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Touching Art

Action by MAC allows visually impaired to access collection and get explanations

A visually impaired person walking along the corridors of a museum may seem like a strange scene. But at the Museum of Contemporary Art, of the University of São Paulo (MAC/USP), at least, this is now very commonplace. Created about ten years ago, the Museum and Special Public project puts on exhibitions that make it possible for people with the most varied handicaps, physical and mental, to enjoy art. This initiative was given a grant for assistance for research by FAPESP, in 1997. The director of MAC’s education division in the period between 1994 and 1998, Dilma de Melo Silva, tells that the key word when dealing with the special public is multi-sensory.

“The first step in staging an exhibition like this is to chose themes that may be interesting to put in evidence, from the museum’s collection”, Dilma explains. Once the theme is chosen, one has to think how the works can be adapted. As the rules of the museum do not allow manual contact with original paintings and sculptures, replicas are made, of materials that will endure to months and months of touching. “The only way for the visually impaired, be it congenital or acquired, for example, to perceive the museum is through touch”, explains Amanda Fonseca Tojal, an educator who coordinates the exhibitions and the educational programs under the project.

Called The Revealing Touch, the exhibitions are planned to remain for about two years on display. Besides the replica, the team – made up of plastic artists, designers, restorers, museum curators, educators and teachers – concentrates on preparing the didactic support material, like catalogs in Braille and explanatory kits. “The biggest concern is make it an interactive visit, in which everything can be touched”, declares Amanda.

To do so, besides the plastic arts, resources like dramatization, poetry, games, music and even practice in an atelier are exploited. In the exhibition The Poetry of Shapes, for example, which is currently on show at the MAC, replicas were made of six sculptures with abstract characteristics, by such famous plastic artists as Hidekazu Hirano, Karl Hartung, Laci Freund, Nicolas Vlavianos, Rubem Valentin and Walter Linck.

“When we started, we had to keep running after the schools and institutions, who did not believe that a museum was any place for people with disabilities” says Amanda. “Besides this, the teachers were afraid that their pupils could create trouble for them”, she went on. Ten years later, there is a great demand, and some schools book their visits one year in advance.

Far from considering themselves satisfied, however, MAC’s team continued to face up to challenges. One of them was to adapt paintings for the handicapped, as in the Portraits and Self Portraits exhibition, which worked with paintings from the collection. “The idea is to make the child think of his own identity”, says Dilma. Amanda recalls that, at the outset, they only worked with sculptures, as they did not believe that two dimensional works could produce good results with the handicapped. But it was precisely a blind man who launched the idea, after reading, in Braille, on Brazilian modernism and becoming particularly interested in the work of Anita Malfatti. “He asked me if there was a way for someone who does not see to perceive the work of a painter”, Amanda says.

In spite of the criticisms, which came from some artists who complained of “the loss in the aura of the works” – since many reproductions do not contain all the details of the original paintings -, the result was considered positive by the team. “The handicapped learned to ‘see’ the work of art from its shape, especially with their hands, in the case of the blind”, says Amanda happily. “But the reproductions, with their high-relief and grooves, are essential, because the majority of the paintings in our collection is made up of oil paintings, and even if it were permitted to touch them, they would not be perceptible just by touching them”, she explains.

The educator points out the importance of understanding the characteristics of each deficiency, in order to put on an exhibition to meet everyone’s needs. She says that there are often people with differing degrees of handicap in the same group. “No matter how much we talk with the teacher before the visit, to get to know the group, there are sometimes people who find it difficult to interact, which makes each visit unique”, she says. That is why the visits never last less than two hours and are always done with small groups, made up of 20 people at the most.

Art and handicraft
After ten years of exhibitions at the MAC, Amanda, who defended her thesis The Art Museum and the Special Public in 1999, has plenty of experience in the subject. In a course that she gives to teachers, the educator points out the difference between teaching art and handicraft. “There are two paths for artistic practice”, she explains. “Institutions normally use handicraft, but that not is how to teach art.” The artistic experience, for her, is related to the knowledge of art, creativity and individuality.

The exhibitions have costs that are considered high by the museum – about R$ 40,000 each. Perhaps it is because of this that these ventures are almost exclusive to the MAC. “Some time ago, the museums claimed that they had no way of paying for this kind of project”, Amanda says. “But they are now starting to see the importance of being open to everybody, if only as a way of advertising their work.” She points to initiatives by the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (Masp) and by Sesc, in São Luís do Maranhão. In addition, the educator was a consultant for the work aimed at the special public at the Display of the Rediscovery, which attracted about 5,000 handicapped persons.

From June onwards, Amanda’s team will be beginning to prepare the next enterprise inside the museum: a walk through the MAC using the collection available. The “special public” will be accompanied by a “multi-sensory trolley”, which will have the support material for the selected works. The visits take place on Tuesdays and can be booked through telephone numbers (0xx11) 3818-3327 and (0xx11) 3818-3559.

The project
The Museum and the Handicapped Person (nº 97/12756-8); Modality Regular research support line; Coordinator Dilma de Melo Silva – USP’s Museum of Contemporary Art; Investment R$ 38,050.00