Borba Gato: the most kitschy and controversial statue in town
The statue of Borba Gato has always been loved by some and detested by others. It was inaugurated on January 27, 1963, at the intersection between Santo Amaro and Adolfo Pinheiro avenues.
The monument was designed by the sculptor Julio Guerra (1912-2001) for the commemorations of the IV Centenary of Santo Amaro. In the first decades of its implantation, it suffered a series of criticisms that did not even come close to the debates that the statue raises today, linked to its historical commitment related to the bandeirantes who captured, enslaved and killed the indigenous and quilombolas. On the contrary, in the 1950s, the bandeirante mythology was at its peak and was part of the construction of a São Paulo identity.
As explained by researcher Márcia Maria da Graça Costa (2017): ‘The city of 1954, in all social aspects, was reduced to civic-mindedness or the bandeirante identity. The promise of prosperity that urban growth would provide, with the IV Centenary being the event scheduled to celebrate this moment, produced a utopia for São Paulo, rooted in the writing of its historical memory…’
In order to understand this romanticized representation of the bandeirante, it is worth looking at the period advertisements or other monuments built in the IV Centenary of São Paulo. The manner in which he is represented is linked to the expectations of the city in the 1950s and depicts him as a heroic being, a conqueror and pioneer of the sertão. The bandeirante represented the past as well as the future of modern and industrialized São Paulo.
It is not surprising that, in 1963, the old city of Santo Amaro, which became a neighborhood in 1932, chose to pay homage to the pioneer figure who came from that region when commemorating its IV Centenary.
Julio Guerra was a resident of the neighborhood and a lover of the stories of old Santo Amaro. In a statement, he mentioned that he went out to talk to residents before creating the statue to bring the concept of the monument as close as possible to the expectations of the people of Santo Amaro. He said that the color of the statue, which was so criticized in the press, was a way of giving more color to the gray cityscape:
‘I made Borba Gato different, it doesn’t look like a tomb or have an ornate pedestal. While I was making it, I forgot all about Policleto and thought of Aleijadinho and the traditional dolls of northeastern Brazil. After it was complete, I liked it, and the people of my land liked it too. They celebrated, and the wayfarers were reminded of the Santo Amaro of farms and poetry. Many eyes teared up. And the literate, whom Leonardo already mocked, called Borba Gato a puppet, a standing ox, a monster. And that it was made of tiles. But it isn’t. He is made of stone and marble’ (Julio Guerra).
The monument, which stands 10 meters high, with a 2-meter granite plinth, is covered in different-colored basalt stones. Inside, the monument is supported by old tram tracks taken from Avenida Santo Amaro, as the sculptor wanted to recover and give permanence to the history of Santo Amaro in his various works around the neighborhood. About 25 meters away from the statue, these stories of Santo Amaro are recounted in four mosaic-tile panels. According to references from the São Paulo Historic Heritage Preservation Division, the panels evoke personalities and facts related to the neighborhood. Anchieta and Caiubi with the Santo Amaro coat of arms; the Jurubatuba river; João Paes and Suzana Rodrigues donating the image of Santo Amaro to the new chapel; the first German settlers; the first iron factory in South America; the poet Paulo Eiró; and Father Belchior de Pontes.
The monument quickly became a beloved symbol of the city, associated with the Santo Amaro neighborhood. However, quite different from the popularity it acquired on the streets, the Borba Gato monument was always shunned by art critics. Its dubious aesthetic was criticized for sticking out like a sore thumb on Avenida Adolfo Pinheiro and bringing embarrassment to the city.
In November 2007, Sesc Santo Amaro, which held an exhibition on the work of Julio Guerra, increased the sculptor’s visibility. At the time, a discussion was started about Borba Gato, a monument that was associated with the sculptor because of the deeply divided opinions on it.
What would it mean for Borba Gato to disappear from the public space? With this question in mind, Sesc Santo Amaro packed Borba Gato in a kind of wooden box lined with canvas that served as a base for images of the region to be superimposed on its four sides. For those driving by, it really looked like the monument had disappeared. Meanwhile, a group of actors hired by Sesc spread two different rumors: one that the statue had been stolen and the other that it had been vandalized. A neighborhood website agreed to participate in the deceit and spread the fake news. At the same time, it was suggested that neighborhood schools organize visits to the ‘disappeared’ monument and discuss its presence/absence in the public space. At the end of the game, in addition to broadening the discussions about the monument, the farce was revealed, and the monument was uncovered.
A year after the ‘disappearance’ of the statue, aesthetic criticism once again expanded the debate about the monument. In an iconoclastic proposal on the anniversary of the city of São Paulo, famous stylists were invited to design new costumes for Borba Gato. Many accepted the challenge and designed clothes for the controversial monument. Casual attire, humorous replacements of heavy shoes with plastic boots, the youthful clothing set the memory of the monument in motion. Or even, burqas that could be typical 17th century mantillas, from the time of the bandeiras, updated with the sidewalk design of the State of São Paulo. In recent years, the criticism has taken on a different tone. On April 19, 2008, a group of activists held a series of reflections on ‘our heritages’ at the monument, they called it the ‘Judgment of Borba Gato.’ There were artistic interventions, activism, poetry, interaction with passersby, graffiti, leafleting and paste ups with the figure of the pioneer. All of these trigger new questions and interventions that shift the focus of criticism from the monument’s aesthetic to the problematization of the bandeirante mythology.
Borba Gato has been mobilizing society more and more. Year after year, new interventions take place at the monument, carried out by new protagonists, thanks to the aftereffects of a past that to this day makes the monument a tough pill to swallow. In 2020, when George Floyd’s death sparked anti-racist demonstrations and resulted in the taking down of a number of monuments around the world, Borba Gato was considered one of the most threatened here.
On July 24, 2021, while Avenida Paulista held another demonstration against the Bolsonaro government, a group called ‘Revolução Periférica’ [Peripheral Revolution] manifested in another way. They blocked Avenida Santo Amaro, surrounded the monument and piled up tires at its base. They then set fire to the statue and hung up a flag with a message that went viral: ‘Peripheral Revolution: the favela is coming down and it’s not going to be Carnival.’
After the act and the arrest of one of its participants, the debate heated up in the media. Borba Gato mobilized public opinion and forced us to think about what to do with the controversial monuments around the city.
In the words of journalist and historian Rogério Brandão on Provocação Histórica: ‘through Borba Gato’s body, memory is past and present. It speaks of what happened, but also of the open wounds of an unequal society. Perhaps this flame ignited by Borba Gato will help us think about the present, it’s about time we recognize this wound in order to heal it.’
Borba Gato, the beloved and controversial, has been a relevant topic since its first day in the public space.
- Departamento do Patrimônio Histórico. Inventário de Obras de Arte em Logradouros Públicos da Cidade de São Paulo: Borba Gato. Cidade de São Paulo, 2008.
- Live. ANPUH. O debate sobre as estátuas e a criminalização dos movimentos sociais. 03 ago. 2021
- Márcia Maria da Graça Costa. Lugares de memória do bairro de Santo Amaro: a estátua do Borba Gato. Dissertação para obtenção do título de mestre em Ciências Humanas/UNISA. São Paulo, 2017.
- Douglas Nascimento. Borba Gato. São Paulo Antiga, 2012.
- Rogério Jordão, Passado escravista que o mar não levou. Piaui. 12 fev. 2021
- Thaís Chang Waldman. Entre batismos e degolas: (des)caminhos bandeirantes em São Paulo. Tese de doutorado. Universidade de São Paulo. Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas. 2018