artistic communities.
Milhazes: I never felt the desire to do so. My family played a part in this, too. My parents were opposed to the military dictatorship which ruled until 1985, and my education was quite liberal. The atmosphere at home was very open-minded: I went to museums and read a lot. Do you remember how closed Brazil was at that time, during those leaden years of stagnation? The joie de vivre that the whole world now admires us for again and that had dominated the late 1950s and early 60s vanished with the military coup of 1964, to be replaced by an atmosphere of fear and repression. Brazilian society was split in two. The economy initially picked up and some people made a fortune, but many of the intellectual critics of the regime disappeared without trace, while artists like Gilberto Gil went into exile.
Rotenberg: Do you know if that was ever an option for your family?
Milhazes: My parents hated the dictatorship – but at the same time they were very proud to be Brazilians. So they never seriously considered moving abroad or sending me out of the country, like other families that we knew did with their children. I think an emigrant grows in a different way from someone who stays close to their roots. I have never distanced myself from the environment that shaped my early life, and also shaped me artistically. This helped me a lot when I started to exhibit in other countries, because it gave me self-confidence. When my paintings were shown in New York for the first time I remember that my gallery owner was convinced I was desperate to move to the US: I had already packed my bags, as far as he was concerned. In fact more than anything I wanted to return to Rio, to get back into my working rhythm.
Rotenberg: I once had a very interesting encounter with an executive manager of a multinational company. He told me that he had to live in different parts of the world on a permanent basis. He didn’t like it, he said, because in all these places he never even knew where he could get his car fixed. His story made a strong impression on me. In Curitiba I know exactly where I can get my car fixed. What I mean by that is: It’s not just about knowing where the best local repair shop is; it’s about knowing where your home is, having local points of reference in life, and being aware of where your roots are. So for me it’s extremely important for my company to stay close to the Brazilian people, our customers. It’s no coincidence that we’re the market leader in a sector that’s usually dominated by companies from the US, Japan, and Korea. Positivo is the only case where a Brazilian company is ahead of the multinationals. When I founded Positivo’s computer manufacturing division in 1989 this was completely unimaginable. Even in later years it seemed unlikely. I lost count of the number of crises we had to get through in Brazil. But every crisis brings opportunities, too.
Milhazes: I think you always need somebody with a vision to start something new. My international career only got off the ground because of people who believed that Brazilian artists could be successful internationally. I never conformed to a generic international taste, and I think it’s precisely this distinctive Brazilian identity that makes my works stand out from the crowd. At that time a lot of Latin American artists lacked self-confidence. I realized that we have something to contribute. Brazilians, for example, are very good at adapting to changing environments: We know how to improvise.
Rotenberg: Adapting and improvising are key words here. Brazilians are great at doing both. If we wanted to research the use of broadband connections on the poorer outskirts of our cities, for example, we could easily ascertain the number of existing broadband connections – but to get close to the number of people actually using them we would have to multiply this figure several times over. It is not uncommon for five families to share one connection – and these are the people we’re targeting and serving. Brazilian society has become quite dynamic. I think a non-Brazilian company might find it difficult to understand and adapt to this dynamism.
Milhazes: People of our generation have all lived through several economic and political crises. Inflation skyrocketed in the late 1980s and up until the development of the Plano Real in 1994. I thought nobody in Brazil would ever buy a picture again, and culture became so abstract. Suddenly, everybody was poor and all the galleries closed. In a situation like that you simply have to develop mechanisms that enable you to keep believing in your goals and to stay positive. This kind of experience has made Brazilians strong. We have developed expertise in dealing with extremely challenging situations. Just look at the millions of Brazilians who take an overcrowded bus each morning and travel two hours to work and two hours back in the evening. They are not only workers, but fighters, very flexible people who try to improve their lives.
“A survivor mentality permeates our whole society. We have learned to look for opportunities and to make a living in hard times.”
- Hélio Bruck Rotenberg
Rotenberg: I think this survivor mentality permeates our whole society. We have learned to look for opportunities and to make a living in hard times – quite apart from the fact that our country is still marked by huge differences in income and access to education. A few are extremely wealthy while many have little. Which is why I would describe the majority of Brazilians as fighters, small-scale entrepreneurs, people who are constantly finding ways to survive, constantly creating possibilities.
Milhazes: But we’ve also seen significant changes happening in our country – the rise of a new middle class over the last decade. This is a completely new phenomenon.
Rotenberg: And it’s a development that has been crucial for my company. As people emerged from poverty they suddenly had money to buy things like computers – and we had to respond to their specific needs and expectations. I think we were successful because we managed to understand these people better than any computer company from abroad. This close relationship with our home clients is our biggest asset; it’s the driving force behind our growth. More and more families want to participate in the information society – and they’re looking not just for products they can afford, but for quality, too.
Luis Giolo, Egon Zehnder São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and Ulrike Krause, “Connecting Leaders,” met with Beatriz Milhazes and Hélio Bruck Rotenberg at the artist’s studio.
“We tropicalized the computer.”
- Hélio Bruck Rotenberg
Milhazes: For me, flexibility, adapting, and improvising are intrinsic to the creative process. I combine elements from traditional painting, decorative art, and collage; from Brazil, Europe, and Africa. An art critic once told me that my most Brazilian characteristic is the freedom, my ability to combine disparate elements. Colors, for example: I’ve never been afraid of colors, as many Western artists seem to be. I made up my own rules, my own logic, for them. At times my work looks like an explosion of images and ideas. In fact, everything is very logical – at least according to my personal logic – and part of a bigger plan. As a Brazilian artist I’m probably less afraid of combining, mixing, and remixing different elements.
Rotenberg: It’s funny, but that’s exactly what we do, too. We “tropicalized” the computer. We launched a PC that could also be used as a television, for example: our PC-TV. This was exactly what many people were looking for: a computer but also a second TV because there’s always one family member who wants to watch a soap while another is watching football. At the same time families needed a computer because of how important it has become for education. Then we noticed that many families put our PC-TV in their living rooms and left it turned on all the time. So we came up with the idea of the changing screensavers: colors, landscapes, and other images popular with Brazilians. We put handles on the computer for carrying it around the house – people liked that a lot. We also simplified the interfaces, adding a layer above Windows to make it more simple for people who were just starting to use computers. You could say we just added “Brazilianness” to it. Now Positivo is looking to break into the smartphone market. Our Ypy phone is the first smartphone with fully Brazilian interface and content. For example it has a “.br”-button instead of a “.com”-button – it’s the smartphone, “tropicalized”!
Milhazes: Whenever people ask me about tropicalization I answer with Gauguin. He wanted to liberate himself from European conventions and immerse himself in a world that was completely exotic to him. Colors, temperature, shapes: He brought his European ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking to the tropics. An art critic once said that I’ve traveled in the opposite direction, taking the tropics, with all their diversity, to Europe.
Rotenberg: Our diversity definitely sets us apart from Europe. And it’s part of our mindset at Positivo: We need to market our computers to people of all sorts of different geographic and social backgrounds in just our own country. We have for example an educational division in my company, which develops projects for children. In one of them, called “Our accent, our region,” we ask children to describe the places they live in. In the northeastern state of Ceará, a very hot, dry region, the children there use the word “shade” in their descriptions all the time – yet this word doesn’t appear once in the descriptions written by children from São Paulo. Our country is the size of a continent and its people reflect that.
Milhazes: That’s why I’ve always liked Brazilian modernism, which embraced our country’s cultural diversity. European traditions were the foundation for my artistic education, of course – but here we have a strong indigenous and African heritage, too. I’ve always been interested in uniting these different elements – and I think one reason why I am able to create something original is the fact that Brazil is a young country. We aren’t weighed down by tradition. We can invent things, we can try something new and nobody will criticize or judge us. Which is exactly what Carnival stands for: Popular culture, energy, beauty, and exuberance all come together and manifest the wonder of life, celebrating our ability to create by mixing and combining. Carnival motivates me: I’m not the party type, dancing samba in the streets day and night, but I’m a big fan and it makes me very emotional. I’m a conceptual carnavalesca.
Rotenberg: A couple of years ago Positivo sponsored the traditional Portela samba school in Rio de Janeiro; I even paraded with them through the Sambódromo. But I think we also have other sources of inspiration in Brazil. Football, for example: Many people feel so passionate about it. Or the soap operas on Globo TV: Millions of people watch these programs and are influenced by them. They have an impact on society.
Milhazes: Something that worries me from time to time is that Brazil is so much a country of the present – but its future remains uncertain. For instance I’m not at all sure that the country hasn’t bitten off more than it can chew with such mega events as the World Cup and hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. Our society remains split by a deep social divide and many people feel that the huge investments that are being made in vast stadiums should have been channeled instead into education and infrastructure measures. And in keeping with our national temperament, we don’t just sit down quietly around a table and discuss our differences peaceably. The violence during the demonstrations and the uncompromising attitude of the authorities are making me nervous. What picture of Brazil are we sending out to the world?
“Brazil is a young country. We aren’t weighed down by tradition.”
- Beatriz Milhazes
Rotenberg: I’m not unduly worried in that respect. After all, the Pope’s visit in 2013 went off without a hitch – although maybe that was a minor religious miracle. The people who come to visit our country will in any case see it exactly the way it is: a country full of beauty, full of contradictions – immense wealth alongside bitter poverty; joie de vivre and hospitality coexisting with violence and crime; a glorious natural heritage that we love and that delights us, and at the same time blind environmental destruction. As an entrepreneur I constantly have to adapt to this ambivalence. As a Brazilian business leader I’ve learned that you have to be able to steer your ship through unpredictable weather. After a storm you need to know how to fix the ship and get it sailing again. You can’t know what’s coming but you can prepare yourself for different outcomes. In my view there is one big challenge Brazil’s future depends on, and it’s much bigger than how we manage the World Cup or the Olympics. You already touched upon it, Beatriz: Our education system demands urgent improvement. State education accounts for 85 percent of our basic education system, but it’s in a bad shape. If we can transform this and deliver quality education, then our future will look bright; if we fail, it will look dark – but I’m not sure everybody in our society has already understood this.
Milhazes: Unfortunately, most Brazilians still don’t have much choice. If you are born in a favela, your destiny will depend on your parents’ willingness to raise and educate you well. We still live in a divided society. I grew up in Copacabana, for example, and I remember the time when a new bus line opened and Rio’s poor had direct access to our middle- and upper-class neighborhood. The real world had come to Copacabana and the people there were shocked. This attitude still exists. But there’s a new generation of young people who do things differently. They have all these possibilities – ways to stay informed, to travel, to express themselves, to be inspired. And they exercise their right to protest when they think something is wrong. I think that’s great.
Rotenberg: Given the many challenges we face, we want as many people as possible to participate in the process of finding solutions. The Internet has already revolutionized the way we inform ourselves, communicate, and make decisions. I think nobody can foresee the changes that lie ahead. The revolution we’re undergoing is one of immense speed and complexity. But I’m quite confident that we’ll be able to adapt and turn it into something positive.
was born in Rio de Janeiro, where she still lives and works, in 1960. Her mother (an art history teacher) and her father (a lawyer) both supported their daughter’s artistic aspirations. She graduated in Social Communication and studied Arts at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage (EAV – School of Visual Arts) from 1980 to 1983, where she also taught Painting until 1996. Milhazes is considered one of the leading Brazilian artists. She consolidated her career in the national and international arts circuit, participating in the Venice Biennial (2003), São Paulo Biennial (1998 and 2004), and Shanghai Biennial (2006). She has had solo exhibitions in museums and prestigious institutions such as the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, SP (2008); the Fondation Cartier, Paris (2009); the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (2011); and most recently at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; MALBA, Buenos Aires (2012); Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro (2013). Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York; the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan; and the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, among others.
Hélio Bruck Rotenberg,
is President of Grupo Positivo, Latin America’s biggest computer manufacturer and the Brazilian market leader, with a 15 percent market share. Before he became President in 2012, Rotenberg was CEO of Positivo Informática S. A., which he had set up in 1989. His decision to produce computers in Brazil at that time can be regarded as visionary. Under Rotenberg’s leadership, Positivo became the preferred computer brand of Brazil’s fast-emerging middle class and the company has defied international competitors in the world’s third-largest, highly contested computer market. Rotenberg recently decided that Positivo should also enter the smartphone market. Rotenberg was born in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba in 1961; his mother was a mathematics teacher, his father an engineer. He started working – giving private tuition – at the age of 14 and launched his first business, a skating track, when he was 17. He graduated in civil engineering at Universidade Federal do Paraná and later completed his Masters in Computer Science at PUC Rio. Today he lives in Curitiba, where Grupo Positivo is headquartered.
PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDRÉ VIERA